Category Archives: Sing it

CMVic Celebrates Make Music Day ’21 with Optimism & Ukeoke!

Once again on June 21st, Make Music Day Australia will bring together friends, colleagues, strangers and neighbours to share joy and connection in a free celebration of music making for musicians of all levels using a glorious smorgasbord of styles, both online and -restrictions permitting – face to face. This year’s world wide event is about optimistically embracing uncertainty and will feature a global live stream of events that include an International Leaf Blowing Symposium, Window Serenades, Drum Battles, Folk Challenges, Song Swaps and more, all taking place on the day itself and over the preceding weekend.

As a proud foundation partner in this annual celebration of music, CMVic has been busy encouraging community music leaders from across Victoria to register their June events or upload a new or recent video to showcase their group on the Make Music Day Portal.

Craig Barrie, Digital and Strategic Communications Coordinator for Community Music Victoria says, “A number of CMVic members will be sharing the musical joy locally, despite the challenges being thrown at us all by lockdown and wild storms. With the power still out in some parts of Victoria, I hope everyone is doing okay!”

To keep everyone nourished and connected during this time of uncertainty, CMVic has focussed on running several online community events to promote and celebrate Make Music Day. June began with a Pizza Party Video Showcase, hosted by Craig with CMVic’s Program Coordinator, Nicki Johnson. The duo conducted a series of live, online interviews with community music leaders talking about their virtual choir and band projects which emerged as poignant, defiant and cathartic responses to last year’s long lockdown.

“It was inspiring and humbling to talk with leaders about what these projects meant for their groups, and for them personally. I am in awe of the effort and work leaders put in to maintain social connections between their participants over the last 18 months.”

At 5pm this Sunday, June 20, CMVic will be running a special Make Music Day ‘Ukeoke with Bruce Watson and Friends’ – a virtual version of Bruce’s popular sessions at CMVic’s Grantville music camp.

Events like these are CMVic’s strength- encouraging participation at all levels – and Bruce personifies the joy of making music together.

– Craig Barrie

This free event will offer uke enthusiasts everywhere the opportunity to join Bruce and friends to sing and strum old favourites and learn some hot new tunes to bring warmth and light into the shortest day.

Events like these are CMVic’s strength – encouraging participation at all levels – and Bruce personifies the joy of making music together. Nicki and Craig will also be sharing a couple of songs, as will Margaret Crichton; John Howard and Michelle Fox. This team is now highly experienced at leading online sessions, and Craig has been practicing his delivery format all week to ensure everyone will be able to see all of the vital bits – words, chords and leader – onscreen at the same time:

As Digital Coordinator, my job on the day is to ensure both lovely sound and clear video, so people can luxuriate in the music. Ideally I hope participants completely forget they are online and will be transported to the Grantville Homestead!

Here’s a sneak peak of how we’ll be sharing the music… Sit back and strum and sing with your very own page turner!

Having taken on the role of Digital Coordinator at the height of the 2020 lockdown, Craig knows only too well that it takes a bit of “technical jiggery-pokery” to ensure people can both see the “chirds” (i.e. chords and words) and the presenter, and has had plenty of practice at getting this right. This weekend’s Ukeoke will see Craig back on the buttons and flexing his tech skills to deliver some online magic once more.

Below is a photo of the software I use for live streaming. It is called Open Broadcast Software (OBS) and it is used for all sorts of online events, from hugely popular “gamers” with millions of international viewers to church services and ceremonies.”

You can watch CMVic Ukeoke with Bruce Watson and Friends live (and go back and watch it again later!) here: https://www.facebook.com/cmv.music/live

By Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor Coordinator, with Craig Barrie, CMVic Digital & Strategic Communications Coordinator

CMVic is proud to be foundation partners of Make Music Day Australia, a celebration of participatory music making, alongside The Australian Music Association (AMA), Make Music Alliance, and APRA/AMCOS. For all of the info about Make Music Day Australia and to see what else is happening around the world, visit https://makemusicaustralia.org.au/

Choir singing can improve cognitive functioning among the elderly

Researchers have made exciting new discoveries on the benefits of choir singing which may include positive effects on cognitive functioning similar to playing an instrument.

Alongside the effects of lifestyle, including physical exercise and diet, on ageing, research has increasingly turned its attention to the potential cognitive benefits of musical hobbies. However, such research has mainly concentrated on hobbies involving musical instruments.

The cognitive benefits of playing an instrument are already fairly well known: such activity can improve cognitive flexibility, or the ability to regulate and switch focus between different thought processes. However, the cognitive benefits of choir singing have so far been investigated very little… until now.

Findings from a study conducted by Emmi Pentikäinen, a doctoral student in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit and the Music, Ageing and Rehabilitation Team at the University of Helsinki, has provided evidence of how group singing is beneficial for our brains, in the same ways as playing an instrument. Singing in a choir requires flexible executive function and concentration, and supports our wellbeing by giving our rhythm and memories a workout as we learn new material. It connects us emotionally to the content of the music and we form friendships and connections with other singers, too.

Read the full article here.

