Tag Archives: Community Singing

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

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

Choir singing can improve cognitive functioning among the elderly

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

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

photo: eberhard-grossgasteiger-iIFLDQmXPiw on unsplash.com

Ballarat Choral Society Researches Safe Ways of Singing Together Again

In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Society applied for funding from Regional Arts Victoria to conduct some research of their own. “What we were anxious about was that there didn’t appear to be any specific information coming through for choirs” says Merle Hathaway, President of the Ballarat Choral Society (BCS), a non-auditioned community choir with over 100 singers on the books.

“To just not sing any more is not really a good idea when you look at all of the health benefits associated with it. Our idea was to form a small team of people with expertise in all sorts of different areas to work out whether it was at all safe for us all to sing together and also to explore whether there was any sort of technology we could use which would enable us to sing in the one space.”

The resulting Singing Together Again (STA) team comprises Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University; civil engineer Michael Knowles, sound recording expert Rex Hardware, and BCS choir members Brian Sala, an electronics engineer; Musical Director Helen Duggan, and Merle, who is the project manager. “We got the grant and then realised that we didn’t have an epidemiologist on the team”, Merle laughs.  “We didn’t have anyone from the world of health at all. Somebody had heard Professor Catherine Dennis speaking so we asked her and to our surprise she said yes.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Professor Catherine Bennett, Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), Rex Hardware (sound engineer), Mike Knowles (civil engineer) and Merle Hathaway (project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


In this world-first project, the plan was always to share the findings with other singing groups and choirs.

“I came across a bunch of people singing in a park recently, all side by side and sharing the same piece of music. They were having a lovely time and singing at the top of their voices, but the way they were doing it was too risky and so we started to think it was time to begin sharing the findings of our research with singers and singing groups everywhere.”   

Over the course of the past year, the STA team has followed what’s been going on around the world and staying on top of the data emerging from world research around aerosol dispersal and voice projection, translating all of the associated findings and risks into a COVID safe plan that takes a whole range of things into account.

The findings of their research to date recommends singing in a well-ventilated space, limiting indoor singing time to 20 minutes, and spacing singers 2 metres apart with 3 metres between rows. Air movement and effective ventilation is key. BCS are also planning to conduct temperature checks at the door as a way to avoid complacency and as a reminder to themselves that the risk of infection is real and ever present.

Merle adds, “other advice from Professor Bennett has included using fans to blow out the space when you’re not in it during breaks between singing, when all of the singers have moved out of the rehearsal area. The time that you sing for is really critical too. Keep ‘solid singing’ to 20 minute blocks and then move out of the room and use fans to blast air through it before returning back in.”

Ballarat Choral Society is hunting for a space which fits this criteria and has even considering singing in underground car parks because they’re usually draughty spaces.  “In Ballarat the winters are quite cold so ideally we want to find a big space or a space that allows us to move from one place to another like a church hall attached to a church, or like the football oval where there’s indoor and outdoor spaces adjoining for singers to move between.”  

They were all set to try out a new venue – two adjacent halls – when the latest Victorian regulations postponed all gatherings for at least a week. The choir is also making a set of specially designed singers’ masks, with stiffening away from the face.

Merle and the team are also exploring ways to overcome the challenge of everyone effectively holding their parts whilst physically distanced. “We have some very strong singers and we also have people like me – I rely very heavily on the presence of having a very good singer behind me!”

One idea being considered is for singers to wear a headset which feeds the sound into a mixer and relays it back to the singers’ ears. While this would call for more funding, Merle is excited about the possibilities this technology could open up: “I think we could really have fun with it, we could try our underground carpark idea, each coming from different directions, we could try singing in the Botanic Gardens at a huge distance from each other like a flashmob while all remaining connected.”

To overcome the natural gravitational pull of navigating towards each other whilst singing, the BCS have found a lovely, low-tech solution to the problem. “A member has donated a set of sports field markers – yellow plastic discs – which we can place on the ground to give us all a nice bright reminder of where we should be standing!”

One thing which preoccupies Merle in the small hours of the morning is the hope that “we’ve got it right and what if we’ve got it wrong?”

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a live project, the findings being shared are what the team has discerned to date, and that precautions can be increased or reduced, for example the wearing of masks indoors, depending on the level of threat from COVID in the community at any point in time.

The STA team had expected to conclude their research in February but because of the fluidity of the whole situation, Merle believes that it is likely things will roll on beyond this point. As Merle says, when it comes to considering a world without any face-to-face community singing, “to do nothing is more risky; we’re better off to share what we know – to say it’s early days and to encourage other people to continue their own research as well… All we want to do is sing.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), and Merle Hathaway ((project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


Stay tuned to STA research findings, updates and outcomes by joining BCS mailing list: info@ballaratchoralsociety.com

Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Merle Hathaway, President of Ballarat Choral Society

‘Holy Night’: Celebrating Un-Silent Nights and the Holiness of Nature

During December in Australia, the summer nights are anything but silent. When we stop as the holidays start and feel able to enjoy moments of stillness and the time to listen as the sun sets, nature is audible in abundance all around us. The pobblebonks bonk, insects hum and buzz, and birds croon, squawk and call.

