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 Nightare 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!”
“It’s such a necessary thing to be creative, to have the joy of making music, giving that gift to others and receiving in return the joy and the happiness that you can see and feel in them. While we still have that up to a point, because of everything that has happened this year there are so many of us who haven’t been able to do that, whether we’re professional, amateur, or community based musicians. And that is very disturbing for me.”
Bettina Spivakovsky is reflecting on the sense of responsibility she has felt during recent months for the health and wellbeing of singers in her group, Stonnington based The People’s Choir, as well as the artists and musicians with whom she has worked throughout her career in event planning.
“My thoughts go straight to all of them. When I first heard of the COVID business early on, I looked into Zoom and thought ‘how on earth are we going to do this? How are we going to get everyone to cope with all of the changes and technology?’ Much to my joy, everyone began to adapt. During the little bit of respite between lockdowns, a couple of people from the choir went into people’s homes and helped set them up and the choir just started to grow, it was wonderful – and they are wonderful people. One week we had up to 70 singers.”
The People’s Choir has had an interesting journey. It was started in 2015 by Annabel Taylor who ran the choir with two friends as a weekly singalong group for around 18-25 people. At the end of 2018, one of these friends moved interstate and Annabel invited Bettina to be involved. The choir entered an innovative phase and began expanding to involve and include greater numbers of singers. Bettina registered the choir as a not for profit group ‘with all the boxes ticked’ and rehearsals moved to a larger space – the Uniting Church in Burke Road.
“When I joined there weren’t any harmonies or parts, everyone sang in unison for the enjoyment of singing and getting together for a coffee. Basically, it changed from being a group of friends to a fully-fledged entity that could move forward as a mass choir called The People’s Choir based on values of compassion, accountability and integrity, and where everybody is welcome.”
The choir is un-auditioned and open to singers of all ages and abilities. The focus is on getting together for a laugh and some fun and when meeting in real life, the singers stay on and have supper together.
Bettina’s family history reads like a who’s who of classically trained Russian musical proteges. Her father was violinist and cellist, Issy Spivakovsky, and her uncles were the pianist, Jascha Spivakovsky, violinist Tossy Spivakovksy and Adolf Spivakovsky who taught singing at the Melbourne Conservatorium, where Bettina herself trained. “Because of my background – which is really unfortunate for some I suppose, she laughs – I came to this singalong group and thought, hmm, well that’s notreally going to work for me for too long.”
Bettina began introducing gentle musical concepts such as easy dynamics and occasional harmonies as well as other approaches like reading through the lyrics to understand a story and foster some emotional investment in the telling of it through the music, and things started to develop. The repertoire draws on rock, pop, gospel, folk and musicals – no classics.
“”I’ll never forget, we’d been singing The Water is Wide and I’d divided the group into three part harmony. The sopranos were singing the melody line, the altos were singing the middle harmony and the tenors and basses were singing the foundation, it was all a cappella. The singers were sitting in different parts of the church and facing into each other. Normally they would have resisted repetition but this time they were requesting to repeat bits and to sing it again, and I could feel the culture was slowly changing. They wanted to get it right and to sound better and better. Then they sang at each other and at the end they stopped and just looked and there was silence. They couldn’t believe how they sounded and I knew this was a breakthrough moment. It was stunning and surprising to them but it wasn’t to me – they’d put in the yards.”
Like some other singing groups, The People’s Choir has found unexpected advantages to singing online and over the course of this year the number of singers has grown with members joining in from interstate as well as regionally and from suburbs across Melbourne. Once normality resumes, Bettina plans to hold Zoom Choir on Monday evenings and face to face on Tuesdays so that this can continue.
Members of the choir have also unexpectedly found their groove during this experimental time. “I had this wonderful person, Helen, approach me after Helen Reddy had passed to ask if she could sing I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, she said ‘I would never have thought of doing something like this before’ but the choir had given her that sense of courage and all these little things they just fill my heart and my chest gets bigger and bigger and I just love everybody, it’s just wonderful.”
Bettina’s shift to concentrate more heavily on grass roots, community-based work has been ‘immeasurably satisfying.’ “Having worked in the corporate sector of the arts which I still do with tenures out in certain venues and areas, this is so valuable, it’s immeasurable the value it has.”
“People who have been unwell, watching how music changes them, people who are in need of it in some way, there is so much more that I am seeing in people as a result of this work. When you can affect the change that’s been happening and I’ve been observing, and help validate, help strengthen – even simple things like doing exercises before we start singing – all of the health benefits that it gives people, I would have been too immature to think about all this any earlier in my life but now I feel blessed.”