Source: University of Helsinki. (2021, February 10). Choir singing can improve cognitive functioning among the elderly. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 16, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210210133432.htm

Find a community singing group or choir on the CMVic website, here!
https://cmvic.org.au/groups

photo: eberhard-grossgasteiger-iIFLDQmXPiw on unsplash.com

Singing In Step With Leanne Murphy

Over the past ten years, Leanne Murphy, a community musician from North East Victoria, has experimented with ‘a lot of things’ to keep herself and other people energised; running long-term projects, singing groups and ukulele groups.

Since the pandemic began, Leanne has been finding it ‘hard to know what’s what’, with the restrictions around group music-making changing so often in recent months. Not one to let this get her down, Leanne has returned once again to experimenting and having fun in finding new ways of getting back to community singing.

“I’d optimistically do ‘pay in advance for four sessions and invariably, one of them would have to be cancelled and it’s a nightmare having to do refunds and stuff so I’ve just decided I’m going to keep things casual, see how it goes and keep it all nice and fresh!”

Back at the end of March, the first project off the blocks was a Beechworth Easter Sunday Walk and Sing which was run, (well, walked!) by Leanne through Albury Wodonga Bushwalking Club as a freebie for club members.

“Combining bushwalking with singing, I wasn’t certain if anyone would be interested but 16 set off from the Beechworth Powder Magazine at 9am, after entertaining a number of tourists in the carpark with a rendition of Bele Mama (from Cameroon), and one more joined us halfway along the track.” 

The group’s first stop was One Tree Hill where they sang Hamba Nathi, with the English translating as “Come with me for the journey is long” in 3-part harmony.  Then it was on to The Precipice and morning tea, accompanied by Swing Low Sweet Chariot to celebrate the spirit of Easter Sunday. Various other stops along the way included Fiddes Quarry where the group had an audience of one for the haunting round, Be Still And Know by Jokhim Meikle.

 “A delightfully curious lady from Palestine stopped to listen and insisted she definitely did not want to join in.  We did manage to coax her into taking a video though.   By the time the group returned to the Powder Magazine, discussions were already underway about the potentials for a ‘next time’. I realised I’d never done a singing walk before and nobody else on the walk had ever done that before either. It was quite eye opening for me.”

Leanne has been walking with the Border Bushwalkers for around three years now. “They’ve really developed my confidence in how far I can walk and also what kind of challenges I can achieve, so I’ve gone from being somebody who’s never camped or hiked overnight to doing the Great Ocean Walk which is nine days of carrying everything on my back by myself! For me to be able to give something back to the club that I’m qualified to do and lead a walk with people who are very good at bushwalking but may not be as strong with singing, it was a real joy!”

Singing outdoors felt particularly good as Leanne has noticed people feel nervous about singing inside, in spite of the North East having had no recorded cases of COVID.

“There’s an underlying sense of wondering whether we’re allowed, or are we going to get a visit from the authorities looking over our shoulders saying ‘you can’t do singing’ and so I thought let’s just get something going and see who’s still interested in having a sing, and I think that people were just really grateful to have the opportunity to sing together again.”

From May 2, Leanne is running a series of informal, drop-in Sunday singing sessions to help see out the winter months. This project is called ‘Hearth Songs’ a name inspired by the album Hearth by Michael Kennedy. “I really want to do one of the songs off that beautiful album. It’s called ‘Indigo’ and is all about looking after this indigo planet we live on. Because I live in the shire of Indigo I thought it would be a good match up, too!”

Leanne is interested to see how Hearth Songs will go in a venue with casual numbers. “I’m just putting out an intention to the universe, as you do, to say ‘please let the numbers be perfect for this venue! So we’ll see how that goes.”

Prior to COVID, Leanne developed and delivered a program called Spring Sing which was run two consecutive years during October and November, and was enjoying thinking up other, short-term programs. “I used to run a longer-term singing group but couldn’t sustain once a week sessions throughout the whole year, and so I’ve been focussing on programs I know I can manage.”  

Following the success of the Easter Sunday Walk and Sing, Leanne’s hoping to continue with the bushwalking and singing theme to celebrate the springing of Spring, sometime in November. Her vision is to combine a weekly mid-week walk with more, joyous outdoor singing and hopes this will build up the health and stamina of everyone involved:

“We might possibly work up to a weekend hike where people can camp overnight and sing, doesn’t that sound good?”

Until then, drop in and join Leanne for some heart-warming community singing sessions to banish the cold and keep the glow going as we head towards winter. Hearth Songs will be stoking up each Sunday afternoon throughout May and June with chants, rounds and songs to warm your cockles through the cooler seasons.

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for CMVic, in conversation with Leanne Murphy

Hearth Songs is held from 4-6pm each Sunday at Wooragee Hall. Email leannemurphy@bigpond.com to join the event’s emailing list. Walking boots optional.

Online or On Stage: A look at What’s On with Bruce Watson

As both a song writer and performer, Bruce Watson is always thinking about how to relate to people through his music. “I’m very involved with Community Music Victoria although I’m mostly a solo performer who tries to bring about that musical connection through audience participation rather than teaching or leading groups.”

