In June 2020, with the intention of maintaining my vocal skills, and restricted by Covid pandemic conditions that limit my particiipation in live choirs and solo performances, I enrolled in an Open Academy Classic Song class at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. This turned out to be a wonderful opportunity, not only to maintain my vocal skills, but to introduce notated Australian Indigenous songs into a music education curriculum that is still largely dominated by an admirable, but clearly foreign, classical song repertoire – but now welcomes notated Australian Aboriginal song into the repertoire.
As a result, this Wednesday, Dec 2 2020, at 7.00 pm, I’m singing three of my Indigenous Noongar Australian classical songs and one European song – Kaya Mary, Mary Moorditj Ngaangk, and Ngalak Noonook Balga (Gasstrees), and Schubert’s An Die Musik – all workshopped with Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks in Sydney Conservatorium’s Open Academy Classic Song class, at the Classic Song Concert at Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium. Thanks to Classic Song teachers / accompanists Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks for their expert mentoring and cultural competence. Tickets are available at Sydney Conservatorium Box Office.
Here’s a link to my performance of Ngalak Noonook Balga (Grasstrees).
It seems that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has woken Australians up to the important role that local community, Aboriginal and country based music can play, in maintaining human mental health and community peace.
Dreaming, performing, and fanning community, Aboriginal, and locally based music that comes from actual human situations and real life experiences, instead of idolising globalised music “stars” from distant places and cultures, has a unique power to enliven, build and strengthen human societies and economies. Local song and local culture sharing and exchange can, in fact, act as a currency.
The myth that supporting local Australian music will produce jingoistic nationalism, xenophobic hatred and war, is groundless. Where healthy local intercultural dialogue, assisted by song dialogue and exchange, is well funded, and provocative mass media reports inciting hatred, are excised prior to publication by responsible editors, peace has a chance to flourish. The proliferation of imported global music is still smothering local Australian music. which is characteristically respectful, and features intercultural sharing. Using music in good ways, local Australian musicians have outlawed deliberately offensive behaviour; many Australian songs promote justice by exposing and discrediting mischief making rumours that incite conflict.
Cultures that articulate and celebrate themselves in music, while engaging with environmental, spiritual and cultural concepts and structures, find ways to communicate peacefully with other cultures. Australian musicians have intelligent, inoffensive ways of agreeing to disagree, while expressing culture based viewpoints strongly. As their community music is heard and discussed, local audiences forge and maintain sensible behavioural boundaries, with humour and wit. In Western Sydney in the early 2000s, Australian Bishop Kevin Manning tested and proved this beyond doubt, when he organised a productive, peaceful series of interfaith conversations between large congregations of Christians and Muslims. These sessions included diverse local musics, and the discussions that ensued quickly restored community peace after an isolated but extremely provocative incident. It became evident to all that sharing common ground, singing together, clarifying intercultural issues and utterly discrediting false media myths, has an unrivalled power to promote and restore not only passive peace, but proactive, strengthened, responsible community relationships.
Songbooks such as the Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD, produced by Deborah Cheetham, Toni Lalich and Jessica Hitchcock in close collaboration with several Australian Aboriginal communities, also foster community peace. Such resources are valuable local community building tools for the challenging pandemic era we are living through.
So, how much health-bestowing local community music is being produced and consumed by Australians, right now? Where is it performed and heard, how is it managed, recorded, licensed and distributed, and who is still making it? When an Australian musician or composer writes, performs and records some of their own music, how do they get it heard by Australian and international audiences? Are they expected to give their music away free of charge, to be heard? And are Australian governments able to add to our National assets, by including the value of our national music in the National Budget, as an asset? Is wide, government sponsored media distribution provided to our Australian musicians, so their loyal, pandemically challenged fans can access it? And if our local music is being drowned out by insistent promotion of non-Australian music, why is this so?
Have a look online. Many unfunded Australian Aboriginal communities in remote and urban areas are making magnificent, uniquely Australian music. Many non-Indigenous Australian musicians and ethical researchers are collaborating with these communities, to grow uniquely Australian community music repertoires with a powerful Australian sound and presence. This is a learning process, that deserves music policy support. When every Australian gives first priority to supporting uniquely Australian music, instead of believing the globalised media hype that promotes non-Australian performers and imported music genres above our home grown music, local community music, community cultures, and community peace, will flourish healthily, and grow.
