Copyright © Elizabeth Sheppard, 17 March 2020
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Original music making is an enjoyable, rewarding, creative, deeply human activity. It uses every human sense, it’s like a gym workout session for your brain, to play or sing original music that comes from the heart of your country and community. Original music making and live performance promotes health, it’s a human survival weapon that people have always turned to in difficult times. And it can also be done online, to ensure healthy social distancing, and boost morale in struggling communities, in this current pandemic crisis.
I love composing new music, so much of my time is devoted to that, but I also enjoy listening to and singing the music I grew up with, and to today’s music. Lots of parents, like me, enjoy music that we can share with friends and family. Concert going is an expensive luxury, limited by my low income. Since my parents immersed me in original music making as a child, I’ve always been aware that consuming someone else’s music by listening or mimicry, although it’s fun, is at best an amusing, ephemeral secondhand musical adventure.
Immersing ourselves in other people’s music can be therapeutic, educational, fascinating and enriching. But experiencing music from the outside in isn’t at all like composing your own original music, or performing it, or hearing others perform it. Releasing the music that lives inside me and my country, and sending it out into the world, is exhilarating and enlivening. I’m energised by it. When I make my own music, I discover and celebrate the music that’s grown up with me, as I’ve matured. It’s been formed in me by my country and my people, and so I must release it. By closely attending to and translating the music of my country into music that communicates with audiences, I process my emotions and understandings, and contribute to community understandings. When my music is performed, it affirms the undervalued experiences of Australian communities that are deeply embedded in our agonising, enduring, surviving, reviving, rejoicing country. So through music, I empathise with others, celebrate them, and acknowledge contrasting viewpoints.
Expressing myself in communion with my country and my people comes naturally to me, but I’m not a genius or a virtuoso, and everyone can learn to do what I do, to some degree. Instead of drowning in information input overload, we can process our own knowledge, gathered from events that we’ve experienced and absorbed, and reflect it to audiences, who can then respond with their own music. This open musical dialogue, that can sustain social harmony, is the best, most constructive use for music. When my own music connects to an audience, it starts a social and spiritual chain reaction that goes on forever. And that’s wonderful.
There’s a huge difference between creating original music from scratch, and compiling playlists for listening, or learning to imitate pre-recorded music. Musical fandom seems to have descended into data collection of themes and loops. Regurgitating loops is rated as more musical, no memory for loops = unmusical. By that measure, I’m not musical at all, because all my brain has room for is my own music. On the TV show Spicks & Specks, competitors guess the title of a song after hearing a fragment of it. The winner, who identifies and imitates other peoples’ songs best, is judged “good at music”. That’s fine, if you just want to memorise other people’s songs, but is this really “being good at music”? Isn’t it just fandom, attentive listening, a good memory, a good ear, and consumer mimicry?
Reminiscing about the past is unpopular these days, but I grew up in an Australian community where people constantly created their own music, as well as playing and singing classics, radio “hits”, and inherited music. Making live music was an everyday, undigitised, praiseworthy, often informal, highly valued event. Criticism of average or wobbly music performances was rare. No one expected everyone to perform music perfectly, as they do today, so everyone could have a go at it, and get a clap. Everyone in my world sang, whistled, and memorised songs around the house, often imperfectly, and unencumbered by technology. We all knew a vast repertoire of church hymns and psalm tunes by heart; these were sung at church in parts, and hummed when we were gardening, helping Dad in his workshop, or doing housework with Mum. We handwrote music scores, played and sang solo and in groups, practised “party pieces” to perform at clubs, parties, community fundraising concerts, and performed music every week at home, at school and in church. Performing music was a social necessity, an absorbing team game that required learning cooperative music skills. Engaging in church music in those days was certainly not a Marxian dumbed down “opium of the people”: it required discipline, regular work, a commitment to social justice, and sustained creative effort.
We listened to music on the radio, and later to LP records on the stereogram my parents purchased in 1963, when I turned 15. But when we wanted to “do music”, we made our own music, building on the musuc traditions we knew well, to do so. Tape recorders, computers, CD players, iPods and streamed music targeted at consumers, were absent, they came along much later. I heard my tape recorded singing voice for the first time in 1963, at a church youth club, and bought my first computer, a Mac SE, in 1989. By 1992 I had a CD player and a Walkman, but the iPod, smart phones, music software and music streaming didn’t arrive in my household until 2000, when I was 52 years old. Like most Australians, we simply didn’t have sufficient disposable income to access up to date music technology.
My hardworking parents scrimped and saved to buy me the beautiful Bosendorfer upright grand piano they gave me on Christmas Day 1955, when I was 7 years old. I still it have today. My sister learnt to play the violin, so we learned music together, at great cost to Mum and Dad, who paid for our weekly music lessons until we turned 18. Recently I counted the cost of these music lessons. In all, Mum and Dad paid for about 500 piano lessons for me (about £5000, or $10000 in decimal currency), and the piano cost £150. This was a huge slice out of their meagre income from their 9 to 5 work as an electrician and teacher, that shows how much my family valued music.
When the folk music craze arrived from America in 1963, my Great Aunt Anne Foulsum gave me my Great Uncle Bill’s old steel string guitar, that he used to play in a Dixieland band at the old Melbourne Palais. I strummed it, and sang Scottish folk songs, and songs from the Seekers, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Nina and Frederick, and Bob Dylan. I owned only one Nina and Frederick record, a 45′, called Little Boxes, and I listened to my sister’s classical and folk World Record Club collection. My musical cousins in Wonthaggi, Victoria played the piano or organ, or marching band instruments like fifes or euphoniums, and everyone in my extended family sang. Some could read music, others sang from sol-fa notation, and all the older folk sang or played from memory. My Grandad Ebenezer Simpson was the most accomplished musician in our family, he played the button accordion for dances, sang many folksongs from memory, and produced the annual Wonthaggi pantomime at the Union Theatre. One of his daughters, my Auntie Jean Fullard, was the Church organist at St Andrews Peace Church, Wonthaggi, for many years. On my mother’s side, my Grandfather Gus Ridge was a singer, theatre producer and playwright in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Carnarvon in the early 1900s. My musical ancestors passed on their love of country based music making, and their skills, to me, so through making new music that’s in tune with the past and present, and looks forward with hope, I keep faith with them and with my country.