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The Changing Tune of Choral Singing in Germany

This article was first published in Sing Out: the Journal of the Australian National Choral Association (Vol.32, No.2, 2015). It is reproduced here with kind permission of ANCA(1)

Picture1Figure 1: The Nogat Singers, Berlin (Neukölln). Photo (c) The Nogat Singers, 2014.

I arrived at Rathaus Tiergarten, a local town hall of Berlin on a sunny spring afternoon in May, just in time for a celebration. Assorted stalls, abuzz with colour and activity, promoted organisations that support people with disabilities and their carers. On the town hall steps a rock band called Handiclapped was setting up shop as a carload of nervous and excited singers arrived. They were members of the Nogat-Singers (Figure 1), a neighbourhood choir from the Neukölln suburb of Berlin who were star performers for an event to promote, celebrate and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Their performance was a vibrant and colourful mix of popular German folk songs and Schlager (there is no equivalent to the Schlager phenomenon in the English speaking world, but think Eurovision or Germany’s answer to American country and western music!). Having joined their dress rehearsal earlier in the week, I was impressed by the choir’s energy and its commitment to fostering a sense of community.

Founded by disability support organisation Lebenshilfe Berlin, the Nogat-Singers rehearses weekly in a local supported accommodation service, and most members live with intellectual disabilities. The choir receives funding from a social inclusion project grant of the European Union for its close neighbourhood ties. This made sense to me – a choir that sings with neighbours in its little patch of Berlin while at the same time fostering social inclusion for people with disabilities. Here was a great example of community music-making in action (or musicking as Christopher Small (1998) describes) and an ideal starting point for my study of choral singing in Germany.

The Nogat Singers is just one of a vast number of choirs singing regularly across Germany. They range from church choirs, to community choirs (defined loosely as amateur or non-professional choirs that perform publically) who perform in local pubs or municipal halls, through to professional choirs employing full-time salaried singers (there are eight at last count, from smaller chamber choirs to large radio choirs). My time in Germany in 2014 as a fellow of the Australian German Association and the Goethe-Institut allowed me to visit many and to explore the rich practice of choral singing in Germany today. Inspired, I returned with ideas for our choral movement in Australia. In this article I set out just a few impressions from my trip.

Support for the Arts and amateur music making in Germany has a long history. I once heard a passing comment about the three historic features of German village life: a shooting club (Schützenverein) for community defence; a fire brigade (Feuerwehr) for community safety; and a choir (Gesangverein or Liedertafel) or brass band (Kapelle) for community wellbeing! In 1871, 38 territories and free cities united under a common German federation. Most brought with them their own opera houses, concert halls and musical ensembles that had serviced the historic royal courts. Churches too played a crucial role in preserving musical traditions; in smaller communities church musicians were often school music teachers and community choir leaders too. One contemporary example of this long-held tradition is the St Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor Leipzig) – perhaps the most famous boys’ choir worldwide – that celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2012 (Wydra, 2015).

Germany’s historical experiences with music – both negative and positive – have shaped its contemporary community singing culture. The atrocities committed by Germans during the period of National-Socialist (Nazi) government from 1933 to 1945 overshadow German attitudes toward music, singing and cultural practices. The Nazi government’s approach to music education, known as Musische Erziehung, manipulated music to suit its own agenda (Kertz-Welzel, 2008; 2013). This period defines to this day the parameters of “acceptable” music making. As Germans distanced themselves from the Nazi period after 1945, therapeutic uses of music were restricted to clinical settings rather than practiced out in the community. This was particularly the case in former West Germany and came at the expense of practices and initiatives that supported community wellbeing. Key scholars at the time supported this position. Theodor Adorno, in a series of speeches and public discussions between 1959-69, argued that after the manipulation of the Nazi period, music could not and should never be used to pursue goals of healing or social transformation (Kertz-Welzel, 2005). Adorno argued instead for the pursuit of musical excellence and individuality and against collective, community-minded music by amateur music-makers with transformative goals. Rather than teaching and enjoying singing with explicit goals such as community wellbeing in mind, music in West Germany was increasingly seen as an activity for its elite musicians, professionals, and with learning focussed on musical excellence. In the former East Germany, community singing was more widespread with its community wellbeing benefits recognised, but it frequently also served a propaganda purpose for that government. Opinions across reunified Germany in recent decades have shifted. Music education scholars are once again discussing the place of community music and the potential extra-musical benefits of music in schools, including for community wellbeing (Kertz-Welzel, 2008; 2013).