Obviously, Australians don’t dislike overseas musics, they are all wonderful, but why should Australians prioritize non-Australian music genres, or promote them above our own musics, to the detriment of the strong internal multicultural musical bonds we have always lived with and built? All Australian citizens have a cultural right and duty to support, grow and enjoy our very own music, that connects us to, and takes pride in, the beautiful country we are fortunate to live in.
Australian community music is slowly re-emerging from the cultural silencing that the post World War II flood of imported and globalised music induced. We are beginning to realise that muting our local musicians’ voices, obediently patronising, consuming and imitating the avalanche of non-Australian music genres that were, and in some cases still are, permitted to dominate our airwaves, and allowing overseas music scholars to interpret, pass judgement on, and appropriate our home grown Australian music cultures, is not likely to benefit Australia. We can and should take credit for our own musical prowess. Australia is no longer stuck in a colonial music time warp, that wrongly deems all imported music and opinions superior, and all home grown music irredeemably inferior. However, many Australians think it safe to sit timidly on a musical fence, and are still vacillating between patronising non-Australian music, and prioritising our local music.
Can Australia’s thirst for our own sovereign music really be fulfilled with instore muzak such as “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “White Christmas”, or “Jingle Bells”, to cheer us through our smoky heatwave-and-bushfire summers? I don’t think so. Sadly, the yawning gulf that divorced the community music (of both Aboriginal and immigrant origin that many older Australians still know and love), from the overwhelmingly foreign music repertoire studied and performed in Australian Universities, Conservatoria, and concert halls, has certainly not been bridged.
Hands up, if you’ve heard identifiably Australian music, performed, recorded and distributed by Australians, in Australia, on an Australian-produced radio or TV program, or a streamed podcast. Hands up, if the adoring praise Australian media curators and announcers heap on the imported music of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Mozart, and American style jazz seriously outweighs their half hearted, grudging endorsement of “second class” Australian music. Hands up, if you’ve heard, played or sung Australian music in the last week. Music by non-Australian composers of non-Australian music genres, still floods Australian airwaves, and is still promoted by massive government handouts of public money, that all flows out of Australia. This money should be flowing into local Australian community music systems, to support and grow homespun Australian music.
Supporting local music is not narrow parochialism or isolationist nationalism, nor is it driven by anti-competitive rhetoric. It’s commonsense local social capital building. Many researchers claim that academic studies of “popular music” such as hip hop, rock, soul, electronica and gaming music have broken through the academic / community music divide, by validating the selection and insertion of a carefully selected canon of globalised ‘popular music’ into Australian school and academic curricula. The theory behind this policy, is that establishing a secularised global music repertoire shared by all, will eliminate intercultural and interreligious conflict – John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine” vision of world harmony. But despite this populist educational policy, a strict academic / community music divide survives, and is promoted by, imported music teaching and examination systems that many Australian music teachers are required to endorse. Grass rooms musos are studied by Australian music scholars, but how many of them read, or are permitted to respond to, the thousands of academic papers written about local Australian abd Aboriginal musicians? Popular music syllabuses that include lists of set examination performance pieces, and also teach computer music skills, are shaping future Australian musicians, but only a tiny percentage of the teaching repertoire included in these syllabuses is composed by Australians, or supportive of uniquely Australian and Aboriginal music genres and performers.
So what can be done to promote and support the growth of health-giving Australian community music systems and repertoires?
1. Immediately reduce the high percentage of non-Australian music heard on Australian airwaves, by 50%, and replace it with uniquely, recognusably Australian music, funded by Australia, and performed by Australians.
2. Teach and show Australian children that healthily home grown Australian music is highly valued by Australians, and is just as good as any music of non-Australian origin, or music based on a non-Australian genre, or music composed, produced and distributed by non-Australian musicians and companies.
3. In our present pandemic situation, generously fund and facilitate the creation and local community performances of uniquely Australian music content, by Australian born and raised composers.
4. When the coronavirus pandemic subsides, fund healthy, safe live local music events directed and staffed by local Australian musicians, and endorsed by local Australian Aboriginal Elders as fully supportive of our sovereign Australian cultures and ecologies, instead of draining Australia’s music coffers by importing or promoting “big names” who don’t actually need promotion, and who often put youth audiences at risk by staging drug-ridden megaconcerts, and then depart, taking our funds with them.
