Tag Archives: connection

Speech or Song? Identifying How the Brain Perceives Music

New research explores the different ways in which the brain distinguishes between music and speech.

Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society Press Release

Most neuroscientists who study music have something in common: they play a musical instrument, in many cases from a young age. Their drive to understand how the brain perceives and is shaped by music springs from a deep love of music.

This passion has translated to a wealth of discoveries about music in the brain, including recent work that identifies the ways in which the brain distinguishes between music and speech. 

“Over the past two decades, many excellent studies have shown similar mechanisms between speech and music across many levels,” says Andrew Chang of New York University, a lifelong violinist.

“However, a fundamental question, often overlooked, is what makes the brain treat music and speech signals differently, and why do humans need two distinct auditory signals.”

New work, enabled in part by computational advances, is pointing toward differences in pitch and rhythm as key factors that enable people starting in infancy to distinguish speech from music, as well as how the predictive capabilities of the brain underlie both speech and music perception. 

Exploring acoustical perception in infants

From a young age, cognitive neuroscientist Christina Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden of University of Toronto, Mississauga, has been singing and playing the cello, which have helped to shape her research career.

“I remember sitting in the middle of the cello section and we were playing some particularly beautiful music – one where the whole cello section had the melody,” she says, “and I remember having this emotional response and wondering ‘how is it possible that I can have such a strong emotional response from the vibrations of my strings traveling to my ear? That seems wild!’” 

That experience started der Nederlanden on a long journey of wanting to understand how the brain processes music and speech in early development. Specifically, she and colleagues are investigating whether babies, who are learning about communicative sounds through experience, even know the difference between speech and song. 

“These are seemingly simple questions that actually have a lot of theoretical importance for how we learn to communicate,” she says.

“We know that from age 4, children can and readily do explicitly differentiate between music and language. Although that seems pretty obvious there has been little to no data asking children to make these sorts of distinctions.” 

At a recent Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) meeting, der Nederlanden presented on new data collected right before and during the COVID-19 pandemic about the acoustic features that shape music and language during development. In one experiment, 4-month-old infants heard speech and song, both in a sing-songy infant-directed manner and in a monotone speaking voice, while recording electrical brain activity with electroencephalogram (EEG). 

“This work novelly suggests that infants are better at tracking infant-directed utterances when they’re spoken compared to sung, and this is different from what we see in adults who are better at neural tracking sung compared to spoken utterances,” she says.

They also found that pitch and rhythm each affected brain activity for speech compared to song, for example, finding that exaggerated pitch was related to better neural tracking of infant-directed speech – identifying the lack of “pitch stability” as an important acoustic feature for guiding attention in babies. 

While the exaggerated, unstable pitch contours of infant-directed speech, has been well-established as a feature infants love, this new research shows it also helps to signal whether someone is hearing speech or song.

Pitch stability is a feature, der Nederlanden says, that “might signal to a listener ‘oh this sounds like someone singing,’” and the lack of pitch stability can conversely signal to infants that they are hearing speech rather than playing with sounds in song.

In an online experiment, der Nederlanden and colleagues asked kids and adults to qualitatively describe how music and language are different. “This gave me a rich dataset that tells me a lot about how people think music and language differ acoustically and also in terms of how the functional roles of music and language differ in our everyday lives,” she explains.

“For the acoustic differences, kids and adults described features like tempo, pitch, rhythm as important features for differentiating speech and song.”

In future work, der Nederlanden hopes to move toward more naturalistic settings, including using mobile EEG to test music and language processing outside of the lab.

“I think the girl sitting in the orchestra pit, geeking out about music and emotion, would be pretty excited to find out that she’s still asking questions about music and finding results that could have answered her questions from over 20 years ago!”

Identifying the predictive code of music

Guilhem Marion of Ecole Normale Supérieure has two passions that drive his research: music and computer science. He has combined those interests to create novel computational models of music that are helping researchers understand how the brain perceives music through “predictive coding,” similar to how people predict patterns in language.

“Predictive coding theory explains how the brain tries to predict the next note while listening to music, which is exactly what computational models of music do for generating new music,” he explains. Marion is using those models to better understand how culture affects music perception, by pulling in knowledge based on individual environments and knowledge. 

In new work conducted with Giovanni Di Liberto and colleagues, Marion recorded EEG activity of 21 professional musicians who were listening to or imagining in their minds four Bach choral pieces. In one study, they were able to identify the amount of surprise for each note, using a computational model based on a large database of Western music. This surprise was a “cultural marker of music processing,” Marion says, showing how closely the notes were predicted based on a person’s native musical environment. 

“Our study showed for the first time the average EEG response to imagined musical notes and showed that they were correlated with the musical surprise computed using a statistical model of music,” Marion says. “This work has broad implications in music cognition but more generally in cognitive neuroscience, as they will enlighten the way the human brain learns new language or other structures that will later shape its perception of the world.”

