Tag Archives: Community Singing

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

Singing Stories for the Fun of Folk

‘Non-stop Australian folk music’ was the soundtrack to Martie Lowenstein’s childhood. Martie, whose mother Wendy Lowenstein was an author, oral historian and co-founder of the Victorian Bush Music Club, is now using the folk songs she heard as a child and incorporating them into an online music history course called ‘History of Australia in Song 1788-1988’. 

“Mum loved Australian history and folk songs. She started the first folk festival in Melbourne, and used to edit the magazine called Australian Tradition which published both traditional and contemporary Australian songs and folklore, so yeah that was her thing!”

In 1969, our whole family travelled around Australia for a year while my mother recorded everyday  peoples’ life stories in the outback, and these songs and stories would play in our small house as she was writing her books. Earlier than that, we used to go to monthly sing-alongs and bush dances run by the Victorian Bush Music Club so I’ve been familiar with traditional Australian songs and music since I was around 7 or 8 years old.”

Apples seldom fall far from the tree and earlier this year Martie decided to go back to her roots and incorporate her family’s love of history and the folk tradition into her own work as a singing leader: 

“I run a singing group down here called “Sing till you Grin”, (on the Mornington Peninsula) and I was getting a bit bored with people wanting to sing the same songs again and again, so I asked what Australian folk songs people knew and they came up with Peter Allen, The Seekers, John Farnham and Waltzing Matilda.  Nobody came up with what I would call real Australian folk songs and that’s when I got the idea for the course.”

The result is an 8-week blend of singing and history following a chronological timeline, and is delivered via Zoom. The songs are short and easy to teach and Martie finds the weaving of history with music suits people who don’t necessarily consider themselves singers or musicians. “We sing for fun”.

“”We cover 200 years of what life was like throughout Australian history, using Australian folk songs, poems and real life stories from 1788 to 1988. The sessions cover a mix of well-known and unfamiliar Australian bush songs, poems and a few of Mum’s real life interviews that are now held in the National Library. That leads to interesting group discussion. I start with the convict era songs, then there’s a week on squatters and settling the land… people really love the bushranger songs, and the bullocky songs.  Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson are the ones they often remember, then through to Slim Dusty and Men at Work. We sing about the gold rush, and of the struggles of the adventurous people who chose to come here to make a better life.  Ordinary people had a tremendous struggle in our rugged environment.”

Along the way, Martie invites contribution from participants and encourages the telling of family history-stories, outback Australian experiences, favourite Australian poems and songs. Every participant gets a copy of the Joy Durst Australian Song Collection to take away and enjoy. (This songbook with music chords and lyrics is available free from the Victorian Folk Music Club website.)

“People will say ‘oh my great-great-great-great grandfather was a convict’ or ‘my grandpa was a settler on this place but lost his land’, so I just let people talk and often they’ll share how their ancestors had this tiny little property but couldn’t make a go of it over here. One lady had an ancestor who came over as a convict. I believe we really don’t know our own history  well, not in-depth, about what conditions were like, what droving was like, what being a convict was like, or being a woman alone in the bush whilst her husband went out droving or shearing to make ends meet.”

Martie addresses the consequences of this period on Indigenous Australians and how colonialism derailed and disrupted Aboriginal life but the emphasis  is on the telling and sharing of White Australian history, as this sits within her own frame of reference.

“We discuss the role of slavery on the cattle stations and how it was the Aboriginal stockmen who kept the Australian cattle industry going, and about the Aboriginal women who were taken off as drover’s wives. I am very familiar with teaching  the white history of Australia but not having the background in Indigenous history or music, we do listen to some Indigenous droving songs but I feel  that’s not my story to tell.”

For song references Martie resorts to rifling through her own record collection and also finds inspiration from the website of cultural historian and singer-songwriter, Warren Fahey.

“Warren is a prolific folklorist  who has written and recorded so many Australian folk songs covering all these topics.  And his amazing website incorporates all the history and stories behind our  folk songs.”

Martie ensures that the singing component of the course is simple, easy to pick up and easy to teach. Many of the songs are singalongs she used to sing around the campfire as a child, her father playing guitar under the stars.

“Because Mum was well known in the folk music industry there would always be lots of people over at our house so I’ve sung from childhood and I think singing for the joy of it – not to perform or for anyone else – that really comes from being round the campfire when we were camping as kids.” 

For Martie, the beauty of the folk genre lies in the telling of simple stories about everyday life, the tapestries from and by which we are woven into the history of unremarkably remarkable things.

“I think that’s the beauty of folk music, it is literally of the people, for the people; it’s about taking everyday peoples’ music and stories and bringing it into this time. It’s freely available, in the public domain and I’d love to see it used more extensively for community music making.”

Written by Deb Carveth, Online editor for Community Music Victoria, and Martie Lowenstein

Feature photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Pumping Out Songs with the Cann River CFA Community Choir

“I really only work through the arts, and I think that community resilience and bonding and all of those things can come through the arts.” This conviction combined with a natural ability to strategise and inspire people has led Margaret Summerton to find herself holding a position of responsibility for CFA Volunteers and Sustainability across the South East Region of Victoria; an area of the State covering 2 million hectares, from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota, Omeo to Lakes Entrance. This region was hit hard by the devastating bushfires, last summer.

“It was burnt to a crisp here, 60% of our land mass was burned and as happens with bushfires and disasters we continue to be heavily affected in so many ways.”

When Margaret applied for the role a year ago she wasn’t sure that her arts-based approach and style of delivery would be compatible or aligned with a paramilitary organisation.

“After a few weeks in the job, I walked into the District Manager’s office and said that we needed really needed to start a choir! He was speechless and looked at me like WHAAT? and I said, ‘no, let me explain!…’ ”

Margaret’s reasoning was while you are singing for an hour and a half, you are not thinking of your problems. “You are not thinking of how your dog needs to go to the vet or how your car has broken down, you are thinking about singing, and you’re thinking about breathing, and you’re thinking about listening to each other…you are thinking about the music -just that, I mean just totally that!”

The District Manager listened to Margaret’s idea which she offered as part of a bigger strategy plan that included how the arts can activate their stations. After hearing her out, he simply said. ‘I love to sing’.

“That surprised me! Then I asked him ‘how do you feel when you are singing?’ And he said, ‘I feel great!’ and I said ‘of course you do!’ ” And almost on the spot, the Cann River CFA Community Choir idea was launched as a vital part of a bigger plan to promote positive health, healing and well-being within the brigade and community.

The Cann River CFA Community start-up choir now has seven members; the singers are comprised of CFA volunteers, a member of Bushfire Recovery Victoria, and locals working with the Bush Nurse, a sculptor and retirees. In addition to providing an opportunity for first-responders to come together for mutual support, connection and an escape from the demands of their roles, it’s truly a community choir and that’s the primary aim. Since June, the group has met weekly for a sing in the brigade shed, with a repertoire ranging from Talking Heads to Janice Joplin.

“Anyone can join and that’s been great. We have seven people who come every Thursday night, who just sing their guts out, which is wonderful, just wonderful.” The choir keeps in contact during the week via the Community Centre’s Facebook page. During the week the posts fly with happiness. Margaret’s favourite post to date is “Christmas has come early, and it’s in the form of a choir!”

The CFA Choir is run with funding support from Regional Arts Victoria and the Australian Government Regional Arts Fund to support its director, Cindy Parrett.  “Cindy is fabulous, an ex-Cabaret singer who teaches singing and music at the local P-12.”

Sometimes things are just meant to be, even in these COVID affected times, and when Margaret collided with Cindy, it was a case of the stars aligning.

“It was an extraordinary coincidence, I had just started at the CFA, and my choir idea was bubbling along. I was visiting the town quite often, meeting all the community leaders; the high school principal, the community centre manager; who I got to know quite well. I was in a meeting with the high school principal that has been at the P-12 for 40 years, and every year he has written an original play for the school with a role for every single child.  He’s phenomenal.  I told him how I was wanting to start a choir in the CFA shed, and he said, “Well fancy that! I have just hired a singing teacher for next year”.  It was destiny.

Fast forward to June and being in a remote part of the state not affected by lockdowns or too many restrictions, the singers were able to meet weekly. “We’d take our temperatures, sanitise our hands, and stand at a distance. But once the second wave took over; it didn’t feel healthy to be singing behind a mask. We had no choice but to postpone.” The choir is currently in hiatus, and this breaks Margaret’s heart.

“I am madly in love with this choir, and I know that they are just super sad that they can’t do it right now.”

Margaret has been driving two hours each way to sing with the Cann River CFA Community Choir, and together with her partner sings all the way home into the darkness; not just because it is her baby, but because she has always been in a choir and she loves singing.

“Getting people together to sing, bonds us in some weird way, I mean it doesn’t matter what walk of life you are coming from, once you are singing it transcends everything else. It’s fundamental and it feeds your soul on so many different levels and I’m so glad that the District Manager of the CFA understood that. I mean, if he hadn’t, I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

For information about how you can join the Cann River CFA Community Choir, contact Margaret Summerton: Margaret.Summerton@cfa.vic.gov.au

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Margaret Summerton,