When I began Postgraduate composition studies at the Australian National University School of Music, Canberra in January 2020, my academic skills were, to say the least, a bit rusty. But having lived through and survived the Australian summer bushfire crisis, the effects of the devastating hailstorm that hit Canberra, and the Covid-19 pandemic that followed, in Semester 2 2020 I’m continuing with my Postgraduate studies, working at upgrading my academic and technology skills with expert help, ploughing on with composition, writing my thesis, and preparing video presentations.
Click on the link below to see what I’m doing at ANU this Semester.
ANU School of Music (aka Llewellyn Hall) and its web of dedicated multidisciplinary music performers and researchers, is both challenging and inspiring. ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop, Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt and Professor Kim Cunio are the driving forces behind this Australian Music School, that welcomes talented musicians from diverse backgrounds to explore, perform and develop uniquely Australian, and often cross-cultural, musical repertoires. Currently, ANU music students include hip hop artists, gaming music researchers, orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, community music specialists, audio engineering trainees, music therapists, Indigenous composers, opera singers, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and diverse ethnic musicians who specialise in performing and recording culture-based traditional music. Their talent and diversity, together with the reliable support of the ANU School of Music admin and academic team, and the admin and academic Colleges that support them, makes every encounter, whether live, or on Zoom, an informative, productive, collaborative adventure.
As Australia comes to terms with COVID-19 protocols, musicians and composers are working out how to “do” music online. If we had a choice, live music would win. These photos of our Ngarra Burria Composers recording sessions at the Australian National University Studio in 2017-2018, and the first Ngarra Burria concert at Eora Aboriginal College in 2017, show how contemporary musicians (Claire Edwardes, Ensemble Offspring, and the five inaugural Ngarra Burria composers Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Tim Gray and myself in these photos) normally work together, in close proximity, to make music. But it is also possible, as demonstrated by the brilliant Lux Aeterna virtual choir a few years back, to gather in virtual spaces to make great music. The current COVID-19 crisis is pushing musicians and composers towards online collaboration. And as an accommodation to social distancing, Italian balcony music also seems to have taken off! So despite my advanced years, and my unfamiliarity with webcams, video conferencing, podcasting, and Skype, I’ve decided to jump into making balcony music, video conferencing, jamming and broadcasting virtual music online. Yes, I do have a balcony – in fact, two balconies! And hearing Mikey O’Neil’s presentation on interactive gaming music at ANU School of Music last week was a great introduction to crafting multiple responsive loops.
As an Australian composer and singer, I make music that’s deeply engaged with, and inspired by, the vast, wonderful country that has always nourished and sustained my people. My music records and celebrates the everyday lived experience of my generation, my communities, and my ancestors, from one Australian woman’s perspective, over a lifetime. In 2019 I was awarded a Postgraduate Scholarship from the Australian National University in Canberra, to study and develop my Australian composition, document my music, and create new works. My course requires me to “develop an online presence” as a composer, so links to my music, writing. and published scores will be posted on this blog. Click on the My Music tab to see / hear audio clips or purchase my scores.
There are thousands of skilled female Church musicians in Australia. Two of the most skilled and dedicated practising Church musicians I know are my friend Antonia Deasey, an Anglican music teacher at Trinity Grammar School, Sydney, who also has private pupils and sings in a Cathedral choir, and my Anglican sister Anne Speer, who teaches violin at three Church schools in Western Australia, takes private pupils, directed her local parish choir until recently, and plays with a regional orchestra. These two gifted, talented women are well employed by the Church, but are owed much greater recognition as professional Australian Church musicians and teachers. The private recognition they receive is not comparable with the public adulation regularly heaped upon their male Church music colleagues. Among many others, Rosalie Bonighton (now deceased) is another under-recognised Australian Church musician who springs to mind, together with my Presbyterian aunt Jean Fullard nee Simpson, who served as the organist of St Andrew’s Peace Church, Wonthaggi, Victoria, for many years, and Robin Ruys, current Music Minister of the Anglican Parish of Hunters Hill, Sydney NSW.
