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Going back to U-Bass-ics, with Oli Hinton

Nine years ago or thereabouts, Oli Hinton retired from UK academia and made the move to Australia for what began as a sabbatical holiday. Oli and his partner, Jess, had known Jane Coker for many years through playing community music back in the UK.

“We got in touch with Jane when we arrived in Australia and Jane said, ‘fantastic, can you come and volunteer for CMVic?’” Oli laughs.  

By the time the CMVic coordinator role came up some months later, the winning combo of life down under and volunteering at CMVic-bug had well and truly bitten and Oli decided retirement could wait and that here was an opportunity for him to get his teeth into something new and exciting.

“I wanted to do something even more interesting than I had been doing and working for something I feel passionate about which is playing music.”

Yet to deploy full-holiday mode, Oli embraced his new life and kept busy putting down roots and playing baritone sax in Havana Palava, a local street band. In what seems like no time at all he got to know more about the different music-making opportunities in and around Melbourne and started playing his accordion again with The Footscray Gypsy Orchestra. “I got to know more and more of the wonderful community that’s involved in community music in Victoria and I just feel that I have been incredibly fortunate.”

Baritone Saxophones and accordions aren’t known for being quiet instruments so how did a small, stringed instrument like the ukulele find its way to Oli’s heart? “We found ourselves often in the company of other people who were playing ukuleles and none of the other instruments we played were really suitable for playing alongside them so we thought, if we can’t beat ‘em we’ll join ‘em!”

Oli and Jess got themselves soprano ukuleles and started playing along, but Oli quickly found he missed playing the bass rhythm lines, and the strings of the little ukulele hurt his fingers.

“I kept talking about the U-bass and then Jess bought me one for Christmas and it arrived and I’ve never looked back, it is faaaabulous!”

Having never played a string instrument of that sort before, Oli found it took him a while to get to grips with all the different technical challenges and fundamental things like knowing the strings and where the notes were. “In my usual way of learning I did it by learning one tune and then another tune, and another tune and then I thought, ‘ah, I’m getting the general idea here!’ “

Oli confesses this is the way he’s learnt to play every instrument. “The great thing about learning by playing a tune and then another tune is that you get instant results!”.  He’s also quick to point out that a few lessons from someone who’s been playing for many years is also incredibly valuable.

As well as playing music, Oli has had a lot of fun arranging tunes for different street bands which has given his knowledge of music theory a good workout. “I’ve had to really get to grips with the keys of different instruments and chords and harmonies and actually as a bass player, you’re much more aware of what the notes are and the progression of the chords.” This experience has even led Oli to compose a small ditty for the BUF lunchtime concert on Saturday – something he never dreamed of doing in the past!

In considering the fundamental, scaffolding role of the bass, Oli sounds amused as he admits that played really wrong it can actually destroy a tune but has realised if you carry on with aplomb, things will generally be okay.

“From playing bass the most important thing I’ve learned is to keep plucking something in time and the great thing about bass is the ear isn’t very good at determining the bass notes…if you ever try to tune a bass instrument using your ears it’s really hard! Nearly all bass tuning is done with a gadget, by me anyway, and if you hit a bum note it’s fairly easy to get away with it!”

On Saturday, Oli will be running a workshop for absolute beginners and has promised that by the end of it, everyone will be able to play a tune. “Because I’ve said this is a workshop for absolute beginners, I’m going to start by which end you hold it! I can still remember how surprisingly hard I found certain things when I started, so I’m going to try and pull those out.” For example, string damping; when you start out you think ‘oh no, I’ve got to stop that horrible noise happening!’ The strings play off each other and you can get intermediate harmonics happening between them.”

Another thing Oli noticed when he started playing U-bass in a uke group was that rarely are you presented with the tabs for the bass chords of a tune. “So what happens is the leader of the group will say ‘let’s play so and so’ and you flick to the page and of course, you’ve got the normal presentation of lyrics and chords, and you then have to work from that to something which makes sense. It’s not like reading the exact bass line. You may be really lucky and it’ll be a tune you’re familiar with and you’re familiar with the bass line that goes with it, and so you can at least get the feel for what it should be.. or you might not!”

Oli is keen to acknowledge the joys and the challenges of online music workshops for everyone. “We know it can’t be as good as being together live cos you miss the interaction where you’re playing off each other and can see what each person is doing and developing things alongside them at the right pace, and that’s hard on zoom. But we’ve found that people get loads of fun from them. Things may go a bit slow or too fast from time to time but there’s always the opportunity to follow up!”

What Oli hopes more than anything is that anyone who comes to his workshop this Saturday leaves thinking ‘yep I’m going to get a U-bass and I’m going to take it along to my group’… cos they’ll have so much fun with it!

By Deb Carveth, Online Editor for CMVic, with Oli Hinton, CMVic Coordinator

BUF is taking place online this Saturday 25 September. ‘Doors’ open at 9:30am, workshops start at 10. Full program and ticketing info available on this link: https://cmvic.org.au/whats-on/boroondara-uke-festival

Uke Lovers Get inTo the BUF in Ashburton

Boroondara Ukulele Festival (BUF) was born of Margaret Crichton’s desire to bring something to an area of Melbourne where, for some years, she has been running a number of community music groups. Back when plans were evolving for BUF, COVID wasn’t even a thing. Having experienced restrictions derail so many other face to face events since then,  Margaret, who is a program coordinator for CMVic, has been making ‘contingency plan after contingency plan’ to ensure the show goes on.

If by the end of September,  BUF is not able to go ahead ‘in real life’ then depending on the levels of regulations, Margaret and the CMVic team are ready, with a myriad of creative ways tucked up their sleeves to ensure its delivery, either entirely online, or as a hybrid event.  

“We all need to be able to plan things, we need it for our personal wellbeing, we need to have something to look forward and aspire to… it’s a bit like having that recipe where you go, ooh I’d love to make it but I haven’t got quite those ingredients I’ll just substitute this, and it might not be the same but it will still be amazing.”

BUF will feature a range of workshop topics offered by a host of leaders from across Victoria. There will be banjo techniques for ukulele and banjolele by Julie Bradley from Gippsland, Dan McEoin, the man behind the Hills Ukulele Festival and current president of AUTLA will be teaching picking techniques, Bruce Watson will be doing what he’s calling “I’ve got rhythm, Uke got rhythm” and running a session of his surely world-famous-by now, Ukeoke. Oli Hinton and Dave Rackham will be running bass workshops. 

As Margaret points out, “if you’ve got an instrument with four strings or even a guitar handy you’ll be able to have a go at the bass workshops, you won’t necessarily need to have a bass ukulele. And if BUF runs online, remember when you’re in a Zoom room no-one else can hear but the cat, you so you’ll be able to pick up a lot of techniques for when you can get your hands on a bass.”

Margaret will be offering a beginners workshop where there will be ukuleles and some basses to borrow for anyone coming along who has never played before. “If people come along to my workshop knowing nothing, they’ll be able to play something by the end of it, and if they know a little bit, they’ll leave knowing how to play a little bit more”.

Nicki Johnson and Craig Barrie will be leading a song writing workshop for ukulele, and the day will end with Tom Jackson leading a Q&A session to answer any uke-related questions to wrap things up.

What Margaret wants more than anything is for people to come to BUF and have a really good time, to learn new skills and make new connections.

“Should we all still be in lockdown,  connection is what we’ll need. If we can bring some brightness into people’s days – even if they can’t be in the room with us literally, we’ll bring them into our rooms.”

BUF is a testimony to Margaret’s longstanding love for the humble ukulele which began back when she was a child. “When I was about 10, I wanted a guitar but we couldn’t afford one so I had to save up. In the meantime I got a ukulele and played that for a little while. Then, eight or nine years ago, when ukulele really took off, I decided to get another one and predictably it was purple…” The CMVic queen of all things purple and a staunch devotee of stringed instruments from ukes to harps, Margaret still loves the uke’s accessibility for people of all ages and all levels of ability. “It doesn’t really matter what age you are, you can pick it up and instantly play a song.”

Margaret with one of her trusty four-stringed friends

Community Music Victoria will host BUF on September 24-25 in partnership with AUTLA and Pat’s Music. For all of the info click here and watch the CMVic socials for booking details, coming soon!

Written by Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, with Margaret Crichton, CMVic Program Coordinator

Feature photo: Bennettswood Ukulele Groups and Singalong and Stringalong (BUGSS) at Hawthorn Market, supplied

A Community in Action

Dr Laura Brearley

Terry and I have been walking and filming in the Coastal Woodlands over the last couple of weeks. We’ve also been spending time with singing and ukulele groups who have been learning the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the outro of a film we are making about the precious Western Port Woodlands, currently at risk from sandmining expansion. 

We have been inspired by the community’s willingness to come together and raise their voices in this way. This week, we have worked with two of Mandy Farr’s local ukulele groups, one at the Warrawee Senior Citizens Club in Inverloch and another at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre. There we were joined by members of the Bass Coast Post community and the Gippsland Singers Network. We have filmed the Vocal Nosh group at St John’s Uniting Church in Cowes, as well as some Coastal Connections participants singing outside the Wonthaggi Arts Centre. In the middle of the week, a group of us sang together and went for a walk in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve, led by knowledgeable birder and conservationist Gil Smith. Last weekend, the Melbourne Climate Choir gathered in a park in Brunswick to sing for the film in support of the Western Port Woodlands campaign. The Climate Choir brings together members of different choirs from across Melbourne to support environmental actions. 

Next week, the U3A Choir on Phillip Island will be learning and singing the ‘Are You Listening?’ song. We will also be filming members of the Melbourne-based ‘Music for a Warming World’ collective and a choir from the ‘Save Western Port’ community, who are offering their support from the other side of the Bay in Balnarring. 

Nicki Johnson is a musician, an environmental activist and the Program Coordinator at Community Music Victoria. We have worked and sung together in environmental and intercultural arts projects in Bass Coast and beyond over a number of years. Nicki performed at the 2019 Island Whale Festival and has facilitated singing and ukulele workshops at Community Music Victoria’s Music Camps in Grantville. Terry has made a short film about Nicki’s work as a singing leader which reveals her commitment to climate justice and her approach to interweaving music and environmental action:

Nicki believes that community music can play an important role in raising awareness about environmental issues. In her words …

‘Music has a way of bringing us together.  If we venture into the areas of despair and grief, we won’t be able to get any work done. If we don’t feel hope, we can’t go forward effectively. I love to facilitate conversations and sing songs about the planet and the responsibility we have for making sure it is as healthy as possible. 

Singing and playing music opens us up. When we sing with people, our breathing and our heartbeats synchronise and we become one organism vibrating together. This opens our hearts and our senses and we are able to connect. I think the ability to feel connected to other people and to experience empathy is the thing that will really enable us to make a difference. 

I love that when we sing together, we start to resonate together and our hearts open. Singing is 90% listening. Ideas of blending and harmony are not just aural concepts. A choir is a living organism that can teach people how to be in harmony. Harmony is a lived experience. Giving people the opportunity to be heard is a powerful way to move forward together.’

Dr Peter Dann is another community leader who raises environmental awareness and inspires action. Peter is the Research Director of the Phillip Island Nature Parks. He has been working for over forty years in wildlife conservation, with a particular interest in seabirds and shorebirds, the ecology of islands and the conservation of threatened species. Peter was a guest speaker at a General Meeting of the Phillip Island Conservation Society held earlier this year. The topic of his presentation was ‘Ten Remarkable Things about the Natural History of Phillip Island: A Personal List.’ It was a compelling presentation, informative and from my perspective, very moving. Peter’s commitment to conservation was clear, as was the sense of care that has underpinned his decades of scientific work in the field. 

One of the ‘remarkable things’ he spoke about was the successful introduction of a population of Eastern Barred Bandicoots to Phillip Island (Millowl), now extinct in the wild on the mainland. After a successful trial release on Churchill Island, they were introduced to the Summerland Estate on Millowl. Their numbers are growing and the bandicoots are now doing so well, they have also been released onto French Island. 

A sense of possibility and agency was also central to Peter’s story of the buy-back of the Summerland Estate on Millowl, which has enabled the on-going restoration of the Little Penguins’ habitat on the Peninsula. Peter’s stories are engaging and inspiring. I wrote two children’s songs in response to his stories, one about Eastern Barred Bandicoots and one about Little Penguins. Over the coming months, I will be teaching the songs to local children and telling the stories about the conservation work that inspired them. The world our children and grandchildren are inheriting needs stories like these. Here are the links to the songs:

There are many reasons to feel discouraged at times in the conservation field. So much has been lost and continues to be threatened. It’s easy to slip into a sense of despair and powerlessness. The conservation work that Peter as a scientist and Nicki as a musician undertake is vital in the deepest sense of that word. 

On Saturday 17th July, COVID-willing, you can also be part of this life-affirming work that calls for the protection and preservation of the natural world. The Bass Coast Artists Society is hosting an event, Halcyon Harmonies and Reflections Exhibition’ at the Goods Shed in Wonthaggi. There will be photographs on display and local musicians will be performing all day. At 2.00pm, we’ll be facilitating a Pop-Up Conservation Choir to learn and sing the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the Coastal Woodlands film. You are warmly welcome to join us. The lyrics and recording of the song can be found here.

And if singing publicly is not your thing, there are other ways you can be involved. You can learn to sign-dance the song (a slow form of deaf-signing) or you can be there to simply witness the strength and resolve of our community in action. 

To learn more about the Save Western Port Woodlands campaign and become involved in a range of ways, go to http://www.savewesternportwoodlands.org/

Nicki Johnson with partner Craig Barrie at the 2019 Island Whale Festival – Photo Teresa Cannon
Mandy Farr’s Ukulele Group at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre – Photo Terry Melvin

Written by Dr Laura Brearley
feature photograph: Walking in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve with Gil Smith and friends – Photo Laura Brearley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Craig Barrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choir singing can improve cognitive functioning among the elderly

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

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

photo: eberhard-grossgasteiger-iIFLDQmXPiw on unsplash.com

Singing In Step With Leanne Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographs: Jill Watson via Facebook

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

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