“These findings are the basis for the potential applications in clinical and child development domains, such as whether music can be used as an alternative form of verbal communication for individuals with aphasia, and how music facilitates infants learning speech.” -Andrew Chang

Chang says that such computational-based work is enabling a new type of music cognition study that balances good experimental control with ecological validity, something challenging for the complexity involved in music and speech sounds. “You often either make the sounds unnatural if everything is well controlled for your experimental purpose or preserve their natural properties of speech or music, but it then becomes difficult to fairly compare the sounds between experimental conditions,” he explains. “Marion and Di Liberto’s groundbreaking approach enables researchers to investigate, and even isolate, the neural activities while listening to a continuous natural speech or music recording.

Chang, who has been playing violin since he was 8-years old, is excited to see the progress that has been made in music cognition studies just in the last decade. “When I started my PhD in 2013, only a few labs in the world were focusing on music,” he says. “But now there are many excellent junior and even well-established senior researchers from other fields, such as speech, around the globe starting to get involved or even devoted to music cognitive neuroscience research.”

Understanding the relationship between music and language “can help us explore the fundamental questions of human cognition, such as why humans need music and speech, and how humans communicate and interact with each other via these forms,” Chang says. “Also, these findings are the basis for the potential applications in clinical and child development domains, such as whether music can be used as an alternative form of verbal communication for individuals with aphasia, and how music facilitates infants learning speech.”

Author: Lisa M.P. Munoz
Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society Press Release
Contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz – Cognitive Neuroscience Society Public Information Officer, Cognitive Neuroscience Society
cns.publicaffairs[@]gmail.com

Reproduced on the CMVic Blog with kind permission from Lisa M.P. Munoz
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Original research: The results were presented at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. The symposium “From Acoustics to Music or Speech: Their (Dis)Similar Perceptual Mechanisms” took place at 1:30pmPT on Tuesday, April 26, as part of the CNS 2022 annual meeting from April 23-26, 2022.

CNS is committed to the development of mind and brain research aimed at investigating the psychological, computational, and neuroscientific bases of cognition. Since its founding in 1994, the Society has been dedicated to bringing its 2,000 members worldwide the latest research to facilitate public, professional, and scientific discourse.

Singing in the Brain


Summary: Researchers have identified a population of neurons in the auditory cortex that responds to singing, but not any other type of music.

For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have identified a population of neurons in the human brain that lights up when we hear singing, but not other types of music.

These neurons, found in the auditory cortex, appear to respond to the specific combination of voice and music, but not to either regular speech or instrumental music. Exactly what they are doing is unknown and will require more work to uncover, the researchers say.

“The work provides evidence for relatively fine-grained segregation of function within the auditory cortex, in a way that aligns with an intuitive distinction within music,” says Sam Norman-Haignere, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“There’s one population of neurons that responds to singing, and then very nearby is another population of neurons that responds broadly to lots of music.”

Norman-Haignere

The work builds on a 2015 study in which the same research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify a population of neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex that responds specifically to music. In the new work, the researchers used recordings of electrical activity taken at the surface of the brain, which gave them much more precise information than fMRI.

“There’s one population of neurons that responds to singing, and then very nearby is another population of neurons that responds broadly to lots of music. At the scale of fMRI, they’re so close that you can’t disentangle them, but with intracranial recordings, we get additional resolution, and that’s what we believe allowed us to pick them apart,” says Norman-Haignere.

Read the full article by Anne Trafton, here

**A big thank you to Kass Mulvany for sharing this with us all!
Featured image by Rhendi Rukmana via unsplash.com

For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have identified a population of neurons in the human brain that light up when you hear singing, but not other types of music. Credit: MIT

Good Vibrations: How the infectious energy of John Lane makes life feel better

All my training has been on the job and I have learnt it by doing it… I always loved singing and I loved acting and I liked being the centre of attention, I guess, whether it was in music or theatre.” This love of the limelight may have been a starting point, but John Lane has spent his entire working life bringing others into the frame to experience the joy of participation that has perpetuated his own effervescent, irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for community arts practice.

“Being in musical vibration together with others is the closest I get to being really spiritual, that’s my spiritual observance, it’s why I like going to the footy; if your team wins you get to sing with 20,000 people! This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

Having learned piano as a child, John branched out into trumpet and the French horn at secondary school before teaching himself to play the guitar, inspired by the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. “I took every opportunity I could to be a part of productions, both at school and university where I was very much into musical theatre.” 

After three years of medical school, John decided to take a gap year to try and get theatre out of his system. This was a plan destined never to work. He was offered a job in Brisbane and spent three immersive years touring political musical comedy shows with the Popular Theatre Troupe, also organising and running drama workshops and improvisations based on what he had been doing in student theatre workshops, back in Melbourne. John found he couldn’t stop soaking up skills and knowledge in whatever ways he could from whomever he could.  “I worked my chops up by just ‘doing it’ and learning on the job from watching other people.”

