It is no secret that one of my favourite times of the year is our time in north west NSW, assisting with the Moorambilla Voices project.
Song Company has been an artistic partner with Moorambilla every year since 2013, and this year we have expanded our involvement (thanks to the generous support of the St George Foundation) to include a week of skills tours as well as the residencies in August and September. We will also be performing with Moorambilla Voices at both Parliament House and Government House in June.
If you haven't heard about Moorambilla Voices I urge you to visit their website here, but I will try and sum up its important work in a couple of sentences.
Moorambilla represents the opportunity for hundreds of children exploring their previously untapped artistic potential, in an environment that connects them to the land that surrounds them. They explore the narrative and rich history of this lands first peoples via some of Australia's finest composers, musicians, choreographers, and regional artists. The program strives to make them proud (sometimes for the first time) of their talents and help them recognise how art can define, nourish, and sustain them as individuals.
Education is one of the cornerstones of Song Company's mission. We believe that every child deserves to know and hear the magic of song, and understand the joy of music making. This is one of the key objectives we share with Michelle Leonard and her Moorambilla Project.
We belong to a continent whose first peoples use songlines, dance, and stories to pass knowledge and culture from generation to generation. The Moorambilla Voices project, now in its eleventh year, connects thousands of students to music, music literacy, and music making each year. At best guess, Michelle guesses that at least 12,000 students have been engaged in these workshops over the past decade, and at least 2,000 of those have been directly involved in Moorambilla Voices or the MAXed Out Company. This is an amazing achievement.
In our week of skills workshops we worked with children from:
- 27 Primary Schools
- 13 High Schools
- 1 Distance Education School
These children, some of whom we will see again at the Moorambilla camps in August and September came from:
- Bourke (via Satellite)
- Lightning Ridge
Michelle then continues her journey (she's still on the road at the time of writing) and visits schools in:
As you can imagine, this is no small feat!
I want to extend my personal thanks to the St George Foundation who allowed Song Company to join Michelle, and her team (Dayle, Annie, Beth, and Karen) who are an organisational force to be reckoned with. Their support allows us to do this valuable artistic work.
Now. Back to the music.
Some of you might be wondering: What does this type of skills workshop looks like? How do you make 100+ kids sing for you when they've never met you before? What did you sing for the kids? The answers might surprise you.
A typical day involved back-to-back workshops in different schools, sometimes separated by hundreds of kilometres. We became very quickly accustomed to a packed lunch which we'd hurriedly eat between schools!
Here's a fly-over of our time in regional NSW.
We flew out of Sydney at 7:25am on Tuesday morning (looking glamorous in our new t-shirts) and arrived in Dubbo with just enough time pick up a car, order a coffee, and make for our first school. The sessions begin with a brief musical introduction from Song Company (Java Jive as made famous by Manhattan Transfer) before Michelle gave them a crash course in basic music literacy and notation. What normally can takes weeks in a classroom, can take fifteen minutes with the right tools. With a little help from Song Company, a small splash of silliness, and a system that ties score reading to the human body, children can read music in treble clef within fifteen minutes. Proof that music is an innate language if we give children the right tools.
We would then usually jump straight into more singing. We began our week with a quartet of singers (Susannah, Hannah, Mark, Andrew) but sadly we lost Susannah to illness on the first day. Already due to be 161km away by the second day, we had no choice but to send Susannah home to rest, and battle on with three. Sometimes that's what life on the road is like!!
In the remaining workshop time (sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes less) children would learn (entirely by ear) Stephen Leek's Ngana, and Alice Chance's Palapalaa or Andrew Howes' Yanaya - the latter two being works composed for Song Company and Moorambilla Voices. We'd teach these pieces by breaking the works down into their musical parts.
Ngana is a buzzing and energetic three part canon (in our adaption for three voices) that illustrates the concepts of syncopation, the harmonic language and modality of much of Leek's music, the strength of rhythmic and harmonic unison, or the sonic effect of a three part canon, usually performed from three points in the room for full surround sound effect.
Palapalaa contrasts this with two beautifully lyric call and response themes, a modal soprano theme, contrary motion bass line, and a soaring syncopated tenor line. This was our most popular piece of the week, and became a favourite of Hannah, Mark and myself. This was due in no small part I'm sure to the text, a local indigenous story (told to Alice and Michelle by Aunty Brenda, a member of the language nest from Lightning Ridge) which tells the story of a butterfly (from Coocoran Lake) whose wings were captured and set into stone when she flew too far away from home, and was frozen on the ridge of the Warrumbungles. The colours melted from her wings when she thawed in spring, and flowed downstream into the rocks and stones near her home. Which stones? The world famous Black Opals of Lightning Ridge. Remember this story the next time you look at an opal! It made so much sense to bring this piece back to the landscape which inspired it. That's one of my favourite things about the entire Moorambilla project - its connection to the Australian landscape in all its rugged beauty.
Yanaya was reserved for our workshops at Lightning Ridge High School, Coonamble High School, and the Dubbo Regional Conservatorium (where we had extended sessions to also work on dance, composition, and body percussion) and draws inspiration from the nearby Narran Lakes. Usually sung with chamber orchestra and piano, the flowing rhythmic underlay supports the arc of the main melody, and partners with other derivative tunes from the same material. Composed for the MAXed Company (the high school arm of Moorambilla) it was particularly useful when Mark and I were modelling the adult male voice to our teenage participants.
There is great power (and a sense of pride) in being able to model singing to children (of all ages) and having them respond. Singing is so much about physicality, and as any singing teacher will tell you, once a student connects their voice to their physicality (or their brain to their voice) there is sudden and huge improvement. Seeing this 'penny drop' moment in our workshops is always inspiring, and reminds us of why we choose to spend our lives singing. We, the singers of the Song Company, were all that student once. Being able to pass on some of our experience is a very valuable thing indeed.
At this point I must also acknowledge the true impact of this program, in that the children (or young adults) who have been selected for the Moorambilla program bring their knowledge, leadership, discipline, and skills home with them. This region of NSW is geographically and politically isolated, removed from the usual 'artistic' opportunities of the city, and some children face disadvantages and hardships that we often take for granted. I won't begin to describe the difference between a 'Moorambilla Kid' and a 'Non-Moorambilla Kid' to you, but needless to say, a child who has had access to this program: who is told that they matter, that they have talent, that they are good - is much more able to adapt to challenges, solve problems, and recall skills. In the world of science and education, we call this Neuroplasticity, and music making is one of the only activities known to man that engages the whole brain, and allows neural pathways to reorganise and adapt. A 'Moorambilla Kid' leaves the program not just with new skill set, but with a stronger stance and a more adaptable mind.
Beyond the music, the landscape in this part of the world is also inspiring. The weathered tops of the Warrumbungles (an ancient volcanic mountain ridge) and the surrounding grassland, a sky that stretches in perfect blue across a seemingly limitless horizon, the awe inspiring wonder of a desert night sky, the dry creek beds that belie the water stored below in the Great Artesian Basin, and the artesian bore baths in Lightning Ridge that bring soothing hot mineral water from three kilometres beneath the earth to the surface.
We ended our week, exhausted but happy, with an open air screening of Wide Open Sky in Lightning Ridge (complete with stereophonic cicadas and a desert sunset) and a midnight dip in the artesian bore baths. Wide Open Sky is a documentary about Moorambilla Voices which picked up an audience favourite award at the Sydney Film Festival in 2015. It opens in cinemas nationally in April. If you're interested in anything you've just read, or are curious about the Moorambilla program, please check your local cinema for listings.
I can't wait to return to Baradine in August. Until then I'll be dreaming of the crystal clear night sky, the music and dance inspired by the landscape, and the bore baths in Lightning Ridge.