Each year CMVic budgets for a day when all the workers, paid and unpaid, are invited to get together and do something as a team. This year we gathered at the Body Voice Centre in Footscray and had an introduction to TaKeTiNa. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t. TaKeTiNa (the name translates as 1-2-3-4) is a worldwide practice of teaching rhythm and learning from the teaching of rhythm that draws on multiple traditions: it appears simple, but it is both mentally and physically challenging. It is also a lot of fun!
Okay, so we sat in a circle and learned a basic body and voice rhythm. We’re all musicians of one stripe or another, I thought, so what will this add to what, for us, is ‘business as usual’ – relaxing into a groove, listening to each other, treating variations kindly, and so on?
Then the leader (Tania Bosak) made things harder and harder, so that we made mistakes, sometimes having to drop out and recover before joining back in. At times we were all gently taken back to a basic groove for a while, before heading off on another challenge. This went on for two and a half hours, with short rests and one short reflective conversation. Looking back at the morning over a shared lunch, the group talked about the experience of confusion or frustration arising from the desire to ‘get it right’ on the one hand, through to letting go and a sense of ‘flow’ on the other; of being able to return to our centre when confused; of sometimes finding more space in the mind.
It was important to be challenged and sometimes to fail in this safe space. Without the right level of challenge there couldn’t be that sense of delight in finding the flow.
There were lessons too about the distinct processes of learning and performing. For instance, even a ‘business as usual’ step-clap and call-and-response sequence hides many levels of complexity; levels that can be broken down into the smallest learning blocks and held up for examination and experimentation. At the same time, while we work in a circle – becoming the audience for one another – we are confronted with our own changing levels of self-awareness and group-awareness. For instance, of trouble-spots, of how we judge these moments, and of how we can persist through these moments and re-join the flow.
As leaders, in music or elsewhere, it was good to be reminded of how our group members feel when we lead them into new experiences. How they need us to challenge them but also walk alongside them with good humour. And how it’s okay to give participants permission to step out of the practice if they’re overwhelmed, and to shake it all out before coming back in.
When Annie Fletcher and her family moved back from WA to Melbourne, Hurstbridge seemed a nice spot at the end of the train line. It wasn’t until they’d been living there a few months that Annie realised the rich arts community they’d been fortunate to move into.
Keen to get into more hand-drumming, Annie decided to hook into the local scene, in particular the regular jamming sessions at St Andrew’s market, which at that time had a weekly drum circle. This lead to a conversation with the local neighbourhood house about starting a beginners group and, fourteen years later as Drum Connection, the beat goes on.
“I wasn’t a particularly experienced drummer at that time but, because I’d been a teacher for many years, I used my teaching skills to work out what I wanted to teach and how and it just grew from there. My intrinsic love of rhythm had also been honed over many years with my passion and tertiary study in Dance.”
Numbers were low to start with, but running the group gave Annie an opportunity to assimilate into the community, “it helped me find my place and it was just so rewarding”.
Participation in the new group continued to grow with spots of natural fluctuation, but the community music experience continued as a weekly dose of positive good fun.
“I always say there are no mistakes in the drumming, there are just variations on a theme and a bit of jamming is fine. People like that and if they struggle with a particular rhythm, they can just play the first beat of each bar or the main beats of the rhythm and when the finishing call comes, they can whack the drum again and finish with the group, so it’s accessible to all.”
Annie has found that some drummers just keep coming back while others take time out and return after an extended break. Consequently, a consistent core has developed with several drummers having earned themselves a Drum Connection ‘10 Year badge’!
“Over the years we’ve built up a community which is really very special and the group always welcomes and nurtures whoever walks through that door.”
Drum Connnection participants vary widely in age, ranging from a few older school-aged kids through to seniors. Everyone jollies each other along, learning, nurturing and playing as a collective group. Annie runs two long sessions, one on Thursday evenings and one on Friday afternoons. Within these sessions, levels 1, 2 and 3 are covered in particular time slots, which allows specific groups to learn layers of the shared rhythms at a complexity appropriate to them.
Drummers are offered an opportunity to perform at community events and when this occurs all of the different drum voices are combined within a structure for the whole rhythm, so that the entire group can play as one ensemble.
Annie also likes to introduce a singing element into her workshops, when simple parts of traditional songs can be taught to accompany an appropriate rhythm. Annie saves this ‘surprise’ until around week 3 by which time anyone new has settled in. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘oh you’ll never get me singing but of course, in time, they all sing!”
Occasionally, people will express concern that they lack enough rhythm to join in, and some people certainly find drumming a bit trickier than they expect to, but Annie has found that when she can assist them to relax, the drumming falls into place more easily. A number of drummers come to Drum Connection as part of a personal recovery process. For people who have suffered some sort of trauma, loss, bereavement, separation, anxiety or illness it can be of assistance when they are at a transition phase in their lives. “Often people will say to me afterwards, “that was just the best thing”.
