Tag Archives: Community Singing

The Peace Choir: A Sanctuary of Song in Castlemaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Threshold Choir Tecoma offers Songs for the Dying

For the close-knit community in the hills above Melbourne, comfort and support in the form of song will soon be available to those on the threshold of life, offered by a fledgling new group of singers, Threshold Choir, Tecoma, led by experienced singing leader, Barb Mcfarlane.

“I went to the Sacred Edge Festival about four years ago and there was a singing session which, of course, I went to. The woman leading it was from the Threshold Choir in Melbourne. Speaking with her afterwards I was fascinated by the idea of singing for the sick and the dying and immediately wanted to be part of it, but Melbourne Threshold Choir meets on a Wednesday night which is when my choir Vokallista rehearses.”

Barb let the idea ride for a while until the subject came up again in conversation with her friend, Christina Reeves, who is a trained death doula. A death doula supports the person who is dying and their loved ones in whatever way is required to come to terms and be able to deal with what is happening. Christina shared and encouraged Barb’s excitement about the idea of a Threshold Choir and the possibility of forming one based in the hills. And so, this particular story begins.

‘The Mother Ship’ as Barb calls it, is the Threshold Choir established in California in 2000, by a woman called Kate Munger. The Threshold Choir is a secular organisation run by volunteers which supports people all over the world to establish their own chapter of the choir with the shared goal ‘to bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying’.

Permission to sing Threshold Choir songs is granted only to members of the organisation. There is no set rate to join; singers pay what they are able or would like to, from one dollar upwards. This membership facilitates access to tips, mentorship and a cappella singing resources to support them in their journey.

It was important to Barb to feel completely at ease with the rules set by the Threshold Choir before introducing any of her singers to the organisation. “I thought about going maverick and doing it my way, then I thought some more. The Threshold Choir Mother Ship has many beautiful songs which are tested, tried and trusted. They also offer mentoring support meaning if something happens I can contact my ‘coach’ or anyone else I meet through that network, and say, ‘hey look, this happened…what would you have done?’ It’s a way to de-brief and check in. On balance it’s worth it for the peace of mind.”

Barb’s coach, Cathy, is based in the US and mentoring is possible via Skype and email. Cathy has been available to Barb since the inception of her initial idea through to the launch of Threshold Choir, Tecoma. It’s an ongoing relationship and she offers Barb mentoring and advice on some of the more common questions which come up, and advises how to prepare the singers for the emotional aspect of what they’re preparing to do.

Barb knows that it’s difficult for anyone to know what to expect in the emotional sense: “There’s a huge range of possibilities to prepare for in a room where someone’s dying.” Threshold Choir, Tecoma rehearsals runs for three hours and at the end Barb finds people are keen to stay and keep talking and singing.  “It’s common for people to feel that we’ve lost the art of talking about death and dying and the experience of belonging to the Threshold Choir allows a way for the singers to reconnect with memories and share their own experiences of bereavement and loss should they wish to do so, or if they find grief and emotion is triggered by what they are doing. It’s a safe, empathic space where people are free to open up. If you bring it out by way of tears and having other people listen it’s always a healthy process.”  

Having spent a year familiarising herself with the material, Barb now has 15 Threshold Choir songs which she’s taught to her group. “We sing them for a long time, each of them might be the length of a Short Stuff style song, and we’ll sing that for around 15 minutes.”  

As somebody highly experienced in leading community choirs and singing groups, having guidelines to follow has required some adjustment for Barb. “I’m still getting my head around how to behave within the rules, cos that’s a bit of a challenge for me, I’m used to doing my own thing, but I also feel protected by it as well because they’ve all been doing it for a very long time.”

In preparing for a session, Barb sets up a circle with a reclining chair covered with a blanket and cushions in the middle. The singers are then invited into the centre to experience the sensation of being sung to for themselves. “We’ve taken a lot of time to do that. We’ll sing for a good 20 minutes to give the person in the chair the feeling of what they might be giving to someone else when they go out and start singing. We then allow for some space and listen to whatever they might want to share about sensations or how they felt.”

Threshold Choir guidelines suggest that singers go out in groups of 2-4 to avoid crowding  out a space. Most hospital rooms and private bedrooms aren’t able to accommodate more singers than that without their presence becoming overwhelming. This means that the singers who attend not only have to be confident in singing their parts but need to be able to hold it on their own, which is what takes the time for most people.

