musicking and learning

Musicking is central to a healthy community choir culture. This old-fashioned English term was revived by the late Christopher Small to describe the range of activities that exist around the act of making music. Music, for Small, is about action rather than static object, and the process is an important element that at times may be overshadowed by the musical product. Regrettably, the term ‘musicking’ (more broadly conceived than “music-making”) is not widely used in the English language although it’s in common use in a range of other languages. 

While Small’s argument may go too far for some (including within its definition those who create and maintain sites of musicking, including builders and cleaners, for instance), a key element to the concept is its orientation. Musicking denotes action and a willingness for structures and agents to change and adapt. As a community choral leader I am an agent of music-making (with a focus on excellence and achievement) yet as a musicker I emphasise participation and ongoing learning – both for me and for the groups I work with. The motto of a former employer, Monash University, comes to mind here: “I am still learning” (ancora imparo).

So how then do we maintain an openness to learning? A German poet holds the key to my journey. In one of his most famous writings, German poet Hermann Hesse’s Stufen (Steps) alludes to the many stages of life, its celebrations, sufferings and new starts. In all, Hesse calls for an openness to learning and growth.

My journey of music-as-vocation started early but took a step back for a time while I pursued other things. Yet its call remained strong. I have grown in musical skill and experiences within musical communities of the Barossa Valley, in Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne. I now have the privilege of leading numerous musical communities in Melbourne, and sharing in their journey.

My latest stage is vocational in the truest sense of the word: I seek to learn and share the tools that build, fix, nurture and sustain musical communities. I strive to keep an open mind and heart, knowing that with this orientation my skills grow with each rehearsal, performance and season. My work is sometimes frustrating, occasionally exhilarating, but most often just hard work with brief moments of satisfaction.

Breakthrough moments typically emerge at the end of a rehearsal or the end of the initial warmup where a warmup round or part-song – a little tune taught as a means to an end – features a choir tuning, blending, enunciating, breathing or grooving passionately, as one. It is at these two moments I know whether I’ve done my job and believe both these moments in a rehearsal reflect a choir singing at its best.