“Some people find they can actually switch off from the big thing in their life because they are concentrating so hard on drumming, others find they can go into this quite meditative state and those people might have one or two rhythms you can see really working for that person and they totally zone out.”
Annie believes it’s unnecessary to highlight the healing or meditative aspects of drumming for discussion in the context of these community classes, preferring to consider these positive outcomes as an added bonus of the experience of participation and rhythms in a shared music-making context:
“People will discover this for themselves, it doesn’t have to be labelled… it can still be having this effect for many people whilst other people are just enjoying the music or the social aspect. Drumming can be different things to different people and we don’t necessarily need to put a label on any of those.”
Kids have joined in with Drum Connection workshops over the years, usually accompanying a parent although not always: “Anyone over the age of around 10 is welcome. I have occasionally had someone as young as 7 and although it’s an adult class there’s no problem them joining in if it works for them. It can be a nice thing for a parent and child to do.”
This month Annie is starting a series of drumming workshops in Hurstbridge specifically for kids, to gauge interest and uptake. “There are some good music programs in the local primary schools but for any kids who can’t get in or are too young, it could offer a good transition… I’ll give it a go and see!”
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Annie Fletcher
If you would like any more information about these classes or single workshops for specific groups, contact Annie: Mob: 0407 102 578; Email: email@example.com; fb: Drum Connection Aus
James Rigby spent years driving past the mighty Murtoa Stick Shed in awe of its size and wondering how on earth the monolithic structure looming up out of the landscape could still be standing. He never imagined that one Spring day in 2017 together with Jane Thompson, he would lead around 300 community singers in a Big Sing under its cathedral-like roof of bush poles and corrugated iron.
The idea for a Stick Shed Sing was conceived by Judith Welsh, Chair of the Committee of Management which took over the running of the shed when it was gifted back to the community in 2016. The vision was to create an event to reflect the ambience and glory of the Heritage listed building and bring singing into the shed for the first time as part of Murtoa’s Big Weekend celebrations.
“We wanted an event that anyone could join in on but which gave local choirs, the singers from the Wimmera, an opportunity to perform as part of a massed choir, as well.”
As highly experienced community singing leaders, Jane Thompson and James Rigby expressed their interest in coordinating the event, working with Judith to decide a shape for the day, which included a massed singing workshop open to anyone keen to sing in the shed and a concert by any community choirs attending, who were happy to perform.
The first Stick Shed Sing was held in October last year, attracting a huge amount of interest from within the local community and further afield with around 6 full choirs performing at the concert and individual singers from many other choirs attending too.
“We had the signing choir from Horsham Primary School where AUSLAN is taught as a second language, which was lovely as it meant there was lots of children’s energy in the building too.”
The Signing Choir sign what they sing, culminating in a dance-like blend of a song’s rhythm and the natural gestures of the signs. This theatrical style of delivery is well suited to the vast, 270 metre-long Stick Shed where you can occupy as much space as physically possible and still feel incredibly small.
James and Jane found that facilitating singing of any sort in a space the size of the Stick Shed is not without challenge – all part of the excitement of being there. For a start, there is the all-important issue of acoustics.
“The shed is like a tent with an incredibly long, high pitched roof so the acoustics vary dramatically, whether you go in near the edges close to the roof, or whether you stand in the middle of it underneath the ridge, at which point the acoustics disappear. What we found was that about two-thirds out from the edge you hit this magic sweet spot where the natural reverb of the shed is really flattering to the singing and meant we could hear ourselves and, when singing as a group, what the group was sounding like.”
As luck would have it, this particular area of the shed is well lit by a line of skylights set into the roof enabling the singers to see all that is necessary whilst feeling a part of that beautiful big space, and with the added option of gazing at the clouds moving above them over the Wimmera.
For the workshop, James and Jane used ‘Here in the Stick Shed’ a short warm-up song written for the occasion by Jane, and a song about trees by Scott Wise called ‘Hold up the Sky’.
“We sang a beauty about trees and how they hold up the ground in mines, and on the land they hold up the road, and then when you get to the forest they hold up the sky. It’s a beautiful song about how trees prop up everything all around us and of course we’re standing in a shed where there’re these ridiculously tall little skinny mountain ash poles holding the whole thing up…”
For everyone involved in the Stick Shed Sing, James believes the first show stopper of the day was probably the magnificence and scale of the shed itself:
“You approach this massive looming building through the Wimmera wheat lands, it’s bright, it’s flat and then you go into the shed through this administrative area and suddenly you’re inside this dark and immense space… I can only say that it’s like walking into the most amazing, ancient cathedral in Europe, that’s the sense of scale and the sense of awe it inspires when you first walk in, you can’t quite believe it.”
