Tag Archives: leadership

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

James Rigby spent years driving past the mighty Murtoa Stick Shed in awe of its size and wondering how on earth the monolithic structure looming up out of the landscape could still be standing. He never imagined that one Spring day in 2017 together with Jane Thompson, he would lead around 300 community singers in a Big Sing under its cathedral-like roof of bush poles and corrugated iron.

The idea for a Stick Shed Sing was conceived by Judith Welsh, Chair of the Committee of Management which took over the running of the shed when it was gifted back to the community in 2016. The vision was to create an event to reflect the ambience and glory of the Heritage listed building and bring singing into the shed for the first time as part of Murtoa’s Big Weekend celebrations.

“We wanted an event that anyone could join in on but which gave local choirs, the singers from the Wimmera, an opportunity to perform as part of a massed choir, as well.”

As highly experienced community singing leaders, Jane Thompson and James Rigby expressed their interest in coordinating the event, working with Judith to decide a shape for the day, which included a massed singing workshop open to anyone keen to sing in the shed and a concert by any community choirs attending, who were happy to perform.

Jane and crowd

The first Stick Shed Sing was held in October last year, attracting a huge amount of interest from within the local community and further afield with around 6 full choirs performing at the concert and individual singers from many other choirs attending too.

“We had the signing choir from Horsham Primary School where AUSLAN is taught as a second language, which was lovely as it meant there was lots of children’s energy in the building too.”

The Signing Choir sign what they sing, culminating in a dance-like blend of a song’s rhythm and the natural gestures of the signs. This theatrical style of delivery is well suited to the vast, 270 metre-long Stick Shed where you can occupy as much space as physically possible and still feel incredibly small.

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James and Jane found that facilitating singing of any sort in a space the size of the Stick Shed is not without challenge – all part of the excitement of being there. For a start, there is the all-important issue of acoustics.

“The shed is like a tent with an incredibly long, high pitched roof so the acoustics vary dramatically, whether you go in near the edges close to the roof, or whether you stand in the middle of it underneath the ridge, at which point the acoustics disappear. What we found was that about two-thirds out from the edge you hit this magic sweet spot where the natural reverb of the shed is really flattering to the singing and meant we could hear ourselves and, when singing as a group, what the group was sounding like.”

 As luck would have it, this particular area of the shed is well lit by a line of skylights set into the roof enabling the singers to see all that is necessary whilst feeling a part of that beautiful big space, and with the added option of gazing at the clouds moving above them over the Wimmera.

For the workshop, James and Jane used ‘Here in the Stick Shed’ a short warm-up song written for the occasion by Jane, and a song about trees by Scott Wise called ‘Hold up the Sky’.

“We sang a beauty about trees and how they hold up the ground in mines, and on the land they hold up the road, and then when you get to the forest they hold up the sky. It’s a beautiful song about how trees prop up everything all around us and of course we’re standing in a shed where there’re these ridiculously tall little skinny mountain ash poles holding the whole thing up…”

For everyone involved in the Stick Shed Sing, James believes the first show stopper of the day was probably the magnificence and scale of the shed itself:

“You approach this massive looming building through the Wimmera wheat lands, it’s bright, it’s flat and then you go into the shed through this administrative area and suddenly you’re inside this dark and immense space… I can only say that it’s like walking into the most amazing, ancient cathedral in Europe, that’s the sense of scale and the sense of awe it inspires when you first walk in, you can’t quite believe it.”

The venue is too big to simply whip a vacuum or broom over, so a day before the community choirs and singers arrived armed with picnics and BYO seating, a street sweeper from the neighbouring shire was brought in and driven up and down to prepare the space. Pieces of conveyor machinery still hang from the ceilings in some spots, evidence of the shed’s industrial heritage.

On a personal and professional level, James and Jane were delighted to have assembled another group of community singers in such a unique setting.

“Jane and I have worked quite a bit in the North and the West of the state and had probably connected with a lot of the individuals who sang with us on that day at some point previously, but we hadn’t worked with any of the choirs before and had no idea of their skill levels, we were assembling a really diverse bunch of singers. In finding a song by an Australian songwriter which spoke about trees and then feeling like we were standing in a forest was a very powerful thing and it connected the people and the place and the music. On an emotional level it worked really well.”

James and JaneJames and Jane were mindful of the distance some of the singers had travelled to participate in the Stick Shed Sing, and due consideration was given to this in planning the concert element of the day:

“The trick of running an event with multiple choirs is to really balance the effort that choirs are making to get there with the opportunity to showcase what they do and what they’ve learned. You can’t ask a highly rehearsed hardworking choir to drive 3 hours to Murtoa and then only give them time for one song. Neither do you want to force a smaller choir, meeting less frequently, to get up and sing five songs. It’s a challenge to make sure we respect the capabilities and the ambitions of all of the choirs.”

The mighty Murtoa Stick Shed is a monument to an older time, built during the second world war to stockpile grain at a point when no steel was available, it is the world’s largest remaining timber-built shed and its iconic void is filled with echoes of its industrial past where the dust motes carry history as they drift in the shafts of light. It’s an evocative place with the capacity to emotionally move anyone stepping into it.

If you missed the opportunity to make the sticks ring last year, there’s an opportunity for community choirs and singers to do it all over again and make music together in this amazing space on Saturday October 6. With Jane overseas, James will be going in on his own this year but, as he says, he knows what the challenges are and is already genuinely excited and looking forward to stepping back into the Stick Shed’s phenomenal space:

“…there will be the need for some big moments. You have a big crowd in a big space and it’s very satisfying to have a go at filling that mighty venue with sound.”

 James guitar

Join James Rigby for the second Stick Shed Sing on Saturday October 6th, 2018. For more information and to express an interest in participating in the workshop and/or afternoon concert with your choir (or as an individual!) contact office@makingmusic.com.au  

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

There’s no place like Tecoma: A new peace choir celebrates the positive things in life

There’s a new drop-in choir in Tecoma, that’s all about feeling good, celebrating resilience and being grateful for Community, our safety and the Environment. During the time when Singing Leader and Community Music Activist Barb McFarlane was planning to form Tecoma Peace Choir, Donald Trump was elected to the stage and the ensuing political pantomime has done nothing to reassure anyone about the state of the world:

“These are turbulent times and people want a bit of escape, they want to go to a zone where none of that’s even mentioned, they want to believe that all could be well because we’re singing about it being well…”

The desire underpinning and driving Barb’s vision for the Tecoma Peace Choir is to promote affirmation of the positive things in life. It’s about making the world a better place through positive celebration of self rather than singing about specific causes. To facilitate this, Barb writes simple chants to affirm the positive things in life. Singing simple and meaningful ‘mantras’ in English that give out messages of positivity:

“We had a really big storm here last year and there was a lot of damage; trees were down and the power went out, businesses flooded. While there was lots of damage and danger, I recognised that we had all the help we needed to restore power, fix roads and buildings and that people are very well looked after in situations like this in our country. In gratitude, I had one line running through my head “I am safe and I am well’ and it turned into this: ‘We are safe and well, We are warm and dry.’ “

I worked it into a boppy little 8 part ‘thing’ on garage band and taught it at choir at the next opportunity. It’s a reminder that mostly, in this lucky country, we are all fine, we’re all alive, safe and walking around, and that we could be grateful for that.

A few other chants penned by Barb are:

  • “ I’ve been forged in the fire of life and I am strong…..woah!”
  • “ Deep river of love X3 Carry me, carry me  Deep river of love”
  • “ I remember I remember I remember who I am”

Tecoma Peace Choir is inclusive of people with all abilities and highly accessible in terms of material. It operates on a drop in or ‘low commitment’ basis where people can pop along and have a sing, even if this happens only once every few weeks. As the perceived pace of our lives picks up, the model of Barb’s new choir offers people with busy lives the chance to stop everything and slow right down into a different space for a little while: “It’s inclusive of people who work really long hours, work shift work, or who just have a lot going on in their lives. It provides an opportunity to sing without any commitment or guilt!”

Each week there is toning, improv, sound baths, and percussion jamming. Songs are chosen with a focus on peace, hope, resilience, comfort and fun and Barb makes sure there is a good ‘play’ component to each session, too.  In compiling the program for a group without not knowing exactly who will be coming along, Barb draws up a Plan A and B. ‘I’ll write a song name down, add an alternative and I know at what point during the session I’ll change my mind.”

Barb is also planning to incorporate some yoga and breathing practice into the structure with a view to encouraging people to bring a pillow and a blanket as part of the process of reaching peace.

“The emphasis is on feeling good. In modern times people are so stressed and really need a space for relaxation.”

Barb has been incorporating yoga into singing sessions as she’s studying and will soon be a Dru Yoga student teacher.  There are many benefits – physical, mental and emotional from both singing and yoga and combining them works beautifully.