Yet the emphasis on the aesthetics of music across post-war Germany (East and West) preserved and nurtured a vital and historic cultural asset. Culture and the creative arts remain highly valued and comparatively well funded within German society and by all levels of government (McCaughey, 2005). A 2007 federal government report reinforces this view, arguing: “Culture is not simply ornamental; it is the foundation of our society and the platform upon which it grows. The role of politics is to safeguard and strengthen culture[i]” (Deutscher Bundestag). A total of EUR11.2 billion was spent in 2011 to support Germany’s cultural activities, including EUR8 billion from its federal, state and municipal governments, with the remainder from its Christian churches[ii] and private funding. Germany’s 16 States (Länder) together contributed more than one third of this total (EUR3.4 billion). The Länder retain powers in educational and cultural matters and a large say in preserving Germany’s many cultural identities.

Musical life in Germany today is “noted for its diversity, high quality and geographic density – keywords that continue as ever to define Germany‘s special reputation as a land of music” (German Music Information Centre, 2011, p. ix).

There were at last count 133 publicly funded symphony and chamber orchestras, 83 music theatres, nearly 500 regular music festivals, and thousands of amateur, semi-professional choruses, orchestras and ensembles (GMIC, 2011, ix). It is not surprising then that community music making is the largest civic movement within Germany (Reimers, 2012, p.1).

Choral singing today is an opportunity for many to partake in some of the musical delights and masterpieces of Germany’s rich choral music history. A leading scholar of German choral singing (Brusniak, 2003, p.69) suggests choral music and a vast and diverse tapestry of choirs are essential and integrated parts of its public and private musical life. There are nearly 59,100 associated choirs and choral organisations in Germany, including about 29,900 secular and 37,200 religious organisations. These choirs engage nearly 2.3 million singers regularly (Reimers, 2012, p.2). There is a large audience base for choral concerts too. A 2004 study estimated about 60 million people attend some 300,000 choral concerts annually in Germany (reported in Reimers, 2012, p.1). These formal choral activities do not include the multitude of established and ad hoc choral groups and public singing that is an increasing feature at large gatherings – the 2014 World Cup football tournament comes to mind!

I was interested to find out who spoke for choral music in Germany. At first sight, the coordination and advocacy of choral music across Germany evoked images of Franz Kafka’s writings: a confusing landscape of overlapping organisations, funding bodies and responsibilities all claiming to represent and advocate for the interests of choral music. Yet when viewed through Germany’s unique historical lens this overlap, it seems to me, provides safety in plurality (Vielfältigkeit). It avoids a single, central point of control for a mass movement and all the negative consequences this represents in many German minds.

Germany therefore sings with two voices when it comes to choral singing. Two peak bodies represent choral singing nationally: the Bundesvereinigung Deutscher Chorverbänder e.V. (BDC) and the Deutscher Chorverband e.V. (DCV). Together they include and advocate for the vast majority of German choirs. The DCV is the world’s largest choral association and represents the vast majority of Germany’s non-religious choral associations (including over 30 state-based and regional associations). DCV designs and oversees a host of innovative programs and schemes for its member choirs and leaders, supported by a paid, full-time staff. It also publishes Chorzeit, Germany’s monthly national choral music magazine with 35,000 subscribers and on sale in newsagents across the country (DCV, 2014).

The BDC counts among its members Germany’s peak catholic (katholische) and protestant (evangelische) choral organisations, those representing youth music, and its 500 concert choirs. The Federal President of Germany bestows the Zelter Plakatte to choirs that reach 100 years of age – an important initiative administered by the BDC (2014).

In 2014, Germany’s choral music culture is in transition. When I talked about my research project to non-choral music enthusiasts (or better said, yet-to-be converted choral music enthusiasts), many pictured the all-male Liedertafel choir, Germany’s dominant historical choir model. Yet this traditional picture of “choir” is rapidly changing. A 2012 New Zealand film/TV documentary about folk singing in Germany, Sound of Heimat – Deutschland Singt (, helped to raise awareness about the diverse types of music out there. The sheer variety of musical styles and the ability of singers to seek out choirs according to their musical tastes and less limited by their location have fundamentally changed Germany’s choral community. Children’s, youth and women’s choirs are growing while the more traditional choral organisations (such as the Liedertafel) are in decline. Mixed choirs have grown in popularity and now outnumber male choirs (Arit, 2014) and there has been a boom in jazz and pop genre choirs (AlumniPortal Deutschland 2014; Tip Magazin, 2014). Singing-related talent competitions, television series and films, as popular in Germany as in Australia, have contributed to this popularity.