Over the course of the past year, Bruce has been exploring new ways to do this. The hiatus to live music and performing fed a pre-existing interest in ways to incorporate technology into his music-making practice which was forced to evolve as everything locked down in order to continue.

“I had quite a few gigs lined up which just disappeared and all the CD sales disappeared too. I found myself in a vacuum and I wanted to fill it with something in a way which would benefit my ongoing music career.”

Unwilling to surrender fully to Netflix and bread making, Bruce embarked upon ‘30 songs in 30 days’a daily song-writing challenge conceived as a way to keep himself distracted and busy. As a frequent facilitator of song-writing workshops, Bruce has been a long standing advocate of the ‘just give it a go’ approach. His self-appointed mission was to write a song a day throughout April, last year.

“If you write a song a month, then after a year you’ll probably have 3 or 4 songs that are really good, which you might not have had if you’d sat waiting for the inspiration to come. I’ve always said that, but I haven’t always done it.”

Bruce admits that staying inspired to write a song a day for a month was actually quite hard but having a good level of insight, he promoted it in ways that left himself no wriggle room.

“If you want to do something that you see is a challenge I always think the best way to make it succeed is to tell other people that you’re doing it. If I’d just kept it to myself I might’ve stopped after a week or two, so I posted it all over Facebook and I made a commitment to do a YouTube video every day. Sometimes making the video was even harder than writing the song.”

Bruce started getting good feedback which he describes as ‘a lovely encouraging thing’, but still found there were times when the inspiration wasn’t immediately forthcoming. He had a fallback folder of song ideas and ‘scraps of things’ but found much of April was spent wondering what he would do tomorrow and what he would write about that day. He came to realise that, in the end, something always percolated to the surface.

“To me it was a great illustration of how there’s an awful lot of stuff sitting in all of us in terms of creativity and if we do something to bring it out, if we consciously tap into that, inspiration will actually strike and it’s an amazing thing to realise!”

At the end of the month Bruce felt exhausted but satisfied. “It was something I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do and I did it! I anticipated writing a lot of little bits of songs that weren’t really proper songs, but they ended up being all whole songs. And more of them were of a higher standard than I had expected, in fact I was surprised by the quality I produced under those circumstances” laughs Bruce.

Since the latter part of 2020, Bruce has been part of the CMVic team instrumental in bringing Music Software Workshops to the world. While the pandemic made the need for this knowledge sharing particularly important and brought it to the fore, the MSW team were visionaries who had perceived a need for the implementation and delivery of such a program for some time.

This wasn’t just about COVID it was about the ways software can help to share music for both leaders and music group members.

For some time, Bruce has been using MuseScore, a music notation software, to share music with his panpipe band in a way which allows players to practice at home on their own. “Because of the traditional panpipe playing that we do, any given player only plays half a tune because the scale is split between the notes. It’s like you’re playing a button accordion or a harmonica and only playing the blow notes or the suck notes, so you can’t play a tune by yourself. This means you can’t practice on your own and that makes it harder to learn the material. It’s the same for a choir or any band if you’re singing or playing a harmony against the melody you can use this software to easily create all the parts yourself to practice with, and that’s how I’ve used it.”

Last year, Bruce also got to grips with virtual choir technology, which he tackled in a highly successful experiment using his song, Déjà Vu. This project brought together a number of singers from several different countries who each recorded themselves singing to a backing track provided by Bruce which they uploaded to Dropbox. “I updated my video editing software to DaVinci Resolve and used some of the processes talked about in the music software workshops to plan the project, put all the tracks together and work out how to share files. In some ways file sharing can be the biggest hurdle – which can be very easily overcome.”

Bruce’s ‘Deja Vu’ virtual choir project in the making. Photo: Facebook

“I think what’s happened is that COVID came in and everyone searched for something new, in terms of both technology and how to relate to each other and how the musical experience can be shared and there are some really good things about that that didn’t exist before, and those are things that I don’t think we want to give up, such as sharing music across geography. People can join from remote locations and even from other countries. I’ve been involved with Zoom folk clubs where people have participated from five different continents and it’s been absolutely wonderful. Understanding how to make Zoom work well is something I think people might continue to explore.”

That said, upon his return to live performing a couple of weeks ago, Bruce realised more than ever how the sharing of live music is a tremendous and absolute gift.

“I don’t know whether I ever really took live music for granted because it was always just a part of my life, whereas now I am conscious of what life is like without it and yes, you can share music through Zoom and so on, but it’s not the same.”

Something Bruce loved was seeing people react spontaneously to his new material. “At my first festival since lockdown recently I decided only to perform the 30 songs in 30 days. So every song was a live premiere, which was incredibly nerve wracking and I was very nervous, but it was so good to have these songs exposed to the real world and to be able to judge how people were reacting to them.”

On 2 April, Bruce will be playing live to a small live audience Under the Oaks where he will be encouraging lots of audience participation.  Bruce laughs, “It’s really great with these COVID restrictions because you can have a small, intimate audience AND a sell out!”