“This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

While living in Queensland, John bumped into a fella named Linsey Pollak and the two of them went busking together; John played tenor saxophone and Linsey played a broom, the end of which he’d turned into a flute (of course). “We played songs that he had written, and some that we both knew, and it was Linsey who first said to me ‘you could write your own songs!’” Having been given his first lessons in the ukulele by Joe Geia from the band ‘No Fixed Address‘, John would carry his banjolele with him everywhere he went – wearing it slung around his back, ready to whip out at any point and pair it with a quick bit of kazoo to entertain people at festivals or in the streets, in the piazzas of Rome, Bologna and Perugia perhaps, and even on a 24 hour bus trip from Dharamsala to Kashmir.

“The only real formal performance training I did was later on, with the Nanjing Acrobats of China, spending six days a week with them for three months in Wodonga, practising alongside members of the Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz. I was open to anything and everything and by that stage was feeling ‘this is so much fun, everyone should have this opportunity’. ”

John’s primary focus became finding ways for other people to experience the joy that he’d had of participating and being ‘in it’. For the first ten years of his working life, John acknowledges that he was very lucky to have been employed full time doing theatre with the type of community-based theatre companies where you weren’t just an actor, you were involved in writing the material, creating sets and props and anything and everything else.

“With West Theatre we went into housing commissions, we did projects with the Vietnamese Community at a time when they had newly arrived in Australia, we worked with the Nurses Union, we put on these very professional big community shows. There was a collective of between 7 and 12 professional theatre makers and together we would run events that involved dozens to hundreds of people in the community, putting on shows that were sometimes political, often based around personal and local issues; and community music was always a big part of that work.”

By this point it was the mid-80s and John became heavily involved in festivals around Melbourne and across Victoria. “Festivals were the most obvious opportunity for lots and lots of people to participate in a cultural event. These could be run as projects with artists in schools and artists in the community that culminated in a festival.”

Towards the end of a long period of freelancing, one of the jobs John started doing in 2000 was working for the Royal Children’s Hospital. “They had acquired funding from VicHealth to engage professional arts facilitators to work in schools and they were looking for a coordinator. I got that gig which was 2 days a week for 6 months and this kept going as an annual contract job among the many other jobs I was doing like the Darebin Music Feast, the Kites Festival and the Kew Festival, and stuff for the Royal Melbourne Show and City of Melbourne.”

Unsurprisingly, John had also learned to juggle by this point which came in handy and helped him to keep all these professional balls in the air at the same time, as well as beanbags, skittles, fruit, kitchen knives and whatever else came to hand.

Striving to support the voice of people who had been oppressed or suppressed drove John’s passion for agitprop theatre.

“It was therapeutic for me to be involved with music and with drama and I was always really interested in the application of creative arts techniques to psychological medicine, which I had only just begun to research as part of my medical training. This stuck with me and became a personal political goal of doing this type of work because of its benefit to people’s mental health… including mine!”

The Royal Children’s Hospital’s “Festival for Healthy Living” (FHL) program was an embodiment of this philosophy, and upon taking up a newly created salaried role of FHL Artistic Coordinator, by 2004 John found he had gone full circle from leaving medical school in 1976 back to working within a hospital where he remained until his retirement from that post in October 2021. 

So how did John keep up his energy? “Keeping a role for myself as a hands-on participant, even when I was coordinating projects, was vital for me. I’d end up being an MC or I’d pop up in the band playing the trumpet or tenor horn, keyboards or uke. I think my work as an overall coordinator suffered sometimes because I was so obsessed with being in things, but I gradually realised I didn’t need to be front and centre and that my role in life as I got older was in being a facilitator and capacity builder.”

John firmly believes that some of the best capacity building happens by learning on the job, side by side with someone who is really experienced. “I would be there alongside emerging artists, doing the stilt walking or juggling workshops, or building a gigantic puppet or encouraging kids in a songwriting session. At other times the job was all about writing funding submissions or facilitating steering committees, but doing only that would never last very long with me and I had to find at least some time to keep working on the ground. It was a crazy life rushing hither and thither!”

Finding ways to help people feel better, and experience wellness from connecting with other people in their communities, schools or families, working for the Royal Children’s Hospital proved to be a great way in for John to build countless productive partnerships in over 30 different communities across Victoria. More recently, working closely with local agencies, under the RCH/FHL banner the annual Dream Big Festival was established in Melton. This was run for the first time in 2015, with John at the helm as Artistic Director.

A year later, John decided he needed more brass back in his life and joined Melbourne-based street band, Havana Palava (cos he obviously had so much spare time on his hands). There he met Lyndal Chambers who at that time was coordinating CMVic’s StreetSounds project. As part of a collaboration between StreetSounds and the Dream Big Festival, together they established The Fabulous Meltones Street Band.

Facilitating the band was an opportunity for John to embrace participatory music-making and perform on a regular basis while bringing together community players of brass, strings, percussion and more, in a riot of colour and sound. The band has played at the Dream Big Festival each year, and at dozens of other community events including the local Djerriwarrh Festival, and also featured in spectacular appearances at Geelong After Dark for three consecutive years.