The venue is too big to simply whip a vacuum or broom over, so a day before the community choirs and singers arrived armed with picnics and BYO seating, a street sweeper from the neighbouring shire was brought in and driven up and down to prepare the space. Pieces of conveyor machinery still hang from the ceilings in some spots, evidence of the shed’s industrial heritage.
On a personal and professional level, James and Jane were delighted to have assembled another group of community singers in such a unique setting.
“Jane and I have worked quite a bit in the North and the West of the state and had probably connected with a lot of the individuals who sang with us on that day at some point previously, but we hadn’t worked with any of the choirs before and had no idea of their skill levels, we were assembling a really diverse bunch of singers. In finding a song by an Australian songwriter which spoke about trees and then feeling like we were standing in a forest was a very powerful thing and it connected the people and the place and the music. On an emotional level it worked really well.”
James and Jane were mindful of the distance some of the singers had travelled to participate in the Stick Shed Sing, and due consideration was given to this in planning the concert element of the day:
“The trick of running an event with multiple choirs is to really balance the effort that choirs are making to get there with the opportunity to showcase what they do and what they’ve learned. You can’t ask a highly rehearsed hardworking choir to drive 3 hours to Murtoa and then only give them time for one song. Neither do you want to force a smaller choir, meeting less frequently, to get up and sing five songs. It’s a challenge to make sure we respect the capabilities and the ambitions of all of the choirs.”
The mighty Murtoa Stick Shed is a monument to an older time, built during the second world war to stockpile grain at a point when no steel was available, it is the world’s largest remaining timber-built shed and its iconic void is filled with echoes of its industrial past where the dust motes carry history as they drift in the shafts of light. It’s an evocative place with the capacity to emotionally move anyone stepping into it.
If you missed the opportunity to make the sticks ring last year, there’s an opportunity for community choirs and singers to do it all over again and make music together in this amazing space on Saturday October 6. With Jane overseas, James will be going in on his own this year but, as he says, he knows what the challenges are and is already genuinely excited and looking forward to stepping back into the Stick Shed’s phenomenal space:
“…there will be the need for some big moments. You have a big crowd in a big space and it’s very satisfying to have a go at filling that mighty venue with sound.”
Join James Rigby for the second Stick Shed Sing on Saturday October 6th, 2018. For more information and to express an interest in participating in the workshop and/or afternoon concert with your choir (or as an individual!) contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby
Main image: photo: National Trust @NTAV All other images supplied
It’s never too late to pick up a musical instrument. In fact there are many reasons why it’s a great idea, particularly in old age.We normally hear about reasons to increase music education for children, and for good cause. There are many cognitive and social benefits to playing an instrument that aid a child’s development. Consequently, as an older adult, there are long-term effects of having taken part in these musical activities, as it can limit cognitive decline.
Even a small amount of training can have long lasting effects. But this doesn’t mean that those who have never played an instrument in childhood have missed the boat. The ageing brain is plastic: that means it is able to learn new things all the time. So, should we consider an increase in music programs for those in the third age?
Playing music as a workout for the brain
Learning to play a musical instrument is an extremely complex task that involves the coordination of multiple sensory systems within the brain. Many instruments require precise coordination between the eyes, the ears and the hands in order to play a musical note. Using the resulting sound as feedback, the brain prepares for the next note and so it continues. The act of music-making is quite a brain workout.
The relationship between the motor and auditory parts of the brain is strengthened when physically playing music. This may explain why adults trained to play certain melodies have an enhanced representation of music in the brain compared to adults only trained to listen to the same melodies.
As playing music involves many different parts of the brain, even a short-term program for older adult musical novices can lead to generalised improvements for cognitive ability.
Music as a workout for the fingers
Learning to play an instrument such as the piano involves many complex finger sequencing and coordination tasks. As such, it can be a great test-bed for learning to move fingers independently.
The creativity of music and the enjoyment people take in playing is particularly important for rehabilitation, as it encourages sustained practice leading ultimately to higher benefits.
It’s thanks to this that piano lessons have been used to successfully retrain hand function for patients who have had a stroke. The immediate auditory feedback from each finger movement is thought to help adults reduce errors in movement and work towards moving at a more regular pace.
Music training is an excellent environment to train cognitive and motor abilities, both in the contexts of child development and for rehabilitation. The question for older adults is this: can learning a musical instrument not only put the brakes on cognitive and motor decline, but actually allow development of new skills?
Of course many activities can be novel such as juggling or knitting, but the advantages of learning an instrument can be found in the breadth of skills required to play. At Western Sydney University, we are currently investigating how piano training can be used with healthy older adults to improve their general hand function in unrelated daily tasks.