Barb now has around 30 singers who’ve been to gauge whether singing in a Threshold Choir is something they think they could do, with a good core of 12 coming along to most sessions. She’s happy to allow for a slow build of interest, the work may not be for everyone. Barb’s also working to factor in obsolescence for herself in order to ensure longevity for the group. As an ongoing part of rehearsals, Barb models and shares solid CMVic Singing Leadership skills, offering others in the core group the opportunity to teach and lead songs, encouraging them to develop their own skills in leading rehearsals and eventually, to deliver the actual work with people in the community.

The services of the Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be available for people in Palliative Care at home, or in a hospice. The songs may also be used as a way for soothing the room down after somebody has passed. Effects of the singing are reported as calming, peace inducing and pain relieving for the person who is ill, for their relatives, for the staff if the person is in a facility and, of course, for the singers themselves. 

Living in such a connected community, Barb foresees a high demand for the services of the Threshold Choir Tecoma in time and is hopeful to have enough singers available to manage a roster service available to voluntarily sing for the sick, the dying and their families. 

This weekend, Christina Reeves, Death Doula, is heading up a ‘Dying to Knowexpo being held in the Hills (August 8-11). The focus of the weekend is to explore ways to ‘create a world where we all know what to do when someone is sick, dying or grieving’. Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be singing at this event and Barb will host immersion sessions on Sunday 11th August for anyone keen to experience the songs or who would like to try singing with the group and find out further for themselves, what this incredible service is all about.

Written by Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, and Barb Mcfarlane for Community Music Victoria.

Photo by Bobby Stevens on Unsplash

Stand up for justice with ‘Every Dollar’, a fair trade song.

It takes just over four days for a CEO from the top five companies in the garment sector to earn what an ordinary Bangladeshi woman garment worker earns in her whole lifetime. Source: Oxfam International

When faced with a bargain, it’s tempting to overlook the uncomfortable question of who’s actually picking up the tab if we’re not paying a fair price for what goes into our bag.  Employees at garment factories work six days a week, often for less than USD$1 per hour. Workers are under pressure to meet daily targets and work long days with barely any breaks and their health and safety is not considered a priority by their employers.

In a bid to increase awareness of this exploitation and to address the inherent power we hold as consumers, community singing leaders and musicians, Jessie Vintila, and Emma Royle, wrote a song called ‘Every Dollar’.

The goal of the song is for singers and audience to actually change the way they are shopping, and to be inspired to notice their power and to use that power for good.

In the words of Jessie, “it’s about going ‘wow every time I spend a dollar, I’m communicating something, I’m either communicating, ‘yay’ I want that business to succeed, or I really don’t want that business to succeed… We go along being complicit and supportive of a whole lot of things that, if we stopped to think about, we’d find morally reprehensible.”

Jessie’s community choir, ‘Raise the Roof’ sang Every Dollar at Mullumbimby Music Festival in 2016. Throughout the course of rehearsing and performing the song, many of the singers told Jessie how their experience of learning and singing the words was actually changing the way they shopped and many were switching to fair trade options, where they could.

This is precisely the outcome Jessie and Emma had hoped would happen each time the song is taught, learned, sung and heard. While progress in the bigger picture can feel slow, Every Dollar is a reminder about taking small steps in the right direction and doing what we can as a community to support the liberty and rights of workers in the clothing industry and beyond, whenever we can. The recent announcement by Kmart, Cotton On and Target to ‘strengthen their commitment to a living wage for their clothes makers in response to the Oxfam initiative, ‘What she makes’ is testimony to the effectiveness of this approach. These outcomes are in direct response to action and pressure from shoppers who have had enough of the injustice.

Jessie applauds consumer activism of this nature: “What I love about consumer power is that you don’t have to be fighting; you don’t have to be campaigning, you don’t actually have to be doing anything other than making conscious choices when spending your money. And you know you’re doing something really powerful but it doesn’t give you the burn out feeling that other forms of activism can do over time. It’s completely sustainable at a personal level.”

Jessie and Emma were thorough in their research for the song and the verses about Ranya the seamstress and Abdul the cotton picker from India are both based on real stories and statistics.

Activism runs in Jessie’s blood. She grew up in an environment where accountability and sound ethics were highly valued. “I remember as a child, a friend of my parents’ being all excited about finding a woman down the road in a suburb of Perth who worked in a Vietnamese clothing place and could make t-shirts. At the time I didn’t get why she was so excited about what I thought were these really boring T-shirts!”