Picture2Figure 2: Die Rheintöchter, lesbian comedy choir, Cologne. Photo (c) Magdalena Hutter, 2013.

I took particular interest in community choirs with members who may have experienced social exclusion at some point in their lives. I observed many choirs of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) communities (Figure 2 for example), choirs for people with disabilities, church-based choirs supporting new migrants to Germany and choirs for people experiencing homelessness. I led a rehearsal of Hard Chor ELLA (Figure 3), an innovative school-based community choir based in Pankow, a suburb of the former East Berlin. I was also fortunate to observe Berlin’s two professional choirs in rehearsal (RIAS Kammerchor and Rundfunkchor Berlin) and the Rundfunkchor in performance. You can find a full list of choirs, interviews and more detailed case studies in my report.

Picture3Figure 3: Hard Chor ELLA, Berlin (Pankow). Spring Concert. Photo (c) Inés Weinmann, 2013.

Ideas for Australia’s Choral Movement
I believe Australia can enhance its choral music movement by strengthening its supporting institutions and drawing upon innovations and ideas from Germany. I offer ideas for policy-makers, committees, and musical and administrative leaders who work with community choirs particularly. My report aims to complement recent reviews of other aspects of music in Australia including state and national music education reviews. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Create a vocational pathway with appropriate professional development and recognition for community choral leaders
  • Establish a national community choir awards scheme, including a “long service” citation for choirs that reach a certain age (similar to Germany’s Zelter Plakatte)
  • Appoint a high profile patron to promote and advance choral music within communities
  • Lighten the reporting load for committees and choral music staff by negotiating an agreement with the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) for a single annual fee that covers all choir arrangement and performance rights across a pre-approved list of songs (similar to an agreement reached between DCV and Germany’s APRA equivalent:
  • Create an accreditation program in early childhood education (similar to Germany’s Die Carusos: where choir leaders “teach the teachers” to ensure young children receive high quality and pedagogically sound singing experiences from an early age
  • Establish a national professional choir that includes within its mandate significant outreach work to choirs and communities of all ages.

To achieve these things we would need to first properly resource our expert national organisations already doing such great work in the area – the Australian National Choral Association (ANCA) and Music Australia – along with state-based institutions such as Community Music Victoria. Let’s start this conversation and draw upon lessons and ideas from countries such as Germany to give us a head start.

Choral music in Germany, a celebrated and treasured cultural asset, is gradually changing its tune to include people of all abilities and backgrounds and in a way that improves community wellbeing and cohesion. My time there provided refreshing ideas, valuable lessons and ongoing inspiration for my practice as a choral leader and researcher in Australia. Above all, it was a reminder to celebrate both the act and the art of choral music making and the joy it brings to communities here and in Germany.

(1): My thanks to Dr Alex Crooke for his insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Article by Ben Leske


Ben Leske is a Melbourne-based choral conductor, community music facilitator, and PhD candidate in the National Music Therapy Research Unit in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (The University of Melbourne). Ben’s thesis explores choral singing and social inclusion for young people. From 2009-2014, Ben was Music Director of the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Youth Chorus (now shOUT Youth Chorus).

Ben is passionate about all things German and was awarded the Australian German Association and Goethe-Institut Fellowship to explore choral singing in Germany in 2014.

You can read Ben’s full report at:

You can contact Ben by email: or

References cited in this article

Arit, Alexander. (2014, 1 July). Graphical statistical reference of number of choirs by type (historical) – 1951-2005. Unpublished data provided to author.

BDC (Bundesvereinigung Deutscher Chorverbände e.V.). Die Zelter-Plakette. Retrieved from

Brusniak, Friedhelm. (Ed.). (2003). Chor – Visionen in Musik. Essener Thesen zum Chorsingen im 21. Jahrhundert..Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Chorverbänder.

DCV (Deutscher Chorverband e.V.). (2014). Chorzeit: Mediadaten: Anzeigenspreizliste 3/14. Retrieved from

Deutscher Bundestag. (2007). Schlussbericht der Enquete-Kommission: „Kultur in Deutschland“. (16/7000), author’s translation.

German Music Information Centre (GMIC). (2011). Musical Life in Germany: Structure, Facts and Figures: German Music Council (Deutscher Musikrat).

Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. (2005). The pied piper of Hamelin: Adorno on music education. Research studies in music education (25), 1-12.

Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. (2008). A matter of comparative music education? Community music in Germany. International Journal of Community Music, 1(3), 401-409.

Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. (2013). Internationalizing and localizing: Shaping community music in Germany. International Journal of Community Music, 6(3), 263-272. doi: 10.1386/ijcm.6.3.263_1

Luehrs-Kaiser, Kai. (2013, 22 February). Chor@Berlin Festival im Radialsystem. Tip Berlin. Retrieved from

Masso, Alex. (2013). Community Choirs in Australia. Music In Communities Network (Music Council of Australia).

McCaughey, Claire. (2005). Comparisons of Arts Funding in Selected Countries: Preliminary Findings: Canada Council for the Arts.

Reimers, Astrid. (2012). Laienmusizieren: Deutsches Musikinformationszentrum.

Small, Christopher. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Wydra, Kristina (2014). ‘Wherever people sing, you can happily settle…’ – Germans are flocking to join choirs. Alumniportal Deutschland. Retrieved from

 Other useful reading

English language

  • Higgins, Lee. (2012). Community Music: In Theory and In Practice: Oxford University Press.
  • German Music Information Centre. (2011). Musical Life in Germany: Structure, Facts and Figures: German Music Council (Deutscher Musikrat). Retrieved from
  • Bartleet, Bridie-Lee, Dunbar-Hall, P., Letts, R., & Schippers, H. (2009). Sound links: Community music in Australia. Brisbane: Griffith University.

German language

 [i] Original German text: Kultur ist kein Ornament. Sie ist das Fundament, auf dem unsere Gesellschaft steht und auf das sie baut. Es ist Aufgabe der Politik, dieses zu sichern und zu stärken

[ii] An important note that Germans pay an extra income tax to the church according to the denomination into which they were baptised. The Federal Government collects these taxes to fund church activities.

Our Community Sounds: An exciting new improv project

Do you love the freedom and innovation of improvised music making? Our Community Sounds is an exciting and experimental project exploring ‘collective improvisation, the nature of community, and of how these might intersect’.  

The sessions are free and open to anyone, irrespective of their musical experience or ability, and there will be no leaders.

Organisers Paddy Gordon and Conor O’Hanlon are keen to emphasise that they are as much a part of the experiment as the other participants.

As long standing friends and musical collaborators, Paddy and Conor have taken different routes, to this point, which is interesting in itself and makes for a strong partnership. While Conor is a self taught musician who has improvised with folk and street musicians from around the world, Paddy had a more traditional grounding, having played the piano from a young age. Both are keen to experiment with boundaries, and each has a love for the connection and community forged through making music with others.

Organiser Paddy Gordon shares the jam at CMVic’s 2015 Treetops Music Camp

The vision for Our Community Sounds grew from a combination of shared ideas explored in other community music contexts and settings, such as CMVic’s StreetSounds project, and The Welcome Group’s Share the Music jams.

Returning to Uni to study Community Arts Practice got Paddy thinking about the constitution of Community and how we are each a member of several different communities. Which led to the question ‘what happens when people come together and willingly form a community that might only have structure in an improvisational setting, and what would this sound like?’

Our Community Sounds shaped up as an extension of this question; a social experiment exploring fluidity and connection. A place for people to unite and create a mix of soundscapes as unique and individual as they are, irrespective of their backgrounds or ability, and to experience a shared transience.

Improvisation informs music across all cultures, and unlike other musical elements knows no cultural boundaries. Available to all, we use it to open spaces of expression for people of diverse abilities and needs and from diverse backgrounds. In the resulting collective, we find unity whilst celebrating our diversity.”

There are no barriers to participation: “the only prerequisite is a commitment to experimentation, curiosity and open-mindedness”. So how do Paddy and Gordon intend to do this?

We guide each group through various exercises that open ears, bodies and minds, moving gradually into collective improvisation. In these experimental community events, we are all equal stakeholders. This approach also functions as a model for engaged and empowered communities.

What makes this project so exciting is that by its very nature, improvisation is totally inclusive. There are no rules, it’s impossible to make mistakes or to feel foolish, you can’t hit a bum note and anything goes. The sound, the environment, is fluid and it is transient. In this completely safe space, anything can happen. Barriers dissolve, words become secondary tools of communication and deep connections are established.

By transcending the constructs and confines of the communities from which we come and immersing ourselves in the moment, as we listen and play we are united through the process of creating something new and positive together.  This can profoundly influence our thinking and our practice beyond the musical realm. too. As Paddy says,

“In a group improv, there’s a real sense of profundity for everyone involved. You’re all sharing in the creation of something together and from that comes a realisation, an awareness that as the group, you’re creating something even bigger and that you’re all a part of that bigger thing that’s happening… “.

In this moment hierarchies are dismantled, and every participant is empowered as a leader. Inclusivity means that we are all equally responsible for the collective – improvisation enables exactly this.