Since his ‘rewirement’ last month, John has been reflecting back on all of this history and allowing himself to dream of what might come next.

“In the future I do see myself as always wanting to get community music to happen with people of all ages.”

If history is anything to go by, John won’t be sitting still in one place for very long before his energy fizzes over and propels him towards his next adventure. There may be kazoos… Watch this space!

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with John Lane

Photos supplied

Uke Lovers Get inTo the BUF in Ashburton

Boroondara Ukulele Festival (BUF) was born of Margaret Crichton’s desire to bring something to an area of Melbourne where, for some years, she has been running a number of community music groups. Back when plans were evolving for BUF, COVID wasn’t even a thing. Having experienced restrictions derail so many other face to face events since then,  Margaret, who is a program coordinator for CMVic, has been making ‘contingency plan after contingency plan’ to ensure the show goes on.

If by the end of September,  BUF is not able to go ahead ‘in real life’ then depending on the levels of regulations, Margaret and the CMVic team are ready, with a myriad of creative ways tucked up their sleeves to ensure its delivery, either entirely online, or as a hybrid event.  

“We all need to be able to plan things, we need it for our personal wellbeing, we need to have something to look forward and aspire to… it’s a bit like having that recipe where you go, ooh I’d love to make it but I haven’t got quite those ingredients I’ll just substitute this, and it might not be the same but it will still be amazing.”

BUF will feature a range of workshop topics offered by a host of leaders from across Victoria. There will be banjo techniques for ukulele and banjolele by Julie Bradley from Gippsland, Dan McEoin, the man behind the Hills Ukulele Festival and current president of AUTLA will be teaching picking techniques, Bruce Watson will be doing what he’s calling “I’ve got rhythm, Uke got rhythm” and running a session of his surely world-famous-by now, Ukeoke. Oli Hinton and Dave Rackham will be running bass workshops. 

As Margaret points out, “if you’ve got an instrument with four strings or even a guitar handy you’ll be able to have a go at the bass workshops, you won’t necessarily need to have a bass ukulele. And if BUF runs online, remember when you’re in a Zoom room no-one else can hear but the cat, you so you’ll be able to pick up a lot of techniques for when you can get your hands on a bass.”

Margaret will be offering a beginners workshop where there will be ukuleles and some basses to borrow for anyone coming along who has never played before. “If people come along to my workshop knowing nothing, they’ll be able to play something by the end of it, and if they know a little bit, they’ll leave knowing how to play a little bit more”.

Nicki Johnson and Craig Barrie will be leading a song writing workshop for ukulele, and the day will end with Tom Jackson leading a Q&A session to answer any uke-related questions to wrap things up.

What Margaret wants more than anything is for people to come to BUF and have a really good time, to learn new skills and make new connections.

“Should we all still be in lockdown,  connection is what we’ll need. If we can bring some brightness into people’s days – even if they can’t be in the room with us literally, we’ll bring them into our rooms.”

BUF is a testimony to Margaret’s longstanding love for the humble ukulele which began back when she was a child. “When I was about 10, I wanted a guitar but we couldn’t afford one so I had to save up. In the meantime I got a ukulele and played that for a little while. Then, eight or nine years ago, when ukulele really took off, I decided to get another one and predictably it was purple…” The CMVic queen of all things purple and a staunch devotee of stringed instruments from ukes to harps, Margaret still loves the uke’s accessibility for people of all ages and all levels of ability. “It doesn’t really matter what age you are, you can pick it up and instantly play a song.”

Margaret with one of her trusty four-stringed friends

Community Music Victoria will host BUF on September 24-25 in partnership with AUTLA and Pat’s Music. For all of the info click here and watch the CMVic socials for booking details, coming soon!

Written by Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, with Margaret Crichton, CMVic Program Coordinator

Feature photo: Bennettswood Ukulele Groups and Singalong and Stringalong (BUGSS) at Hawthorn Market, supplied

Making Music, Chocolate for the Soul

By Scarlet Lee

A common mindset when approaching musical participation, especially working collaboratively, is that you need to reach a certain skill set before you can perform. However performance can have many advantages beyond other people enjoying your music.

Community Music Victoria is driven by the belief that every person should have access to the benefits of making music regardless of skill set. Making music can help improve our state of mind and stimulates the brain. Performing in a group provides opportunities to socialise and build friendships, and can also build up our team-based skills.

From personal experience as someone who plays the ukulele, performance is exponentially more enjoyable if it’s in a group. It gives the feeling that you are part of something more and that you’re contributing to something meaningful. It’s as though you are helping create a masterpiece in an auditory art form.

From a medicinal standpoint music can provide clear benefits. In treating depressive illnesses, four out of five trials involving music therapy were shown to be effective, this can be correlated to the brain’s reward centre. When a person is singing or playing music it triggers the reward system in the same way it does for things such as eating chocolate. This indicates that participation in musical activities can improve your mood. Additionally, researchers theorise that music making can stimulate the cerebral cortex which manages higher functions such as memory, correlation and processing of information. By stimulating the cerebral cortex it is essentially providing a warm-up for that area of the brain which allows it to process information more effectively.