Jessie’s now adamant about sourcing fair trade clothing herself and has t shirts for her Raise the Roof choirs and her Sing the Camino* tours made by fair trade manufacturers. This anecdote about T-shirts is a lovely testimony to the outcome of conduct and influence. The repercussions of the choices we make and the effect of the songs we sing ripple out into the world in ways we can never know.  So, in the words penned by Jessie and Emma, lets ‘Stand up for justice, Turn every dollar to good’. (Full song below)

Every Dollar                      Lyrics: Emma Royle & Jessie Vintila
Music from Rarely Herd’s version of Mary Don’t You Weep (Spiritual)

Chorus

Every dollar sends a message
Every dollar plays a hand
For somebody somewhere
Think of the people and the land
Oh, well singin’, if I could
You know that I should, I surely should
Stand up for justice, stand up for justice
Turn every dollar to good

Well Ranya was a seamstress
In a Dhaka factory
Worked fifteen hours seven days of the week
Can’t feed her family

Well Abdul picked the cotton
In the fields of Gujarat
Eight years old, twelve hours a day
Forced out of school to work

Well Wendy clothes her family
From her favourite shops in town
Pays the money never stopping to think
How they keep their prices down

Every dollar sends a message
Every dollar plays a hand
For somebody somewhere
Think of the people and the land
Oh, well singin’, if I could
You know that I should, I surely should
Stand up for justice, stand up for justice
Turn every dollar to good

References:
https://whatshemakes.oxfam.org.au/
https://www.vox.com/2018/2/27/17016704/living-wage-clothing-factories
https://www.oxfam.org/en/even-it/one-pair-shoes-we-make-valued-more-our-whole-months-salary

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Jessie Vintila. Thank you, Jessie! 

*You can ‘Sing the Camino’ with Jessie Vintila in Brunswick on Saturday, 23 March: 2-5pm! (Hosted by the Brunswick Rogues Choir). Info and bookings: https://www.singthecamino.com/singing-workshops.html

The story of ‘Lingmarra’ and the CMVic network

**This article and the following story contains references to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who have died. It also contains words from the language of Australian Kriol. Permission has been sought and given for its use in this context.

Lingmarra, a beautiful song about coming together was brought to the CMVic network by  Barlang T. E. Lewis*, a Murrungun man, actor, singer and songwriter from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, who first learned it as a traditional song from the Dalabon Corroborree, Bongiliny Bongiliny.

Lingmarra is a song which enchants singers and listeners alike and one which Flip Case, a Melbourne based singing leader has taught to singing groups many times:

“It’s a song that feels ethereal and earthy at the same time, there’s something elemental about it, you feel transported by it and my choirs always respond to it really strongly.”

A couple of years ago, Flip was covering a session with Sue Johnson’s Prana Choir and decided to sing the song with them as she’d recently been teaching it to her own choir.

At the end of the session, a woman called Victoria approached Flip and explained how her partner had been involved in the arrangement of the song, working in collaboration with Barlang T. E. Lewis and another singer-songwriter, Melanie Shanahan.

Flip was immediately intrigued.

“I’d actually only really known the song through Melanie and I thought, wow, that’s an important thing to know about”.

It transpired that Victoria’s partner is Stephen Costello who was then Coordinator of the Community Music Forum and later the Executive Officer of Community Music Victoria. Flip set herself a mission: Work with Stephen to capture the story of how the song was arranged as a way to preserve the provenance of Lingmarra for all of the leaders singing and sharing it, in the CMVic network and beyond.

 “It’s important to have as much understanding as we can. We’re always talking about provenance and recognition of a song’s origins and whether we’re allowed to use songs for the general population and whether it’s appropriate to use it.”

As so often happens in life, for one reason and another, the two never quite got around to the task. Then, following the sad news of  Barlang T. E. Lewis’ passing last year, Flip decided it was time: “I thought, Stephen’s the last one to really tell the story of how that song came about”.

Below is a version of Lingmarra overlaid with lyrics by Barlang T. E. Lewis; upon listening to this version, the way he extends it becomes clear. (From this point on, the story becomes a personal recollection, and Barlang T. E. Lewis is referred to as ‘T’.)

Stephen explains, “T added to the traditional song in so many ways. The call to the young people Aair yawodi is his idea and this is Kriol. When the old people sing Lingmarra gumbah they are not sad. They are having fun. T added his story to the song, which is about his search for his brother, but also about travelling through his “church”, the country and communities of southern Arnhem land.”

The version of Lingmarra taught by Melanie and included in the CMVic Songbook, Sing itis the chorus of the song, “part traditional and part T”.

What follows then is an account by Stephen of his part in the arrangement of the song as it was sung by Barlang T E Lewis, written in response to Flip’s quest.

Lingmarra Story, as told by Stephen Costello

“Before Community Music Victoria was incorporated, there was a group called the Community Music Forum and we operated under the auspice of the Community Arts Network (Victoria). In 1990 I was the Coordinator of the ‘Forum and one of the first events we held was called “Everything you wanted to know about Aboriginal Music but were afraid to ask”. (Barlang) T. E. Lewis was our guest speaker. He was well known as an actor (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) and as a musician with Lewis and Young (didgeridoo and clarinet) and his own original band, ‘The Anthropologists’.

T was brilliant, honest, charming, compelling and generous with listening to our questions and responding with stories and facts. This was the beginning of our friendship and collaboration.

As I shook T’s hand in appreciation after the ‘Forum, he said “Stephen. Let’s do something really big together.”

I joined The Anthropologists as a guitarist. I travelled to Canberra with T for a Music Council of Australia Conference. In the car T sang the Country as we drove along. In the hotel room we co-wrote This is My Country. A few years later, Community Music Victoria was formed, and then Melanie Shanahan came to town. CMVic backed Melanie to stage The Choral Sea in the Great Hall of National Gallery of Victoria. T and I taught This is My Country to Melanie and Melanie taught and conducted the massed community choirs. This was in the late 1990s.  (It was a bit before the Great Southern Sounds Festival and the Millennium Chorus.)

Community Music Victoria won a grant from the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council to support T to record his music. T and I played with The Anthropologists and we started to work with classical guitar and didgeridoo. T had bought a new F# didgeridoo (called Bambu or Yidaki in Yolngu country) and we started to harmonise with this.  I asked Melanie Shanahan to work with T on some of his songs in the development and pre-recording stage.

The three of us worked out simple harmonies for three songs. Lingmarra, with the F# Yidaki was one of these. At this stage it was just a chorus with guitar and Yidaki in between. Then T had to go home to southern Arnhem Land to help out during some major flooding around Beswick (Wugularr) and the Roper River. He came back to Melbourne inspired and knowing that he was needed in his community at Beswick (Wugularr). But first we had to get into the studio to record.

I put down the guitar part for Lingmarra, and then T, Mel and I sang the choruses. T said “I can sing over that”. Melanie and I and the sound engineer were treated to an improvised one-take recording where T sang his heart out. The playful calling together, Lingmarra, lingmarra gumbah became instead a deeply heartfelt searching for T’s lost brother. T re-voiced his time travelling around Arnhem Land searching for his left-handed brother (ballajugor). He calls for all the young people (yawadi) to help him, to walk and sing with him calling the spirit (warral) to come and be with him.

This is mostly in the Kriol spoken in this part of the Northern Territory. Thanks to Gloria Lane from Beswick (Wugularr) for her partial translation of the song. Kriol is a new language developed by multilingual Aboriginal people. It uses many English sounds, because English is the language of the colonialists, the pastoralists and the missionaries, but also words and ideas from the old languages of the people drawn to Beswick (Wugularr). These languages are Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Mialli, Ritharngu/Wagaluk, Jingili, Gorindji, Ngalakan, Marra, and Nungulbuyu. Kriol is the meeting place language between all of these and English.

I will keep working with Gloria to get a fuller translation and a deeper understanding. Why is T calling only the young people to help in this search? Is it to show respect to the old people, who we have no right to ask to help? I think so. Does T call his brother “the left-handed one” and not use his name because he suspects he has died and therefore he can’t use his name? Or is it just the game people play in Arnhem Land of not using names because they are more interested in relationships and kinship and skin names? It will be fun to find out.

What we do know is that Melanie taught the chorus of the song in schools and to community choirs all over Australia, and it has become part of our folk tradition with the continued support of Community Music Victoria. That’s the part of the Lingmarra story that I know about.”

-Stephen Costello 

Deep gratitude to both Stephen Costello and Flip Case for bringing this beautiful story into the light and sharing it with the CMVic network.

Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria. 

*In recognition of his extraordinary life, the family of  Barlang T. E. Lewis has given permission for the use of his image and voice by the media.

Further links to Lingmarra

Auslan signing for the song “Lingmarra” as part of the VoiceMob project, produced by Yarra Ranges Council.