It’s an experience which life doesn’t offer us the opportunity to indulge in everyday, and because of this, it has the capacity to be liberating, mentally stimulating and soothing in equal parts, and Paddy and Conor are optimistic that improvising in a group will challenge its participants in positive ways, such as wanting to play new instruments, and to explore and extend artistic practice and methods of expression and sociological connection.

As facilitators, we ground our process in deep listening – silence also knows no hierarchies, and really listening to each other is one of the most fundamental ways that we can understand and connect. Improvisation may not save the world, but it teaches us profound lessons about the many different ways there are of being in it..

Paddy is hopeful that people will feel empowered, full of agency, of communion, community and connectedness by their participation in Our Community Sounds. The uniqueness that each person brings to a group and how new concepts and ways of thinking might emerge following three months of shared improvisation, is exciting, and the sounds made by the group will reflect this.

Beginning at noon on February 13, the project will run over several sessions until late May, at Testing Grounds on the banks of the Yarra in Melbourne.

Paddy and Conor are grateful to Testing Grounds for giving them the physical space needed to carry out the project, and to Museum Victoria for the opportunity to incorporate the beautiful sound of the Federation Bells in Birrarung Marr.

Session dates for Our Community Sounds: Feb 13, March 20, April 17, April 30 and May 14. Starting at noon.

For more information, or if you’d like to be involved, please contact Paddy at or call 0437 371 034

Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Paddy Gordon


Going the distance: Taking music on the road to schools in remote regions.

The benefits of music in childhood are multiple, impacting and well documented. Yet in spite of proven positive connections between music and early learning, and music and emotional development, mainstream education too often seems to view it as a peripheral extra, a luxury that can easily be dispensed of, and budget cuts in schools seem to hit music departments especially hard.

So it’s particularly great to read heart warming stories such as the one about Dennis Winbanks, from North Western Victoria, who travels over 550 kilometres each week to deliver music and music making opportunities to remote and geographically isolated students at schools in regional and rural Victoria.

The story, ‘Travelling music teacher going the distance for regional students’ by Sophie Malcolm,  was featured on the ABC news website on Wednesday, and is a celebration of Dennis’s recognition of the value and importance of music and his desire to ensure kids living in these remote areas are exposed to the same kind of opportunities enjoyed by their peers living in the state’s larger towns.

Dennis teaches about 350 students in four different schools, arriving in a ute and towing a trailer full of instruments. It’s no wonder there’s a strong attendance on the days Dennis rolls up, with his musical cargo in tow.

As if its contents and the accompanying diversion from the usual school timetable weren’t magical enough, what Dennis delivers has the potential to transcend all that.

He brings not only the opportunity for these children to experience music in a way they may not get anywhere else in their lives, but the subsequent potential for personal enrichment and the development of new pathways: neurological, emotional, educational and creative. Go Dennis! Go music teachers, music group leaders and facilitators, everywhere!

Read the full article from the ABC, here.

Deb Carveth. Online editor for Community Music Victoria.

A place to belong

150522placetobelongBy Liz Hussey

Moving to Malaysia to live was an adventure for me. A chance to step out of the comfort zone and explore new ideas. Dust off the cobwebs.

Little did we know that this was the beginning of a ten year incredible journey living overseas. First, to Malaysia for four years, then India for two, and then Holland for another four. I could write a book. About so many life changing events that have passed and become a chapter of my story.

But with all the positives of becoming an expat, I felt a new sense of loneliness and a new thirst to connect to community. An experience that has connected me to millions of people who also feel lonely, isolated or excluded for so many reasons.

Little did I realize that my passion for singing and music would provide the solution to my isolation and opened the cultural door far wider than I ever imagined.

Singing led me to find a place where I belonged. It’s easy to see the possibilities that singing and music holds for creating an inclusive culture for others who suffer this epidemic of society.

I was pregnant with our first child and enthusiastic to dive into our new cultural experience. I was restricted from working due to visa requirements. Although this put my midwifery career on hold I figured that our Malaysian experience would far outweigh the temporary sacrifice. And besides, the thought of living as an expat sounded quite glamorous and exciting.

What I learnt abruptly was that aside from all of the amazing life journey experiences, living in another country can be very challenging. What I hadn’t considered was the loneliness of starting from scratch socially. I was no longer working and was away from the support safety net of friends and family before the luxury of internet communication.

My sounds of everyday busy social connection were replaced with the echoing hum of quietness. Aside from the loneliness and isolation, there are the language, social and cultural challenges of adapting to a new life. Where do I buy a ladder? What is the name of plain flour in Dutch? How do I find a plumber? Where is the local GP? All the things that you take for granted in your own environment. But of all the challenges in living overseas, isolation was the greatest poverty for me.