Bettina says she owes all this gratitude to Annabel Taylor for asking her to work with The Peoples’ Choir in the first place: “It was a timely call and an extraordinary opportunity and I thank her every day.”
It’s taught me so much about myself: patience, thoughtfulness, the importance in being non-judgemental, just so much more about who I am as a person. The list is endless in terms of what it has contributed into my life so I’m actually blessed by every member that attends.”
In December, The Peoples’ Choir is holding a Pitch Perfect Picnic in the Park to catch up in real life to see the year out. “At Central Park there are little mapped-out circles for picnickers and I thought, we can all grab a little circle and be together but separate and every now and again we can meet each other and walk around, bring our families, bring our dogs and catch up.”
It comes as no surprise that with the current ban on singing in Victorian schools, our ever-resourceful music teachers are looking for creative and safe ways to involve students in end of year celebrations and graduations. With the increased exposure of Auslan in mainstream media through the bushfire season and of course this whole dreadful COVID business, it makes sense that teachers are considering using Auslan in their music classes. It is wonderful to see the substantial recognition that Auslan is getting from mainstream media which has resulted in a massive interest — and that Auslan courses are booked out to the maximum.
For the last 11 years, I have been working as a music teacher at a Deaf school in Melbourne. I have had to learn Auslan to do my job. And I still am still very much learning.
Music teachers are becoming interested in using Auslan as a way to include students in singing-replacement activities. I was asked to write something about the use of Auslan under these circumstances. Because the Deaf community is not primarily my cultural community I felt it was not appropriate that I speak for them, although this message has since been read by members of that community. So I am writing this as a music teacher — to my music teacher community – sharing my knowledge and experience with Auslan.
Here’s some things to think about if you are considering using Auslan in your school music program — or any school program.
Firstly, what is Auslan?
Auslan, or Australian Sign Language is the native sign language of the Deaf community. As a cultural group, it is appropriate to use a capital ‘D’ when referring to a Deaf person from this community. The language has its own grammar, sentence structure, and uses facial expression and specific areas of the body as part of the language. Also, Auslan is not written with ‘all capitals’.
But learning a few signs isn’t learning Auslan nor makes one fluent in the language.
What isn’t Auslan?
Auslan is not English in sign language. It isn’t ‘actions’ to words. And it certainly isn’t ‘choralography’ (I never, ever will like that word!).
With its own sentence and grammatical structure, Auslan signs can’t be imposed over English words as the language then makes no sense due to the structure, similarly found in other non-English languages.
So how do you interpret songs into Auslan?
Songs are not ‘translated’ straightforwardly from English into Auslan – they are interpreted, and every Auslan user and interpreter would come up with their own interpretation of the same song given the chance. Songs are full of idioms, imagery and metaphors and as you might imagine, interpreting these into Auslan would not be easy! You have to convey the meaning of the metaphor, not the translation of the English language.
If the Auslan and message of the song cannot be understood by a Deaf Auslan user then it can’t be used in our choirs. (Also, important to note that because of the language structure, one doesn’t sing along when signing.)
If you are copying an Auslan video without knowing the signs, how would you ‘teach’ Auslan to your students? How would you know what sign is what word? Or if you are using an Auslan dictionary to seek out signs, how will you know the order and structure required?Auslan is very context dependent and there are dialects to think of too. Sometimes it is appropriate to ‘make up’ signs to describe something but this involves a specific process that would include the input and consultation of a few Deaf people or community. How will you know if you are using a true sign or a descriptive one? For example, in a song I am doing currently with my students, the lyrics are ‘The call of the birds bring the break of day’. We are signing Morning, Sunrise, Birds, Sing. The words don’t match the signs as they play out in real time and we are also incorporating culturally appropriate features such as pace, facial expression and upper body movement.
Authentic Cultural Experiences
We should be striving to offer our students authentic cultural learning experiences. We want our students to learn to respect different cultures and their customs and traditions. Auslan is at the heart of the culture of the Deaf community and therefore it should be taught by a native user. Consider this in parallel with the wishes of Indigenous people to be able to share their own culture, stories and history.
Is it a problem if I use Auslan with my choir?
In short, highly likely.
When I started learning Auslan it was all I could talk about. I love the language so much, and as a musician and conductor, the link with non verbal communication and expression was profound. I wanted to use Auslan every day in every way and probably — almost certainly— made every mistake in the book regarding its use. I know much better now. At the request of the Deaf community, they ask we don’t use Auslan without proper instruction and direction.
Unless a Deaf Auslan user is involved in teaching the song, bringing the correct cultural and linguistic references, it is unlikely that the language will be used correctly. This is incredibly important to the Deaf community, a minority group, who have fought for the right to use their language and to have their language used correctly by others.
It is important that a Deaf person be able to understand the performance of your song. If not, the language has been misused or appropriated, even if unintentionally.
Hopefully this nasty COVID virus will be gone and before too long we can resume singing and playing our wind and brass instruments. But music teachers are a creative cohort, so maybe for this especially odd year we make our graduations songs instrumental items instead, or maybe include student compositions or maybe even accompany a recorded song?
And you know what? This in itself makes a really important learning opportunity for you to share with your students. If you have started a song in Auslan and now have second thoughts about continuing, then you can use this as an opportunity to explain to the students why and how you have come to this decision. We really have no shortage of musical activities to do with our students, so at this time, in this unforgettable year where teachers have demonstrated flexibility in unquantifiable measures, we might just need to accept that we will have to do something else instead.
Karen Kyriakou is a music teacher and freelance educator working with arts organisations including MSO, Musica Viva, the Melbourne Recital Centre and ANAM. In 2012 she won a Churchill Fellowship, travelling to the UK to investigate inclusive ways of bringing authentic educational and musical experiences to the Deaf children in schools.
Rachelle Stevens is an experienced classroom teacher, Deaf herself, and an all-round awesome person. She meticulously checked this article to make sure I represented the views of her Deaf community correctly.
Article by Karen Kyriakou.
CMVic is grateful to AMusE for their kind permission to use this content. Thank you AMusE! CMVic would also like to thank Steph Payne for bringing it to our attention in the first place; thank you Steph!
As the tentative optimism emerging for some community music groups in term 3 was crushed by COVID once more, devising a resource to support leaders to facilitate online music making or to squeeze the most out of their current online practice became a priority. Saddened by the clipped wings of songbirds and the frustration of instrumentalists playing alone into the ether almost everywhere, CMVic began working on the development of resources to support an online take off as a way for groups to keep connected.
The result is a fantastic, seven page, website resource called Leading Community Music Online, researched and written by CMVic’s newly appointed tech advisor, Craig Barrie. Together with his partner, Nicki Johnson, Craig has been singing and strumming and keeping the spirits and morale of community music-makers raised up through lockdown since the very start of this corona-induced hullaballoo. Offering multiple online opportunities for people to participate and engage through his work with Nicki as part of All the Way Home, With One Voice Greater Dandenong, and as an independent music teacher, has required Craig to experiment extensively and continually refine what he’s found works best and what is better avoided from both a delivery and engagement perspective, using this format.
Craig has now written up his findings together with some of his top tips into a highly informative, engaging and accessible resource designed to support and enable community music makers’ to enjoy positive tech outcomes and less glitches. It includes advice and help-guides about how to get the best results with limited time and a limited budget.
This is all now loaded and shared on the Community Music Victoria website and we very much hope that the following index of info will help you and your groups to turn iso into calypso and remain tuned in with each other until normal service can be resumed, however far off that is, whether you’re locked down in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire or restricted in regional Victoria. The options discussed have been tried and tested by music leaders in the CMVic family since physical distancing measures took effect in March 2020 – we thank them for so generously sharing their knowledge and experience in the peer-sharing spirit of Community Music Victoria.
*Members of CMVic can also book a one-to-one tech help appointment with Craig Simply email: email@example.com with your issue specifying when you are available for a call or Zoom chat. Please include a description of relevant hardware (e.g. laptop/tablet/phone, Mac-IoS/PC-Android).
**Keep an eye out for upcoming CMVic Zoom sessions on specific tech related topics. These are advertised in CMVic’s Shout newsletter as well as the CMVic Singing Leaders’ Lounge and Music Group Leaders’ Lounge on Facebook, and include ongoing discussions of what our clever, creative folk are doing to make the best lemonade out of the lemons that 2020 has supplied in abundance!
Written by Deb Carveth with Craig Barrie for Community Music Victoria
“As singing leaders, we have a responsibility to make a decision that’s going to be best for the safety of the whole group. All our groups desperately want to get back together but unfortunately, it’s not safe yet and that’s a really clear directive from the medical health professionals that it’s not on the cards right now. Rather than grieving that, I think I’d done that earlier, I’ve kind of moved on. I mean the priority is keeping community together and staying connected; we can work on our harmonies when this is over!”
