Category Archives: Sing it

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

Singing Stories for the Fun of Folk

‘Non-stop Australian folk music’ was the soundtrack to Martie Lowenstein’s childhood. Martie, whose mother Wendy Lowenstein was an author, oral historian and co-founder of the Victorian Bush Music Club, is now using the folk songs she heard as a child and incorporating them into an online music history course called ‘History of Australia in Song 1788-1988’. 

“Mum loved Australian history and folk songs. She started the first folk festival in Melbourne, and used to edit the magazine called Australian Tradition which published both traditional and contemporary Australian songs and folklore, so yeah that was her thing!”

In 1969, our whole family travelled around Australia for a year while my mother recorded everyday  peoples’ life stories in the outback, and these songs and stories would play in our small house as she was writing her books. Earlier than that, we used to go to monthly sing-alongs and bush dances run by the Victorian Bush Music Club so I’ve been familiar with traditional Australian songs and music since I was around 7 or 8 years old.”

Apples seldom fall far from the tree and earlier this year Martie decided to go back to her roots and incorporate her family’s love of history and the folk tradition into her own work as a singing leader: 

“I run a singing group down here called “Sing till you Grin”, (on the Mornington Peninsula) and I was getting a bit bored with people wanting to sing the same songs again and again, so I asked what Australian folk songs people knew and they came up with Peter Allen, The Seekers, John Farnham and Waltzing Matilda.  Nobody came up with what I would call real Australian folk songs and that’s when I got the idea for the course.”

The result is an 8-week blend of singing and history following a chronological timeline, and is delivered via Zoom. The songs are short and easy to teach and Martie finds the weaving of history with music suits people who don’t necessarily consider themselves singers or musicians. “We sing for fun”.

“”We cover 200 years of what life was like throughout Australian history, using Australian folk songs, poems and real life stories from 1788 to 1988. The sessions cover a mix of well-known and unfamiliar Australian bush songs, poems and a few of Mum’s real life interviews that are now held in the National Library. That leads to interesting group discussion. I start with the convict era songs, then there’s a week on squatters and settling the land… people really love the bushranger songs, and the bullocky songs.  Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson are the ones they often remember, then through to Slim Dusty and Men at Work. We sing about the gold rush, and of the struggles of the adventurous people who chose to come here to make a better life.  Ordinary people had a tremendous struggle in our rugged environment.”

Along the way, Martie invites contribution from participants and encourages the telling of family history-stories, outback Australian experiences, favourite Australian poems and songs. Every participant gets a copy of the Joy Durst Australian Song Collection to take away and enjoy. (This songbook with music chords and lyrics is available free from the Victorian Folk Music Club website.)

“People will say ‘oh my great-great-great-great grandfather was a convict’ or ‘my grandpa was a settler on this place but lost his land’, so I just let people talk and often they’ll share how their ancestors had this tiny little property but couldn’t make a go of it over here. One lady had an ancestor who came over as a convict. I believe we really don’t know our own history  well, not in-depth, about what conditions were like, what droving was like, what being a convict was like, or being a woman alone in the bush whilst her husband went out droving or shearing to make ends meet.”

Martie addresses the consequences of this period on Indigenous Australians and how colonialism derailed and disrupted Aboriginal life but the emphasis  is on the telling and sharing of White Australian history, as this sits within her own frame of reference.

“We discuss the role of slavery on the cattle stations and how it was the Aboriginal stockmen who kept the Australian cattle industry going, and about the Aboriginal women who were taken off as drover’s wives. I am very familiar with teaching  the white history of Australia but not having the background in Indigenous history or music, we do listen to some Indigenous droving songs but I feel  that’s not my story to tell.”

For song references Martie resorts to rifling through her own record collection and also finds inspiration from the website of cultural historian and singer-songwriter, Warren Fahey.

“Warren is a prolific folklorist  who has written and recorded so many Australian folk songs covering all these topics.  And his amazing website incorporates all the history and stories behind our  folk songs.”

Martie ensures that the singing component of the course is simple, easy to pick up and easy to teach. Many of the songs are singalongs she used to sing around the campfire as a child, her father playing guitar under the stars.

“Because Mum was well known in the folk music industry there would always be lots of people over at our house so I’ve sung from childhood and I think singing for the joy of it – not to perform or for anyone else – that really comes from being round the campfire when we were camping as kids.” 

For Martie, the beauty of the folk genre lies in the telling of simple stories about everyday life, the tapestries from and by which we are woven into the history of unremarkably remarkable things.

