“As singing leaders, we have a responsibility to make a decision that’s going to be best for the safety of the whole group. All our groups desperately want to get back together but unfortunately, it’s not safe yet and that’s a really clear directive from the medical health professionals that it’s not on the cards right now. Rather than grieving that, I think I’d done that earlier, I’ve kind of moved on. I mean the priority is keeping community together and staying connected; we can work on our harmonies when this is over!”
-Jane York, Just Holler
I remember the evening, clearly. It was a Friday back in March and just days earlier, Daniel Andrews had announced a state of emergency. It had been a fraught week as shops and offices began to close and the shelves began to empty. Lockdown was imminent and panic was tinging everything. But one person had it together and, as the rest of the world worried about loo roll and how long they could live on half a bag of pasta, Jane York donned a spangly jacket, picked up her beer and started to sing around the piano in her lounge room. Jane’s personal motto is ‘if in doubt, sing’. And she was, and she did. Online, using Facebook Live and she’s been doing it daily ever since.
“So many things were unknown and out of our control both personally and as a leader of groups, but one thing I could do was sing.” Jane laughs as she thinks back to that first Friday night singalong.
“It was completely disorganised, it was literally just me pressing live on my phone with an iPad to look up chords and getting drunk. It went for 2.5 hours and by the end of it I was so emotional. It was so interactive, I’d thought it would be me doing a one-way thing and it wasn’t that at all, it was all these people that I love and sing with regularly, and also people I hadn’t seen in ages from all over the country which was something I hadn’t thought about – accessibility by geography and how online we can extend our community – and people were literally tuning in from South East Asia and from Germany. So, at the time when I was thinking ‘we’re going to be isolated’, it was the opposite and it was really emotional that first one.”
Jane finds having structure a really important thing and got to thinking about all the other people at home who were no longer working, who were all in a state of flux and in need of anchoring and she came up with the idea of doing a daily lunchtime sing at 1pm, no matter what else was going on. “It was about a little bit of calm in the middle of the day.”
Jane got started and people were tuning in everyday to say ‘hi’.
“My mum tunes in everyday from Queensland which is very lovely cos we don’t actually get to sing together very much, and we get to sing five days a week now!”
The songs Jane chooses are well-known, easy to sing classics, from Lauper-esque hairbrush anthems of the 80s to Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Cash. If there’s anything anyone desperately wants on the bill, they are free to make recommendations in the chat.
Early on in lockdown, The Guardian mentioned Jane and Just Holler in an article by Anna Sublet about online singing, “that was kind of freaky, of all the things to be in The Guardian about, me in my robes singing into my phone! Our choir had sung the year before at Hamer Hall to no press and then there I was in the Guardian for not showering and going online”.
That week, Just Holler got 300 new likes on its Facebook page as part of what Jane calls ‘this isolation moment.’ This ‘moment’ has meant that our singing communities have become broader and when Jane saw the Guardian write-up she realised this element of connection could actually be the silver lining of sharing our music online.
“I realised that I could go and attend other people’s workshops and I could attend things not in Melbourne but also that I could invite people from anywhere to Term 2 of our choir. Just Holler online now has people from New South Wales, regional Victoria joining in, which is great. Being in the business of building community and connection, we take a lot of time discussing how to we get more people to come to choir and all of a sudden we’ve gone to them and boom.”
This has shifted Jane’s thinking about the future of community music and she is considering maintaining an online element to rehearsals once lockdown lifts, to ensure that the people who have joined from afar and become a part of the Just Holler community, can remain so.
Singing daily at 1pm means that Jane has to fit the rest of her life around that time. That’s easy to do when she’s at home but last week she was driving and had to pull over at the side of the road to deliver the goods. “It’s been a great exercise in not being precious about having things perfect at a performance level, some days I have literally never played the song through before! I always feel weird doing something by myself, it’s just not my style so it’s been really good for me in that way because it is up to me to sing the whole song through but it’s not centring myself in that experience, it’s still a facilitation thing because I want people to sing along from home.”
Regulars know that Jane likes to shake up the backdrop. She’s sung to the world from the bathtub, behind the clothesline, out on the deck, inside the garage, and out the front of her house with her neighbour. Her son and her partner pop up and accompany her. There have been pyjamas and slippers and keeping it real is part of the charm. On Tuesday she sang from Violet Town with a backdrop of beautiful gum trees and unexpected accompaniment from a garbage truck as it rumbled slowly past.
The chat is where the connection with the outside world takes place as people greet Jane and each other and comment on how well the houseplants are looking or whether Jane got a haircut. “It’s cute, it’s lovely, it allows people to be active participants.”
A couple of months ago, Jane decided she wanted Friday lunchtimes off to sing with Sue Johnson’s online choir and had the genius idea of inviting guests to take over the Friday slot.
“We’ve had Nicki and Craig from All The Way Home, Jessie Ventila from the Northern Rivers, Jolene Moran from Vox Chops, my mum, Carrie Henschell from the Singing Feminazis, Aaron Silver from Yackandandah Folk Festival, and other amazing people who are not just from Melbourne and that’s been really great because again, there’s no geographical barrier, and that’s been really nice.”
All good things must come to an end and, as lockdown lifts and the world shakes its feathers and returns tentatively to the old routines of 9-5, Jane’s thinking about wrapping up the 1’o’clock singalongs possibly in a couple of weeks at the end of this term. But this isn’t set in stone,
“I don’t want it to become a chore I want it to stay a thing I’m still engaged with.” So set your alarm for 12:55, hop onto Facebook and sing along with Jane while you still can.
Feature photo supplied by Jane York featuring, l-r: Jane and her neighbour Shannon; Jane, Lewis and Solly on family band day; Jane alone in her bedroom.
Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Jane York