-Jane York, Just Holler
I remember the evening, clearly. It was a Friday back in March and just days earlier, Daniel Andrews had announced a state of emergency. It had been a fraught week as shops and offices began to close and the shelves began to empty. Lockdown was imminent and panic was tinging everything. But one person had it together and, as the rest of the world worried about loo roll and how long they could live on half a bag of pasta, Jane York donned a spangly jacket, picked up her beer and started to sing around the piano in her lounge room. Jane’s personal motto is ‘if in doubt, sing’. And she was, and she did. Online, using Facebook Live and she’s been doing it daily ever since.
“So many things were unknown and out of our control both personally and as a leader of groups, but one thing I could do was sing.” Jane laughs as she thinks back to that first Friday night singalong.
“It was completely disorganised, it was literally just me pressing live on my phone with an iPad to look up chords and getting drunk. It went for 2.5 hours and by the end of it I was so emotional. It was so interactive, I’d thought it would be me doing a one-way thing and it wasn’t that at all, it was all these people that I love and sing with regularly, and also people I hadn’t seen in ages from all over the country which was something I hadn’t thought about – accessibility by geography and how online we can extend our community – and people were literally tuning in from South East Asia and from Germany. So, at the time when I was thinking ‘we’re going to be isolated’, it was the opposite and it was really emotional that first one.”
Jane finds having structure a really important thing and got to thinking about all the other people at home who were no longer working, who were all in a state of flux and in need of anchoring and she came up with the idea of doing a daily lunchtime sing at 1pm, no matter what else was going on. “It was about a little bit of calm in the middle of the day.”
Jane got started and people were tuning in everyday to say ‘hi’.
“My mum tunes in everyday from Queensland which is very lovely cos we don’t actually get to sing together very much, and we get to sing five days a week now!”
The songs Jane chooses are well-known, easy to sing classics, from Lauper-esque hairbrush anthems of the 80s to Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Cash. If there’s anything anyone desperately wants on the bill, they are free to make recommendations in the chat.
Early on in lockdown, The Guardian mentioned Jane and Just Holler in an article by Anna Sublet about online singing, “that was kind of freaky, of all the things to be in The Guardian about, me in my robes singing into my phone! Our choir had sung the year before at Hamer Hall to no press and then there I was in the Guardian for not showering and going online”.
That week, Just Holler got 300 new likes on its Facebook page as part of what Jane calls ‘this isolation moment.’ This ‘moment’ has meant that our singing communities have become broader and when Jane saw the Guardian write-up she realised this element of connection could actually be the silver lining of sharing our music online.
“I realised that I could go and attend other people’s workshops and I could attend things not in Melbourne but also that I could invite people from anywhere to Term 2 of our choir. Just Holler online now has people from New South Wales, regional Victoria joining in, which is great. Being in the business of building community and connection, we take a lot of time discussing how to we get more people to come to choir and all of a sudden we’ve gone to them and boom.”
This has shifted Jane’s thinking about the future of community music and she is considering maintaining an online element to rehearsals once lockdown lifts, to ensure that the people who have joined from afar and become a part of the Just Holler community, can remain so.
Singing daily at 1pm means that Jane has to fit the rest of her life around that time. That’s easy to do when she’s at home but last week she was driving and had to pull over at the side of the road to deliver the goods. “It’s been a great exercise in not being precious about having things perfect at a performance level, some days I have literally never played the song through before! I always feel weird doing something by myself, it’s just not my style so it’s been really good for me in that way because it is up to me to sing the whole song through but it’s not centring myself in that experience, it’s still a facilitation thing because I want people to sing along from home.”
Regulars know that Jane likes to shake up the backdrop. She’s sung to the world from the bathtub, behind the clothesline, out on the deck, inside the garage, and out the front of her house with her neighbour. Her son and her partner pop up and accompany her. There have been pyjamas and slippers and keeping it real is part of the charm. On Tuesday she sang from Violet Town with a backdrop of beautiful gum trees and unexpected accompaniment from a garbage truck as it rumbled slowly past.
The chat is where the connection with the outside world takes place as people greet Jane and each other and comment on how well the houseplants are looking or whether Jane got a haircut. “It’s cute, it’s lovely, it allows people to be active participants.”