In Australia, it is not unusual for fully trained, qualified female Church musicians to be undervalued, underpaid, and grossly overworked. Reform of this aspect of Church music ministry is overdue. Part of the problem is the assumption that technical skill is all that is necessary to be a Church musician. In reality, much more is required, including ethical Christian conduct. Male Australian Church musicians seldom show concern about neglect of female Church musicians – on the contrary, indulgence in tasteless jokes ridiculing female Church music performers and composers, while basking in mutual male praise, is common among Church men. I was fortunate, in my own Church music work, to be regularly employed as a Cathedral Cantor, and I learned much from the professional example of Catholic Cantor Kathleen Boschetti of St Francis Church, Melbourne, Anglican Church music composer Rev. Elizabeth Smith, and Catholic Cantor Donrita Reefman of St Ives Cathedral, Sydney, about working with clergy and lay ministers and requiring their respect. I trained entirely at my own expense. In 2013 I wrote a blog about my positive experience of being a Cantor – see
Elizabeth Sheppard vested for Church Cantor ministry, 2010
I loved Church Cantor music ministry and was praised for my success at it. In addition to musical, liturgical and compositional skills it required tactful multi-skilled liturgical coordination with a large group of male clerical and lay supervisors and female assistants. When liturgical worship is smoothly coordinated and the whole community is in tune with the Holy Spirit, Cantor ministry has its own very special rewards and fruits, not the least of which are enduring community friendships.
The effect of globalisation on Australian Church music has been as dire as its effect on that Aussie icon, Vegemite. Although many talented Australian composers continue to produce uniquely Australian Church music in many genres, Australian Church music governing bodies and clergy pay minimal or no attention to local Australian Church music. In Australia, Church music licensing is dominated by globalised corporations who promote non-Australian Church music over the work of local Australian and Aboriginal composers. Australian Church music selection committees overwhelmingly favour non-Australian music over Australian Church music. Some Australian parish music programs use exclusively non-Australian music repertoires and genres. Infusions of forward-looking, hopeful, uniquely Australian musical expressions of Christian faith are rare, ephemeral, and are not included in music examination lists.
Even in Church music, the smart phone app has its uses. Church music geeks compose and make music online as well as in real time, with human hands and feet and eyes and ears and voices.
The phenomenon of the virtual choir (if you don’t know about this, google Eric Whitacre) has blown preconceptions about tying Church music to a particular time and place, sky-high. Whatever the virtues of real-time interaction (which are unsurpassed, and should never be discounted), as Church musicians we are now stuck with the digital app addictions of the upcoming generation for a long time.
In cyberspace there’s an app for every task you can possibly imagine. Enterprising Church musicians design and market Church music apps, thereby solving their income problems forever. Apps help with a specific task, and can be uploaded to smart phones or computers quickly, and used immediately. For instance, I have a virtual piano keyboard on my iPhone that I use for composing.
This is not an app marketing blog, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. From time to time I’ll be reviewing Church music apps (e.g. ear training apps, chant databases, music theory apps) that I’ve found helpful and time-saving. Make your own judgements!
App-phobia has crept into the mindset of many Church musicians who
obsessively photocopy, distribute, retrieve and file print scores
don’t own a smart phone, or are computer-phobic
believe that Church music could never be improved by technology
devote no time to app discovery and selection
think that rehearsing well, with no technology aids, is sufficient
Changing deep-set attitudes like this takes miracles. Hang on, Christians believe in miracles!
If you have a music director that insists on making his and your job as difficult as possible by refusing to adapt to digital technology and app networking, or doing a go-slow on this,it might help to pray loudly and publicly about it.
Accusations of “high-brow” elitism in Church music are often levelled at Anglican High Church (i.e. episcopalian or Anglo-Catholic) parishes in Australia.
At the other extreme, the so-called “low” Anglican Churches of the evangelical persuasion, who have simplified their Church music repertoire in an attempt to increase congregational participation in Church music, are often accused of “low-brow” banality, or outright iconoclasm.This debate generally disguises the real issues. i.e. music costs and ministry time commitment. Small parishes cannot afford the luxuries of paid orchestras, professional choristers, or a pipe organ, no matter how much they want these. The fix-it-quick option for a cash-strapped parish with no hymn books, organ, or organist, is a limited hymn copyright licence, projected slides, and recorded music accompaniments. The longer-term option (and in the long run the more productive one) is a firm commitment to weekly Church music education for all ages. Parishes with internet access (not always the case in Australia) can organise hymn practice sessions easily, otherwise CDs can be used. The Royal School of Church Music provides Church music training resources, and many Anglican schools and dioceses, ethnic Churches and ecumenical associations organise Church music schools, camps and conferences.