The wish to celebrate our gloriously noisy, midsummer nights motivated community singing leader, Rose Wilson, to write a version of Silent Night that is relevant to the festive season in Australia. Rose’s adaptation, Holy Night, is ethereal and beautiful. It sings of connection to the land and the spirituality of the season. It is a spinning, shimmering blank canvas onto which the listener can project memories of what has been and hopes for what is yet to come.

Rose, a community singing leader based in Newcastle, on the mid north coast of New South Wales, wrote and recorded the song as part of a bigger community project in her local area called The Christmas Bell.

“I remember thinking ‘well this is my opportunity to write and sing a Christmas carol, what is it going to say?’ I knew I wanted to do something around Silent Night and we have a dam and so many MANY frogs and I was sitting outside listening to them all, just thinking.”

Rose knew what she didn’t want to say. “I didn’t want to sing songs about presents or god, I could see all the things I didn’t want to say! Fortunately it emerged to me really clearly in the end.” Rose was keen to make her carol particular to Australia “but not shit.” Rose laughs.

“A lot of Australian Christmas carols don’t fill me with awe or pride or connection  and while I’m not religious I think the idea of a time to value something that is holy, whatever that means, or something which is bigger than us and something that is beautiful and allowing something to be awe-inspiring was what I was working towards. Doing something that felt powerful and big but that was in itself quite small. Then I realised that the nights in summer in Australia are absolutely not silent.”

Sitting in the dark and listening to the frogs, Rose was inspired to counteract the idea of Silent Night by playing all the noises filling the night sky. She went on to record all of the frogs and all of the insects and began playing these loops against the song, making up tunes and words and then ‘it happened’. “It emerged and clarified itself into two really clear partner songs.”

Rose continued to experiment, trying a version of Holy Night accompanied with harp and a version accompanied with piano but she found it was significantly more magic just using her voice and the backdrop of nature.

“I feel as though here in Australia we try to put the big energy of Christmas on top of a seasonal energy which is already really big because it’s the summer solstice – it’s huge, everything’s exploding! Couple that with the end of the year and our Christmases just feel so frantic because we’re not responding to the season.”

“All of our big holidays are seasonally wrong and so finding a way to acknowledge the bounty and the bigness of the life that is going on and being able to sit with a still energy, not a cold frozen energy, but an energy of awe and beauty and acknowledging its ‘holiness’ and its wonder was what I was thinking. All those kinds of thoughts.”

Rose felt ‘so grateful’ that her version of Silent Night – ‘Holy Night’ – emerged the way it did. “It ticked all the boxes I had. It acknowledges the traditional aspect of Christmas and something that’s particular to Australia without being crass or making me cringe.” Rose laughs again.

“It also references summer with a nod to the solstice and a time of reflection and holiness and beauty and the fact that we’re not the only things here. I like that the voice is so still and so calm and so flowing but the insects and the frogs are going crazy.”

The line that brings everything into focus for Rose is “with life singing that this is holy.

“It’s saying that this too is holy, we are nothing without acknowledging that we are part of something bigger and that aspect has a physicality and a life as well.”

The song was written and recorded during November and released as part of The Christmas Bell project in December.

The music, the frogs and the cicadas from Holy Night are now offered by Rose as tracks for sharing with the world, and she would like nothing more than for them to be picked up, used and shared in the spirit of the season.  

“I don’t know whether anyone else will sing it, a few bits are really high but I’ve just put it all out there in the hope that maybe somebody would like to sing it one day!”

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Kate Wilson

Rose Wilson: Photo supplied

Rose Wilson runs 5 community choirs, and pre-covid an additional 4 school choirs) Port Macquarie): mixed choirs, women’s choirs and mums and bubs choirs. She is also the founder of unscarysinging.com

Access Rose’s recordings and a three part harmony score of Holy Night to sing with your choirs and singing groups is available here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1p0ZLqgT7pIKsGd0VXBvHJSxAjYpNTYFs?fbclid=IwAR2obTS0CFOqCM5NIwbL80_5WAoriami-FWBrBAjHHHOUNmnVcp8YZebQ0E

The People’s Choir: Doing What It says on the Tin

“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 not really 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.”

For further information about The Peoples’ Choir, visit http://www.thepeopleschoir.com.au

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in conversation with Bettina Spivakovsky.

Photo of the singers supplied. Feature photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

 

Ringing The Changes With High Street Bells Choir

On Monday mornings through lockdown, the unique spirit of the High Street Bells Choir beams from monitors and screens across Melbourne as members of the choir congregate online, connecting with a rapport and familiarity arising from ten years singing together.