Further reading:

The Conversation: ‘Explainer: the largest language spoken exclusively in Australia – Kriol’ 
https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-largest-language-spoken-exclusively-in-australia-kriol-56286

Community Music: finding your place, finding your voice

It started with a milestone birthday and an unexpected, life-changing gift: a three-day singing workshop at the Body Voice Centre in Footscray.

This was not something I had ever asked for. Frankly, it was terrifying. Not only singing, but also improvisation and “exploring extended voice.” All that… in front of people… without the comfort of a loud, late-night karaoke backing track, or friends who had checked their dignity at the bar earlier in the evening.

When I look back on this three-day journey from awkwardness to awakening, two moments resonate. Firstly, a bell-strike of wisdom from the teacher, Linda Wise: “Find you place and you will find your voice.” At the time I took this to be a call to first listen to the sonic space – i.e. to tune into your emotional and physical surroundings – before beginning to improvise. I thought, “That’s all well and good, but I was scared to sing anything at all. What if I was out of pitch? What if the sound was ugly or uninteresting or ruined others’ enjoyment of the exercise?…”

As an acutely perceptive and experienced teacher, Linda could see these thoughts causing me to take what she called a “panic breath” – constricting my throat – just as I was about to sing. She could see how my fear of judgment was robbing me of my voice. Linda’s solution was partly physiological – having a colleague press gently down on my larynx while I sang until I could feel how to stop pushing against his fingers. It was also subtly psychological – replacing my fear of being judged with a curious mindset, open to learning and expressing whatever it is that my unique voice can do. This was my first step toward finding my voice.

The second moment was being heartily encouraged to join my local community choir (by the same person who had been pressing down on my larynx just a few hours earlier – CMVic stalwart and singer, improviser, performer extraordinaire John Howard). I knew nothing about group singing or harmony but was keen to try out my newfound instrument.

That summer my world was tipped upside down. My job was made redundant, I gave up on my calling as an academic, my marriage ended, I sold the family home and moved my things into an apartment of my own. Though I had found my voice I had now lost my place. I no longer knew who I was or how to find my way.

In this topsy-turvy state I arrived at Brunswick Rogues choir for Term 1. The friendliest welcome opened onto the most joyful 2 hours of singing, which immediately became the highlight of each week. I gained a new circle of friends and admission to the sublime world harmony singing. 40+ voices resonating together is felt so much more in the body than in the ears; and this provided much needed physical and emotional therapy as I gradually came to once again find my place.

This new place I now know as “community music”, and I take every opportunity to join CMVic camps, workshops and events. I now sing in many groups (from a Junkman’s choir to Madrigals and a band with the wonderful Nicki Johnson).

Group singing, along with the values of CMVic, have become part of who I am and how I find my way.

While I still have much to learn from the very practical wisdom shared by the CMVic elders, I know it is worth the journey, each time I experience the power of the circle in which we can each find our voice and find our place.

By Craig Barrie for Community Music Victoria

 

 

Big Sing in a Big Shed under a Big Sky puts Murtoa on the Community Music Map… and it’s happening all over again

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.

Jane and crowd

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.

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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 JaneJames 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.”

 James guitar

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 office@makingmusic.com.au  

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby
Main image: photo: National Trust @NTAV All other images supplied

Songs and strong bonds: The community choir celebrating a half-century of harmony

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‘Morefull’ The Maroondah Singers in concert.  Photo supplied

John Williams has been singing for 80 of his 90 years on the planet. Growing up on a farm on the Mornington Peninsula, there was little opportunity to express himself musically and John really had no idea he could sing. “The headmaster of the school would bring in a local girl to sing with us all once a week, My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Rule Britannia, that kind of stuff. When we moved to Mitcham, my mother and I joined the local Methodist Church choir and I started singing alto alongside my mother at the age of 10.”

John has been singing ever since and was a key player in the founding of the Mitcham based Maroondah Singers, which this month celebrates its 50th anniversary as a mixed voice community choir.1 It has encouraged young singers starting out and provided end of life care, too. It is a living, breathing singing entity as vital now as it was half a century ago, and it owes its origins, in part, to John.

“I was there before Maroondah Singers even existed”, he laughs.

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John Williams, singing for 80 years and a founding member of the Mitcham based  Maroondah Singers

The idea for a choir came about through a conversation between John and his good friend, George Irvine. At the time, George wrote a weekly column in the Nunawading Gazette, called ‘As it appears to me’ where he would comment on various social issues relevant to the City of Nunawading. George also worked in the same place as John in South Melbourne and the two men would often travel home together, putting the world to rights as they went:

“I found that usually, whatever we talked about on the way home would appear in the newspaper the week after next where he’d say ‘my friend John says’… I got used to it!”