Medically speaking, it is evident that there are advantages to playing music, especially in terms of mental health and cognitive function.

Although solo music playing can be constructive, singing and playing music in a group provides all the same health benefits whilst also introducing a social aspect. Making music in a group allows for social interaction and collective catharsis. We can express emotion through music as a group and certain song choices can provoke certain emotions. It also provides a sense of belonging for those included as they are part of a collective, and share experiences with their musical comrades. Friendships can also be built and strengthened through communal music, as everyone is participating in the same thing and building skills and confidence together.

Expanding on this, collective music making can build teamwork and communication skills through working collaboratively with others and learning how to have discussions with fellow group members.

Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when playing music with others, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.

As someone learning the ukulele I can personally verify that playing music definitely has its benefits, but when participating in a music group it is far more rewarding. The atmosphere itself is much more lighthearted and warm. There is opportunity for conversation or constructive feedback and you get to appreciate others abilities as well as the group’s as a whole. When you compare this to solo practise or performance you miss all the laughter and joy that comes from collaboration.

There is a strong social aspect involved when playing music with others, and there is a great sense of belonging and feeling that you are contributing to something greater than yourself…

Music is often a key component that relates to many cultures and allows people to be immersed in their culture. The engagement in our own culture is important, as we gain a sense of inclusion within our cultural community. Through music people can gain a stronger understanding of their identity and culture, and the identities and cultures of others. For example in Indigenous Australian culture the stories of creation are told through songs and music, and sacred music performed in ceremonies are a crucial aspect of indigenous culture. In terms of my own culture my father is British, and always enjoys when I play popular British songs on the ukulele. This illustrates how we can connect with our culture and share parts of our culture through music.

Scarlet with her ukulele

Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when singing and playing music with others. Friendships and skills develop, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.

Scarlet Lee is a year 10 student and a keen ukulele player who joined the CMVic team for work experience in April and May

Photo supplied

To improve future relationship with your kids, turn up the music

If you’re a parent whose teenagers spend family road trips with earbuds firmly in place, you may want to encourage them to unplug, then turn the car radio to something the whole family can enjoy.

It just might do wonders for your future relationship with your son or daughter, according to a new study from the University of Arizona.

Researchers found that young men and women who shared musical experiences with their parents during childhood — and especially during adolescence — report having better relationships with their mums and dads as they enter young adulthood.

“If you have little kids, and you play music with them, that helps you be closer to them, and later in life will make you closer to them,” said study co-author Jake Harwood, professor and head of the UA Department of Communication.

“If you have teenagers and you can successfully listen to music together or share musical experiences with them, that has an even stronger effect on your future relationship and the child’s perception of the relationship in emerging adulthood.”

Researchers surveyed a group of young adults, average age 21, about the frequency with which they engaged with their parents, as children, in activities such as listening to music together, attending concerts together or playing musical instruments together.

micaela-parente-550224-unsplash

Read the full article written by Alexis Blue and published by the University of Arizona, here. 

 

 

Feature photo: Markus Spisk; Violin and Flute: Micaela Parente on Unsplash

Ready, willin’ and able: generosity and solidarity are key components of Williamstown singing group

Leaving Melbourne via the Westgate Bridge on a Wednesday evening, clouds of steam cluster and dissipate into the darkening sky. It’s fair to assume these plumes are output from the factories and refineries dotting the coast like pins in a board from Port Melbourne to Geelong. It’s also possible that part of the component entering the atmosphere is a heady mix of CO2 and endorphins being exhaled by the Willin Wimmin of Williamstown, having their weekly sing.

10583998_1446634612280983_6251822852438359669_nWillin Wimmin past and present were reunited last month to celebrate 25 years as a community choir giving voice to women, and spreading the joy of singing and community to audiences in the west and beyond. By their reckoning, this amounts to roughly 1000 rehearsals, more than 200 performances, over 300 songs and 250 women who have been involved since the inception of the singing group.

Worthy of a knees up, by anyone’s standard. The room was filled with friends, partners and family, everyone brought their own dinner, there was support with sound and lighting from their mates at the Newport Community Choir: it was a community event in every sense of the word.

The group sprung from the John Bolton Theatre School which was based in Williamstown, back in 1991. John employed Bronwen Barton as his music teacher who, with John’s partner and a few friends started singing together. The seeds for Willin Wimmin were sown and interest quickly caught on among the community. The singers were not only Willin Wimmin, they were feisty women with a will and the current members continue to embrace this identity: They set out as sisters doing it for themselves, collaborating as a cooperative and proudly eschewing the committee way of doing things until more recently.

The increasing requirements of funding bodies and venues requiring insurance over the years created a gradual push to become incorporated and adopt a more formal arrangement. Willin Wimmin eventually (reluctantly) bowed to the external pressure, formed a management committee and became incorporated last year.

Back at the start, Bronwen was a great vocal coach whose philosophy that anyone can sing set the value of inclusivity which has underpinned the group ever since. There have never been auditions and the women make it clear that no singing experience or knowledge of music is necessary. A good sense of humour, the will to embrace and celebrate cultural diversity and a shared belief in supporting, and welcoming one another is what counts. Willin Wimmin sing with heart and choose their material from an eclectic selection of genres including world, folk, choral and contemporary.

Julie Merritt has sung with Willin Wimmin for 18 of its 25 years, joining when the youngest of her three children was around 12 months old. The social side of belonging to the group drew her in; she felt a sense of belonging and like she’d found her tribe.

A strong social justice theme runs throughout the choir, and Willin Wimmin have sung on demonstrations and rallies, at sport, art, health and women’s issues events. They’ve trodden the boards at a variety of venues, too: Deakin Edge Theatre, Melbourne Recital Centre, the NGV as well as Fairlea Women’s Prison and Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre, to name but a few.

Willin Wimmin have been helped along their journey by the commitment from their leaders:

“We have been fortunate with our directors – they have each been fabulous, feisty, fearless, sometimes fearsome.  Each of them brought unique gifts and talents with warmth, patience and fun.  Without them, there is no Willin Wimmin.”

Bronwen Barton took the helm for the first ten years, followed by Jo Lange, Dan Scollay, Jennifer Lund, and since 2014, the group has been lead by Steph Payne. Collaborations with other choirs have enhanced their song filled journey, too. Willin Wimmin teamed up with Mark Seymour and the Victorian Trade Union Choir to sing in Dust, a musical by Donna Jackson about the devastating impact of asbestos. They were also joined by the VTUC and Newport Community Choir to sing excerpts of Dust when Donna’s book ‘Art & Social Change: Dust, a Case Study’ was recently launched.

Keeping Community and Women’s issues in their hearts and at the forefront of their philosophy, Willin Wimmin have sung at Reconciliation demos; the National Women in Construction awards and at the Victorian apology to women forced to give their babies up for adoption, where they sung for the Association of Relinquishing Mothers (ARMS). The list doesn’t end there.

Willin Wimmin were also way ahead of the current media frenzy that has gained such rapid momentum around women’s football, and sang at the Women’s AFL grand final before women’s footy was officially deemed cool.

“We have, very importantly, also just sung for each other, in times of sadness, joy, longing, celebration and always with love.”

The wimmin are willin in more ways than one and are happy to offer inspiration and support to everyone who comes into their orbit, irrespective of how long they choose to stay on and sing with them.

About five years ago, Julie recalls an influx of women to the group, aged around 40. Each and every one of them found their voice through the supportive environment before moving on to form off shoot groups or find other, more challenging ways of nurturing their singing souls.

Julie doesn’t pause as she emphatically describes this as ‘brilliant’, seeing it as a natural part of what Willin Wimmin exists to allow; an integral component of its entity and a tangible example of the generosity required for a happy, cohesive community spirit. She acknowledges that seeing people move on is bittersweet “like a parent waving a child goodbye”, but that it is more wonderful to enable people to literally find their voice.

Many members have a story of ‘finding their voice’ thanks to Willin Wimmin.

Confidence, courage and strength are uncovered through singing and performing within a group of supportive, welcoming women, week in, week out. Julie offers herself as a prime example and has felt her confidence grow gradually “not just enough to sing in small groups, but to be back-up conductor, speechmaker, even president of the committee.” This has extended beyond the context of Willin Wimmin and into other areas of her life, proving once again, how impacting and profound the values and benefits of community musicking can be on the lives and well being of its participants.

So congratulations to Willin Wimmin on 25 years of singing together, supporting each other and creating opportunities for community cohesion and connection in lucky old Williamstown. There’s no sign of the sun setting in the west, anytime soon.

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members of Willin Wimmin celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary back in August

Written by Deb Carveth with Julie Merritt, President of Willin Wimmin.

If you’d like to join Willin Wimmin, they meet on Wednesday evenings at 7.30-9.30pm during term time, and further information is available here.

Tides of Welcome keep on rolling: A Queenscliff community choir celebrates 13 song-filled years

Tides of Welcome Choir has been celebrating diversity and harmony through a shared passion for singing, and has just blown out the candles on its thirteenth anniversary cake. The choir comprises locals from Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, who enjoy the experience of singing together and creating soulful harmonies under the direction of their dedicated leader, singer songwriter, Andrea Robertson.Tides of Welcome

Based in Queenscliffe Neighbourhood House, Tides of Welcome has never struggled with numbers enjoying a consistently strong turn out and cohesion from day one, back when it was lead by Sarah Carroll and known as The Ripchords.

Carolyn Williams is one of the founding members, and has been heavily involved in the development and evolution of the choir from its outset, participating in the fun stuff at the front end, and overseeing the administrative nuts and bolts behind the scenes:

“Myself and a few other people were keen to start up a choir and had been for some time but we knew we had to find the right person to lead it, somebody charismatic who would bring people along with her or him. And we found Sarah Carroll who at that stage was in the Melbourne based country band, Git, and had recently moved down to the Bellarine Peninsula. We approached her and she was very keen, so we advertised and on the first night we had about 40 people. Given that Queenscliff is a small population this was a real coup!”

So was it something in the sea air, or was there simply a gap in the singing market?

Carolyn believes it was Sarah’s reputation that drew singers in and the hard to resist attraction of what she had done previously in her own musical right. The group found a home in the senior citizens centre in Queenscliff, changed their name to Tides of Welcome Soul and Gospel Choir, and remained singing with Sarah, for the next 7 years.

One clear problem emerged extremely early on, during the group’s first year, and stemmed from an ebb and flow in the number of people attending. “At times there were 20 people who’d turn up, while on other nights there’d be 40. Sometimes there would be an entirely different group from one week to the next based on who came to sing and who stayed at home. “

This caused a few challenges around the practicality of teaching songs to a group whose dynamic would shift and change, and where people were remembering the repertoire in varying ways and to differing extents.

The choir committee decided to nip the problem in the bud by introducing termly rates, and this immediately fixed the problem. “Once people weren’t paying on a weekly basis it really sorted things out, reiterated everyone’s commitment to the group and regardless of whether you were on holiday half way through term or whatever, you were in it for the duration.”

By 2004, the choir was performance ready and scored themselves a spot at the Queenscliff music festival. Their debut turned into an annual place on the bill, and offers incentive and focus to the singers, and a shape to the year.

A strong set of values underpin the group. As an inclusive community choir, there are no auditions and everyone’s welcome. Tides of Welcome have had a range of experiences over the years including recording five CDs and the production process has been so tight that every voice counts. There are people within the choir who are happy to do solo spots while others can think of nothing worse than being out there by themselves. If a person joins the group who is less confident in their ability to hit the notes, they’ll be put alongside stronger, more confident singers until they find their groove.

So what’s the secret in the success and longevity of the choir? Carolyn believes that comes down to a combination of factors such as the willingness of individual choir members to support the group. For example, they’re fortunate to have a guy who makes time to record all the songs and put them on Soundcloud so that everyone can rehearse in between choir practise, and who has also prepared the website, a fantastic resource richly populated with photos of the group in action, songs and lyrics.

Another huge bonus is the auspicing received by Tides of Welcome from Queenscliffe Neighbourhood House. Not only does this assure them a rehearsal space, it means the administrative and financial needs of the group are all taken care of by the House; the emails which need sending around; the printing of the lyrics, any photocopying; the list of admin and back house tasks which are necessary to underpin all community music groups, are entirely taken care of. And the cherry on the cake is that Carolyn is not only a founding member of the choir, she is the Coordinator for the neighbourhood house, too.

“We have always had the wider community as our heart and the Queenscliffe Neighbourhood House as our heart beat.”

A small Tides of Welcome executive committee meets regularly to take stock, review guidelines and ensure things are on track for everyone, while the final choice about material sung by the group, is made by the leader. During their incarnation as a soul and gospel choir. Sarah Carroll sourced some amazing and rare gospel songs for the group to sing, “what she’d call white gospel from the southern states of America.” Tiffany Eckhardt who went on to direct the choir later on, wrote songs specifically for the choir which was also wonderful, and choir members are always welcome to contribute ideas for material, at any point in time.

Tides of Welcome have benefited from three sessions of professional development over the course of the past 13 years, including a ‘tune up’ from Jonathan Welch, which Carolyn feels was extremely valuable. They continue to be led by experienced leaders, rich in musical background and experienced in teaching a variety of age groups and abilities. Local musician and educator Andrea Robertson is the current director.

“Andrea is a singer songwriter based in Ocean Grove… whilst new to directing a choir like Tides of Welcome, she is an experienced singing and piano teacher and has worked with children’s choirs and church groups. We were very fortunate to have Andrea join us. She’s embraced the role of Director and continues to teach and inspire us to create our soulful sound layered with rich harmonies. She’s also expanded our repertoire to include many songs that she has written specifically for us.”

Thirteen years constitutes many, many weeks of singing together and a handful of the original singers involved since the start are still coming back for more.

While people come and go, for Carolyn, it’s the camaraderie of being in a group and just the fun of singing together that keeps her engaged.

“There is something undeniably powerful about the experience of singing together where the feelings of warmth, joy and harmony are enjoyed and shared…people will often say “I’ve had a really hard day and I didn’t want to come tonight but I forced myself and I feel so much better.”

Tides 13th Birthday
The 3 founding members still involved with the choir: Janelle Jenkins cutting the birthday cake, next to Jacinta Farrugia and Carolyn Williams, standing.

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Carolyn Williams.