A couple of months ago, Jane decided she wanted Friday lunchtimes off to sing with Sue Johnson’s online choir and had the genius idea of inviting guests to take over the Friday slot.
All good things must come to an end and, as lockdown lifts and the world shakes its feathers and returns tentatively to the old routines of 9-5, Jane’s thinking about wrapping up the 1’o’clock singalongs possibly in a couple of weeks at the end of this term. But this isn’t set in stone,
“I don’t want it to become a chore I want it to stay a thing I’m still engaged with.” So set your alarm for 12:55, hop onto Facebook and sing along with Jane while you still can.
Feature photo supplied by Jane York featuring, l-r: Jane and her neighbour Shannon; Jane, Lewis and Solly on family band day; Jane alone in her bedroom.
Waiting for a room to fill up with people feels so last year. These days, community choir leader Jeannie Marsh waits for the little squares on her screen to blink into life to signal her group’s singers have turned up and tuned in ready to join in an evening of singing from their lounge room, bedroom or wherever the acoustics work best and there’s the option of a closing door.
Over the past month in response to physical distancing and self isolation, a new online world of community music has sprung up, close and personal in a whole new way as pets, partners and kids wander in and out of focus, and we find singing and playing in our pj’s easy and oh so cosy. For the time being, Zoom‘s the room and anything goes in this virtual space as we each adjust to living in this brave new world.
While this approach won’t work for everyone, the option to take things online offers a way for community music groups to continue to connect socially whilst remaining apart. It addresses our basic human need for something to look forward to, is an opportunity to share hope and reassurance with each other and navigate a way through the strange times we find ourselves in. It’s a great excuse for a quick tidy up, too.
“Right now, I’m seeing my role as just trying to help people stay positive, that’s all I can do! Keep people singing and helping anyone feeling overwhelmed to get through this.”
For Jeannie, engaging with online platforms has been something best done on her own terms, in her own time; she’s the first to admit that she dislikes Facebook.
“When social media came out, I just thought ‘no, no, that’s not how I’m going to stay sane’. I feel pretty equipped technically, but I mean you know…”, she laughs, “I don’t have technical skills but I’m not afraid of asking for help and we all have to learn, we are all learning together. With ZING! we had to make the transition very early on and held our first session via Skype which was kind of weird, but it was a way to keep in contact and I was able to teach some songs and then for our most recent rehearsal last week, we switched to Zoom, which was much better.”
Jeannie invested in a headset and has found having better quality sound makes things far easier in her new-found role as an online leader. She’s made other discoveries too. For example, it wasn’t really working for Jeannie to use a call and response approach in her early online work with ZING!:
“I was leaving a gap to go, you know, ‘your turn’, so they would all sing the part at home, but people said that they didn’t really like that because they could just hear themselves singing and found this confronting. People don’t join a choir to hear themselves sing on their own. As a singer in a choir in the room together, you are surrounded by everyone else and they are pulling you along, and the leader is singing, and there might be accompaniment, all those things, and then suddenly it’s just you in your spare bedroom singing on your own, completely on your own without even the leader helping you.”
Taking on feedback from her singers, Jeannie’s abandoned this approach, “I’m not going to be trying that method anymore, I’m just going to demonstrate and repeat, then people can sing along with me, whether it’s a phrase of a song or a warm-up activity. This means that people will always have the security of singing with somebody else.” But Jeannie notes that all this might change as the process evolves over the coming weeks, and as people become more familiar and at ease with singing on their own.
The other disconcerting issue as an online leader is the problem of delay which it seems we’re all stuck with for the time being. “I can see who’s in the room and call them by name, I can say ‘Sue, unmute yourself and tell me what favourite song you have been listening to this week’. And then I can hear them, everybody else can hear them, it’s good for maintaining connection and I make sure we have a lot of laughs, which I think is important. We have warm-ups with music too. I’ll put on some lively latin dance music at the start of a session and we do a little warm-up dance sitting down or standing up… these sorts of things are a bit of fun.”
Jeannie is in the process of exploring possible ways for online social activities to be included in the virtual space, given this is such an important aspect of community choirs. Her ideas include scheduling a break time during the rehearsal when participants can grab a cuppa, beer or whatever, come back and have freeform chat. “In real life, Zing will rehearse for a couple of hours and then we usually go across to the pub and have another hour or so of socialising. We are working out a way to build that in: You can chat, have your drink in your hand and show and tell, whatever people want to do!”
Other Zoom issues to navigate include the inability to see everyone on screen simultaneously.