“I think that’s the beauty of folk music, it is literally of the people, for the people; it’s about taking everyday peoples’ music and stories and bringing it into this time. It’s freely available, in the public domain and I’d love to see it used more extensively for community music making.”

Written by Deb Carveth, Online editor for Community Music Victoria, and Martie Lowenstein

Feature photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Songs for Western Port Bay

By Laura Brearley

My husband Terry and I live on Phillip Island (Millowl) and we love Western Port Bay. We love its beauty and its stillness and we love its birds.

It is from this place of love that we have been writing songs, making films and bringing community members together though music in response to a proposal by AGL to moor a regasification plant at Crib Point and build a 60 kilometre gas pipeline from there to Pakenham. We want to celebrate the richness of life in Western Port and stand up for its protection.

We are now at a critical point in the community conversation. The issue has been in our awareness for years, but we have a short window now to gather our collective strength, listen to the science and do what we feel the future is asking of us. We strongly believe Western Port is not the right site for industrialisation. The eco-system of the Bay is too significant and fragile to risk the irreparable damage that would be caused. We respect the significance of the UNESCO Biosphere reserve and the Ramsar wetlands that support and sustain migratory birds and many other interconnected forms of life.

The COVID times we are living through have heightened our perceptions of what matters most and how interconnected we all are. The economic imperative is not the main narrative here. It is life itself and our collective responsibility to care for it. Wendell Berry has a version of the golden rule that applies in this situation.

‘Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you’, he writes. ‘Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.’

We will be including links to these films and songs in our written response to the Environmental Effects Statement and the call for submissions which is open and receiving submissions until August 26.

Here are links to three of Terry’s films which contain songs from the Western Port Bay Song Cycle, (below).

‘Blessings’ is a call for justice and a song of love for Western Port Bay. It recognises the future impact of decisions being made about the proposed AGL Regasification Plant in Western Port Bay and appeals to the best in everyone involved.

‘No Way’ features members of our local community as well as choir members from the Climate Calamity Choir, led by Jane Coker and the Melbourne Climate Choir, led by Jeannie Marsh. Both choirs collaborate on environmental actions, drawing together members from different choirs from Gippsland, Melbourne and beyond. They have developed innovative ways of facilitating and recording virtual choirs.

‘Time to See’  focusses on the significance of Western Port as a Ramsar site. Inverloch-based community musicians Lyndal Chambers and Brian ‘Strat’ Strating have added recorder and accordion to the song. Drone footage of Queensferry Jetty and the Bass River taken by Mick Green has also been incorporated into the film.

WESTERN PORT BAY SONG CYCLE
Here are SoundCloud links, descriptions and lyrics of the seven songs in the Western Port Bay Song Cycle.

1 Time to See 
Migratory birds enlarge our worlds. They connect us to places across the planet and to those who share our love for them.

2 Flowing On
Everything is interconnected. The past flows into the future, carrying the memories and the stories of the living beings who have preceded us.

3 No Way
Some things in life are so precious, they are priceless. The AGL’s proposed gas facility in Western Port Bay highlights the question of what we value most.

4 Beautiful Bay
Clean water is central to all of life, everywhere. It is the source of life. There is a Slovakian proverb which says, ‘Pure water is the world’s first and foremost medicine’.

5 Taking a Stand
As we witness the damage being done to the Earth, we are all diminished. We experience the sense of loss and it is profound.

6 Out on the Bay
Life has its own rhythm. The seasons and the cycles of the natural world keep it steady and balanced.

7 Blessings
We are in relationship with Country. First Nations people around the world wait for us to listen and learn and so does the Earth.

We are sharing these films and songs with the community and with decision-makers as an act of hope and in solidarity with the natural world. In Albert Einstein’s words, it is time to ‘widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.’

We warmly encourage you to take your place in this widening circle of compassion and to raise your voices on behalf of Western Port Bay.

-Laura Brearley. Photographs by Terry Melvin

You can find out more about the Save Western Port Bay campaign at …
https://savewesternport.org/
https://environmentvictoria.org.au/campaign/stop-agls-dirty-gas-plan-for-our-bay/
https://vnpa.org.au/protect-action/save-westernport-bay/

Submissions are going to be reviewed by an Inquiry and Advisory Committee, led by the Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne. A directions hearing will be held on September 17, followed by a public hearing starting on October 12 which is likely to run for eight weeks.