Music for health and wellbeing
Often, the worry is that playing an instrument will be too difficult for older adults to manage. On the contrary, learning to play an instrument can provide a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.
It’s suggested that this is a consequence of decreases in stress that can happen when taking part in musical activities. However, further research is needed to determine exactly how this relationship functions.
Music for all
It’s vital to understand how we can aid the current generation of older adults, in terms of both health and personal enjoyment. With the myriad benefits provided by playing a musical instrument, it would seem beneficial to have a wider variety of musical activities on offer to the older generation.
Wouldn’t it be great if the third age wasn’t viewed as a final descent from some mid-life peak, but some new act of life that opens up these opportunities? Perhaps we should give older adults the chance to develop in ways they could never have imagined before.
Activities such as singing in a choir, or playing the piano can provide this opportunity, as well as offering many general benefits to health and wellbeing.
Contra dance… que’est-ce-que c’est? For those of us who’ve never dipped a heel or toe into this aspect of the folk or social dance scene, a quick spot of online research explains contra dancing as ‘social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music.’ A hot stepping cousin of square dancing or bush dancing, contra dancing is done in pairs with couples moving up and down a line or in sets in response to a caller. It originates from North America and is steadily gaining an enthusiastic following of new, young dancers here in Australia. It is also a fantastic way to link social dancing with community music making.
Melbourne based musician, Judy Oleinikov is a big fan of the inclusive nature of contra dance and for the past three years or so has been doing her bit to bring a wider awareness of it to musicians and dancers alike: “ Contra dances can be more vivacious and also a little bit more informal than some of the other dances we have here… unlike something more structured such as Scottish Dancing, it isn’t intimidating to beginners.”
It may be a relief to hear that a sleek technique isn’t required and you don’t need to point your toes to take part. Contra dancing is open to anyone of any age and people seem to find it highly addictive due to its inherent element of fun. That and the amount of spinning involved.
For Judy, Contra dance kicks come from her involvement as a fiddle player for the dance:
“What I love about social dance is seeing a roomful of people in sync, the dancers and the musicians. There’s just nothing better, that buzz of live music and everyone responding to it.
In addition to the fact it’s fun, Judy considers the resurgence in contra dancing important in helping to sustain a complex skill and a vital element of musicality which she believes is at risk of becoming lost: the ability to play for dancers.
“A lot of Celtic musicians learn the music completely separate from the dance and so they haven’t quite got the feel… they can be brilliant players but to a dancer it just wouldn’t be right. We’ve grown used to hearing recordings or playing tunes in pubs and so what I really like about bringing a dance back is doing it while people are learning the music to go with it.”
Contra dance music is lively, and drives and energizes the dancers. Like all forms of music, it has originated from a blend of traditions, noticeably Irish, Scottish, Breton, Québecois, Cape Breton, New England, and Appalachian, and is constantly evolving, as living traditions do. As an avid player of Celtic music herself, Judy explains that the origin of this form of music was in playing tunes for people to dance along to as entertainment.
“People used to dance every week. There’s the story of how in Ireland, people used to meet on the crossroads whenever there was a full moon because there were no halls big enough to fit everyone into… it’s been people’s enjoyment for so long.”
While this form of dancing fell out of favour as other new and exciting ways to pass the time were thought up and invented throughout the twentieth century, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when people rediscover it as a form of unplugged entertainment, it becomes a bit of an addiction.
As a musician, one of the things Judy loves most about this form of traditional music is that tunes are learnt and carried by ear. There are no scores to follow and whilst a framework is essential to prevent chaos breaking out on the dance floor, musicians can be spontaneous and creative in their playing and because they’re not following markings on a piece of paper, their interpretation can come across.
“Because there are no hard and fast rules about chord choices and where the notes should be played, you’ll hear something different about the melody each time… there’s no break out like there is in jazz, it’s more about taking the framework of the tune and finding elements in it to change around or highlight, and that’s really exciting.”
For the past four years, Judy has run the Quasitrad Quebec Fiddle Weekend, a music camp dedicated to French Canadian music, a type of Celtic music that’s “as much fun to play as it is to listen to” which has remained very rhythmic, very lively and is a style extremely well suited to contra dancing.
Each year, Judy has included a dance in the camp’s program, inspired by the social dancing she’d seen in Quebec to this particular style of music. “I thought it would be absolutely brilliant to run a dance like that here at my camp!” Two friends of Judy’s are dance callers and dancers in different styles, and they each asked if she’d consider a contra dance.
“They’d fallen in love with the style and knew of hardly any contra dance happening here in Victoria. Once we had a go I could see their point – it’s a really great form of social dancing.”