One of their conversations was about what had happened to all the good choirs. A subsequent column posing the same question elicited a strong response from within the community so the following week George suggested trying to set up something locally and called a public meeting to gauge the level of interest. He hired a space in the Old Orchard Shopping Centre in North Blackburn, set a date and promoted it through the newspaper.

Coincidentally, at that same time, the Mitcham Methodist Church had moved to join the Presbyterians in a joint building venture which had just achieved completion. The very night that George called for the choir meeting, the Mountview Church property committee was meeting to allocate space for community rent.

“I should have been at that committee meeting but I apologised and went over there (to join George) Well, when we looked around and saw the number of people who were enthusiastic about the idea of starting a group, we realised things were going to roll.  The meeting continued with everyone agreeing that Monday night would suit, if only a space could be found.”2

Experiencing a light bulb moment, John told everyone to talk amongst themselves, then hopped in his car and gunned over to the Property Committee meeting. “I rushed in, said, ‘Have you finished the meeting? Do you have any space on a Monday night? With a piano?? Yes? Yes!’ ”

The first rehearsal of the Maroondah Singers was held in Mountview Church Hall the following Monday night in 1968, and has continued as a weekly event ever since. Numbers grew quickly under the leadership of Jim Watsford who, at that time, was conductor of the Mitcham Choral Society:  “Jim came to that meeting in the hope of securing recruits for MCS.  Instead, he got a whole new choir!”

Following Jim’s belief, “if you can follow the words you can sing” the Maroondah Singers was destined to be a success.

Within twelve months the choir had given its first performance with George publicising the event through the newspaper once again, and John continuing to use his powers of persuasion to recruit Lela Wright, his church organist as their first accompanist. (She stayed ten years.)

Fifty years on, and the Maroondah Singers has sung at venues all over Victoria including the MCG for a grand final, for nine years as part of Carols by Candlelight, the Myer Music Bowl, regional church halls, the Dallas Brookes Centre, and Melbourne Town Hall, among others. The Singers is an inclusive and welcoming bunch and Monday night rehearsals are open to anyone keen to drop by and listen. It isn’t essential to read music and there are no auditions, however there is a voice and ear test to determine a singers’ part.

“We’ve never said no – we’re full, to anyone who has wanted to join so we have a lot of sopranos and could do with more tenors. There are more women than men in the choir and a couple of them have moved from the alto line to sing tenor, which works well. And we’re always trying to find younger people, if we can.” Some members of the Maroondah Singers weren’t even born when George and John held that first public meeting, half a century ago!

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Carols by Candlelight circa 1984: Courtesy: Arts Centre Melbourne, Laurie Richards Archive, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Since 1991, young singers have been drawn to the choir each year through a scholarship program established to commemorate three of the choir’s founders, George Irvine, and May and Mervyn Vagg, the choir’s first President. This program has proved a sensational singing springboard with past scholarship singers now working with international and State operas, and the process and experience providing a huge amount of pleasure to the choir members in supporting and encouraging these young singers during the early stages of their musical journeys.

Maroondah Singers pride themselves on performing from memory, firing on all neurological cylinders and giving their brains a weekly work out with songs from a wide repertoire by composers from Handel and Verdi to Rodgers and Hammerstein; Elton John to Billy Joel and beyond.

Currently directed by Lyn Henshall and accompanied by Dr John Atwell (who returned in 2010 for a second stint with the choir having previously accompanied them between 1980 and1997) the choir also sings in Japanese, Italian and Latin, and holds an impressive back catalogue including ‘Big Sings’ such as Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah and Handel’s Messiah. From time to time the singers team up for performances with other choirs and their comrades in the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra.

There is no pressure on anyone to ‘perform’ until they feel confident and ready to take this step.

“Everyone is issued with a CD with their part line, explains John, in my case Bass 1, emphasised in a digital recording of the score. All the items for the forthcoming concert are on that CD. Alternatively, they can be downloaded as an MP3 file. Playing these through with the music reinforces the memory, then without the music which strengthens it further.”

Innovation is an important contributor to longevity and the Maroondah Singers is enterprisingly equipped to hit the road and share its songs, thanks to a pop-up tiered platform designed to hold up to 100 singers. Bringing his background in engineering to the fore, John drew up designs for the staging, held a working bee at a college woodworking centre one weekend, and the end result packs down into a trailer, perfect for regional touring.

John’s commitment to the Maroondah Singers and his love of singing and community is evident. For the past 50 years he’s helped out in various ways to keep things going with the choir when needed, including as President for thirteen years and stepping up on the rostrum as leader for a while, in spite of a physical disability in one arm:

“I got the message over, I couldn’t wave two hands about all over the place but I could wave one, nod my head and smile. I get a lot of satisfaction from singing, I get a lot of satisfaction from conducting…. it was deeply satisfying to have to step up at short notice to conduct 104 singers to an audience of 800.”

His warmth and dedication is clear. Every choir needs a John.

Strong endorphin fuelled bonds have been forged between the Maroondah Singers members over the years as they do in all community choirs. When former member, Bill Holmes, was forced to retire due to ill health, he struggled without any family to look after him. ‘Team Bill’ came together from within the choir and closed ranks around him:

“We took care of him in his home until his health deteriorated to a point he could no longer stay. We were fortunate to get  him into respite care. We were then able to continue to support Bill until he died in January this year. We saw him through and the four of us were at his bedside singing to a Maroondah Singers CD to him as he died. We knew he could hear us even though he was in and out of consciousness. And we sang him out.”

What greater testimony could a community choir have? At the end of the day, we sing together to connect. It’s the connections we forge whilst doing what we love that enrich our lives and extend out into the wider community, strengthening the quality of its fabric for everyone.

The story and spirit of the Maroondah Singers is certainly one to celebrate. Here’s to John; here’s to each and every one of the Maroondah Singers, past present and future and here’s to the next fifty years of singing and music making in Mitcham and in communities everywhere.

Written by Deb Carveth with thanks to John Williams and Nick Hansen

1: John was also the founding member of the Methodist Youth Singers
2: there were 45 people present at the public meeting called by George Vagg in 1968

*The Maroondah Singers will celebrate a special 50th Anniversary concert on Sunday June 17 at Melba College Theatre, 20 Brentnall, Road, Croydon starting at 2.30pm. The spectacular concert will feature the choir’s past four Vocal Scholars. Tickets are $30 Adult, $25 Concession, under 12 Free. Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com/373628. Contact: Anne on 0422 050 323.

 

 

How an Ancient Singing Tradition Helps People Cope With Trauma in the Modern World

In Finland, lament singing is experiencing a revival, one sad song at a time.  Tristan Ahtone

“I took pills for my depression

just to smother my emotions.

Doctors said that I would need them,

but I learned to cry without them.

So I stopped taking the tablets,

then I let my feelings rise up

for my mother when she passed on,

for my marriage when he quit me,

left me as a single mother,

with a hard job and no weekends.

Now I weep without taking pills,

yet I still feel very angry,

and the fury seems well-founded,

but the feelings will not hurt me.”

Excell’s lyrics may be modern, but the style of singing comes from an older place.

“Lament [singing] is a very old, traditional way to express your feelings,” says Fihlman, a lament teacher and matriarch of the group. “If you are hurt or you have sorrows or you want to express your feelings, you cry it out. You let it come out. That’s what they would do in the old times.”


In Finland, the ancient musical tradition known as lament singing is seeing a revival.

In the past, the custom was observed at funerals, weddings, and during times of war. But today, practitioners have a modern application for it: musical therapy. By providing an opportunity to process emotions through song, lament singing can confer mental health benefits to modern practitioners.

“[In lament] people can express themselves,” Fihlman says. “Very often people [in my courses] make laments of their grief. They miss their parents or they have troubles in their marriage or maybe they were hurt in childhood and they never had a chance to bring it up.”

While the custom resembles many “new age” practices, Finnish lament singing has a feature that those neo-spiritual systems don’t: It teaches a tradition specific to the region instead of borrowing from other cultures.

Originally, the tradition wasn’t about emotional healing.

“The function of [lament singing] was to establish positive contact with your ancestors, the dead, and help them in some way,” says Jim Wilce, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University and author of numerous books and papers on lament singing around the world. Originally, he says, the tradition wasn’t about emotional healing.

Which, according to Wilce, is what makes the revival so unique.

“In every traditional lament … you have a connection with what I call ‘the divine powers,’” says Eila Stepanova, a folklore studies Ph.D. at the University of Helsinki. “[This isn’t] a Christian god. It’s something in between—an older layer of traditional beliefs.”

While lament singing exists in communities from Bangladesh to New Zealand, according to Wilce, and has even been documented in the ancient poem “Beowulf,” the form being practiced in Finland has its roots in the area now known as the Republic of Karelia—the region on the Russian side of the Finnish border. Stepanova says the traditional laments—sung for funerals, weddings, war—were performed to help people move from one world to the other, be it to the land of the dead, to a new family, or to the battlefield. At ceremonies for the dead, for instance, laments were sung to wake deceased members of the family in the other world to meet new arrivals.

But traditional laments weren’t simply a style of song: They were a unique language in which nothing was ever named directly.

In lament singing, positive descriptions are used: Things are sweet, light, bright, dear, or wonderful.

“For example, you have substitute names for all personal relations [and] for objects or phenomenons,” says Stepanova. “So in lament language, when you talk about your mother, you don’t use the word mother. You say, ‘the dearest woman who brought me [into] the sweetest world who carried me,’ or ‘my dear carrier,’ or ‘my dear cherisher.’”

Other examples include the sun, which can be called a “golden disk,” or arms, which can be called “shoulder branches.” And in lament singing, positive descriptions are used. Things are sweet, light, bright, dear, or wonderful. The one exception is any description of the lamenter herself.

“She is always the miserable [one]. She never says the word ‘I,’” explains Stepanova. Instead, when describing herself, the lamenter might say she’s the “miserable body,” “woman of great sorrows,” or “body made of tears.”

Stepanova’s mother published the first lament dictionary in 2004 documenting approximately 1,400 different metaphors for words used in the songs. Like any language, it’s evolving with modern times. Cars can be “headless horses,” phone calls can be “messages that come through metal strings,” and televisions can be “talking boxes.”

But while Finland is seeing a revival—instructor Fihlman says she has conducted nearly 200 courses with almost 2,000 students—other parts of the world are seeing a decline in the traditional practice.

Lament singing existed in rural communities for generations, but it was viewed as a pagan tradition.

Wilce says that around the world lament singing is threatened. In Bangladesh, for instance, practitioners often face physical violence in rural Muslim societies.

“People are being shamed by their relatives,” says Wilce. “By fundamentalist Christian missionaries in Papua New Guinea and [in] other places by the values of rationality and urbanizing modernity.”

Yet in Finland, the tradition is blossoming, despite a history that has often threatened its survival. In Karelia, Fihlman says that lament singing existed in rural communities for generations, but it was viewed as a pagan tradition by Orthodox and Lutheran Christians and often driven underground. Urbanization also threatened the continued existence of lament singing. In the last century, as young people moved away from their hometowns to find jobs and schooling in cities, villages began to disappear, along with lament singers. And in the early days of the Soviet Union, authorities often employed lament for ideological and propaganda efforts, creating laments that expressed support for the Soviet system and its leaders.

Stepanova says that, eventually, only old people told ancient stories and sang antique laments. “They were museum items, and they stopped being a living tradition among people,” she says.
But somehow, adds Fihlman, it survived. “We don’t have those old people anymore,” she says. “But [now] we have this new generation.”

Minna Hokka wore a candy-striped turtleneck sweater in chartreuse, cream, and maroon. Fihlman, Excell, and other lamenters looked on as she raised her head and began singing. Unlike Excell’s lament, Hokka’s was a historical ode recalling Karelia’s bitter history with Russia.

“To the people of Karelia,

souls and spirits born in beauty:

Through the windows were your green fields,

in the blue skies larks were singing,

saints and icons stood in silence,

watching over wooden log homes.

Kanteles echoed in the dark rooms,

and the stars blinked in the night sky,

but your thoughts were wrapped in darkness:

iron hail rained on your rooftops.”

Hokka, 41, is part of the new generation learning from Fihlman. She says she hopes to start composing laments for young people struggling with addiction.

“Nowadays crying is seen as losing face, so people avoid and fear it,” says Hokka. “Finland needs its tears.”

For Hokka and other lamenters, the practice isn’t just a hobby: It’s an ancient tradition now finding contemporary use. And in Fihlman’s home on the outskirts of Helsinki, it’s taking root with a new generation, one sad song at a time.

“Does [lament singing] have connection to the past? To tradition? To beliefs or values?” Stepanova says. “Or do we make it a museum item behind glass and go and think, Ahh, nice, yes, and forget about it? It depends on us.”

Tristan Ahtone wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Tristan is a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. His work has appeared on and in The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America.
This article was first published by Yes Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.

Feature photograph ‘Tough Times’ by Ben White on Unsplash