Since every Church is committed to providing a peaceful witness to Jesus Christ’s divine teachings and life, there is no mandate for Christians to bicker over selecting their worship music repertoire, or engaging in media beat-ups that gleefully escalate inter-church music squabbles. Obviously, different Church cultures and backgrounds will favour different, legitimate Church music repertoires, and there is no harm in this. Church music governing organisations, Church schools, and parish music directors are charged with ensuring that Church music in Australia is well composed and performed, that it proclaims Christian teachings, and that it is well integrated with worship. In Western Sydney, it is not uncommon for 40+ different languages to be spoken in one Church parish, but in the interests of preserving Church unity, congregations still manage to learn and sing a core repertoire of English hymns. Annual, monthly, or weekly monocultural liturgies, and special feast day celebrations, fill the need for each cultural group or faction to perform and hear their own Church music in various locations, but there is also an unspoken hospitality rule, by which an invitation is always extended to visitors from other cultures to attend and observe ethnic or denominational liturgies and music, where they are treated as honoured guests.
By visiting all parishes, and not indulging in excessive partiality re music genres within their diocese, clergy and Bishops can exert a considerable charitable, pacifying influence that promotes unity in Christ, even where differing music repertoires, doctrines and texts tend to divide. The strongest unifying force for any diocese is an authentic Christian witness, where Church people join in caring pastorally for those in need. When peaceful Christian work of this kind takes priority, Church music repertoire issues are often reduced to their proper perspective.
This online lecture, although it refers mainly to contemporary secular Australian art music composition, is also relevant to Church music in Australia. I love classical Church music, and I support maintaining a repertoire of “traditional” Anglo-European Church music. But I strongly object to the way non-Australian Church music repertoires have been imposed holus-bolus on Australian Church communities, often without parishioners’ consent, just when a new crop of Australian church music composition was taking off.
Imposing this overseas monopoly has stifled Australian Church music, and created a musical generation gap in many parishes, that impedes religious and cultural education. The practice of culturally gagging Aussie congregations and ordering them to worship God with second-hand imported music, has done enormous damage to Australians.
The fact is, imported Church music repertoires, however excellent or cheap, come from a different time and place and population. Although we may empathise with and appreciate non-Australian musical expressions of Christian faith, it is impossible to reach the deeper communal levels of faith as Australians living in Australia, unless we worship God directly with our own unique Australian music, that comes from the beating heart of Australia. Much of our Australian Church music (from such tiny colonial churches as the one pictured below, at Greenough, Western Australia) still awaits collection, or is stored in the Australian National Library in Canberra, awaiting re-discovery and re-publication.
A survey of just how many Australian-made compositions are included in, and excluded from, Australian Church music repertoires and licensing lists, is badly needed. Editing out or minimising local Australian compositions from our repertoires degrades, and may destroy, our living, dynamic, developing, inherited tradition of Australian Church music. Australians who attend Churches are often musical, and many have brilliant musical concepts, ideas and creations. Their original music is expressed and sometimes briefly admired, but their work is seldom promoted, simply because the composers are local, Australian, and therefore seen as unimportant. Any composer or performer who hopes for proper recognition, and publication, is forced to seek this outside Australia, and once recognised, few return. Promoting a token number of Australian Church music composers is seen by Church music repertoire selection committees as an acceptable, cheap and easy solution, but why should the majority of Australian Church music composers be relegated to oblivion, in preference to a privileged few?
Typical Church music repertoires in Australia include only 5% of Australian Church music compositions at best. Overseas visitors expecting to find a flourishing local Australian Church music repertoire find this extremely odd. The percentage could easily be increased, as many new Australian compositions are available. Unfortunately, those responsible for Church music selection are often in economic thrall to corporate or monocultural giants, rather than eager to promote locally enculturated faith development through local Church music.
If there is an Australian Church music composer (age is irrelevant – the young have no monopoly on expressing faith) in your congregation or nearby, you should seek them out, encourage them to continue composing, listen to / workshop their music with competent performers, and arrange for it to be included in church services on a regular basis, with the usual royalty payments that all overseas composers receive. Ask your local composers to compose easy versions of their music, and publish them as audio tracks and .pdf lead sheets, for online purchase. Purchase these and play them as background tracks at parish parties, and provide lead sheets purchased from the composer, to spread the word and familiarise parishioners with the tunes. Research your local Australian Church music, and compile a local Church music list for family and church group services. You may be surprised at the quality of the compositions you find, and its morale-boosting effect on your congregation.