Tag Archives: Singing Leadership

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

The Journey From The Song, by Stuart Ashburner

It is only a short song. In fact it was just the chorus that started it all.

Perhaps I should start from where it all began. Polly, my wife, has always loved listening to ‘a capella’ so for several years we would go to the Selby Folk Club’s annual a capella concert in Upwey. Then about 5 years ago, after the concert, I made the irrational decision to join Sweet Sassafras, one of our local choirs. Irrational because I’d not sung since my youth, and never in a concert. A few weeks after that our choir director announced that we would be learning Light by Light by Liz Frencham and singing it along with VoKallista, another local choir, at the Belgrave Lantern Festival and if we wanted to get started on the song, go to VoKallista on Wednesday evening.

That song, Light by Light, started a new journey in our lives.

I went along to VoKallista, got an amazingly warm welcome from Libby Price and met Barb McFarlane whose name was vaguely familiar. I knew by the end of the session that I needed to join VoKallista as well as being in Sweet Sassafras. It took a while to get Polly along, for the usual reasons. “I’m not musical, I can’t sing.” etc.  Within three months they were among her best friends, almost like family, and she had done a short solo recitative on stage at Daylesford during the Choirs Concert.

Then one day Barb Mcfarlane told me that she was on the Victoria Sings Steering Group at Community Music Victoria. I’d never heard of CMVic let alone the Steering Group. She said that the group consisted only of women and needed a male to give it a bit of balance and I was that male. That’s how I got involved. I decided to go to Treetops to find out what a CMVic camp was all about. Polly said I was on a high for weeks afterwards.

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Stuart (left) at Treetops, back in 2014

So, we’ve just got home from our third CMVic Singing Camp, met up once again with the loveliest bunch of people on the planet, are both inspired from the workshops, from the interactions, the singing, talking and the warmth. Our lives have changed into totally new directions over the last four years with new confidences, new friends and new adventures. 

And it all started from that one little song.

Thank you Liz Frencham for Light by Light. And thank you Barb Mcfarlane, for getting me into CMVic, and thanks to all of you wonderful CMVic people.

-Stuart ‘Fuzzy’ Ashburner

Postscript: It is as relevant to me now in 2019 as it was when I wrote this in January of 2014. Wild horses wouldn’t keep Polly and me away from the CMVic Singing Camp!**

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Stuart and friends at the 2017 CMVic Singing Camp

**The 2019 CMVic Singing Camp at Amberley runs from October 18-20. It is a weekend of peer exchange for Singing Leaders of all experience levels, new, aspiring or experienced, and anyone who loves to sing! For information and bookings, click here. 

Getting big feminists singing!

By Jane York

On Feb 5th this year I posted in a private feminist group I belong to, the following:

“Random thought for all singers (everyone) in this group: If I was to start a casual Inner North FEMINIST CHOIR, who would be interested? Singing tunes by powerhouse women of pop and indie including Beyonce, Peaches, Meryl Bainbridge.  Like if you would be keen to come along  x”

The idea for a feminist choir had been rattling around in my head for a long time, nurtured through chats with lefty, femmo, artist friends about what our creative responses to this unique cultural moment in history might look like. I made a playlist entitled ‘Feminist Choir’ that may or may not have included the song Bitch by Meredith Brooks. So when I got 12 comments of support under my Facebook post I thought ‘fantastic, great, let’s do this right away…’

Right away turned out to be 5 months, and change. I booked the room, made a poster, created a Facebook event and – for lack of any better ideas – titled it BIG FEMINIST SING!, thinking this would do until I came up with a much more clever and witty title.

I then proceeded to completely overthink what we would sing: What is a feminist? What does a feminist song sound like? Am I even a good enough feminist? What if I forget how to feminist and I am never allowed to feminist again?!!!!