“Seeing everyone’s faces in gallery view is just fantastic” says Sally Green, co-founder and administrator of the choir. “I think a lot of people like me have enjoyed singing a lot more loudly than I usually would because nobody can hear me! We have some new ukulele players who are having fun playing at home and giving it more of a go than they would otherwise. You can make mistakes and it doesn’t matter.”

Ten years ago, Sally was managing a program for Melbourne City Mission in Northcote, working with people with acquired brain injuries. One day, there was a knock on the door and in walked community musician, Jenny Taylor.

“Jenny had just come from the Choir of Hard Knocks and was looking to start a choir in Darebin. We spoke for a couple of hours and hit it off. I said I’d take the idea for a choir back to the members to see whether they were interested and the answer was an overwhelming yes.”

Together with about 10 members, Jenny and Sally set up the High Street Bells Choir, an all abilities choir, open to everyone. Rehearsals began at the Uniting Church in the heart of Northcote on a Monday morning and have remained there since.

“Jenny suspected that many of our singers are forced to talk and think about their disability day to day because they rely on therapy and support to do everyday tasks. Choir is where all that disappears and becomes irrelevant .…people just come to sing. We want choir to be a holiday from thinking about deficits and constraints. Singing and belonging to a choir can feel incredibly liberating, especially for anyone whose days can be tough and challenging.”

The High Street Bells Choir is open to anyone, in particular people who may not be able to join a mainstream choir, and is supported by a number of dedicated volunteers who meet and greet and make the lunch. Sally explains:

“Initially most of our singers were people with an acquired brain injury. As our reputation grew, other people started joining. We don’t actually ask people if they identify as having a disability; we just ask if they need anything in particular to help them participate to their fullest. Sometimes newcomers can be anxious at first, but we try hard to figure out what will work best to help them settle in. Some choir members have been singing with HSBC for its entire ten years.”

Tanya has been singing with HSBC since its inception. Having previously had singing lessons at Rae’s School of Singing and Piano, Tanya was keen to join Sally and Jenny’s fledgling choir back at the very start and over the years has found many benefits in belonging to the group:

“For me, the choir is an outlet of expression and emotion… It can also be a platform for personal growth. Our brilliant choir leaders have such professionalism and enthusiasm, and they are extremely encouraging. Then there are the integral volunteers who make going to Choir in a wheelchair as easy, if not easier, than if I could walk.”

Celebrating 10 years of singing together. Tanya with Damien (photo supplied by HSBC)

Singing leader, Sarah Mandie, has been working with High Street Bells Choir for the past couple of years. Both Sarah and Sally feel the transition to Zoom has been a huge success. “It’s taken time to learn how to use the space and to maximise the sense of togetherness, but I think that’s happened and it’s really rewarding.”

There are still some singers who Sally hasn’t heard from since the choir migrated online. While technology has enabled most of the choir to come together, it can be a barrier if you don’t have a computer or a tablet or if you need help to use them. Some people have also had their support hours reduced during COVID-19 or their facilities have been locked down, which means they can lose touch with their communities and fall off the radar.

Sarah agrees, “For people with disabilities and their carers who are learning to use the programs and applications to get online and keep singing, it’s against all odds that we have been able to continue to do it and it feels even more meaningful.”

Sarah leading HSBC online (Source: HSBC Facebook page)

For Sarah, this affirms the importance of getting up, getting on and getting the most out of life and not taking things for granted. “Whether it’s on zoom or together in the church hall, everyone has different abilities, and we’re all there singing, and we’re loving it, and everyone gets this rewarding sense of belonging. Through working with HSBC I’ve learnt about diversity in different people and the importance of understanding and appreciating how everyone participates and shows their enjoyment of things in a different way… it’s super rewarding.”

Sarah commends the committee and the volunteers for working so hard to bring everyone together online, whether that’s ringing them to remind them each week or dropping an iPad to the home of a member who had previously been unable to join. “There had been people who fell through the cracks but they’ve come back and that’s amazing.”

Sarah leads HSBC every second week, alternating with ‘special guests’ including former HSBC leader, Chris Falk.

“We’re doing a mix of familiar repertoire and new songs like ‘Lockdown Blues’, which gives each member a chance to sing and a chance to talk. Last week’s session had a really lively, dynamic feel to it. I could see how people were feeling connected across the screens: everyone was participating and hearing each other’s voices. It’s taken time to adjust to this medium but I think everyone’s loving it.”

Sally considers herself “pretty lucky that I get to go to choir first thing on a Monday morning and spend time with a community of people who are really happy to be there; it’s just a lovely way to start the week.”

The current situation can’t have been how HSBC would ever have envisaged marking their decade of singing together, but Sally’s sentiment is echoed by Sarah nonetheless. “We’re realising that while things might be this way for a while, it’s still a really joyful thing to do on a Monday.”

-Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Julie, Sally, Sarah and Tanya from High Street Bells Choir

Feature image: Screenshot of High Street Bells Choir online session led by Chris Falk, supplied by High Street Bells Choir

For information about how to join High Street Bells Choir, visit their website or click here for the High Street Bells Choir Facebook Page