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Euroa’s Voracious Appetite for the Return of Vocal Nosh

It’s never been hard to get excited about a Vocal Nosh, what’s not to love about informal harmony singing, hearty soup and crusty bread? For the folks of Euroa, the agonising wait for the return of this well-loved event is about to end this weekend, after more than two years in hiatus.

“We had our last Nosh in March 2020 and then it all came tumbling down” laughs Di Mackrell, who shares the facilitation of Euroa Vocal Nosh with Margie Chowanetz and Chris Day.

“The people of Euroa have been asking for it to return so we picked a date in November thinking that by then we’d be heading into the warmer weather and the number of bugs going around would be less.”

“It’s such a good thing to do and the joy that you can see on people’s faces that says ‘okay we’re doing this again’ is wonderful to see.”

-Di Mackrell

When we speak it is already November and Di is reporting sightings of snow on the mountains and is considering lighting the fire. There also appears to be a generous amount of germs going around and Di continues to feel highly responsible for the health and wellbeing of her singers.

“If you organise something and people become ill through attending, you will definitely feel a sense of responsibility, even though it is up to the individuals whether or not they wish to come along, and I do not wish to risk anyone’s health even though people are really wanting this singing as a group experience.”

In addition to her involvement with Euroa Vocal Nosh, Di runs the Strathbogie Singers and is very aware how much getting back to singing this year has meant to people, some of whom travel over an hour each way for the experience. “It’s such a good thing to do and the joy that you can see on people’s faces that says ‘okay we’re doing this again’ is wonderful to see.”

Interestingly, Di has observed that while some of her Strathbogie Singers enjoy Vocal Nosh, for others the inclusive style for which Noshes are so loved can feel intimidating. “Some feel wary of the openness of it and of learning songs aurally. At Nosh we mostly don’t hand out the words or music and I personally think that is really good for our brains, but some of my singers like to have that piece of paper in front of them with the words and the dots, whereas for other folks the dots are scary!” 

When Di experienced her first Vocal Nosh, the love and connection she felt for this informal way of singing together with others was instantaneous “I just loved it.” 

“Fay White, who pioneered the concept of the Vocal Nosh, taught Chris Day at Euroa High School back in the 70’s. By 2001, Chris was working as a music teacher in Euroa together with Linda Browne. Fay invited both Chris and Linda along to a singing leadership training session which was how Euroa Vocal Nosh started off. I just went along to see what it was all about and never had any intention or idea that I was going to lead music because I really wasn’t confident, it’s CMVic that has given me the confidence to do it.” Di laughs as she reflects back on this for a moment. 

Later again, when Linda left town, Chris felt that leading Vocal Nosh was too much to do on her own and by then, Di was not prepared to let it all go and decided that if it was a case of use it or lose it, she should invest in some leadership training and get stuck in, herself. Di hasn’t looked back and neither has the singing community of Euroa.

The celebrated return of Euroa Vocal Nosh also marks the approach of its 21st birthday. As the group moves towards this milestone, Di, Chris and Margie have been putting out feelers to see if anyone can be encouraged to be taken under their wings and trained to lead the Nosh. As Di says, “I know it’s a big thing cos I wasn’t confident to start with either.” 

Something Di particularly loves about Euroa Vocal Nosh is the uniqueness of each session. “You get this group of people who have never sung together before. Thinking back across the past 21 years, I think there has only been once or twice where we’ve not had somebody come along who has never been before, and you wouldn’t think it could keep happening but it does and the beauty of this is it doesn’t matter. Within a few minutes you’ve still got all these amazing harmonies, which is what makes a Nosh so exciting.”

Returning for the first Nosh in over two years has allowed for some changes to be made. Di, Chris and Margie have decided to move the session from its original Sunday evening time slot and turn it into an afternoon activity instead. The email has gone out to everyone with any prior involvement with Euroa Vocal Nosh and the fliers are up: On Sunday November 27th, the Nosh will be back, baby!

For many people, it can’t come back quickly enough. “The Nosh aspect gives people time to socialise and connect. When I think of my Strathbogie Singers, my ukulele group or our Nosh singers, we are an eclectic bunch, but for some people coming together to sing and make music is the bright spot in their week. It’s powerful, it is more than the music,” says Di, “it is just so important.”

Euroa Vocal Nosh returns this Sunday, November 27, 2022, from 2:30-4:30pm. One-to-One Wellness Centre, 121 Binney Street, Euroa. Expect  2 hours of harmony singing and socialising! The cost is  $15 which will include Viv’s sumptuous afternoon tea (children free). Covid safe guidelines and rules apply.

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Di Mackrell; thank you Di!

All Directions Choir Summons Songs and Stories from the Deep

All Directions Community Choir has written 5 original songs from scratch as part of an original composition project called Songs and Stories from the Deep, facilitated by choir director, Cath Rutten. 

All Directions Community Choir sits within the Boroondara Community Outreach Program (BCO), a mental health ministry run by the Kew Uniting Church to support people with either disability or mental health challenges, or who are experiencing social isolation. The project received funding from Boroondara City Council through the grants program and the Rotary Club of Balwyn and was run by Cath as a series of workshops using water as a metaphor for living, with the group ‘writing from the heart about their experiences of life; the struggles as well as their sense of joy and adventure’.

“We began playing around with words and emotions as a group and there seemed to be a lot of congruence between the way we describe our feelings and water. We spoke of tears, and drowning or being lifted up and held by the waves of emotion, waves of joy, a congruence between the descriptive words of water and the descriptive words for emotion.”

Cath is a musician who loves working at the intersection of arts and health. In addition to running a singing studio at home, she also teaches inclusive singing practice, and has run a number of community projects including 52 Flash Mobs in 52 Weeks to promote the benefits of arts participation to the community. 

“My belief is that we are inherently artistic and musical as humans and for it to be professionalised so that we think we can’t do it unless we’re fantastic is detrimental to us as people.”

Members of the choir were interested in writing songs that talked about their lived experiences but also about the experience of being human. “All too often members from this community feel categorised by whatever challenges they face and really a lot of the challenges will be very familiar. Many people are facing challenges around secure housing, family and home to a lesser or greater extent, there are so many universal stories in there.”

The group met weekly for six sessions to continue writing and drawing on all of the water metaphors and included non-choir members of the BCO community. The process was encouraged along with inspirational visuals of water, and then Cath took the poems and turned their ideas into songs. Cath describes it as a wonderful journey to have shared. 

Artwork by Leah Ferguson and Belinda Wickens


“Being in a room and playing with lots of people and using words as part of that play, there’s just so much that comes out of it. In a way when you’ve got lots of creative people together, the work seems to do itself, it’s fantastic.”

Cath created the music and worked out the song arrangements so that the material used by the writing group could be learned by the choir. Everything was going swimmingly and according to plan. The choir began learning their songs at the end of 2019 with the view to recording the tracks for wider distribution in early 2020. But of course, like most things from that poor ill-fated year, it all had to stop and be mothballed. Cath says, “during COVID like so many other choirs we went online but a lot of the community did not feel comfortable in that space and numbers dropped to around 10 or 12. At the start, before everyone grew tired, I would sometimes ring people and have a sing on the phone with them as a way to remain connected and to check in and we kept going but with a skeleton crew.”

It took a while once lockdown lifted for All Directions Community Choir to regain its collective confidence about being out and about and to find momentum once more. At the beginning of 2022, the choir began working with a wonderful producer, Cameron Mackenzie, and Songs and Stories from the Deep was finally back on track. “Cameron came into the church and worked with the choir in the space and made the recordings over five or six weeks. It was a really lovely, enjoyable process.”

The CD launch of ‘Songs and Stories from the Deep recently took place, in mid-October. “It was wonderful, we all had such a lovely time with a beautiful big crowd and Boroondara Councillor, Nick Stavrou, came and opened it for us; it was such a warm, loving event.” In keeping with the community spirit of the song writing project, the beautiful promotional artwork accompanying the project was contributed by Cath’s daughter, Leah Ferguson, and the graphic design was done by Belinda Wickens.

Cath crackles with conviction and sparkles as she speaks of the community in which she works and her fondness for the project and the people it has involved, as well as for those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all happen:

“Natalie who is a Reverend of Kew Uniting Church and the Coordinator of BCO does an enormous amount of work. She organises food relief and there are volunteers to come in and cook for people who can’t cook for themselves so that there are freezers full of food, and she does a lot of work for people behind the scenes. The program offers Tai Chi, and as well as the choir, a ukulele group runs on Tuesday mornings; there’s a band that meets and rehearses too and because Natalie’s really committed to finding skilled professionals to work with the choir and the band, there is always a need for funding. I’d love to plug the fact that the songs are for sale as a CD on bandcamp, it’s not very much and people can look up Boroondara Community Outreach if they would like to make a donation, which will go towards the activities that Natalie runs.” 

Something Cath notices repeatedly through her work is how quickly the health benefits of making music together occur and how obvious the effects are:

“It happens as soon as you start, being in a space together with people and singing or making music, our physical and mental health improves immediately and our beautiful souls respond!”

Songs from the Songs and Stories from the Deep are available on bandcamp, and while it is possible to enjoy them without purchase, all money raised from sales of the digital album will go to support the fantastic work done by BCO: 

Click here for a link to the songs: https://alldirectionscommunitychoir.bandcamp.com/album/songs-and-stories-from-the-deep
Click here for more information about BCO https://www.bcokew.org/

Written by Deb Carveth, Copy Editor for Community Music Victoria, in collaboration with Cath Rutten; thank you Cath!

Feature image: Detail of the artwork for Songs and Stories from the Deep, created by Leah Ferguson and Belinda Wickens

Squeezing out the Zest!  The Music Makers adding flavour to the Murray Mallee

“We are quite isolated in terms of where we sit within Victoria. Given that we are a really diverse community, we punch well above our weight in terms of the people we have involved in performing arts and community music and I feel that we’re really just under the radar.” So says Kylie Livingston, Community Music Victoria’s Local Catalyst for Mildura, Sunraysia and the Mallee, an exciting role created through the Growing Community Music Project (GCM) to support and nurture a network of community music-making practitioners and participants, living in this north-westerly corner of Victoria.

It’s a region well known for its fruit and wine, a number of annual music and arts festivals, and its picturesque location along the banks of the mighty Murray River.  Kylie is keen to contribute to the riches of the existing cultural framework by championing the role of community music and is collaborating with other like-minded people to create inclusive and participatory music making opportunities that further support the health and wellbeing of this Victorian community. 

Kylie’s hope is that her role will support the evolution of a self-sustaining network for Sunraysia, Mildura, and the Mallee that is inclusive, eclectic, and open

For the past three years, Kylie has been president of the committee for Electric Light Theatre, an amateur inclusive theatre company for youth based in Mildura. Each year, ELT stages a Variety Show, a celebration of music and performance art involving up to 100 kids from a broad range of backgrounds.  As an experienced facilitator who loves connecting people, Kylie has been quick to get the ball rolling since joining the Community Music Victoria (CMVic) team six months ago, creating events and workshops that support community music leaders to develop their skills, re-energise and reactivate their practice and, in doing so, draw more people into a network of local music-makers. 

”Over the last couple of years, I think community groups have really struggled and floundered and might not feel they have the skills or the energy to support themselves, or to continue and flourish, and that networking aspect is really important. The feedback we are receiving is that people are unsure where to go to find out about what’s on.  Everyone is relying on Facebook and that’s a bit hit and miss.  Even though people may have numerous informal contacts, connecting and networking for the benefit and support of everyone can feel really hard.”

To overcome the seemingly false sense of security fed us all by Facebook, Kylie is encouraging people to utilise the What’s On Mildura website as an alternative, free and consistent approach to marketing local community music-making events and opportunities in the area.

Kylie’s hope is that her role will support the evolution of a self-sustaining network for Sunraysia, Mildura and the Mallee that is inclusive, eclectic and open, and which continues to grow after CMVic’s immediate involvement in the region ends; a network where people feel stronger together, sharing and fostering a culture of inclusion that acknowledges and meets individual needs so that everyone can feel safe and welcome to participate without barriers or judgement.

“This is a very multicultural community, we have a big number of First Nations people and refugees from various regions and over the last ten years the area has become far more ethnically diverse, however we don’t tend to see that diversity represented in our audiences and participants.” 

Kylie is supported in her role by a dedicated local action team of community music activists who each take time out of their busy lives to act as consultants for GCM. “There’s lively conversation at 7:30am on a Monday morning each month”, Kylie laughs. This early bird time slot is a testimony to the conviction and passion shared by the group who willingly swap breakfast for brainstorming.  

“We’ve got a music therapist who is very involved in community music, a person who also works in disability, a music teacher in a primary school, a community place maker who is a First Nations woman which is great, and a member of Mildura Strings, who is really fantastic also.  As well as this core group, I’ve spent lots of time having discussions with community music leaders and participants around the region. This means that we’ve been able to hit the ground running as we have contacts through our connections back into the community, who are also advocates for GCM and CMVic.”

An excellent example of this took place on a chilly, clear Saturday, back in the middle of June. In collaboration with Mildura Rural City Council, Mildura Riverfront, and members of the local action group, Kylie facilitated ‘Winter Solstice’, a midwinter celebration for the community with opportunities to enjoy music and art along the riverfront in Mildura. 

Waking up to a beautiful, sunny morning following days of clouds and rain, Kylie took the opportunity to maximise the good weather feels of the day with one final push of publicity to everyone out enjoying the sunshine. It paid off and Kylie estimates that somewhere between 500 and 700 people attended the Winter Solstice, later that evening.

“We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible. There were a lot of people working together to make the night a success, including volunteers from the community and local organisations. There was a Drum Circle with Catherine Threlfall, and a mix of groups from the community. Sunraysed Voices performed and we also had Sunraysia Irish Dancers and a mix of buskers and professionals. There was Art with Missy who ran craft activities with the kids, there were fire twirlers and a smoking ceremony at the beginning which got everything started, including a big campfire. It was great to see so many age groups represented and probably different demographics as well.” 

Over the course of the evening the Lions Club cooked up 400 sausages and the chef from the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council’s food relief program ladled out 500 serves of soup!

Kylie says, “the fact we got that many people along on such a dark winter’s night shows that there is a real interest and need for participatory music and activity in our community. There was a real sense of community and connection.”

To stay informed about forthcoming events and networking opportunities for music-makers in Mildura, Sunraysia and the Mallee, join the Murray Mallee Music Makers Facebook Page or drop a line to Kylie at CMVic and say hello!

Article by Deb Carveth, CMVic Copy Editor, with Kylie Livingston, CMVic Local Catalyst for Mildura, Sunraysia and the Mallee; photo credits: Mildura Rural City Council and Mildura Riverfront. A big thanks to everyone!

GCM in Mildura, Sunraysia, Mallee is supported by the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Department of Social Services Information Linkages and Capacity Social and Community Participation Stream.

Speech or Song? Identifying How the Brain Perceives Music

New research explores the different ways in which the brain distinguishes between music and speech.

Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society Press Release

Most neuroscientists who study music have something in common: they play a musical instrument, in many cases from a young age. Their drive to understand how the brain perceives and is shaped by music springs from a deep love of music.

This passion has translated to a wealth of discoveries about music in the brain, including recent work that identifies the ways in which the brain distinguishes between music and speech. 

“Over the past two decades, many excellent studies have shown similar mechanisms between speech and music across many levels,” says Andrew Chang of New York University, a lifelong violinist.

“However, a fundamental question, often overlooked, is what makes the brain treat music and speech signals differently, and why do humans need two distinct auditory signals.”

New work, enabled in part by computational advances, is pointing toward differences in pitch and rhythm as key factors that enable people starting in infancy to distinguish speech from music, as well as how the predictive capabilities of the brain underlie both speech and music perception. 

Exploring acoustical perception in infants

From a young age, cognitive neuroscientist Christina Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden of University of Toronto, Mississauga, has been singing and playing the cello, which have helped to shape her research career.

“I remember sitting in the middle of the cello section and we were playing some particularly beautiful music – one where the whole cello section had the melody,” she says, “and I remember having this emotional response and wondering ‘how is it possible that I can have such a strong emotional response from the vibrations of my strings traveling to my ear? That seems wild!’” 

That experience started der Nederlanden on a long journey of wanting to understand how the brain processes music and speech in early development. Specifically, she and colleagues are investigating whether babies, who are learning about communicative sounds through experience, even know the difference between speech and song. 

“These are seemingly simple questions that actually have a lot of theoretical importance for how we learn to communicate,” she says.

“We know that from age 4, children can and readily do explicitly differentiate between music and language. Although that seems pretty obvious there has been little to no data asking children to make these sorts of distinctions.” 

At a recent Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) meeting, der Nederlanden presented on new data collected right before and during the COVID-19 pandemic about the acoustic features that shape music and language during development. In one experiment, 4-month-old infants heard speech and song, both in a sing-songy infant-directed manner and in a monotone speaking voice, while recording electrical brain activity with electroencephalogram (EEG). 

“This work novelly suggests that infants are better at tracking infant-directed utterances when they’re spoken compared to sung, and this is different from what we see in adults who are better at neural tracking sung compared to spoken utterances,” she says.

They also found that pitch and rhythm each affected brain activity for speech compared to song, for example, finding that exaggerated pitch was related to better neural tracking of infant-directed speech – identifying the lack of “pitch stability” as an important acoustic feature for guiding attention in babies. 

While the exaggerated, unstable pitch contours of infant-directed speech, has been well-established as a feature infants love, this new research shows it also helps to signal whether someone is hearing speech or song.

Pitch stability is a feature, der Nederlanden says, that “might signal to a listener ‘oh this sounds like someone singing,’” and the lack of pitch stability can conversely signal to infants that they are hearing speech rather than playing with sounds in song.

In an online experiment, der Nederlanden and colleagues asked kids and adults to qualitatively describe how music and language are different. “This gave me a rich dataset that tells me a lot about how people think music and language differ acoustically and also in terms of how the functional roles of music and language differ in our everyday lives,” she explains.

“For the acoustic differences, kids and adults described features like tempo, pitch, rhythm as important features for differentiating speech and song.”

In future work, der Nederlanden hopes to move toward more naturalistic settings, including using mobile EEG to test music and language processing outside of the lab.

“I think the girl sitting in the orchestra pit, geeking out about music and emotion, would be pretty excited to find out that she’s still asking questions about music and finding results that could have answered her questions from over 20 years ago!”

Identifying the predictive code of music

Guilhem Marion of Ecole Normale Supérieure has two passions that drive his research: music and computer science. He has combined those interests to create novel computational models of music that are helping researchers understand how the brain perceives music through “predictive coding,” similar to how people predict patterns in language.

“Predictive coding theory explains how the brain tries to predict the next note while listening to music, which is exactly what computational models of music do for generating new music,” he explains. Marion is using those models to better understand how culture affects music perception, by pulling in knowledge based on individual environments and knowledge. 

In new work conducted with Giovanni Di Liberto and colleagues, Marion recorded EEG activity of 21 professional musicians who were listening to or imagining in their minds four Bach choral pieces. In one study, they were able to identify the amount of surprise for each note, using a computational model based on a large database of Western music. This surprise was a “cultural marker of music processing,” Marion says, showing how closely the notes were predicted based on a person’s native musical environment. 

“Our study showed for the first time the average EEG response to imagined musical notes and showed that they were correlated with the musical surprise computed using a statistical model of music,” Marion says. “This work has broad implications in music cognition but more generally in cognitive neuroscience, as they will enlighten the way the human brain learns new language or other structures that will later shape its perception of the world.”

“These findings are the basis for the potential applications in clinical and child development domains, such as whether music can be used as an alternative form of verbal communication for individuals with aphasia, and how music facilitates infants learning speech.” -Andrew Chang

Chang says that such computational-based work is enabling a new type of music cognition study that balances good experimental control with ecological validity, something challenging for the complexity involved in music and speech sounds. “You often either make the sounds unnatural if everything is well controlled for your experimental purpose or preserve their natural properties of speech or music, but it then becomes difficult to fairly compare the sounds between experimental conditions,” he explains. “Marion and Di Liberto’s groundbreaking approach enables researchers to investigate, and even isolate, the neural activities while listening to a continuous natural speech or music recording.

Chang, who has been playing violin since he was 8-years old, is excited to see the progress that has been made in music cognition studies just in the last decade. “When I started my PhD in 2013, only a few labs in the world were focusing on music,” he says. “But now there are many excellent junior and even well-established senior researchers from other fields, such as speech, around the globe starting to get involved or even devoted to music cognitive neuroscience research.”

Understanding the relationship between music and language “can help us explore the fundamental questions of human cognition, such as why humans need music and speech, and how humans communicate and interact with each other via these forms,” Chang says. “Also, these findings are the basis for the potential applications in clinical and child development domains, such as whether music can be used as an alternative form of verbal communication for individuals with aphasia, and how music facilitates infants learning speech.”

Author: Lisa M.P. Munoz
Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society Press Release
Contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz – Cognitive Neuroscience Society Public Information Officer, Cognitive Neuroscience Society
cns.publicaffairs[@]gmail.com

Reproduced on the CMVic Blog with kind permission from Lisa M.P. Munoz
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Original research: The results were presented at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. The symposium “From Acoustics to Music or Speech: Their (Dis)Similar Perceptual Mechanisms” took place at 1:30pmPT on Tuesday, April 26, as part of the CNS 2022 annual meeting from April 23-26, 2022.

CNS is committed to the development of mind and brain research aimed at investigating the psychological, computational, and neuroscientific bases of cognition. Since its founding in 1994, the Society has been dedicated to bringing its 2,000 members worldwide the latest research to facilitate public, professional, and scientific discourse.

Committing to the Committee Model: How being Incorporated Sustains the Yarra Valley Singers

I’m totally supportive of the idea of committees of management, or whatever structures support the purpose of the singing group.”

These are the words of Belinda Gillam Derry, Musical Director of Yarra Valley Singers (YVS), a community choir established and singing together since 1988. When Belinda stepped into this role, back in 1996, Yarra Valley Singers was a unit of the Dandenong Ranges Music Council (DRMC) who at that time took care of what Belinda refers to as ‘all the official stuff’.

“The YVS committee looked after the things required by the group in its day to day running. They had a treasurer who collected fees but then passed them on to the treasurer of the DRMC, they had a president and a music librarian; members of the committee worked to ensure that the group were covered for everything they needed to do performances which back then were mainly small, local gigs.”

In the early 2000s, the committee decided to incorporate the group in its own right. 

Part of the reason for this was geographic; the DRMC is based in Upwey and the Yarra Valley Singers are in Lilydale but the members were increasingly not from the Dandenong Ranges, they were coming from the Yarra Valley and further and further out. “The Yarra Valley Singers started doing their own performances so there was increasingly cash from the office box and logistics like taking it down to deposit in Upwey or at the bank were beginning to become an issue”. 

At that point the committee had to become an official committee of management in an incorporated association and the group became Yarra Valley Singers Incorporated. They appointed a president and vice president, a secretary and treasurer as well as general committee members, basically adopting the DRMC model.  Belinda felt this support sustained her both musically and personally from the start, something she continued to benefit from even when she stepped away from the choir for a few years due to ill health.

“I think in these days when lots of people don’t attend church, that in a way these sorts of groups have taken over. ‘Community’ is definitely the word I would use to describe Yarra Valley Singers, which I know exists within so many other singing groups too. Sometimes it feels there’s a bit of a divide between formal choirs and less formal singing groups but the one thing that I think definitely unites groups is this sense of community that comes about through singing together. The Yarra Valley Singers sits very comfortably under the Australian National Choral Association model and I think we very much fit under the ethos of Community Music Victoria too with regards to how inclusive we are, and how much we look after each other between rehearsals.”

Belinda is highly tuned in to the roles filled by each committee member. “Just knowing that they are doing them means I don’t need to think about those things and can concentrate fully on being the Musical Director, although I will always jump in and help when it’s needed”. 

The Yarra Valley Singers’ committee actively seeks to promote sustainability by training up new people to take over different roles and comprises volunteers from within the choir which, with around 60 members currently (100+ pre-Covid) is still a big pool of people to draw from. “If we feel that people have some expertise which they feel a bit shy about sharing, or which they perhaps don’t even realise, we tap them on the shoulder and ask if they would like to come on the committee. We try to be as inclusive as possible, for example we now have two people who identify as living with disabilities on the committee of management. Having people with a broad range of perspectives and experiences is really important.” 

When Covid struck, the lights went out for many choirs and the return to singing proved an extremely fraught and frustrating period for many individual leaders who felt significant responsibility about exposing their singers to risk, coupled with further stress arising from a distinct lack of clear government directives about how best to proceed. 

For Belinda and the Yarra Valley Singers, this stress was immediately reduced because it was shared, and because of the collective decision-making capacity of the committee.

As Belinda says, “We actively seek out different viewpoints, so within the committee we have people who continue to feel risk averse, and we also have people with expertise in interpreting the advice provided by the DHHS. We have a COVIDSafe plan which includes social distancing, maximising ventilation and singing in 25-minute blocks, with air purifiers cranked up to maximum in between.  And now all rehearsals are offered on Zoom as well as in person so everyone can stay connected with the rehearsals however they feel comfortable. “

The committee has decided to maintain a hybrid model of delivery indefinitely. “Being an older group we have always had people who are sick or who have been unable to travel due to bad weather in the Yarra Valley or the Dandenongs. Doing it this way, every person can attend live, either in person or on Zoom and we also record the rehearsals which are available for two weeks afterwards for people to catch up.”

Belinda acknowledges the significant amount of extra work this incurs, both for herself and for everyone else, and how this agility wouldn’t have been as feasible without support from a huge group of people. 

“Setting up choir has changed radically since Covid. It’s no longer a case of just putting out the chairs, there’s all the tech to set up, we’ve got people opening windows and doors, we’ve got people checking everyone in and it takes half an hour.” 

Up until Covid struck, the Yarra Valley Singers committee conducted annual member surveys to determine the reasons why people came to choir, what they wanted to gain from the experience, and basic demographic information such as age and any barriers to participation people may have been experiencing. Belinda and the committee then worked to address as many barriers as they could, so they knew as they went into the first lockdown, that people came to choir for social reasons as much as musical reasons. 

“Even though we are a choir, the social aspect scores equally as highly as the artistic aspect and that has been the case over a number of years, so we knew it was really important to keep people socially connected in lockdown because for many of them, choir was the only thing they did socially. That’s why we worked so hard to get online rehearsals  up so quickly.”

The committee also committed to keeping everyone employed by the choir on the payroll throughout lockdown, something Belinda acknowledges was ‘just so amazing’. 

“Admittedly, being a group that’s been going for some time there were some financial reserves in the bank but they said ‘okay, we can’t do performances, we can’t do rehearsals at the moment but we would like to keep paying you what you would get if you were coming to rehearsals. Which then gave me the confidence to say,”Well, you know what? I have never done a rehearsal online before in my life, but I’m willing to give it a crack.”

Belinda believes that for committees to operate at maximum efficiency, it is important for members not to feel tethered to their role, but to remain fluid. “They all have job descriptions but these are reviewed annually and they adapt and change.  For example, we didn’t need an IT manager prior to Covid!” 

This versatility extends to the way the singers, well, sing!  “Last year we did a wedding between lockdowns. It was outdoors and for the first time ever we sang along to a backing track. It was a surprise for the bride set up by her father. We couldn’t set up the keyboard, we couldn’t do a rehearsal at the venue or anything. It was all really unusual for us as we used to always have live accompaniment, but because we did it and it was so successful, we realised, ‘Well hey, this might work for us as we come out of lockdown’! ”

The committee was so convinced by this approach that the choir cancelled all indoor performances for the rest of the year (given they were pretty sure they wouldn’t happen anyway), applied for a grant and purchased backing tracks and battery-operated outdoor speakers. They learnt all of the parts via Zoom, and when lockdown finally lifted in November last year, Yarra Valley Singers had only two in person rehearsals and then seven performances in just four weeks because they were, as Belinda describes, ‘all ready to do it!’. 

“That again was the committee who were prepared to pivot completely, apply for grants and just go for it.  Incidentally, that’s another benefit of being an incorporated association; ie being able to apply for grants without needing to be auspiced by another body.  Having a formal structure can give funding bodies more confidence that you will be responsible with their grant money.  In our case, Yarra Ranges Council was extremely supportive with regards to grants to keep us going during lockdowns.”

For anyone wondering whether the move to become an incorporated group and elect a committee is worthwhile for their own group, Belinda believes that an important consideration is the question of ownership:

“It depends on who feels they have ownership of the group and who, ultimately, will step up to make sure it continues. Is ownership centred around the leader or is it centred around the people in the group? I don’t think it is a bad way to be one way or the other, because you don’t necessarily set something up thinking that it’s going to go on forever, and some groups are meant to have their time and then not continue, which is part of their charm.  When I was sick, the choir continued for four years with a different musical director.  This wouldn’t have happened if they were relying on me to do everything, but it was possible because of the structure at the time.”

Belinda’s final piece of advice is that the structure of the organising support should always fit the goals of the group.

“Having an incorporated group and a committee of management and things like that won’t be appropriate for smaller singing groups whose goal is to get together and sing for Christmas, for example. They might be better served by just having someone to collect fees, put out the chairs for rehearsal and check everyone’s vaccination certificates.  But for groups which want to continue operating and develop artistically, it’s great if the organisational load can be spread amongst others so the Musical Director can concentrate more on the musical aspects.”

By Deb Carveth, online editor for CMVic in collaboration with Belinda Gillam Derry

For information on how to join Yarra Valley Singers, click here

Featured image: Yarra Valley Singers singing at Montrose Market in November 2021, supplied by Belinda Gillam Derry

Good Vibrations: How the infectious energy of John Lane makes life feel better

All my training has been on the job and I have learnt it by doing it… I always loved singing and I loved acting and I liked being the centre of attention, I guess, whether it was in music or theatre.” This love of the limelight may have been a starting point, but John Lane has spent his entire working life bringing others into the frame to experience the joy of participation that has perpetuated his own effervescent, irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for community arts practice.

“Being in musical vibration together with others is the closest I get to being really spiritual, that’s my spiritual observance, it’s why I like going to the footy; if your team wins you get to sing with 20,000 people! This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

Having learned piano as a child, John branched out into trumpet and the French horn at secondary school before teaching himself to play the guitar, inspired by the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. “I took every opportunity I could to be a part of productions, both at school and university where I was very much into musical theatre.” 

After three years of medical school, John decided to take a gap year to try and get theatre out of his system. This was a plan destined never to work. He was offered a job in Brisbane and spent three immersive years touring political musical comedy shows with the Popular Theatre Troupe, also organising and running drama workshops and improvisations based on what he had been doing in student theatre workshops, back in Melbourne. John found he couldn’t stop soaking up skills and knowledge in whatever ways he could from whomever he could.  “I worked my chops up by just ‘doing it’ and learning on the job from watching other people.”

“This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

While living in Queensland, John bumped into a fella named Linsey Pollak and the two of them went busking together; John played tenor saxophone and Linsey played a broom, the end of which he’d turned into a flute (of course). “We played songs that he had written, and some that we both knew, and it was Linsey who first said to me ‘you could write your own songs!’” Having been given his first lessons in the ukulele by Joe Geia from the band ‘No Fixed Address‘, John would carry his banjolele with him everywhere he went – wearing it slung around his back, ready to whip out at any point and pair it with a quick bit of kazoo to entertain people at festivals or in the streets, in the piazzas of Rome, Bologna and Perugia perhaps, and even on a 24 hour bus trip from Dharamsala to Kashmir.

“The only real formal performance training I did was later on, with the Nanjing Acrobats of China, spending six days a week with them for three months in Wodonga, practising alongside members of the Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz. I was open to anything and everything and by that stage was feeling ‘this is so much fun, everyone should have this opportunity’. ”

John’s primary focus became finding ways for other people to experience the joy that he’d had of participating and being ‘in it’. For the first ten years of his working life, John acknowledges that he was very lucky to have been employed full time doing theatre with the type of community-based theatre companies where you weren’t just an actor, you were involved in writing the material, creating sets and props and anything and everything else.

“With West Theatre we went into housing commissions, we did projects with the Vietnamese Community at a time when they had newly arrived in Australia, we worked with the Nurses Union, we put on these very professional big community shows. There was a collective of between 7 and 12 professional theatre makers and together we would run events that involved dozens to hundreds of people in the community, putting on shows that were sometimes political, often based around personal and local issues; and community music was always a big part of that work.”

By this point it was the mid-80s and John became heavily involved in festivals around Melbourne and across Victoria. “Festivals were the most obvious opportunity for lots and lots of people to participate in a cultural event. These could be run as projects with artists in schools and artists in the community that culminated in a festival.”

Towards the end of a long period of freelancing, one of the jobs John started doing in 2000 was working for the Royal Children’s Hospital. “They had acquired funding from VicHealth to engage professional arts facilitators to work in schools and they were looking for a coordinator. I got that gig which was 2 days a week for 6 months and this kept going as an annual contract job among the many other jobs I was doing like the Darebin Music Feast, the Kites Festival and the Kew Festival, and stuff for the Royal Melbourne Show and City of Melbourne.”

Unsurprisingly, John had also learned to juggle by this point which came in handy and helped him to keep all these professional balls in the air at the same time, as well as beanbags, skittles, fruit, kitchen knives and whatever else came to hand.

Striving to support the voice of people who had been oppressed or suppressed drove John’s passion for agitprop theatre.

“It was therapeutic for me to be involved with music and with drama and I was always really interested in the application of creative arts techniques to psychological medicine, which I had only just begun to research as part of my medical training. This stuck with me and became a personal political goal of doing this type of work because of its benefit to people’s mental health… including mine!”

The Royal Children’s Hospital’s “Festival for Healthy Living” (FHL) program was an embodiment of this philosophy, and upon taking up a newly created salaried role of FHL Artistic Coordinator, by 2004 John found he had gone full circle from leaving medical school in 1976 back to working within a hospital where he remained until his retirement from that post in October 2021. 

So how did John keep up his energy? “Keeping a role for myself as a hands-on participant, even when I was coordinating projects, was vital for me. I’d end up being an MC or I’d pop up in the band playing the trumpet or tenor horn, keyboards or uke. I think my work as an overall coordinator suffered sometimes because I was so obsessed with being in things, but I gradually realised I didn’t need to be front and centre and that my role in life as I got older was in being a facilitator and capacity builder.”

John firmly believes that some of the best capacity building happens by learning on the job, side by side with someone who is really experienced. “I would be there alongside emerging artists, doing the stilt walking or juggling workshops, or building a gigantic puppet or encouraging kids in a songwriting session. At other times the job was all about writing funding submissions or facilitating steering committees, but doing only that would never last very long with me and I had to find at least some time to keep working on the ground. It was a crazy life rushing hither and thither!”

Finding ways to help people feel better, and experience wellness from connecting with other people in their communities, schools or families, working for the Royal Children’s Hospital proved to be a great way in for John to build countless productive partnerships in over 30 different communities across Victoria. More recently, working closely with local agencies, under the RCH/FHL banner the annual Dream Big Festival was established in Melton. This was run for the first time in 2015, with John at the helm as Artistic Director.

A year later, John decided he needed more brass back in his life and joined Melbourne-based street band, Havana Palava (cos he obviously had so much spare time on his hands). There he met Lyndal Chambers who at that time was coordinating CMVic’s StreetSounds project. As part of a collaboration between StreetSounds and the Dream Big Festival, together they established The Fabulous Meltones Street Band.

Facilitating the band was an opportunity for John to embrace participatory music-making and perform on a regular basis while bringing together community players of brass, strings, percussion and more, in a riot of colour and sound. The band has played at the Dream Big Festival each year, and at dozens of other community events including the local Djerriwarrh Festival, and also featured in spectacular appearances at Geelong After Dark for three consecutive years.

Since his ‘rewirement’ last month, John has been reflecting back on all of this history and allowing himself to dream of what might come next.

“In the future I do see myself as always wanting to get community music to happen with people of all ages.”

If history is anything to go by, John won’t be sitting still in one place for very long before his energy fizzes over and propels him towards his next adventure. There may be kazoos… Watch this space!

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with John Lane

Photos supplied

Jeannie Marsh takes Outdoor Singing in her Stride

“You have to do whatever you need to do these days, when it comes to singing, and that extends to Virtual Tour Guiding!” says the ingenious and unstoppable community choir leader Jeannie Marsh.

In conversation with Jeannie it is often hard to pre-empt what brilliant idea is going to pop out of her in-jeannie-ous brain next. Her latest iron in the fire is the Elwood Singing Walking Trail, cooked up in lockdown and coming to fruition a little more each day.

Jeannie Marsh and the Elwood Community Choir came up with the idea of the Elwood Singing Walking trail following last year’s lockdown when they were thinking up safe, physical activities for singers in their local community. The plan was to identify 12 locations along a route in Elwood taking walkers along the beach and the canal and around the streets while sharing stories and songs that reflect the history of this leafy hood, with its Art Deco flats; unfurling its rich Indigenous and settler history along the way.

The whole route covers around 6.5km in its entirety. It was conceived with the idea  that people approach doing the walk in whatever way suits them, taking in however many locations they choose on any given day and – because it will be permanent – is something to be returned to and enjoyed multiple times. 

Half way through next year, Jeannie and the team are planning to hold a big launch of the infrastructure. The research and development stage has been quietly ongoing throughout the turbulence of 2021 and was launched in April, funded by City of Port Phillip. Some surprising revelations about this quiet residential corner of the bay have come to light, in the process.

There used to be a dance hall called ‘Maison Deluxe’ located on the corner of Broadway and Glenhuntly Road where everyone used to go for dances with a live, very busy dance band who would travel all across Melbourne doing two or three dances a night.

As a local, Jeannie has lived near Elwood for over 20 years and had grown increasingly curious about the history of the area she was walking around.

“I would think ‘what’s the history of that little corner’ and ‘what’s that all about’ so it’s been really interesting to understand!”

Elwood Community Choir Leader, Jeannie Marsh

The original focus of the project was to provide an activity for the Elwood Community Choir which Jeannie runs, with a weekly cohort of around 40 singers, as the research phase could be done throughout lockdown and a lot of the stories have come from the choir.

The next phase, currently underway in the planning, is to get all of the infrastructure in place. Elwood Neighbourhood Community Centre (where the Elwood Community Choir  rehearses) will be assisting the choir in setting up the processes and infrastructure. The choir  will be recording these songs early in 2022 and, if lockdowns continue to prohibit them doing this work in person, they will create the recordings remotely using their phones.

The intention is to get the whole community singing and aware of the history of the area. Some of the songs are traditional songs that people will know; some reflect and honour the local Jewish and Russian communities and there are also songs created by Jeannie, Tracy Harvey, and songs that members of the choir have created.

To celebrate Seniors Week this Friday 15 October from 1:30 – 2:30pm and again on Saturday 16 October, there will be a one hour ‘Musical Zoom’ session where Jeannie together with ‘local legend’ comedian, writer and radio/TV presenter, Tracy Harvey, will be joined by members of Elwood Community Choir to conduct a lively virtual stroll along the Elwood Singing Trail, singing along to a selection of simple songs on the way that capture the spirit and essence of Elwood. It’s also an opportunity for walkers to explore and support some of the local businesses along the trail, such as  Elwood Sourdough which is owned and run by Tracy and her partner. Jeannie highly recommends stopping off there for a ‘Spotty’.

‘Local Legend’, Tracy Harvy

“A spotty is one of the most sensational fruit buns you will have in your life. They marinade all of the fruit and it’s like eating a full meal, it is spicy and fruity and unique!”

Jeannie and Tracy have filmed each of the locations and on Friday and Saturday will be using these clips and singing each of the songs, together with the Elwood Community Choir for everyone to join in with. Folks who register will be sent a word sheet to singalong to.

“It’s a teaser to get people ready for when we launch next year when we’ll have everyone out there walking along in real life, and singing!”

To join Jeannie, Tracy and the Elwood Community Choir for the FREE Musical Zoom along Elwood Singing Walking Trail, bookings are essential before 5pm on Thursday and can be made via esnlc@esnlc.com.au or leave a message on 9531 1954

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in conversation with Jeannie Marsh; thank you Jeannie!

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 took place online on Saturday 25 September. Take a look at what happened here: https://cmvic.org.au/whats-on/boroondara-uke-festival-past-eventl

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