“I think for a long time we’ll value that gift of live music and that’s what I’m loving now, to hear people singing back to me. Music was a great connector during COVID but the magic wasn’t quite there. That’s something that only really happens when people gather together and share a physical space, but I’m so grateful that I’ve been going to Zoom folk clubs in the UK and have made new friends along the way too, it’s been really, really great. And there are a couple of people over there singing my new songs now, too!”

Catch Bruce Under the Oaks on 2 April, or stay in touch with his gig guide at brucewatsonmusic.com

Recordings of previous CMVic Music Software Workshops are available on Community Music Victoria’s website, here.

Photographs: Jill Watson via Facebook

A New Space for Community Singers ‘Under The Oaks’

The leafy canopy of two giant old oaks in the Dandenong Ranges has shielded party goers from summer heat, witnessed weekend gatherings and even a wedding. Now, in a bid to keep her community choir singing in a way that is private and safe, singing leader Libby Price has won funding from Yarra Ranges Shire Council for a vital piece of hardware to transform this beautiful spot on her Silvan property into an outdoor singing venue for use by VoKallistaand othersUsers of the space will find the welcome addition of a wheelchair-accessible new portaloo to help ensure that the singing – and the singers – can keep going as the unpredictable situation around restrictions continues to ebb and flow.

The idea for the outdoor venue was seeded once lockdown ended, when Libby hosted a couple of recording sessions with singers from VoKallista outside under the oaks. Seeing people so happy to be back together again, Libby began thinking that singing and rehearsing under the oaks on a more formal basis could be the way to go, and started the ball rolling.


“I thought, okay we don’t know what we’re going to be able to do next year, we don’t know if rehearsal venues are going to be open, a few people had mentioned that the cost of room hire had increased because of the cost of deep cleaning, and I thought how fabulous it would be to be able to offer sessions here.”

At the same time, Libby didn’t like the idea or the impracticality of having 30 people coming through her house to use the bathroom.  Compounding this was the issue of accessibility and the fact that the nearest public toilets are two kilometres away at the local footie club.

“A few members of our choir have mobility issues and I have a good friend who is an artist who is really keen to come and do some filming up here. She uses a wheelchair and I thought it’s just not accessible for people to get up to the house and use the facilities. Then there’s the issue of rain shading and sun shading, so I started to look into the costs involved with it all. To hire a toilet which is accessible jumps in cost from around $300 for ten weeks to $1000. I was toying with ideas about how we could make this happen and the idea kind of sat there.”

Libby saw a reference to the COVID recovery grant being offered by Yarra Ranges Shire Council and decided to go for it. “I thought I should go for that and see if they’ll give me a dunny” she laughs. “Then I thought, no hang on, why shouldn’t they? Our group is deserving of it and if we can’t go back to singing at the church, maybe I can offer ‘Under the Oaks’ as an alternative.”

In January, Libby heard that the outcome of her application had been successful with an allocation of $1900 and recalls feeling fleetingly concerned that it was all perhaps a little bit too late. “We were back up to gatherings of 30 people but the situation since then has shown how quickly everything can change.”

The new wheelchair accessible loo gets the thumbs up. Photo supplied


Council’s allocation of funding for the installation of facilities while very welcome was less than half of what Libby had originally scoped. This has meant plans for construction of all-weather shades, for the time being, remain a work in progress, and it’s up to the trees to keep the sun off and the raindrops at bay.

With further thought, it became clear to Libby and her partner, James, that it was more cost efficient in the longer term to go ahead and actually buy an accessible loo to install on site permanently.  “As James said, every time we have another event we have to pay hire costs again, so it doesn’t take long to run up the cost. We will put the grant towards the outlay to offset some of the cost, and ask people for a donation when they attend the events.  This way we can all continue to use this resource into the future.”

While Under The Oaks will be used primarily by VoKallista and its community network Libby, together with VoKallista Singing Leader, Barb McFarlane, is planning to hold a singing circle there on International Women’s Day and has other ideas in the pipeline too. Libby is also more than happy for anyone looking for a space to use, to get in touch.

For the first period  of lockdown “how long was it?”, laughs Libby, “about five years?” before the distance limits applied, Barb and Libby would meet up together and sing, physically distanced, just the two of them with other VoKallista choir members zooming in and singing remotely. The year trundled on and they experimented with various ways to continue the singing. When the 5km rule came along, things got really tough. “When you’re on your own in a room trying to keep the feeling going and your energy up, do the tech and respond to everyone’s feedback, it takes its toll, it was really hard.”

At VoKallista’s first session back in 2021, 26 singers returned to sing together in person. Libby recalls, “I was amazed at people’s happiness and willingness to come back to singing, I thought people would be a lot more cautious. Even though I had the opportunity to do lots of Zoom singing last year, nothing compares to hearing our voices together in the same space.  It gave me goose bumps, and I don’t mind confessing that I shed a few tears.”