“I’ve been adding sounds to movement and using sound and singing as a relaxation tool for many years and that feels pretty good.”

Tecoma has a rich and very inclusive community outreach program emanating from the Tecoma Uniting Church, including a Community garden and a Food is Free initiative, where people share their garden produce or store cupboard contents. This provides a source of food for people who need it and is run along the lines of take what you want, leave what you don’t and share what you have with love.

The Hills Food Frontier, a group dedicated to promoting healthy eating and growing is also based there. Barb brings gardenny songs to some of their events and working bees and now Tecoma Peace Choir’s home is based in the Uniting Church Chapel.  “There are so many things already going on there, it’s a very happening sort of place.” All of the activities grow from the sense of sharing and connection  evident within the community made famous when it took on McDonalds, campaigning against the fast food giant and holding off the development of a restaurant in the town for three years.

Above all, Barb hopes the Peace Choir will provide ‘a bit of a service’ to people who want to sing, but can’t commit to a performance choir due to work or life.

“I imagine as things go on that I’ll see the same things happen as in other groups… watching the friendships develop is always lovely, especially for the single people who wish to be with other people in a meaningful way”

Barb also hopes to see some blokes dropping in to sing with Tecoma Peace Choir: “I would love to think that blokes feel comfortable to come and have a sing too. It’s great having the full range of human tones singing together.”

Article by Deb Carveth with Barb McFarlane.

Tecoma Peace Choir meets Tuesdays during school terms from 7 – 8.30pm at Tecoma Uniting Church,1566 Burwood Highway, Tecoma.  For information, contact Barb McFarlane: 0407 548 165

Singing to the end. How a group who sing for people in palliative care, came to be

One of the few things of which we can be certain is that one day, we’ll die. For many of us, this is something we avoid thinking about, preferring to concentrate instead on getting through each day in as positive and as present a way as possible. But imagine how our anticipation of this final journey might change if we could choose to be sung to, as we passed out of this life.

This is the mission of Ilana Sharp. Ilana leads Sonder, a women’s singing group that has been meeting monthly since March at McCulloch House, a palliative care centre that’s part of Monash Health in Melbourne, to sing for people who are reaching the end of their life.

Singing acapella in three and occasionally four-part harmony and for up to forty minutes each time, this group of eleven women are bound by their desire to deliver an uplifting sense of joy into an emotionally complex environment. Unsurprisingly, Ilana finds it’s an amazing thing to do.

“..it’s the intimacy and privilege of being able to offer something so gentle, open and comforting as singing, at the end of someone’s life.”

Sonder sing for the benefit of everyone in the hospice. For the patients, the staff, for themselves and for the family members of those people who are dying. Ilana says this isn’t without challenge and that life continues around them from their central point in the lounge area between the two wards. “Phones ring, sometimes the TV’s on….” But the staff assure them that the sound of their singing transcends this, travelling down along the corridors and filling all the rooms.

“The sound is uncomplicated, an offering to counteract the physicality of pain, suffering and concern, it offers an external focus… it takes you outside of yourself… there’s something in that for everyone. It also normalises the environment a little bit.”

The seed for Sonder was sown a few years ago by a short article Ilana read in the weekend Age newspaper about a Sydney based singing group who were doing a similar thing. She was taken by the idea and did some research into the existence of similar groups in Melbourne, but found nothing. Later, when her own mother was dying, Ilana was inspired to sing a Buddhist Mantra to her as she passed… “I’m not Buddhist, although I have a long standing interest, and I hadn’t sung for years but I had a strong urge to sing this mantra, over and over.”

Then about a year ago, the regular community choir to which all of the Sonder singers also belong, was having a night off. Keen to get their regular singing fix, some of the women met in the lounge room at somebody’s house. Used to singing together as part of a much larger group, the sound that evening was amazing; intense and enveloping, and the idea of singing as therapy for the dying recurred to Ilana.  She put the idea out there, expecting for only one or two people to be interested but, to her amazement, the women agreed unanimously and Sonder was born.

It was never Ilana’s intention to start a singing group of her own, and the emergence and sustainability of leading a group under any conditions, is rarely without challenge.

At first, Ilana felt a fraud. The dynamics were messy, things felt disjointed within the group even though they were united by a common aim as everyone struggled to work out a structure. Recognising the need for someone to take a stand and emerge as a clear leader, and with support from within the singing circle, Ilana found the courage to seize the reins and offer direction, something she has continued to do, taking cues on instruction where she can and attending leadership skill days. She’s surprised to find how much of what is required is already in her.