I was powered into action by listening to my intuitive need to make strong local community connections within the Malaysian culture. I really wanted to experience and be part of Malaysia without the expat goggles. And the best solution: Join a local choir. So I set out and found a local choir by asking around. I had to audition, which was a little daunting but after surviving that process, found a place where I felt included. I had a ball.

There were about 45 people and we sang anything from musicals to classical. I felt connected through our harmony. Although I gradually got to know people in the choir better over time, I felt that sense of belonging from the first night.

The nagging sense of loneliness stopped tapping me on the shoulder and I decided then and there that I would always belong to a singing group of some description wherever in the world I was.

A song always helps us belong. Singing and music was, and always will continue to be, a great way to meet people and help to develop a deeper connection between us all. Sayonara isolation and loneliness.

Tuning In: an alternative approach to music leadership

150306uklaimersLeading a music group can bring challenges as well as rewards, but how do you anticipate those pitfalls, read the signs and assess the harmony when you can’t see?

Phil Chalker is a musician and music leader from Gippsland who co-runs ukulele and song writing workshops, encourages people to find their voice and organises Big Sing sessions too. When he was five years old, Phil was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease that causes vision impairment and, in severe cases like Phil’s, blindness.

Phil feels his personal experience and frustration of a mainstream education system which was ill equipped to deal with his needs has made him more mindful of the importance of being inclusive and remaining aware of group dynamics. It has influenced his preferred style of teaching and underpinned his desire to ensure that everyone feels at ease, within a group context, too.

Mentoring by fellow Gippsland musician, teacher and CMVic stalwart, Jane Coker, has assisted Phil in developing the skills necessary to facilitate and lead a group. Jane succeeded where various schools had previously failed, in successfully recognizing what Phil needs to learn and develop in a way that suits him. “Jane understands and inspires me…she makes me feel relaxed. She’ll say, ‘don’t tell me you can’t do it because I know you can do it.’ ”

A couple of years ago, Jane and Phil established The Uklaimers, a ukulele group for beginners and players of all abilities in Morwell. Co-running the group with Jane allowed Phil to observe her teaching methods whilst developing his own style in a supportive environment as he took the first steps in his goal towards autonomous leadership of a community music group.

In addition to the usual challenges faced by group facilitators, Phil has to consider how to tackle his inability to respond to visual prompts, relying instead on his aural ability to detect issues such as fingers in the wrong place or the wrong chord being strummed. 

Tuning up the instruments for beginner students is also tricky, but Phil gets around this problem by using a talking tuner.

Establishing good communication is vital to everybody in getting the most out of a workshop session and Phil gets a huge amount from feeling that he is enabling people to try new things and share the experience of learning with him.

“I use oral cues such as ‘I do understand/ I don’t understand’. I make people turn the paper over and not look at it so that they learn the blind way. You can’t rely on reading the dots cos you can’t see them”.  

In addition to his music making, Phil is a tireless campaigner seeking to challenge the status quo about rights and access to the kind of things able-bodied people take for granted in life. Phil recently tried to organize a Big Sing for visually impaired and blind people, but had to cancel due to a disappointing lack of interest.

“Blind people are isolated. I’m trying to run workshops and uke workshops that include them but am not getting any responses.”

But instead of feeling defeated, Phil is more interested in finding out the reasons behind this. And he would like the seeing music making community to be mindful of the fact that blind people – including himself – are reluctant to attend events for fear of being a burden. ”You need to understand a blind person’s needs and the barriers faced by the blind community like transport to and from an event, for example.”

Phil is a regular on the Traralgon busking circuit, frequently playing his ukulele around the town. As a child he would listen to Elvis and his bedroom walls were covered in posters of the King but it wasn’t until his late teens that he was interested in playing. Picking up a 12 string guitar whilst on work experience in a music store, Phil found he enjoyed singing along with the instrument and finding his own harmonies.

With his personal musical seam well and truly tapped, Phil took his guitar to a Club Wild session run by Phil Heuzenroeder. He announced that he was “a muso just starting out” and found himself playing on stage that same night. This not only made him “so happy”, it encouraged him to believe in his ability.

One thing Phil used to worry about was doubting that people’s positive response to his playing was genuine appreciation of what they were hearing and not because they felt sorry for him: “Having a disability makes you question whether people are clapping through kindness or clapping cos you’re good… are they clapping for me or clapping for Roddy?” (Phil’s dog).