Join Tides of Welcome in concert to celebrate their 13 year anniversary on Wednesday September 14th,from 7.30pm at the Uniting Church in Queenscliff or join them at 6pm for a community meal (by donation). For tickets and further information, click here.

Sharing more than song: Singing life back into an old, old concept with a brand new barter choir.

‘If I can reduce my living expenses significantly that’s as good as making money.’ says Werribee singing leader, Steph Payne, who recently established ReciproVocal, a Barter Choir where instead of paying a termly fee to join, participants are invited to share and exchange skills and trades and even sing for their supper. (Steph dreams of dentists, desperate to sing, and who wouldn’t?)

At ReciproVocal, your money won’t get you anywhere! Steph’s vision is for the group to experience not only the bond of solidarity and support for each other common between members in community singing and music groups, but to educate themselves in ways of bartering and skills exchange that will extend out to enrich and sustain the wider community in unforeseen ways.

The idea for ReciproVocal germinated from a seed sewn at an inspirational workshop run by community facilitator, Debby Maziarz, at the Wyndam Arts Incubator, in Werribee. The workshop focussed on bartering and the establishment of mutually beneficial connections between artists and businesses, an idea that resonated heavily with Steph, inspiring a steep and positive learning curve. While she is in no doubt about the sense in trying this ‘revolutionary-retro’ approach, Steph acknowledges that she, herself, had to learn a lot of lessons in the lead up to the launch of the singing group, and that other people may also need time to come around to the concept:

 “There needs to be a huge amount of education around bartering and trading. People can’t see how bartering fits into their world because they’re used to a money based currency.”

Steph has also noticed that even amongst her existing  network of singers and ukulele players all keen to continue working with her, there is often the initial response of ‘but I don’t have anything to trade.’

“But they do! We are all so used to being valued monetarily and comparing ourselves based on what we have. People just don’t realise they have loads of things to trade and that you’ve got to look at it more creatively.”

To encourage new participants to dip a toe in the ReciproVocal waters, Steph is willing to accept money from her singers to begin with, gradually introducing the barter model as the group grows and develops its collective understanding of a non-monetary based currency.

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Steph leading Williamstown based singing group, Willin Wimmin

“We’re all fixated by the concept of money. On the one hand it’s a leveller because everything has a monetary value, it’s very open and clear and you can see what you’re buying into. But on a whole lot of other levels it’s incredibly unfair and messed up. Money’s convenient, but it’s a real trap and it only gives things one value, when certain things hold much more.”

A significant piece of the sociological scaffolding required to support the bartering model, is trust. Trust in the validity of the concept by the participants is crucial, and belief by Steph that the services and goods offered will be forthcoming in the way they are promised is important too. A clear, shared understanding of the need for mutual boundaries between the definitions of professional and personal space between members of the group is equally important. This line in the sand is necessary for the sake of all participants because the variety of tendered tasks require varying degrees of access to areas of each other’s lives.

And while response to the idea of ReciproVocal has been hugely positive Steph believes it will be a slow burn to reach a sustainable level of interest, and is prepared for this to take time.  She’s excited by an awareness that the more people she can engage and educate about bartering, the more likely it is that there really can be a functioning level of trading going on, with the possibility of a real alternative economy starting in Werribee.

To help people get their head around the type of things they can bring to the table, there’s an area on the ReciproVocal website which offers examples of what 8 weeks in a choir is worth. Steph has supplied this as a guide to allow people to work out for themselves the equivalent ‘value’ of what they might like to offer.

Again, a sliding scale of value applies because the value is not just monetary. It’s not as simple as being a term’s worth of singing valued at $150. Singers might offer a service which will save Steph time, or produce something she needs or simply just wants, or be able to arrange a lead into further work for her. The option of third party trade also exists. For example, you may not be willing to mow Steph’s lawn but you might know somebody who is for whom you can babysit, who will then mow the lawn and the chain of exchange grows longer and more embedded.

Steph is always looking to enrich and develop communities through the groups that she runs. It’s a strong part of what drives her. In the past she’s run a singing group in a pub because of the immediate social set up, and she’s hopeful that Reciprivocal will grow to enrich the community in a myriad of ways. Her hope is that once people are engaged in the trading and bartering concept, they will extend those terms and values of collaborative, sustainable living to each other, and eventually to people and life situations beyond the singing group:

“There’s a great level of satisfaction in getting your needs met in a way that’s not financial. As a person with something to offer, as a product as a service, any of us have a choice in how we exchange that. We have our needs, we have our resources, it’s about how to match those two things up. “

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in collaboration with Steph Payne.

RECIPROVOCAL SEEKS SINGERS!! Open to adults of any age and experience. Rehearsals are Thursdays 7-8.30pm 8 weeks per term. Starting July 28, 2016-08-04  Venue: Wyndham Arts Incubator, Old Shire Offices, Room 4, Cnr Watton St & Duncans Rd, Werribee.VIC 3030 www.reciprovocal.com.au  www.facebook.com/reciprovocal  Email: unstrungmusic@gmail.com