“Yesterday I did a first online zoom rehearsal for Climate Choir Melbourne with about thirty people, and I couldn’t see them all onscreen at once, I had to scroll across and found that quite difficult… I’m going to have to get into the habit of looking at one panel and then shifting to another panel so that I can see who’s in the room. Their names are there and their faces are there, and I can talk to them individually, so yeah I think that’s going to be challenging but I can see ways to make it work.”
Ensuring singers have all the resources required for each session is also important in supporting their online participation. Jeannie believes this means a potential increase in workload for leaders during the initial planning stages.
“If I walk into a face-to-face choir rehearsal tomorrow and we are working on six songs and people have the music and the word sheets, I stand in front of them, and we practise the song, it’s so straight forward! And you can improvise around your structure, you know, abandon one song if people aren’t getting it, or go to another….but when you are doing this online you have to have the materials all lined up ready to go and you have to keep on delivering, you have to keep talking and singing basically, so you’re on all the time.”
To compensate for this, Jeannie and ZING! are considering reducing the running time of their online rehearsals by half an hour. Jeannie is also planning to delegate online tasks to volunteers from within the group. “If somebody wants to take something on, ask them for help with the technical side of things like setting up a group space for example. I don’t want to be the one setting up the socials but there are plenty of people who would love that! For people with time on their hands, this gives them a supporting role in the same way that volunteers used to set out the tables and chairs in the room before choir. Or maybe they can be the person who sets a musical quiz for everyone or something along those lines.”
Recording and sharing backing tracks to enable singers to rehearse their parts at home is another thing Jeannie plans to provide. “I usually only start producing rehearsal resources halfway through a term, I’ll make little recordings. It’s time-consuming, I mean it’s straight forward and fun to do but it takes hours! I think leaders are going to have to produce backing tracks for people to sing along and harmonise with for practise at home in between sessions, especially if we’re charging money.”
With financial hardship hitting so many leaders and participants alike in this Covid-affected world, Jeannie is re-considering the financial structure of how she runs her choirs to find a way which works fairly for everyone.
“The last two weeks of term just became this weird thing which some people had already paid for, so how do we manage that? Do we make other activities available by way of compensation? And then do we charge less for online choir for term two? The advantage of running online groups from a leader’s perspective is you can have a virtually unlimited number of people, which could effectively also generate more money. On the other hand, people aren’t getting the same amount of experience as they would in a face to face scenario. Also many of them have lost their jobs and I want to make things more accessible than they have ever been, with so many people in trauma.”
One of Jeannie’s ideas is to implement a triple tiered payment system to attend choir. People who are able pay the full amount as normal, a discount is then available to anyone facing financial hardship, and finally, there is a rock bottom rate which is free.
“I think that’s the only way to go really: waged, under-waged and then rock bottom. But as the choir leader also has to live, I think it’s fine asking the people who can afford to pay, to do so, and subsidise those who are struggling.”
An advantage of migrating to online delivery is that ZING! now has people based regionally and interstate who couldn’t physically come to Melbourne before, who are able to join in.
“I feel really happy that this is happening, and I think all we need to do now is set up some payment structure. When people join one of these online sessions, I think it’s important to know that the person, whether it’s me or somebody else, is still trying to run a business here. This is the time we need to step up and really find creative ways to support each other.”
Jeannie is staying focussed on music as a way to navigate these strange times. She’s also supporting the local economy of the community where she lives.
“It’s a way to stop feeling so overwhelmed by everything, I hope. To focus on the things that are within our locality, or within our own skill set, things that we know how to do well, and deal with every day. Now is the time to look at how we spend our money, now is the time to buy that digital download, now is the time to buy CDs, support artists we love, now is the time to buy a ticket to a live streaming concert. And if purchasing things isn’t an option, send those artists an email or get in touch and simply say ‘I really love your work and I want to support you the best I can, through this time, what can I do for you?’ ”
CMVic’s ‘Growing Community Music’ project is gathering momentum! A part of this project is to investigate different models of training delivery for community music leaders that currently exist in other parts of the world.
Of particular interest to us is the possibility of using online courses to build skills and connect with other like-minded practitioners.
There is a lot to learn here and an interesting website for CMVic members and singing leaders to peruse (or indeed, subscribe to*).
providers Victoria Hopkins and Christine Mulgrew from the UK believe singing is
for everyone and that you don’t need degrees or diplomas before you can conduct
a choir. They are teaching from their own experience and are developing an
online community to share that experience.