Sourcing material is a collective process with everyone suggesting and contributing songs. The women then work out harmonies and commit to meeting and practicing two or three times a month. This in itself is a challenge because of the pressures of life, such as work and kids and other bumps in the road.

McCulloch House is an intense and busy working environment to enter into, and the group is happy to enter quietly, sing, and leave again, as unobtrusively as possible. “We really don’t interact much with staff other than them listening to us and being glad we’re there, and we are warmly supported by their music therapist and nurse unit manager.”

This aim of their singing is not to make the world stop and listen, but to deliver a sense of warmth and light, and the women in Sonder find that they get out as much out of doing it, as the people on the receiving end of their singing.

“It’s incredibly joyous and uplifting and there’s a real sense of … family, I think, between us…”

‘Sonder’ is taken from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and is defined as ‘the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.’

This summarises the mission of the singing group perfectly. Singing to contribute a sense of normalcy and peace to the fabric of an emotionally charged environment and at the crossing points of the lives of many people, in as unobtrusive way as possible. To be the light in the window.

If you know of the Sydney based singing group from which Ilana’s inspiration came, or of the existence of other Victoria based groups doing a similar thing to Sonder, do get in touch. Ilana would love to hear from you, and so would we.

Deb Carveth with Ilana Sharp

Ideas for Community Music Group Leaders, from Belinda McArdle

150812singingldrshipSeveral community music makers and group leaders gathered at Commonground for peer exchange last weekend. I arrived late and left early and am in no position to summarise the weekend but I write to contribute to the network the ideas that captured my attention while there, in the hope they may be useful to others.

Having facilitated many CMVic weekends over the last ten years it was refreshing to be a participant and to be so warmly welcomed, encouraged, supported, inspired, challenged and heard.

It was wonderful to step away from my own busy life to engage in the wider discussion of values and music making even if only for 5 hours. I left with soup in my being, songs recorded on my phone, a copy of Jane Coker’s fabulous new resource ‘Just Sing’, some plans to song swap on line, fabulous group exercises and warm ups and some hearty food for thought.

The afternoon workshop, mutually devised and well facilitated by Strat and Aaron, challenged us to check in with our values and the notion of inclusivity.

Various exercises drew out philosophical arguments, practical tips and everything in between.

I summarise here what I remember, having handed in my notes to CMVic. The topic was what can we as music making leaders/an organisation keep doing, stop doing and start doing in relation to inclusivity.

include in our leadership our own passion for music making. We may think this is implicit, but all of a sudden notice we have been putting admin before playing, we have been playing it safe in our leadership and not taking risks or simply not playing enough ourselves. So, my ideas and resolutions on this topic are:

  • to ensure I am singing and playing for fun outside of my leadership
  • try some more impro games
  • keep including my own original material as well as a courageous cross section and allow my excitement to grow and be shared

Implicitly and explicitly create a culture of belonging. We value welcoming people to our groups and we discussed the value of every member feeling they are a welcomer and part of the hospitality. We discussed allowing people to opportunity to leave or to feed back when a group isn’t the right vibe for them. We talked about remembering to speak openly about WHY we are welcoming from time to time and we touched on feeling we belong ourselves. So, my take on this for my own practise is:

  • to continue to welcome newcomers individually and ask them to share with me after how welcome they felt
  • to continue to foster a culture of belonging by asking people to welcome people around them at the start of the session
  • ensure I feel included by sharing with the group that I would prefer not to leave alone in the dark at nights and ask them to share staying back with me.

Of course the discussion was richer and broader but they were my standard tips personally. Other big and little resolutions I took away were:

  • I purchased a copy of Search and Reflect by John Stevens based on the workshop Jane Coker delivered
  • I will be gathering my group at start/after session with either a hum or a clapping exercises
  • I used to ask participants to bring their instrument on last week of term and then run 3 chord song so it was accessible and interesting in a different way. I need to start that again.
  • Go to more CMVic events
  • Use the microphone in Facebook Messenger to send little voice files to other leaders and receive them back.
  • Contribute more to the blog/wider discussion so I can hear what others are doing and be reminded of our very important differences that keep us interesting.

I enjoy sharing what I have and know and think and am open to emails from other leaders and the exchange of ideas, songs and challenges. Conctact: Belinda@acabellas.net.au http://www.acabellas.net.au

Belinda McArdle