After this initial bout of imposter syndrome, I realised that I needed to focus on what I wanted from a Big Feminist Sing. What I wanted was to express a complex set of conflicting emotions around identity. To do more than argue with strangers on the internet. To make a physical space for catharsis. To express vulnerability, anger, humour; to be fierce, silly and soulful. I wanted to be unapologetically critical of our leaders, cultural values and institutions. I wanted to build community, and I didn’t need to have all the answers!

It was important to me that the Big Feminist Sing workshop was a welcoming and safe space for all non-binary, gender fluid, intersex and trans singers. There is a disturbing amount of discrimination in some pockets of the feminist community and I wanted it to be clear from the outset that everyone is welcome. I have tried to do that by stating explicitly on all our promotion that we are for everybody. I have also been conscious of this when making song choices and lyric changes in songs. Not just choosing songs with lyrics about Woman power and giving pronoun options on lyric sheets. I hope that this has made the space more welcoming and I will continue to listen to feedback around this.

As with my other projects I knew that selecting material would be crucial to the success of the initial workshop. I wanted it to be satisfying and surprising, so the first song in our first session was the children’s song There’s A Hole In My Bucket, which was my dry and humorous way of finding a song that accurately depicted the domestic mental load and the infantilisation of adult men. We then sung a mournful a capella lament on the destruction of Mother Earth by trans singer-songwriter, Anohni, and Radiohead’s Creep, with guitar accompaniment and the lyrics re-written to be about Trump.

Over 40 people showed up to the first workshop and many were not regular choristers or singers. For the second Big Feminist Sing over 80 people came through the door and I was excited and nervous in equal parts. I now had an unruly mob of lefty feminists to wrangle and lead. What did they want or expect? Luckily our venue had a stage and my accompanist had brought a headset mic for me to use so I had physical command of the room. With prior permission, I had arranged Tiddas’ My Sister in two parts and in just under an hour we had something glorious and powerful. The video of that session was shared nearly 4,000 times and, by her own admission, we had Sally Dastey in tears.

We travelled to Docklands Library for the third session, inspired by the big turnout for the previous workshop in Northcote, however I want Big Feminist Sing to be of no fixed address and to move around, allowing different groups of people to take part. Although the turnout for the Docklands workshop was smaller, a third of those who attended did so only because it was held in a central location.

Our fourth workshop was a collaboration with Reclaim the Night were we learnt Mylk’s Quiet, the anthem from the Women’s march. We were then invited to sing it at the conclusion of the RTN event the following week. I made an online resource of the song so that people who couldn’t attend the workshop could still be a part of the evening event and on the night we had around 40 voices leading the crowd in song.

I have a lot of ideas for the future of Big Feminist Sing and am in the process of putting together a committee to help put them into action. The main question in my mind right now is ‘what is our activism’? What will it look, sound and feel like? I look forward to answering these questions and making music with the incredible humans who make up the BFS community.

Jane York
October 2018

The next Big Feminist Sing is on 13 November, 7-9pm at Kindred Studios, 3 Harris St, Yarraville. Click here for info.

About Jane: Jane is a multi skilled musical instigator committed to the community building power of group singing. She is the founder and director of contemporary community choir ‘Just Holler’, musical director of Nillumbik Youth Theatre and producer and musical director of Big Feminist Sing. She has directed choirs and music groups for people aged 10-90 with a focus on mental health recovery and inclusive practice for the disability community.

When she is not waving her hands around Jane is producing community music events including choir jams, a sold-out tribute to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, It’s Our Side Project and #Sing4equality.

On rare occasions she can also be seen performing with madrigal group Tierce De Picarde and a capella trio The Northern Belles.

Featured image: Photograph by recalcitrant

 

The Assyrian Women’s group: celebrating, preserving, and sharing Assyrian Culture in Melbourne.

Foundation House is an organisation set up to help refugees and migrants who are survivors of torture in other countries, assisting them with settlement services and connecting them with other organisations such as AMES on arrival in Australia. It is also the starting point in this story of a group of Chaldean Christian women who have hopes of becoming the Assyrian Women’s Choir.