Jeanette Mill, who is an experienced Contra dance caller from Canberra, has worked with Judy for the past three years. “Jeanette is highly experienced with a range of dances up her sleeve for whoever comes along and, in order to be as inclusive as possible, starts each of the dances quite simply.” As Judy points out, the skill of the caller has to combine with the skill of the musicians to ensure that the dancers can pick up and maintain a rhythm and flow.
“We have kids, we have parents holding toddlers, we have more elderly people and even teenage boys joining in! It’s great to get all the age groups up and dancing with people they may feel too shy to sit and talk to and, as some of the dances are progressive, it mixes everyone up.”
Whilst Contra dancing isn’t actually a French Canadian thing, it’s been carried across the borders into Quebec from the New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, the heartland of Contra Dance. Subsequently, a lot of the musicians from that region make their money as dance players and tend to be extremely good at it.
In November this year, Judy will once again be hosting a four-day French Canadian music camp in Gippsland ‘which will honour the traditional way of learning music by providing an environment open to all players, teaching the music by ear and enjoying a great community atmosphere.’
The Quebec Fiddle Camp will offer musicians and dancers the opportunity to participate in an afternoon’s contra dance workshop led by visiting musicians from Quebec. “Australia has very few musicians who can play for contra dances so far, and it’s great to have the opportunity to book visiting musicians here who are strong in the genre.”
Judy is keen to encourage players who attend the weekend to have a go at the dancing in order to experience it from a dancing perspective, to feel the music and the impact it has.
The 2018 Quebec Fiddle Camp will take place over cup weekend, (Nov 2-6) and on Monday November 5, (Cup Eve), Judy is planning a big contra dance in Trafalgar. This event will be open to anyone out there in the community who’s keen to join in and – literally – give it a whirl.
For information about the annual Quasitrad Quebec Fiddle weekend, visit www.quasitrad.com
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Judy Oleinikov
Researchers found that young men and women who shared musical experiences with their parents during childhood — and especially during adolescence — report having better relationships with their mums and dads as they enter young adulthood.
“If you have little kids, and you play music with them, that helps you be closer to them, and later in life will make you closer to them,” said study co-author Jake Harwood, professor and head of the UA Department of Communication.
“If you have teenagers and you can successfully listen to music together or share musical experiences with them, that has an even stronger effect on your future relationship and the child’s perception of the relationship in emerging adulthood.”
Researchers surveyed a group of young adults, average age 21, about the frequency with which they engaged with their parents, as children, in activities such as listening to music together, attending concerts together or playing musical instruments together.
Read the full article written by Alexis Blue and published by the University of Arizona, here.
Feature photo: Markus Spisk; Violin and Flute: Micaela Parente on Unsplash
How many songs were taught and were shared? How many connections and bonds were formed? How many experiences of being held or embraced in harmony, or of adding one’s voice to a solid-gold, full-bodied unison? There are many ways that a singing leader’s efforts and commitments can be traced. The researcher in me thinks about network analysis, imagines tracing a song on its pathway from leader to choir, from choir members to other leaders, from leaders to leaders. Or tracing connections and friendships, new choirs formed, new leaders inspired.
Benjamin Patrick Leske, musician, composer, researcher, community singing advocate, conductor and choir leader, passed away this month from brain cancer, aged 37. I am not the only one of his friends feeling bereft. There are many others who knew him longer, who had shared more songs and more conversations than I had with him. But in our short friendship, Ben and I bonded. We shared stories from the PhDs in community music that we were both pursuing at the time (his about the experiences of young LGBTQI singers in a Melbourne choir, mine about young music learners in war-torn countries), and we shared our experiences of dealing with the compounding challenges of major illness and treatment during PhD study.
The community musician in me remembers Ben teaching the song ‘Let it Go’ (not the one from Frozen, but another, drawn from a Michael Leunig poem and cartoon and set to music by Melbourne composer Suzann Frisk) on the Excursion Day bus during the International Society for Music Education’s Community Music Commission in Edinburgh, July 2016. A colleague sent me her recording of that song-share recently, capturing Ben’s voice as he sang the song line by line, repeating as necessary, with the bus passengers echoing him. “I’ve never told this story to a busload of people before!” he admitted, before sharing the significance of the song with the group. More than one person refers to ‘singing while crying’ in that recording.
More recently, Ben led a pop-up choir in a performance of the same song in the ward of St Vincent’s Hospital where he had been a neuro-oncology patient many times. He donated a framed print of the Michael Leunig cartoon that had made the song so meaningful for him, a print that now hangs on the wall of the ward. Leunig and Frisk joined Ben for this special event.