Community Choir leaders are able to access the course by paying monthly,
6-monthly or annually.
was given a short period of free access to explore the website on behalf of
following topics (and more) are available to paying participants:
Stepwise course for
learning to lead a choir
Support and extension for
Use of short videos for
learning about a range of topics from basic conducting to performance planning
Live training Q&A
sessions with troubleshooting
Some repertoire available,
including warm-up plans
Online Peer exchange
was an interesting process for me because it threw into focus the unique
perspective of Community Music Victoria. I became aware of the areas of overlap
and commonality but also the points of difference in approach and philosophy
between the sort of online course CMVic might develop and Community Choir Professional’s
Areas of commonality
are a number of elements of the CCP that are aligned with CMVic understanding
and practice. Some are already mentioned above, eg: the notion that singing is
for everyone and that you don’t need a formal qualification to be a successful
professional choir leader.
It was reassuring to hear addressed the issue of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ in the first session. Additionally, there is useful practical advice for conducting, warm ups, being aware of posture and a toolkit of basic music theory to support the work of the choir leader; all provided in a friendly relaxed way.
Points of difference
course there is no single experience or course that is going to be perfectly
aligned with any individual and that will totally equip him or her to go into
the world as a newly minted community music leader.
take from all experiences and education settings the parts that resonate for us
and leave the parts that do not.
examination of the course was not in depth but I did not find any exploration
of ‘Why’. What do you want to achieve by starting a community choir? What are
the participants hoping to gain? What are the shared values of your group and
agreed behaviours? What sort of group do we want? What range of repertoire are
we interested in?
did not seem to be an acknowledgment that every individual who attends is a
resource and that the strengths of your participants will help to shape the
unique identity of your group.
course is servicing the needs of the choir leader; and that you as the choir
leader, will be the provider of all, rather than a collaborative approach that
empowers participants to take responsibility and have ownership of the group.
Perhaps the most obvious absence in the Community Choir Professional course is the CMVic belief that singing can be a shared activity that is an end in itself with performance being an optional extra.
Approach the Community Choir Professionals course with:
An already well established sense of purpose for yourself and your group
An understanding of the benefits to the individual and to the community,
An appreciation and respect for the participants of your group and the living resources that they are,
A sharing of responsibility for your group’s success with (possibly) co-leaders and participants
A succession plan for your group (even if it may be a long way off!)
A range of sources for new repertoire, a commitment to culturally appropriate material and a desire to contribute to local cultural growth
If you have the values underpinning your work, firmly in place you will be well equipped to add down to earth practical strategies and techniques to your tool kit from the ‘Community Choir Professionals’.
-Lyndal Chambers June 2019
Growing Community Music is a CMVic research project coordinated by Lyndal Chambers and Jane Coker, supported with funding from Helen Macpherson Smith Trust You can read more about the background of the project here. Join the Growing Community Music Facebook page and be a part of the journey! For a list of the regional consultation workshops taking place across Victoria in July and August, visit the Community Music Victoria website
*Should you decide to subscribe to the Community Choir Professionals website, please identify yourself as a member of CMVic (if appropriate) so that we can sustain and develop our new found connection.
James Rigby spent years driving past the mighty Murtoa Stick Shed in awe of its size and wondering how on earth the monolithic structure looming up out of the landscape could still be standing. He never imagined that one Spring day in 2017 together with Jane Thompson, he would lead around 300 community singers in a Big Sing under its cathedral-like roof of bush poles and corrugated iron.
The idea for a Stick Shed Sing was conceived by Judith Welsh, Chair of the Committee of Management which took over the running of the shed when it was gifted back to the community in 2016. The vision was to create an event to reflect the ambience and glory of the Heritage listed building and bring singing into the shed for the first time as part of Murtoa’s Big Weekend celebrations.
“We wanted an event that anyone could join in on but which gave local choirs, the singers from the Wimmera, an opportunity to perform as part of a massed choir, as well.”
As highly experienced community singing leaders, Jane Thompson and James Rigby expressed their interest in coordinating the event, working with Judith to decide a shape for the day, which included a massed singing workshop open to anyone keen to sing in the shed and a concert by any community choirs attending, who were happy to perform.
The first Stick Shed Sing was held in October last year, attracting a huge amount of interest from within the local community and further afield with around 6 full choirs performing at the concert and individual singers from many other choirs attending too.
“We had the signing choir from Horsham Primary School where AUSLAN is taught as a second language, which was lovely as it meant there was lots of children’s energy in the building too.”