With the temporary new space up and running Under the Oaks, the outlook for these singers is bright and when nature calls – thanks to Libby, the new loo and Yarra Ranges Shire Council – there can now be an immediate response.

The welcome new addition arrives. Photo supplied


To enquire about using the space Under the Oaks, contact Libby Price.

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Libby Price.

Ballarat Choral Society Researches Safe Ways of Singing Together Again

In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Society applied for funding from Regional Arts Victoria to conduct some research of their own. “What we were anxious about was that there didn’t appear to be any specific information coming through for choirs” says Merle Hathaway, President of the Ballarat Choral Society (BCS), a non-auditioned community choir with over 100 singers on the books.

“To just not sing any more is not really a good idea when you look at all of the health benefits associated with it. Our idea was to form a small team of people with expertise in all sorts of different areas to work out whether it was at all safe for us all to sing together and also to explore whether there was any sort of technology we could use which would enable us to sing in the one space.”

The resulting Singing Together Again (STA) team comprises Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University; civil engineer Michael Knowles, sound recording expert Rex Hardware, and BCS choir members Brian Sala, an electronics engineer; Musical Director Helen Duggan, and Merle, who is the project manager. “We got the grant and then realised that we didn’t have an epidemiologist on the team”, Merle laughs.  “We didn’t have anyone from the world of health at all. Somebody had heard Professor Catherine Dennis speaking so we asked her and to our surprise she said yes.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Professor Catherine Bennett, Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), Rex Hardware (sound engineer), Mike Knowles (civil engineer) and Merle Hathaway (project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


In this world-first project, the plan was always to share the findings with other singing groups and choirs.

“I came across a bunch of people singing in a park recently, all side by side and sharing the same piece of music. They were having a lovely time and singing at the top of their voices, but the way they were doing it was too risky and so we started to think it was time to begin sharing the findings of our research with singers and singing groups everywhere.”   

Over the course of the past year, the STA team has followed what’s been going on around the world and staying on top of the data emerging from world research around aerosol dispersal and voice projection, translating all of the associated findings and risks into a COVID safe plan that takes a whole range of things into account.

The findings of their research to date recommends singing in a well-ventilated space, limiting indoor singing time to 20 minutes, and spacing singers 2 metres apart with 3 metres between rows. Air movement and effective ventilation is key. BCS are also planning to conduct temperature checks at the door as a way to avoid complacency and as a reminder to themselves that the risk of infection is real and ever present.

Merle adds, “other advice from Professor Bennett has included using fans to blow out the space when you’re not in it during breaks between singing, when all of the singers have moved out of the rehearsal area. The time that you sing for is really critical too. Keep ‘solid singing’ to 20 minute blocks and then move out of the room and use fans to blast air through it before returning back in.”

Ballarat Choral Society is hunting for a space which fits this criteria and has even considering singing in underground car parks because they’re usually draughty spaces.  “In Ballarat the winters are quite cold so ideally we want to find a big space or a space that allows us to move from one place to another like a church hall attached to a church, or like the football oval where there’s indoor and outdoor spaces adjoining for singers to move between.”  

They were all set to try out a new venue – two adjacent halls – when the latest Victorian regulations postponed all gatherings for at least a week. The choir is also making a set of specially designed singers’ masks, with stiffening away from the face.

Merle and the team are also exploring ways to overcome the challenge of everyone effectively holding their parts whilst physically distanced. “We have some very strong singers and we also have people like me – I rely very heavily on the presence of having a very good singer behind me!”

One idea being considered is for singers to wear a headset which feeds the sound into a mixer and relays it back to the singers’ ears. While this would call for more funding, Merle is excited about the possibilities this technology could open up: “I think we could really have fun with it, we could try our underground carpark idea, each coming from different directions, we could try singing in the Botanic Gardens at a huge distance from each other like a flashmob while all remaining connected.”

To overcome the natural gravitational pull of navigating towards each other whilst singing, the BCS have found a lovely, low-tech solution to the problem. “A member has donated a set of sports field markers – yellow plastic discs – which we can place on the ground to give us all a nice bright reminder of where we should be standing!”

One thing which preoccupies Merle in the small hours of the morning is the hope that “we’ve got it right and what if we’ve got it wrong?”

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a live project, the findings being shared are what the team has discerned to date, and that precautions can be increased or reduced, for example the wearing of masks indoors, depending on the level of threat from COVID in the community at any point in time.

The STA team had expected to conclude their research in February but because of the fluidity of the whole situation, Merle believes that it is likely things will roll on beyond this point. As Merle says, when it comes to considering a world without any face-to-face community singing, “to do nothing is more risky; we’re better off to share what we know – to say it’s early days and to encourage other people to continue their own research as well… All we want to do is sing.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), and Merle Hathaway ((project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


Stay tuned to STA research findings, updates and outcomes by joining BCS mailing list: info@ballaratchoralsociety.com

Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Merle Hathaway, President of Ballarat Choral Society

‘Holy Night’: Celebrating Un-Silent Nights and the Holiness of Nature

During December in Australia, the summer nights are anything but silent. When we stop as the holidays start and feel able to enjoy moments of stillness and the time to listen as the sun sets, nature is audible in abundance all around us. The pobblebonks bonk, insects hum and buzz, and birds croon, squawk and call.

The wish to celebrate our gloriously noisy, midsummer nights motivated community singing leader, Rose Wilson, to write a version of Silent Night that is relevant to the festive season in Australia. Rose’s adaptation, Holy Night, is ethereal and beautiful. It sings of connection to the land and the spirituality of the season. It is a spinning, shimmering blank canvas onto which the listener can project memories of what has been and hopes for what is yet to come.

Rose, a community singing leader based in Newcastle, on the mid north coast of New South Wales, wrote and recorded the song as part of a bigger community project in her local area called The Christmas Bell.

“I remember thinking ‘well this is my opportunity to write and sing a Christmas carol, what is it going to say?’ I knew I wanted to do something around Silent Night and we have a dam and so many MANY frogs and I was sitting outside listening to them all, just thinking.”

Rose knew what she didn’t want to say. “I didn’t want to sing songs about presents or god, I could see all the things I didn’t want to say! Fortunately it emerged to me really clearly in the end.” Rose was keen to make her carol particular to Australia “but not shit.” Rose laughs.

“A lot of Australian Christmas carols don’t fill me with awe or pride or connection  and while I’m not religious I think the idea of a time to value something that is holy, whatever that means, or something which is bigger than us and something that is beautiful and allowing something to be awe-inspiring was what I was working towards. Doing something that felt powerful and big but that was in itself quite small. Then I realised that the nights in summer in Australia are absolutely not silent.”

Sitting in the dark and listening to the frogs, Rose was inspired to counteract the idea of Silent Night by playing all the noises filling the night sky. She went on to record all of the frogs and all of the insects and began playing these loops against the song, making up tunes and words and then ‘it happened’. “It emerged and clarified itself into two really clear partner songs.”

Rose continued to experiment, trying a version of Holy Night accompanied with harp and a version accompanied with piano but she found it was significantly more magic just using her voice and the backdrop of nature.

“I feel as though here in Australia we try to put the big energy of Christmas on top of a seasonal energy which is already really big because it’s the summer solstice – it’s huge, everything’s exploding! Couple that with the end of the year and our Christmases just feel so frantic because we’re not responding to the season.”

“All of our big holidays are seasonally wrong and so finding a way to acknowledge the bounty and the bigness of the life that is going on and being able to sit with a still energy, not a cold frozen energy, but an energy of awe and beauty and acknowledging its ‘holiness’ and its wonder was what I was thinking. All those kinds of thoughts.”

Rose felt ‘so grateful’ that her version of Silent Night – ‘Holy Night’ – emerged the way it did. “It ticked all the boxes I had. It acknowledges the traditional aspect of Christmas and something that’s particular to Australia without being crass or making me cringe.” Rose laughs again.

“It also references summer with a nod to the solstice and a time of reflection and holiness and beauty and the fact that we’re not the only things here. I like that the voice is so still and so calm and so flowing but the insects and the frogs are going crazy.”

The line that brings everything into focus for Rose is “with life singing that this is holy.

“It’s saying that this too is holy, we are nothing without acknowledging that we are part of something bigger and that aspect has a physicality and a life as well.”

The song was written and recorded during November and released as part of The Christmas Bell project in December.

The music, the frogs and the cicadas from Holy Night are now offered by Rose as tracks for sharing with the world, and she would like nothing more than for them to be picked up, used and shared in the spirit of the season.  

“I don’t know whether anyone else will sing it, a few bits are really high but I’ve just put it all out there in the hope that maybe somebody would like to sing it one day!”

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Kate Wilson

Rose Wilson: Photo supplied

Rose Wilson runs 5 community choirs, and pre-covid an additional 4 school choirs) Port Macquarie): mixed choirs, women’s choirs and mums and bubs choirs. She is also the founder of unscarysinging.com

Access Rose’s recordings and a three part harmony score of Holy Night to sing with your choirs and singing groups is available here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1p0ZLqgT7pIKsGd0VXBvHJSxAjYpNTYFs?fbclid=IwAR2obTS0CFOqCM5NIwbL80_5WAoriami-FWBrBAjHHHOUNmnVcp8YZebQ0E

The People’s Choir: Doing What It says on the Tin

“It’s such a necessary thing to be creative, to have the joy of making music, giving that gift to others and receiving in return the joy and the happiness that you can see and feel in them. While we still have that up to a point, because of everything that has happened this year there are so many of us who haven’t been able to do that, whether we’re professional, amateur, or community based musicians. And that is very disturbing for me.”

Bettina Spivakovsky is reflecting on the sense of responsibility she has felt during recent months for the health and wellbeing of singers in her group, Stonnington based The People’s Choir, as well as the artists and musicians with whom she has worked throughout her career in event planning.

“My thoughts go straight to all of them. When I first heard of the COVID business early on, I looked into Zoom and thought ‘how on earth are we going to do this? How are we going to get everyone to cope with all of the changes and technology?’ Much to my joy, everyone began to adapt. During the little bit of respite between lockdowns, a couple of people from the choir went into people’s homes and helped set them up and the choir just started to grow, it was wonderful – and they are wonderful people. One week we had up to 70 singers.”

The People’s Choir has had an interesting journey. It was started in 2015 by Annabel Taylor who ran the choir with two friends as a weekly singalong group for around 18-25 people. At the end of 2018, one of these friends moved interstate and Annabel invited Bettina to be involved. The choir entered an innovative phase and began expanding to involve and include greater numbers of singers. Bettina registered the choir as a not for profit group ‘with all the boxes ticked’ and rehearsals moved to a larger space – the Uniting Church in Burke Road.

“When I joined there weren’t any harmonies or parts, everyone sang in unison for the enjoyment of singing and getting together for a coffee. Basically, it changed from being a group of friends to a fully-fledged entity that could move forward as a mass choir called The People’s Choir based on values of compassion, accountability and integrity, and where everybody is welcome.”

The choir is un-auditioned and open to singers of all ages and abilities. The focus is on getting together for a laugh and some fun and when meeting in real life, the singers stay on and have supper together. 

Bettina’s family history reads like a who’s who of classically trained Russian musical proteges. Her father was violinist and cellist, Issy Spivakovsky, and her uncles were the pianist, Jascha Spivakovsky, violinist Tossy Spivakovksy and Adolf Spivakovsky who taught singing at the Melbourne Conservatorium, where Bettina herself trained. “Because of my background – which is really unfortunate for some I suppose, she laughs – I came to this singalong group and thought, hmm, well that’s not really going to work for me for too long.”

Bettina began introducing gentle musical concepts such as easy dynamics and occasional harmonies as well as other approaches like reading through the lyrics to understand a story and foster some emotional investment in the telling of it through the music, and things started to develop. The repertoire draws on rock, pop, gospel, folk and musicals – no classics.

“”I’ll never forget, we’d been singing The Water is Wide and I’d divided the group into three part harmony. The sopranos were singing the melody line, the altos were singing the middle harmony and the tenors and basses were singing the foundation, it was all a cappella. The singers were sitting in different parts of the church and facing into each other. Normally they would have resisted repetition but this time they were requesting to repeat bits and to sing it again, and I could feel the culture was slowly changing. They wanted to get it right and to sound better and better. Then they sang at each other and at the end they stopped and just looked and there was silence. They couldn’t believe how they sounded and I knew this was a breakthrough moment. It was stunning and surprising to them but it wasn’t to me – they’d put in the yards.”  

Like some other singing groups, The People’s Choir has found unexpected advantages to singing online and over the course of this year the number of singers has grown with members joining in from interstate as well as regionally and from suburbs across Melbourne. Once normality resumes, Bettina plans to hold Zoom Choir on Monday evenings and face to face on Tuesdays so that this can continue.

Members of the choir have also unexpectedly found their groove during this experimental time. “I had this wonderful person, Helen, approach me after Helen Reddy had passed to ask if she could sing I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, she said ‘I would never have thought of doing something like this before’ but the choir had given her that sense of courage and all these little things they just fill my heart and my chest gets bigger and bigger and I just love everybody, it’s just wonderful.”

Bettina’s shift to concentrate more heavily on grass roots, community-based work has been ‘immeasurably satisfying.’ “Having worked in the corporate sector of the arts which I still do with tenures out in certain venues and areas, this is so valuable, it’s immeasurable the value it has.”

“People who have been unwell, watching how music changes them, people who are in need of it in some way, there is so much more that I am seeing in people as a result of this work. When you can affect the change that’s been happening and I’ve been observing, and help validate, help strengthen – even simple things like doing exercises before we start singing – all of the health benefits that it gives people, I would have been too immature to think about all this any earlier in my life but now I feel blessed.”

Bettina says she owes all this gratitude to Annabel Taylor for asking her to work with The Peoples’ Choir in the first place: “It was a timely call and an extraordinary opportunity and I thank her every day.”

It’s taught me so much about myself: patience, thoughtfulness, the importance in being non-judgemental, just so much more about who I am as a person. The list is endless in terms of what it has contributed into my life so I’m actually blessed by every member that attends.”

In December, The Peoples’ Choir is holding a Pitch Perfect Picnic in the Park to catch up in real life to see the year out. “At Central Park there are little mapped-out circles for picnickers and I thought, we can all grab a little circle and be together but separate and every now and again we can meet each other and walk around, bring our families, bring our dogs and catch up.”

For further information about The Peoples’ Choir, visit http://www.thepeopleschoir.com.au

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in conversation with Bettina Spivakovsky.

Photo of the singers supplied. Feature photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

 

Ringing The Changes With High Street Bells Choir

On Monday mornings through lockdown, the unique spirit of the High Street Bells Choir beams from monitors and screens across Melbourne as members of the choir congregate online, connecting with a rapport and familiarity arising from ten years singing together.