Singing leaders bring people together to sing, both informally and in more formal structures. Ben conducted many different choirs in Melbourne. One speaker at the memorial service began to list them, and I learned that Ben’s conducting ‘tentacles’ had reached more widely than I knew. I was in the audience for the inaugural performance of the Footscray Community Choir, a choir that he co-founded with pianist Chris Nankervis. It was a lovely, affirming concert. The audience was invited to sing as part of the program, a programming inclusion that spoke to Ben’s commitment to getting people singing and connecting with each other. They performed a superb rendition of “Wonder” by Emeli Sandé. It was the first time I’d heard that song, although I’ve listened to it many times since. Its opening lyrics (“I can beat the night, I’m not afraid of thunder, I am full of light, and I am full of wonder”) bring a lump to my throat now. I can imagine them resonating for Ben, and am sure it was by design, not chance, that he chose a song that would affirm the strength, resilience, and wonder of every one of his singers.
And there were more choir projects planned. One of Ben’s last Facebook updates (20 January 2018) announced, “I’m excited to be working with Newlands Choir (formerly the Carpark Choir) from Monday! P.S. We’re currently recruiting, with vacancies in all sections”. I can remember the excitement with which he spoke about this new project too. Dear Newlands Choir, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to work with this fine musician and conductor. He loved to nurture voices. He would have been so committed to you.
How many stars in the Milky Way?
How many ways can you lose a friend?
Paul Kelly’s song drifts away from me at this point—it is impossible to imagine Benjamin Leske being a ‘careless’ friend to anyone. His memorial service filled one of Melbourne’s largest cathedrals, and friends and family in turn spoke of this kind, gentle, generous, funny, determined colussus of a man, sharing stories of the intrepid traveler and “Germanophile” who was an exchange student in Germany and studied in Freiburg, retaining many deep friendships there; the studious, contemplative, and curious young man who spent time living in a monastery in Cambodia; the organiser, devoted to Excel spreadsheets; the International Relations specialist who nurtured and realised his longheld desire to conduct, to compose, and to spread music and joy; the man in his prime, forced to confront his mortality and who reframed the diagnosis as an opportunity to live more fully, focusing on what really matters; the activist and advocate for brain cancer research, gay pride, and community singing; the beloved son, brother, godfather, friend; the loving partner and husband of Khang Chiem.
The songs keep coming. At the memorial service I learned that Ben was a huge Kylie Minogue fan. But I am a little older than him and ABBA comes to mind more quickly: “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing. Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. Who could live without it? I ask in all honesty – what would life be? Without a song or a dance, what are we?” Towards the end of the wake, most of the remaining guests gathered on the stage to sing a song (from ‘Wicked’) that was new to me, but seemed so perfect and poignant for a celebration of this young man’s life. “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
How much good in a single song? So, so much good. Go gently, Ben would say. Live fully. Love generously. And keep singing.
 Ben submitted his PhD in August 2017 and graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Melbourne in December 2017. I submitted mine in December 2017 and am nervously awaiting examiners’ reports.
Can music actually make us smarter? Research suggests that from as early as 16 weeks of pregnancy, when auditory function is forming, babies begin their musical development. Their early adaptive exposure to sounds, including those familiar sounds of parents’ voices, enhance extraordinary processing skills.
Neuroscience teaches us that a child’s brain is plastic. By this, we mean it is malleable and has the ability to change. The first year of life, more than any other year, will see the most rapid change in brain size and function as all the sensory receptors activate. Intriguingly, neuro-imaging shows that music alone turns on large sectors of a child’s brain, opening crucial neural pathways that will become the highways and byways for every piece of information the process.
We’d all love to think our children will grow up intelligent, blissfully free from academic struggle. Truth is, the learning journey is speckled with challenges, and each child will have a unique intelligence and learner disposition. One thing we know is that parental involvement in cognitive stimulation from the earliest years will help form solid foundations that underpin a more successful schooling journey.
So, what can parents do to prepare young learners for school?
Sing like no one’s listening
Singing nursery rhymes to your child, however old fashioned you may think it is, will get them off to a flying start. Children become particularly responsive because reciprocal communication occurs as they begin to mimic you – pre-empting certain sounds, tones or words that they recognise. Using pitch and rhythm in the rhymes and lullabies we introduce to our children will begin to create neural stimulation that develops the brain’s auditory cortex, transforming their ability to communicate.
Bang on those pots and pans
While it may fray the nerves, banging on the pots and pans is a fantastic way to improve spatial reasoning. With background music blaring, children first develop the coordination required to hit the metallic targets, and as their sensory cortex develops, they begin to keep in time. Research shows that spatial reasoning, along with a sense of beat and rhythm (which invariably includes an aural and tactile sense of measure and counting) will enhance mathematical abilities.