 

Pumping Out Songs with the Cann River CFA Community Choir

“I really only work through the arts, and I think that community resilience and bonding and all of those things can come through the arts.” This conviction combined with a natural ability to strategise and inspire people has led Margaret Summerton to find herself holding a position of responsibility for CFA Volunteers and Sustainability across the South East Region of Victoria; an area of the State covering 2 million hectares, from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota, Omeo to Lakes Entrance. This region was hit hard by the devastating bushfires, last summer.

“It was burnt to a crisp here, 60% of our land mass was burned and as happens with bushfires and disasters we continue to be heavily affected in so many ways.”

When Margaret applied for the role a year ago she wasn’t sure that her arts-based approach and style of delivery would be compatible or aligned with a paramilitary organisation.

“After a few weeks in the job, I walked into the District Manager’s office and said that we needed really needed to start a choir! He was speechless and looked at me like WHAAT? and I said, ‘no, let me explain!…’ ”

Margaret’s reasoning was while you are singing for an hour and a half, you are not thinking of your problems. “You are not thinking of how your dog needs to go to the vet or how your car has broken down, you are thinking about singing, and you’re thinking about breathing, and you’re thinking about listening to each other…you are thinking about the music -just that, I mean just totally that!”

The District Manager listened to Margaret’s idea which she offered as part of a bigger strategy plan that included how the arts can activate their stations. After hearing her out, he simply said. ‘I love to sing’.

“That surprised me! Then I asked him ‘how do you feel when you are singing?’ And he said, ‘I feel great!’ and I said ‘of course you do!’ ” And almost on the spot, the Cann River CFA Community Choir idea was launched as a vital part of a bigger plan to promote positive health, healing and well-being within the brigade and community.

The Cann River CFA Community start-up choir now has seven members; the singers are comprised of CFA volunteers, a member of Bushfire Recovery Victoria, and locals working with the Bush Nurse, a sculptor and retirees. In addition to providing an opportunity for first-responders to come together for mutual support, connection and an escape from the demands of their roles, it’s truly a community choir and that’s the primary aim. Since June, the group has met weekly for a sing in the brigade shed, with a repertoire ranging from Talking Heads to Janice Joplin.

“Anyone can join and that’s been great. We have seven people who come every Thursday night, who just sing their guts out, which is wonderful, just wonderful.” The choir keeps in contact during the week via the Community Centre’s Facebook page. During the week the posts fly with happiness. Margaret’s favourite post to date is “Christmas has come early, and it’s in the form of a choir!”

The CFA Choir is run with funding support from Regional Arts Victoria and the Australian Government Regional Arts Fund to support its director, Cindy Parrett.  “Cindy is fabulous, an ex-Cabaret singer who teaches singing and music at the local P-12.”

Sometimes things are just meant to be, even in these COVID affected times, and when Margaret collided with Cindy, it was a case of the stars aligning.

“It was an extraordinary coincidence, I had just started at the CFA, and my choir idea was bubbling along. I was visiting the town quite often, meeting all the community leaders; the high school principal, the community centre manager; who I got to know quite well. I was in a meeting with the high school principal that has been at the P-12 for 40 years, and every year he has written an original play for the school with a role for every single child.  He’s phenomenal.  I told him how I was wanting to start a choir in the CFA shed, and he said, “Well fancy that! I have just hired a singing teacher for next year”.  It was destiny.

Fast forward to June and being in a remote part of the state not affected by lockdowns or too many restrictions, the singers were able to meet weekly. “We’d take our temperatures, sanitise our hands, and stand at a distance. But once the second wave took over; it didn’t feel healthy to be singing behind a mask. We had no choice but to postpone.” The choir is currently in hiatus, and this breaks Margaret’s heart.

“I am madly in love with this choir, and I know that they are just super sad that they can’t do it right now.”

Margaret has been driving two hours each way to sing with the Cann River CFA Community Choir, and together with her partner sings all the way home into the darkness; not just because it is her baby, but because she has always been in a choir and she loves singing.

“Getting people together to sing, bonds us in some weird way, I mean it doesn’t matter what walk of life you are coming from, once you are singing it transcends everything else. It’s fundamental and it feeds your soul on so many different levels and I’m so glad that the District Manager of the CFA understood that. I mean, if he hadn’t, I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

For information about how you can join the Cann River CFA Community Choir, contact Margaret Summerton: Margaret.Summerton@cfa.vic.gov.au

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Margaret Summerton,