“Seeing everyone’s faces in gallery view is just fantastic” says Sally Green, co-founder and administrator of the choir. “I think a lot of people like me have enjoyed singing a lot more loudly than I usually would because nobody can hear me! We have some new ukulele players who are having fun playing at home and giving it more of a go than they would otherwise. You can make mistakes and it doesn’t matter.”

Ten years ago, Sally was managing a program for Melbourne City Mission in Northcote, working with people with acquired brain injuries. One day, there was a knock on the door and in walked community musician, Jenny Taylor.

“Jenny had just come from the Choir of Hard Knocks and was looking to start a choir in Darebin. We spoke for a couple of hours and hit it off. I said I’d take the idea for a choir back to the members to see whether they were interested and the answer was an overwhelming yes.”

Together with about 10 members, Jenny and Sally set up the High Street Bells Choir, an all abilities choir, open to everyone. Rehearsals began at the Uniting Church in the heart of Northcote on a Monday morning and have remained there since.

“Jenny suspected that many of our singers are forced to talk and think about their disability day to day because they rely on therapy and support to do everyday tasks. Choir is where all that disappears and becomes irrelevant .…people just come to sing. We want choir to be a holiday from thinking about deficits and constraints. Singing and belonging to a choir can feel incredibly liberating, especially for anyone whose days can be tough and challenging.”

The High Street Bells Choir is open to anyone, in particular people who may not be able to join a mainstream choir, and is supported by a number of dedicated volunteers who meet and greet and make the lunch. Sally explains:

“Initially most of our singers were people with an acquired brain injury. As our reputation grew, other people started joining. We don’t actually ask people if they identify as having a disability; we just ask if they need anything in particular to help them participate to their fullest. Sometimes newcomers can be anxious at first, but we try hard to figure out what will work best to help them settle in. Some choir members have been singing with HSBC for its entire ten years.”

Tanya has been singing with HSBC since its inception. Having previously had singing lessons at Rae’s School of Singing and Piano, Tanya was keen to join Sally and Jenny’s fledgling choir back at the very start and over the years has found many benefits in belonging to the group:

“For me, the choir is an outlet of expression and emotion… It can also be a platform for personal growth. Our brilliant choir leaders have such professionalism and enthusiasm, and they are extremely encouraging. Then there are the integral volunteers who make going to Choir in a wheelchair as easy, if not easier, than if I could walk.”

Celebrating 10 years of singing together. Tanya with Damien (photo supplied by HSBC)

Singing leader, Sarah Mandie, has been working with High Street Bells Choir for the past couple of years. Both Sarah and Sally feel the transition to Zoom has been a huge success. “It’s taken time to learn how to use the space and to maximise the sense of togetherness, but I think that’s happened and it’s really rewarding.”

There are still some singers who Sally hasn’t heard from since the choir migrated online. While technology has enabled most of the choir to come together, it can be a barrier if you don’t have a computer or a tablet or if you need help to use them. Some people have also had their support hours reduced during COVID-19 or their facilities have been locked down, which means they can lose touch with their communities and fall off the radar.

Sarah agrees, “For people with disabilities and their carers who are learning to use the programs and applications to get online and keep singing, it’s against all odds that we have been able to continue to do it and it feels even more meaningful.”

Sarah leading HSBC online (Source: HSBC Facebook page)

For Sarah, this affirms the importance of getting up, getting on and getting the most out of life and not taking things for granted. “Whether it’s on zoom or together in the church hall, everyone has different abilities, and we’re all there singing, and we’re loving it, and everyone gets this rewarding sense of belonging. Through working with HSBC I’ve learnt about diversity in different people and the importance of understanding and appreciating how everyone participates and shows their enjoyment of things in a different way… it’s super rewarding.”

Sarah commends the committee and the volunteers for working so hard to bring everyone together online, whether that’s ringing them to remind them each week or dropping an iPad to the home of a member who had previously been unable to join. “There had been people who fell through the cracks but they’ve come back and that’s amazing.”

Sarah leads HSBC every second week, alternating with ‘special guests’ including former HSBC leader, Chris Falk.

“We’re doing a mix of familiar repertoire and new songs like ‘Lockdown Blues’, which gives each member a chance to sing and a chance to talk. Last week’s session had a really lively, dynamic feel to it. I could see how people were feeling connected across the screens: everyone was participating and hearing each other’s voices. It’s taken time to adjust to this medium but I think everyone’s loving it.”

Sally considers herself “pretty lucky that I get to go to choir first thing on a Monday morning and spend time with a community of people who are really happy to be there; it’s just a lovely way to start the week.”

The current situation can’t have been how HSBC would ever have envisaged marking their decade of singing together, but Sally’s sentiment is echoed by Sarah nonetheless. “We’re realising that while things might be this way for a while, it’s still a really joyful thing to do on a Monday.”

-Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Julie, Sally, Sarah and Tanya from High Street Bells Choir

Feature image: Screenshot of High Street Bells Choir online session led by Chris Falk, supplied by High Street Bells Choir

For information about how to join High Street Bells Choir, visit their website or click here for the High Street Bells Choir Facebook Page