Join a children’s music group
Early childhood music-based playgroups offer a unique learning context for children. The songs and activities employ beat patterns, movement, repeated chorus lines and echo singing to engage with young participants. The cerebellum at the base of our brains is responsible for movement and balance, and interestingly, is where emotional reactions to music form. Universally, early childhood educators use rhyme and song to teach children how language is constructed, and with good reason. Movement, foot tapping and dancing to a beat are also good ways of developing the brain’s motor cortex.
The ‘Mozart Effect’
There is a popular hypothesis that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. The “Mozart Effect” refers primarily to a landmark study in 1993, where participants listening to Mozart’s music (rather than to relaxation music or silence) achieved higher spatial-temporal results. Importantly, spatial-temporal reasoning is crucially active when children are performing science and maths tasks. Listening to music in any capacity induces endorphin production in the brain, causing improvement in mood and creative problem solving.
Learn an instrument
Many parents wonder when a child should start learning their first musical instrument. Importantly, instrumental tuition is not about producing the next Mozart or Delta Goodrem. Music lessons, for even the briefest of periods, are enjoyable and establish a life-long skill. It has also been noted that musicians’ brains develop a thickened pre-frontal cortex – their brains are actually bigger. And this is the area of the brain most crucially involved in memory. One thing researchers and music educators endorse is the amazing impact it has on the development of executive functions such as working memory, attention span and cognition.
Many schools are putting research into practice, and Queensland is leading the way with music taught in 87% of schools. Immersion music programs, where all students learn an instrument for a one-year minimum, have become commonplace. The results speak for themselves.
Psychologists from a Californian University conducted research on pre-school aged children, and proved that those who had weekly keyboard lessons improved their spatial-temporal skills 34% more than those who didn’t. The benefits did not stop there. Children developed fine motor skills, reading, auditory recognition, resilience, and increased their memory capacity. All of these benefits of instrumental tuition bode well for the classroom journey ahead.
Chelsea Harry is an Academic Researcher and Music Educator, University of the Sunshine Coast. Currently completing a Masters in Research with USC, Chelsea is a professional Musician and Classroom Educator of 20 years experience. Her research follows the journey of 6-8 year olds and the impact of instrumental music tuition on the brain and executive functions.
Chelsea also works as a conductor, cellist, pianist, music educator, musical director, primary classroom teacher and mum!
“… the fish in the river, the clouds in the sky,
the wattles and gum trees that grow up so high
the kookaburra singing so gaily and free
good morning to you and good morning to me…”
from the Good Morning song* by Woody Clark
Woody Clark dreams of a world where families find time to make music as they go about their lives together. Over the past fifteen years or more, Woody has been working to build a catalogue of songs and resources available to parents and carers to turn this vision into reality and help integrate the rich experience of intergenerational singing and playing into the familial tapestry of homes and lives across Australia.
For Woody, the value is in ‘creating music rather than consuming it’ and, where possible, within a familiar setting involving children, parents or carers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins…
“Make music relevant and engaging and something that’s just part of the fabric of the household rather than something external to that, find the means to utilise it in your life in a way that will bring expression and joy, or whatever that might be.”
Woody’s own three kids have collaborated with him on musical projects, co-written songs for his album, and in recent years toured as part of the family band ‘Woody’s World’. This includes his parents, folk singer-songwriters Kate Townsend and Dave Clark. Woody’s World played at many regional festivals and events in 2016, including Adelaide Festival Centre, Melbourne Cabaret Festival and Ukulele Festivals, Pt Fairy Folk Festival and Mt Beauty Music Festival.
Woody remembers feeling surprised by the excitement of former classmates in recalling the novelty of a school teacher who would sing and play guitar to them during art classes. For Woody who grew up in a household where music-making was a normal and assumed part of daily life, this occurrence was familiar and common to him. He realised as an adult, the experience at school had evaporated from his memory as something unremarkable tends to.
Years later as a father and classroom teacher himself, Woody is using his experience and knowledge as a songwriter and musician to uphold the tradition set by his own background, advocating for the benefits and joys of the style of unplugged family music-making he’s enjoyed in his own life.
Woody’s tips for anyone who’s keen to encourage kids to make music are:
Model the behaviour and expose your kids to live music-making.
Have a guitar or ukulele sitting on the couch and build music into your day, for example sing a morning song*, or sing a song before you eat your food, or a bedtime song.
Make it fun! A lot of music education is serious and focuses on the classical side, so if you can show kids that learning and making music can be really fun and engaging too, you’re half way there.
“I’m not putting pressure on my kids to be musicians but if when they leave home, they can play instruments, have some appreciation of the language of music, it’s accessible for them and they can express themselves, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job in that regard.”