The Signing Choir sign what they sing, culminating in a dance-like blend of a song’s rhythm and the natural gestures of the signs. This theatrical style of delivery is well suited to the vast, 270 metre-long Stick Shed where you can occupy as much space as physically possible and still feel incredibly small.
James and Jane found that facilitating singing of any sort in a space the size of the Stick Shed is not without challenge – all part of the excitement of being there. For a start, there is the all-important issue of acoustics.
“The shed is like a tent with an incredibly long, high pitched roof so the acoustics vary dramatically, whether you go in near the edges close to the roof, or whether you stand in the middle of it underneath the ridge, at which point the acoustics disappear. What we found was that about two-thirds out from the edge you hit this magic sweet spot where the natural reverb of the shed is really flattering to the singing and meant we could hear ourselves and, when singing as a group, what the group was sounding like.”
As luck would have it, this particular area of the shed is well lit by a line of skylights set into the roof enabling the singers to see all that is necessary whilst feeling a part of that beautiful big space, and with the added option of gazing at the clouds moving above them over the Wimmera.
For the workshop, James and Jane used ‘Here in the Stick Shed’ a short warm-up song written for the occasion by Jane, and a song about trees by Scott Wise called ‘Hold up the Sky’.
“We sang a beauty about trees and how they hold up the ground in mines, and on the land they hold up the road, and then when you get to the forest they hold up the sky. It’s a beautiful song about how trees prop up everything all around us and of course we’re standing in a shed where there’re these ridiculously tall little skinny mountain ash poles holding the whole thing up…”
For everyone involved in the Stick Shed Sing, James believes the first show stopper of the day was probably the magnificence and scale of the shed itself:
“You approach this massive looming building through the Wimmera wheat lands, it’s bright, it’s flat and then you go into the shed through this administrative area and suddenly you’re inside this dark and immense space… I can only say that it’s like walking into the most amazing, ancient cathedral in Europe, that’s the sense of scale and the sense of awe it inspires when you first walk in, you can’t quite believe it.”
The venue is too big to simply whip a vacuum or broom over, so a day before the community choirs and singers arrived armed with picnics and BYO seating, a street sweeper from the neighbouring shire was brought in and driven up and down to prepare the space. Pieces of conveyor machinery still hang from the ceilings in some spots, evidence of the shed’s industrial heritage.
On a personal and professional level, James and Jane were delighted to have assembled another group of community singers in such a unique setting.
“Jane and I have worked quite a bit in the North and the West of the state and had probably connected with a lot of the individuals who sang with us on that day at some point previously, but we hadn’t worked with any of the choirs before and had no idea of their skill levels, we were assembling a really diverse bunch of singers. In finding a song by an Australian songwriter which spoke about trees and then feeling like we were standing in a forest was a very powerful thing and it connected the people and the place and the music. On an emotional level it worked really well.”
James and Jane were mindful of the distance some of the singers had travelled to participate in the Stick Shed Sing, and due consideration was given to this in planning the concert element of the day:
“The trick of running an event with multiple choirs is to really balance the effort that choirs are making to get there with the opportunity to showcase what they do and what they’ve learned. You can’t ask a highly rehearsed hardworking choir to drive 3 hours to Murtoa and then only give them time for one song. Neither do you want to force a smaller choir, meeting less frequently, to get up and sing five songs. It’s a challenge to make sure we respect the capabilities and the ambitions of all of the choirs.”
The mighty Murtoa Stick Shed is a monument to an older time, built during the second world war to stockpile grain at a point when no steel was available, it is the world’s largest remaining timber-built shed and its iconic void is filled with echoes of its industrial past where the dust motes carry history as they drift in the shafts of light. It’s an evocative place with the capacity to emotionally move anyone stepping into it.
If you missed the opportunity to make the sticks ring last year, there’s an opportunity for community choirs and singers to do it all over again and make music together in this amazing space on Saturday October 6. With Jane overseas, James will be going in on his own this year but, as he says, he knows what the challenges are and is already genuinely excited and looking forward to stepping back into the Stick Shed’s phenomenal space:
“…there will be the need for some big moments. You have a big crowd in a big space and it’s very satisfying to have a go at filling that mighty venue with sound.”
Join James Rigby for the second Stick Shed Sing on Saturday October 6th, 2018. For more information and to express an interest in participating in the workshop and/or afternoon concert with your choir (or as an individual!) contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby
Main image: photo: National Trust @NTAV All other images supplied