The Assyrian Women’s group is a group of Chaldean women who have fled persecution and torture in Iraq and Syria. Persecuted for being Christian and for speaking a different language, these women have been migrating to safety in Australia to begin a new life for more than twenty years, and they keep coming.

Whenever new refugees or migrants arrive, the women mobilise themselves into a welcome committee, travelling out to the airport. They help the new arrivals to find their feet in this foreign country where for many of them, language is a barrier. Every Friday, the women meet to sing and cook food together, sharing stories of their lives, old and new, as well as offering skills and support to each other. They are from places in Iraq we’ve all heard about in the news, and they know the pain of conflict, displacement, persecution and loss.

A strong love for singing their traditional Arabic and Chaldean folk songs exists between the women, and this is how Sarah Mandie, Diversity Coordinator with Community Music Victoria came to be involved in their journey.

Sarah approached Foundation House to offer skills and support to the staff and community to in her capacity as a singing leader and facilitator. Carolyn Wilson, one of the senior counsellors there, immediately thought of the Chaldean Christian Women’s group and arranged for Sarah and CMVic’s Coordinator, Oli Hinton, to meet with them. Translator and Foundation house worker, Dr Salam Dankha, made communication possible. At the first meeting, Oli and Sarah were welcomed with traditional food and songs, and a bond was formed.  In 2017 a further two sessions were planned for Sarah to work with the group ahead of their participation at the International Women’s Day celebrations, at Dianella Health in Craigieburn.

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Members of the Assyrian Women’s group in one of their initial sessions with Sarah

screen-shot-2017-06-23-at-10-28-33-am-e1498191904892.pngDuring the first session, the women chose to sing two songs: one, an Iraqi song about the beauty of Iraqi women, and the second a folk song about courtship and the relevance of bringing gifts for the girl. Their enthusiasm was evident and they conveyed their hopes of galvanising the group into something with a more formal structure which would enable them to preserve and share the music as messengers of their culture and as advocates for peace in the wider community.

Sarah has been enabling the women to find a focus and they have plans to write a song together, an anthem unique to the group, written around universal morals and themes such as peace, as part of their journey of healing, participation and empowerment.

The next phase is to obtain the funding necessary for Sarah to continue her work with the Assyrian women because, as she says, “I’ve already developed a relationship with them, and it’s a good one.” Supporting the group in selecting a repertoire and helping them to develop the structure they need to become a sustainable choir constitutes part of a proposed new CMVic led project called ‘Voices of Peace‘.

“It’s about giving the leaders already in place within the Assyrian community some skills and structure to use, it’s also about support in identifying potential new leaders and it’s about assistance with sustainability.” as well as offering suggestions and feedback around how the songs are sung: “It’s one thing for the women to sit and sing music of their culture together but in order to get out and share the material, some guidance is necessary.”

While the group is comprised solely of Assyrian women, these women are open to everyone, no matter where they are from. They don’t have any barriers around ethnicity, religion, etc. Instead, there is open-ness, recognition and acceptance of difference:

“They just understand…I told them I have an Indian husband, and that I’m Jewish and it created this openness, I mean, we’re all just different aren’t we, and we want to get along.”

This is the focus and purpose of the group: to sing their music, celebrate and preserve their unique culture and through sharing this love of it with others, to create greater harmony and understanding in society, improving mental and physical health and well-being along the way on the road to recovery.

As part of the International Women’s Day event, there was a fashion parade and it was a chance for everyone to get dressed up and a celebration for all women, from all cultures. “The Assyrian women came out wearing jewelled gowns, and having a wonderful time with the Indian women; celebrating being women.”

As the Assyrian Women’s Choir, these women will find new opportunities and ways to meet people, make connections and friendships, to share and celebrate where they are from and and to participate and contribute to the richness of the diverse, inclusive and safe society they have found themselves part of.

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Members of the Assyrian Women’s group singing at an event for International Women’s Day 2017 (above and below)

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Listen to an early session with the Assyrian Women’s group, here.

Written by Deb Carveth with Sarah Mandie for Community Music Victoria