Phil’s story is a testimony to the importance and value of mentorship, skill sharing and support. Jane Coker and Phil Heuzenroeder were key people in his journey who met him head on and encouraged him to pursue his passion to teach and make music. In turn, Phil is himself a keen advocate of the work done by CanDo Musos, who support musicians with challenges, all over the world. He also runs Gippsland Disability Social Group.

So, if you or anyone you know is feeling dejected about overcoming a challenge, point them in the direction of Phil’s website. The strength of his spirit and determination to make the world sit up and take notice of him as a visually impaired music teacher, working to enable other people, is abundantly clear. And there’s information about how to take part in the Big Sing sessions he is planning to run over the course of the coming year, too.

Deb Carveth with Philip Chalker. February 2015

Photos courtesy of Philip Chalker and LV Express (Tom Morris)




End of year wrap

2014 A year of music making to rememberDepending how you look at life, Community Music Victoria is winding down/gearing up for the holidays. The serviettes and paper plates have been counted out, the glasses are on ice and the end of year party happens this weekend. And what a year it has been!

Now if you’re waiting for us to share some great turkey cooking tips or table setting layout ideas, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Neither can we advise you on how to gift-wrap like a pro. This time of year has a tendency to get a little crazy, as we all know.

It’s easy to over indulge and what starts out as fun can impact negatively on our mental and physical health and well-being, so we instead we’re focusing on ways to avoid seasonal burn out using, you guessed it, a spot of community music making.

Instead of knocking yourself out shopping and cooking, how about pausing to draw breath?

Try a spot of mindfulness and reflect on all the positives that have presented over the past year. Invite a group of relatives, friends or neighbours over to sing some songs and make some music together. Add food into the equation and both your body and soul will be nurtured. December 21st is the summer solstice when the sun reaches its highest point in its journey across the Australian sky and is the perfect time to sing and play late into the lightest night.

Heatbeats match when we sing togetherThe effects of music making will have a calming effect as you release endorphins and feel genuinely connected with those around you as your heartbeats align through the act of singing together. And that’s not all! Your immunity will be boosted too. A study at the University of Frankfurt in 2004 found that the concentration of a protein called Immunoglobin A was found to significantly increase in singers during a 60 minute rehearsal of Mozart’s Requiem. This stuff is an antibody that works to fight off the multiplication of microbes in the body.

Levels of hydrocortisone, an anti stress hormone, was also found to have increased in the singers during the course of the same study. Sounds like the perfect come down to a day spent schlepping around the shops in search of a pink-python printed collar for the cat’s stocking. And it won’t leave you with a headache.

Are you convinced yet? Well here’s another thought: It’s pretty tricky to eat whilst making music, so while we recommend blending the two activities, the more you sing and play the less chance you’ll have to scoff those party pies and nobody really wants sausage roll crumbs and dropped cake adorning their instrument. However please note, we can’t be held accountable for what you drink to keep your reed moist or your whistle wetted; you’re on your own there kiddoes. Let us know how you go…

Before we release you back into the wilds of December, if you’re reading this, then you’re one of the many people who have signed up to our new blog and we thank each and every one of you for joining us on this journey and for the comments and feedback over the past few months.

It feels great to engage with you all. Dina Theodoropoulos was key in getting this blog up and running and at the end of the year she moves on from her current post as Communications Coordinator for Community Music Victoria. We owe her masses for the fantastic work she has done in presenting our outward face to the world so darned well.

Finally, don’t forget, we welcome material about your experiences as community music makers and activists and would love to hear about your own musical traditions for marking this time of year. Wishing you all peace and joy for the holidays and good things for 2015.

Deb Carveth
Online Editor for Community Music Victoria

How a Singing Comet captured the imaginations of the masses:

The comet is singing

Article written by Deb Carveth

So community singing has reached space with news a week ago about the song emitting from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Comet 67P has been chased through space for the past ten years by the Rosetta spacecraft in a bid by scientists to better understand the origin of the world and maybe even ‘the origin of life itself’1 and scientists charting the voyage have now reported that this amalgamation of frozen leftovers from the formation of the planets and the sun, is singing.

Social media has been caught up in the romantic notion of this comet calling out to Rosetta across the stars, the moons and all of the cosmos, as it hurtles towards the sun. Articles and speculation about the strange sounds have been trending and a recording of Rosetta’s song on soundcloud has been played more than 1.8 million times at the time of writing.

But what is going on? Has Comet 67P had enough of being brushed off as a ‘dirty snowball’* and decided to share with the world what comets do to entertain themselves as they traverse the universe?

Selecting what to sing along to is a vital component of any road trip, after all. Is it the kooky song of an ancient but optimistic gas ball looking to hook up and discuss space matter(s)? Nope, as with the creation of all sound, what it boils down to, is science, baby. Science and maths.

Albert Einstein once said that “Everything is determined by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust – we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”2

The sounds coming from 67P are thought to be oscillations in the magnetic field surrounding the comet and were picked up by Rosetta’s onboard instruments once the spacecraft drew within 100km of 67P. Scientists believe that the sounds are being created by the comet’s activity, ‘perhaps as it releases neutral particles into space where they become electrically charged, or ionized.’3 But possibly the most magical fact to emerge from these reports is that “the exact physical mechanism behind the oscillations remains a mystery.’4 And it is beautiful! (Its frequencies have been increased 10,000 times to make it audible to our merely human ears.)

All sound created and emitted in the course of our music making is formed through vibration, oscillation and sound waves and is all a part of the music of the cosmos because “matter is a wave structure of Space and all matter vibrates and has a resonant frequency.” The pitch of the note is dictated by the frequency of the vibration. Got that?!

For most of us though, intrigue in the singing comet most likely stems from a desire to indulge the romantic side of our souls and abandon scientific theory in contemplating the notion of singing in space. We look to the skies and the stars to feel release and to escape, for a moment, the constraints of being earthbound.

How nice it would be and what a comfort to think that somewhere out there, somewhere cold and foreign and impossibly distant, there is something as reassuring and familiar as song.

*just for the record, if there isn’t already a cocktail out there called ‘a dirty snowball, there darned well should be!

artists impression of the singing comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

1″The Rosetta mission has a potential for making spectacular discoveries about the origin of the world and, perhaps, about the origin of life itself,” French astrophysicist Professor Jean-Pierre Bibring. Quote from Albert Einstein “On Mathematics and Music: The Wave Structure of Matter in Space.”

3: November 11. 2014

4: November 11 2014

All in a heart beat

Heatbeats match when we sing together

Did you know that when we sing in a group, our heartbeat adjusts to match those of the people we’re singing with?

The first time I heard this fact, I was amazed and in awe. I didn’t stop to think about how or why this happened, preferring instead to accept it as part of the magic in the universe that ‘just is’.

If the feel good factor and sense of transcendence experienced whilst singing collectively has its roots in a scientifically proven physical base, what else in the world is not as it seems?  Unicorns?  The bid for freedom made by socks in the wash?

But the more I thought about it, the more curious I became about the synchronisation of heartbeats and so, with a grudging reluctance, I decided to read about why, and even how, this occurs.

In 2013, Swedish musicologist Dr Bjorn Vickhoff and a team of researchers conducted a study called ‘Kroppens Partitur’ or ‘The Body’s Musical Score’ into the effect of music on our physiology and emotions. One of the findings was that when we sing in unison, our bodies – namely our hearts – respond in a very interesting way.

Vickhoff used a group of 15 high school choir members who were connected to pulse monitors and asked to sing a variety of material. The group started by humming together before moving on to a Swedish hymn “Härlig är Jorden” (Lovely is the Earth), and ended by chanting a slow mantra. Vickhoff and his team were able to see that as the choir sang in unison, their pulses began to match, speeding up and slowing down at the same time, and that this effect occurred very quickly across the group. The slow chants produced greater synchronicity than the humming and the hymn; perhaps because the group had been singing for a while by this point in the study, and so their intake and release of breath had been coinciding for longer.

As we sing, we begin to control our breath in the same way as yogis do during their practice, and the positive outcomes shared by both singing and yoga are a slowed down and less variable heart beat associated with the relief of stress and anxiety, and helpful in reducing blood pressure.

Vickhoff explains “When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing…”You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows downIn the case of controlled breathing, the heart rate or pulse decreases when breathing out during exhalation in order to then increase again when breathing in during inhalation. This is due to breathing out. Exhalation activates the vagus nerve that lowers the heart rate which slows down the heart…Our hypothesis is that song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out exhaling occurs on the song phrases and breathing in inhaling between these…

So by singing together with others, we benefit physiologically from a slower, more regular heartbeat, we become relaxed and receptive and we experience a sense of connection, returning to our normal place in the world feeling all the better for it. And much as one has to respect the amazing and scientific findings of Bjorn and his team, that’s still pretty magical, whichever way you look at it. And so is the sight of an odd sock-wearing unicorn.

Article by
Deb Carveth
CMVic Online Editor

Further reading: Frontiers in Psychology: Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. 09 July, 2013: