Like amateur night at the world-famous Apollo Theater in New York, the Darebin Music Feast draws out the creative, unconventional, original and unique talent that lay dormant in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne. As I reviewed the annals of performers, I uncovered what is perhaps the most inspiring of music organisations hidden in the bosom of Northcote. Run by a team of volunteers, musicians and committee members, the High Street Bells Choir brings 25 to 40 singers together nearly every week to rehearse and deliver 6 to 10 public performances each year.
Jenny Taylor / Photo courtesy of High Street Bells Choir
This independent community arts organisation is orchestrated by Music Director Jenny Taylor. She is a Melbourne-based singer and songwriter with Jonpelian Music. In her 25 years career, Jenny has performed over 100 shows, produced 3 CDs and had her songs performed by massed choirs and played on Melbourne community radio and ABC regional radio. I managed to catch up with Jenny to find out what makes the Choir "sing", and like any good investigative host in a suit on a really late late night show, uncover the reasons why High Street Bells Choir is one of the best things Jenny has done in her life.
Lionel: How did the High Street Bell Choir get started?
Jenny: I formed the choir in April 2010 after finishing 3 years work with the Choir Of Hard Knocks. I approached local Darebin organisations to see if there was interest in a local socially inclusive choir. There was no funding in place however support came from The Northcote Uniting Church, Craig Rogers (Arts and Culture Manager at Darebin Council) and Sally Green who was Manager at Melbourne City Mission Clubhouse. We spent much of the last 3 years building the organisation and infastructure, building the committee, the volunteer body, processes and administrative resources. We also managed to get financial support through Darebin Community grants, Bendigo Bank sponsorship and some individual philanthropists. We do mostly popular songs from the last 50 years. We try and do songs which are known to the majority of choir members. This can be difficult sometimes due to the multicultural nature of our members.
Jenny: We are very different from other choirs in that the majority of our singers have an acquired brain injury. However we are unusual in that we made a decision not to specify or limit membership to any single type of disability or social need. I noticed people with one disability will be sensitive towards others with a different type of disability. There is great tolerance and acceptance of each other and people find room to contribute to each other. Hence a variety of disability is represented including sensory, intellectual, autism spectrum etc. We focus on creating a warm environment, social connection, performances and connecting with the public, rather than on disability. Its about what we have rather than on perfect music.
Lionel: How does the Choir help the local community of Darebin and Melbourne?
Jenny: We provide a unique environment where people come together to sing regardless of ethnicity, faith, ability or disability and share in creating an uplifting experience each week. I receive regular feedback about how the experience of singing with disabled members really creates awareness and acceptance. The humanity in the choir is healing and life affirming for all. We are now having singers referred to us by occupational therapists, speech therapists, The Department of Health and Community Service, refugee organisations, mental health services and return to work organisations.
Lionel: What is it like to work in a disability-friendly choir?
Jenny: Our choir community is run mostly by volunteers, some of whom are health professionals, retirees, music students, carers etc. They are all people who have room in their lives and heart to share this desire to aspire and connect in a supportive environment. We work together with the aim of creating the best sound we can. While there is acknowledgement of disability, we rehearse like any other choir. We do vocal warm ups and people do improve their singing capacity and speech capacity. There is also continual effort from the singers to participate as best they can. The sheer volume of rehearsals and performances we have achieved on very limited funding is quite phenomenal and is a testament to both the enthusiasm and commitment of the singers and the incredible work of our volunteer team.
Lionel: What's most inspiring from the years of working with the Choir?
Jenny: When we sing as a choir, we suck in life, we shape it, color it and we blow it out again, deliberately. Those deep breaths are very life affirming as is the concentration on being in time, in tune and blended. Our singing takes us on a journey which we can all travel together, regardless of whether we are wheelchair bound, unable to see, or able bodied. We all feel. We all aspire. High Street Bells Choir demonstrates this irrefutably. And our volunteers are really inspiring. They give their time generously, with great consideration for the well being of all. All of us work an average of 15 hours a week. We do it because the choir is important both in the lives of the singers, their communities and for the wider community.
Lionel: Where can the public see and hear the Choir in action?
Jenny: Due to the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of our members, we have joined with the Darebin massed choir to perform each year at the Carols in all nations, where they are a hot favorite. As Parliament met to determine the future of the National Disability Scheme in 2012, we performed for family and friends at Melbourne City Mission and this was tweeted around Australia. We have also performed at AGM's, community events and the Darebin Music Feast in 2010, 2012 and again in 2014. This year we'll be hosting our own performance in the beautiful Northcote Town Hall Ballroom which can cater a much larger audience.
Lionel: What can we expect from the Choir in this year's Darebin Music Feast?
Jenny: There is always great music and joy. The love we share at singing together is contagious. The audience will be invited to sing a little too. Frank Jones (Whirling Furfies) will sing early in the night. Greg Spencer, a local songwriter who will soon launch his debut CD will share a song with the choir. We will have some laughter games, some big songs and some divine and beautiful music. The event will be filmed by video journalist John Frances.
Lionel: Congratulations on your new CD. How did the Choir manage this feat?
Jenny: Leader Newspaper offers a community grant each year. Our choir was voted the most popular entrant in 2012 and was awarded $1,000 cash to record our CD "Singing for Joy". The CD features the choir song "High Street Bell Blues" which was co-written by the choir members and Folk Festival Star Alana Egan. Also on the CD are collaborations between the choir and songwriters Frank Jones, Greg Spencer, Greg Champion and myself. There's also a stunning Nepalese a capella performance. We held a mini CD Preview Concert for family and friends in November 2013. It was literally booked out and the audience members still talk about it in glowing terms of wonder. We will launch the CD publicly at the 2014 Darebin Music Feast.
Jenny: We would like to do much much more. This means securing ongoing funding; performing, by invitation, at about 4 big concerts a year in addition to several smaller ones; hosting singing days to include people in special accommodation settings; be part of social and health science research and student placements; continuing to include local songwriters in creating works for the choir; and offering professional development for our Choir leaders and health workers in how to run special needs choirs.
Photo courtesy of High Street Bells Choir
High Street Bells Choir CD - The "Singing for Joy" CD retails for $15 and can be ordered directly from the High Street Bells Choir website. It is also available at Rathdowne Records on 230 High Street, Northcote and the concert on 9 October 2014.
CD Launch Concert - High Street Bells Choir will be performing in the Darebin Music Feast on 9 October 2014. You can catch their CD launch Concert at 8pm in the Northcote Town Hall. Tickets can be purchased from the booking office on phone: 03 9481 9500 or online at the ticketing website.