As a way to facilitate integrated music-making in the home, Woody runs 8 week ukulele classes teaching kids aged from 5-12 years and their grandparents, parents or guardians, to play the instrument together. In doing so, Woody’s observed the positive benefits and effects that intergenerational learning brings:
“The parents who model the behaviour, doing weekly practise with their kids really upskill in the ukulele, they come back the next week and they’re both excited; they can play that new chord or they can do the new strumming technique. By the end of the 8 weeks instead of the uke being a foreign object that they are wondering how to hold and tune, they are learning to speak that language.”
Next year Woody will take this course online, making it available as a learning resource for kids, parents and carers, everywhere. “It’ll be a kind of crash course in how to learn the basics and there’ll also be an opportunity to play along with Woody’s World during our live shows.” The course will provide footage recorded by Woody for all L-plate ukers to strum along to for practise in their own time. Woody describes it as ‘an integrated project, and a preparatory engagement experience.’
Woody has been working towards this point for a long time having coordinated a number of musical projects, including reKINDle, a response to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 and he’s dedicated to continuing this momentum around family music making and taking it onwards: “I’ve been developing my ideas around family music participation for well over a decade. I am passionate about music and how it can connect families and communities and through my upbringing and my teaching and my work with my own kids, it feels like all these strands are coming together.”
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, and Woody Clark.
* Woody’s Good morning song is available online! Download the lyrics and mp3 here for freeeee! You can also download the chords and to complete the experience, there’s a colour-in poster to download, print off and complete as you learn the song.
Woody’s debut album is available from his website which includes wonderful family collaborations. Check it out here here. You can keep up to date with his activities on his Facebook Page
Listen and learn ‘Catch the leaves’ a song written by Woody’s daughter when she was 7 years old.
Sun shone through grey clouds gathered low over Pakington Street in Geelong West last Saturday morning, jostling to catch a glimpse of the gloriously coloured community musicians gathering in readiness on the grass below to play in the StreetSounds Festival parade and fiesta. The previous evening these same musicians had made their way to Geelong to bring the StreetSounds project to Geelong After Dark, illuminating the darkness with beats, riffs, fat sounds, fairy lights and high vis vests.
The StreetSounds project has been lead by Community Music Victoria since 2015, with funding from R E Ross Trust and Helen Macpherson Smith Trust. Over the past two years, street bands have popped up in Kyneton, Bellbrae and Inverloch; Morwell, Dunolly, and Footscray; Sunshine, Windsor and Melton, all kindled and supported with encouragement, advice and input from StreetSounds project manager, Lyndal Chambers.
Each of the bands is open to anyone and experience, skill levels and age are no barrier to joining in. What’s key is the desire to have fun and connect through making music together in a way that is mobile and can be taken out to the streets and delivered to the broader community for everyone to enjoy. Playing loud music and wearing loud clothes present people with an opportunity to escape the mundanities and worries of life once in a while, whilst making new friends and strengthening local networks: what’s not to love?
Many amazing moments have come to light as the StreetSounds project has unfolded. Horns have been dusted down, flutes and recorders have emerged from packing boxes, marimbas have been built and washboards assembled. There are several families now involved across the project: Amy plays in the Fabulous Meltones together with her three kids and her father. In the Prahran Accordion Band, Hans has dreamed of being able to play the accordion since childhood. And for everyone, making music in a band where there are no wrong notes adds a dimension to life, hard to beat.
The element of inclusion which has underpinned the StreetSounds project since its inception was evident at the Festival and in this safe space the crowd brimmed with palpable pride, enjoying the energy and enthusiasm generated by merging and becoming part of a bigger picture. A static crackle of excitement sparkled and sparked through the throng and across West Park on Saturday, exploding into a massed rendition of ‘Caderas’ and Shane Howard’s ‘Talk of the Town’, two common tunes learnt and rehearsed by the bands to play together at that very point.
A pop-up off-shoot of the non-conventional street band ‘Our Community Sounds’ ran an open improvisation workshop in the Park’s rotunda, drawing in members from all of the bands and encouraging them to experiment spontaneously with sound. ‘Our Community Sounds’, facilitated on Saturday by Conor O’Hanlon, shares the same philosophy as the other street bands – one of removing barriers to participation in music making but the delivery is in the form of spontaneous participatory events rather than performances.
“I realised what a unique thing we were all doing – not a Jazz Festival, not a Folk Festival, not a Brass Band Festival, not a Music Camp .. something that’s inclusive of a diversity of skill level, instrumentation and cultures.” Lyndal Chambers, StreetSounds project manager
The clouds could only contain their excitement for so long, and as the rain finally fell, the StreetSounds mob and their homemade banners moved into the hall at West Park where they played short sets all afternoon, joined by the Zamponistas, Havana Palava, Doowlla of Drum Connection and Geelong’s Tate Primary School marimba band, the Marimbataters.
Click the links below to see two glorious photo stories of the event, by Dr Laura Brearley: