Tag Archives: Community Singing Group

‘Come and Sing’ in Stawell

“At 7pm on a night in the dead of winter, there’s often nobody but me in the room.  As people come in they’ll say ‘ah there’s only three of us tonight’, then a fourth person turns up and there’s five… By 7:20pm, there’ll usually be eight of us and I’ll joke with them all – but it’s true – that I made this group, because I want to sing, and even if nobody else ever turned up, I’d still stand there and sing!”

It’s been twenty years since community singing leader, Dianne Stewart, made the move to Stawell in the shimmering Wimmera region of Victoria. Dianne relocated from Bendigo, via the Northern Territory: “I did my Grade 6 AMEB in Alice Springs at a time when they’d never had anybody do a voice exam there before, which was interesting. I come from the City of Bendigo which has this huge musical and choral culture, and I moved to Stawell where there was a two-act musical performance once a year which then disappeared. The state musical theatre wasn’t my background and it wasn’t my thing, but it was the only thing that was sitting in town that I could access, and I wanted to sing!”

Dianne approached Stawell Performing Arts Company (SPACi) and asked them about the possibility of creating a singing group or choir in the town. “They said if you put something to it, we can put something together so I spent the next year doing research and connected with CMVic back when Fay White was doing the Vocal Nosh stuff. Fay came to the Grampians to do some work around bushfire recovery and I went to a workshop she was running and I got some lovely feedback from people.”

Receiving the encouragement to ‘just start it and step out’ made Dianne feel a Stawell-based singing group of her own was possible if she adopted the Vocal Nosh model and set it up as a singing circle. Which is exactly what she did.

“I put the proposal to SPACi, told them this was what I wanted to do, how it would run and why it would work really well for them.” Dianne then started the Come and Sing  group and it’s been running ever since.”

“I’d never led a group before, never been a singing leader at all. I’d been a singer in a choir and a voice student, but I’d never run a group, it was all very new to me. I don’t play the piano and I didn’t feel I could do the kind of things I’d been involved with in the past because my choir leader and singing leaders had all played the piano and had been the accompanist as well, but I couldn’t do that… “

Attendance to Come and Sing is very relaxed with no expectation for singers to attend every week. “It’s come as you like; come each week, or just when you can – pay as you go, and there’s only a very small payment each week because it allows access to more people. I’ve done a lot of work with SPACi around people’s capacity to pay. We’ll probably have between 8 and 15, sometimes 16 or 17 people through the door. The ages range from a couple of senior high school students (and their dads come as well) all the way through to people in their 80s.”

Dianne finds the geography of the Western District of Victoria can make connecting up with other leaders and attending events something of a challenge: “Trying to build and connect with anything past Ballarat is more difficult because of the distance.  I see what Community Music Victoria is doing and a lot of the time the workshops are not accessible for me because of the distances involved.”

To stay up to date with professional development and for support in her singing leadership, Dianne seeks out resources and ‘stuff’ she can access online and in her own time at weekends. Despite the tyranny of distance, Dianne’s a member of several organisations including CMVic and the Singing Teachers Association, and these connections to the larger network give her the incentive to work at creating and making more of the community in which she lives.

“It brings me great joy. It’s the connection with other people and the community.”

“We always tell people come and see what we do, try it out, if we are your tribe, if we are your thing then you’ll continue to come, and if we’re not, then that’s ok too. The group is called Come and Sing because it’s for anybody at all who walks through the door who just wants to sing.”

Because Come and Sing sits within SPACi, for some people trying out for shows is a way to build skills and try bigger things. Being part of Come and Sing’s weekly sessions builds their capacity to prepare for the auditions which are a requirement of taking part in a rehearsed show. “They can choose to do that, or not. Quite a lot of our Come and Sing singers aren’t interested in doing that, but others are.”

“SPACi also runs a junior program which is very much a musical theatre program, and the kids who grow out of that tend to come and sing in the group, but being in the country, those kids usually move on and leave the community. “We don’t tend to get that 20 to 30 age group because they’ve moved elsewhere or gone to university and we work with that. I think we attract the people who are interested and we attract the people who want to do what we want to do!”

Dianne is happy to share the role of leader and enjoys encouraging anyone keen to have a go. “I always say if anybody comes along with better skills than me I’d be really happy to sit down and participate or if somebody else would like to step up and lead, I’ll be very happy to learn from them.”

“…As a leader, at the end of the day it’s good to keep reminding yourself that what you’re providing wouldn’t be there if you weren’t.”

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with big thanks to Dianne Stewart.

Come and Sing meet on Wednesday evenings, 7-8:30pm; 52 Wakeham Street, Stawell, Victoria, Australia. For info, contact Dianne Stewart: 0427850278

The Peace Choir: A Sanctuary of Song in Castlemaine

Not so quietly getting on with singing together in a little corner of its community is the Castlemaine Peace Choir. A beloved group, not particularly well known outside of the town, its spirit is forged by the values of inclusion and compassion which underpin it and are its reason for being. Peace Choir is a free, no-obligation community choir funded by philanthropy.

The Peace Choir was born after a couple who manage a small philanthropic fund within the town made it their mission to embrace the people who look on from the sidelines of society, marginalised from the offerings of the mainstream because of mental illness or intellectual disability, and bring them into the frame. Motivated by the effects of a profound personal loss, they approached the district’s community house, mental health support groups and disability services about establishing a choir.

They approached community singing leaders, James Rigby and Jane Thompson, who were aware that they were  running groups for people of a certain age and demographic from within their town: “We always said they were open access, anyone-can-join choirs but we just knew we were missing a whole lot of people who would have benefitted from the experience that these choir members were having.”

James and Jane were initially worried about the concept of mixing together people with intellectual disabilities with people with mental illness. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to both of those groups and we were worried that people with mental illness may not want to be classified as being the same as people with intellectual disabilities and vice versa. We ran separate workshops and then brought the two groups together and it was just a magical event.”

A minister in the town who was helping to coordinate the whole process gave the Castlemaine Peace Choir its name, something James says has been ‘an absolute gift’: “Many people with mental illness are just looking for some internal sort of peace, some stillness. It’s ended up being absolutely a choir for people who feel on the edge and there are also people in the choir who are there because they want to interact with these people who are on the fringes. We’re creating a space that actually and selectively recruits in the corners.”

People who work in the disability services in Castlemaine are aware of the choir. If you live in the district and you suffer from a mental illness, you’re quite likely to be referred to ‘Maine Connection’ and the fellow who runs that group is also on the organising group for the Peace Choir. This means it’s only a matter of time before he’ll say to somebody, ‘well look, why don’t you come along and have a sing?’ There are no processes or paperwork involved and its recruiting methods are pretty organic: Sooner or later you’re going to run across somebody in the town who has heard of the Peace Choir who will invite you along for a sing. “It’s a self-perpetuating thing.”

“We run from 5:30 with a late afternoon tea; then sing from 6-7. That afternoon tea is the best fruit you can get in the district; really beautiful, quality food from the local suppliers, delicious cheeses and good bread, it’s not flashy or extravagant but it’s wholesome and nourishing. A lot of people in this cohort are used to cordial and a plate of mixed bickies when they go to things, so to be able to off them decent, quality food is a way of saying ‘we’re going to look after you here’, and it’s extremely levelling. We eat for half an hour and that’s when all the catching up goes on. “Every time I walk into that gathering my heart just warms, you see this quite extraordinary mix of people carrying on like old friends. Nobody new is ever left on the outskirts. It’s all very low key but I don’t think there’s any chance anyone in this room would ever feel not attended to, or not cared about.”

The choir has borne witness to some pretty extreme behaviour from some of its members over the years too. “It’s not just a warm fuzzy group of lovely people – they are a warm fuzzy group of lovely people – but these are people who are prepared to really actively challenge themselves to look after other people who they might not normally be with.”

“We had a guy in the choir for a while who was floridly psychotic, he was very heavily tattooed and he had a very intense flat aspect to his face and he was lean and dangerous looking; he used to just stand up and sort of prowl during the sessions and start pulling off martial arts stances. He looked like he was about to kick someone’s head in but people in the group would settle him down and he kept coming back for a couple of years. For a time we were able to give this fellow a connection to his town and an introduction to some people who would continue to care for him. He could be an intimidating presence around our town and yet the choir was a place he kept coming back to, somewhere to be present with a group of people who were all happy to have him in the room. We were all a little bit uncomfortable but a little bit of being uncomfortable is a good thing for you, I think.”

James used to be an Emergency Department Nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and has plenty of experience of people disrupting a situation: “I’m not actually scared by scenarios where people come in demanding attention. I guess I’ve worked in places that have been full of very scary people on many occasions and I’m not frightened of people with mental illness or who demonstrate extreme behaviour. The number of people who are actually dangerous is vanishingly small. And there’s a massive amount of compassion and care among the Peace Choir singers. If I have to take somebody outside to calm them down there’s a whole lot of people who have got my back, I’m not going out on a limb or doing this on my own.”

James thinks the choir’s repertoire is absolutely the guts, the heart of the whole thing. “We sing a lot of songs about taking care of each other, caring about other people, and we’ve got some old folk songs from back in the era when peace songs weren’t unfashionable.”

But it’s digging into songs written by Indigenous musicians such as Archie Roach where the group finds relevance. “The group can really see and identify with the marginalisation which comes with being Aboriginal and living on the fringe and songs written about coming from an underprivileged demographic. We sing songs like ‘We won’t cry’ from Archie Roach and they’re songs about resilience and strength and the choir just totally gets it.”

These people who have lived with these scenarios for ‘years and years and years’ tell James that ‘these songs absolutely tell my story and they tell the story of the people who have helped me to survive.’

Another important aspect of the choir there since the beginning is that people come along with their carer, whether that’s their mum, their sister, or whoever: “Every song we sing has an affirmation of the experience and the aspirations of the people in the choir”.

One of the singers in the Peace Choir is David, a man in his mid-30s, who comes along with his mother. David has autism and is nearly non-verbal although he has been known to burst into song in the supermarket. “David is a gentle, beautiful looking man, but vocalises with squeaks, grunts and whistles and makes all these crazy noises through the singing of these sensitive songs about peace, and nobody in the room turns a hair. David’s part of the group and if he’s making noises, good on him, we don’t care.”

At the end of David’s first year with the choir, his mother wrote a letter to James and Jane. In the time since her husband had died, this woman had never been able to do anything without wondering first what she was going to do with David. The Peace Choir was the first time in their life that they had been able to go and do something together and be involved in a community activity together.

James spends a lot of the time teaching people to listen. “As the years have gone by, we’ve sung more and more quietly, we have a massive dynamic in the choir now, and here’s this bunch of people with every problem under the sun and it’s absolutely the most beautiful sounding choir I’ve ever worked with. I find myself in the middle of a tender song about peace or the Melanie Shanahan song, Walk with me, written about mental illness and about crying out for people to just please help, it’s very passionate, a really raw song and we just sing it soooooo beautifully and it’s so achingly tender. And I think ‘how on earth do you teach this lot to sing that song with such commitment or insight?’

I believe it’s because they really care about the people on the other side of the room and they’re really listening to what the other people are singing and nobody in the room wants to be the person singing louder than everyone else… They’ve just become the most incredibly beautifully tuneful choir; we keep shocking ourselves.”

The Castlemaine Peace Choir is run by James Rigby and has around 60 regular singers. It runs for 30 weeks each year on Wednesdays from 5.30pm and everyone is welcome.

For more info, contact office@makingmusic.com.au, 0408 547 511

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby and Jane Thompson

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Undermining Adani with the Melbourne Climate Choir

“This particular campaign focussed on Adani has really mobilised people across political parties, across age groups and demographics. They’re worried about their children and they’re worried about their grandchildren and what they’re going to inherit…Singing about it gives anyone feeling powerless and outraged a way to feel better and join with other people who feel the same.” 

If you were in Melbourne’s Fed Square last Saturday evening, chances are you’ll have heard the recently re-formed Melbourne Climate Choir in action on stage as part of their quest to raise awareness of the ongoing ‘Stop Adani’ campaign.

The Climate Choir first came together two years ago, formed by community musician and activist Jeannie Marsh, in collaboration with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) to bring a singing component to the People’s Climate March.  Jeannie was aware of the need for accessible, catchy songs and simple call and response material  for the choir to sing on the steps of the State library and along the Climate March route, as an alternative to the throat-wrecking cry of ‘what do we want, when do we want it.’

In her quest, Jeannie unearthed not only the extensive array of tune-age available on the Carbon Canaries website but also dug up Do it Now, a re-working of Bella Ciao, an Italian Partisan song popular in the Union movement and arranged by an ‘excellent’ group of choral activists based in Belgium, called Sing for the Climate.

“Their version of the song comes with all the resources you could possibly need to use at a rally or action: sheet music, instrumental parts, lyrics sheets, different keys, etc and it’s one of the most powerful and catchy pieces of “protest art” I have ever seen”, says Jeannie. “We have sung this song repeatedly at many events around Melbourne, and people always love it.” Do it Now is an urgent plea to world leaders to commit to ‘reducing carbon emissions, year on year, and highlights the need for strong leadership on climate change to put a stop on the devastation it brings to the world.’

Jeannie has found the song’s structure works really well in a protest setting because it’s bouncy, it’s fun, people know the tune and it’s easy to pick up and sing along to:

We need to wake up
We need to wise up
We need to open our eyes and do it now, now, now!
We need to build a better future
And we need to start right now…

“It’s incredibly powerful to be there standing on the steps of the state library with a choir of forty people, an accordion and a trombone and people say that they find it very positive because, you know, Climate Change is a depressing topic…”

Th increased presence of Stop Adani campaigns in the press over the past year or so and the depressing prospect of Australia leading us all into a fossil-fuelled future re-ignited in Jeannie a desire to bring members of the Melbourne Climate Choir back together with a renewed sense of purpose, tuning in once more to the work of the ACF and the group of community singing activists reformed earlier this year:

“I saw all these actions around the place and in politicians’ offices and just thought ‘isn’t that great’ and that maybe it was time to get singing again.”

Jeannie put the word out to all the people who’d identified themselves previously through the work with the ACF in 2015 and before long had a flock of songbirds congregating to sing ‘Do it Now’ outside the office of Josh Frydenberg, Federal MP for Kooyong and Minister for Resources and Energy. Jeannie recalls the event as being ‘really joyful.’

“There was an accordion, the media turned up, people gave speeches, there were plenty of placards and people with banners all processing across the middle of busy Camberwell Junction (where Frydenberg’s office is based). Passers-by were blowing their horns and waving in solidarity. So, I then decided to take up an offer from the ACF to use a room and go through some other songs.”

Jeannie continues, “this particular campaign focussed on Adani has really mobilised people across political parties, across age groups and demographics. They’re worried about their children and they’re worried about their grandchildren and what they’re going to inherit…Singing about it gives anyone feeling powerless and outraged a way to feel better and join with other people who feel the same.”

The Climate Choir has collated a sheet of songs using material from the Carbon Canaries, including Why dig up coal.. to the tune of YMCA complete with all the actions, and Love and Marriage as you’ve never heard it before, the words of which go something like ‘Reefs and fossil fuels, reefs and fossil fuels, go together like babies and power tools…Jeannie feels that ultimately it’s about keeping things fun but being heard about a subject which incites passion in people who would otherwise feel disempowered:

 “Community Choirs are such a huge thing in Melbourne. You can really make noise and it’s beautiful and it’s uplifting and it’s ultimately empowering.”

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria with Jeannie Marsh

To find out more about the Melbourne Climate Choir, contact Community Music Victoria

*Feature photograph and all photographs in this article were taken by Julian Meehan for the Melbourne Branch of ‘Stop Adani’ at the screening of Guarding the Galilee in Federation Square, Melbourne, Saturday September 16th, 2017

This article is part 2 of the previous CMVic blog article: Carbon Canaries sing out for Climate Change.