Women in Harmony with Bronwyn Herbertson
Since 2005 the choir has grown in members, exposure and range. Choir members come from 25 countries, singing in more than 30 languages. The choir has performed for many community events including citizenship ceremonies, multicultural festivals, awards ceremonies and has the support of the Queensland Government and Toowoomba City Council. In June 2010 Women in Harmony released their first CD, “Lullabies and Love Songs”.
“A group of women decided that it was important to stand up and to show the community that multiculturalism was about respect, tolerance and understanding. After some initial flack, the community now supports the choir and we perform at many community and council events each year. We display the cultural diversity of our region in song and we learn about each other’s cultures. By learning songs in many different languages, it helps us to understand what our members go through when they come to Australia and are unable to speak much English. For example, when we all learn a difficult song like the one in Danish, it reminds us of how difficult it is to be the “other” in a new culture.
How does the choir improve community life?
We did an initial evaluation on the choir for a DIMIA (Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) grant and found some unexpected outcomes. Not only did being in the choir improve people’s health and wellbeing, it also addressed social isolation for our members, whether they are Anglo Saxon, older members or younger new arrivals.
Some of the outcomes are difficult to measure, such as the impact that we hope to have on reducing the level of racism in our community. However, we believe that there has been a decline in reported incidents since the choir began.
It is also very hard to measure changes in community attitudes but the number and frequency of our public performances over the years means that we have been getting our message of multicultural harmony and respect to many people in the community and region. While there are many culturally- specific choirs and groups, this is one of the few groups that has genuine cultural exchange between members. At the Multicultural Festival in Brisbane that we attended in 2006, we were the only group that was really multicultural in itself. We are now a family and we often perform at members’ significant events such as citizenship ceremonies. We have had at least three choir babies born. They grew in Mum’s tummy hearing the songs and now they come to practice with Mum. We are very proud Aunties.
How do you manage the group? What observations could you share about the importance of leadership in a choir?
Our musical director, Elaine Coates, is an important member of our group and does provide leadership. We have made Elaine an ex-officio member of the management committee so she is not the organisational leader but is there to work with the board of management. We have deliberately become an incorporated association and have limited the terms for office holders to encourage more members to take their turn on the board of management. It is important to have people willing to act in different roles and this is also seen as a community capacity-building tool.
What's the most difficult thing about sustaining your group?
Attracting ongoing financial support has been challenging although we are now self-sustainable through performance fees, one-off grants and awards and the sale of our CD. We are currently self-funded, having started with a Living in Harmony grant from DIMIA in 2005. We have received no government funding since then. We raise the funds to pay insurance, honorariums and expenses through performing, although it is a struggle. We became an incorporated association in August 2006.
It is also challenging to work with people from all different cultural backgrounds as we sometimes have to work around language or cultural differences that can have an impact on shared understandings. For example, there are conventions and politeness in every culture that sometimes don't translate into English (eg. not every language has a word for "please"). We have to ensure that we all understand that some members may come across as rude or abrupt when they are using English as a second language but that is actually a cultural misunderstanding rather than someone not wanting to work collaboratively. It has become more apparent when working together on the board of management of the association rather than in every day interactions at the choir itself. On the whole we all work well together however it is something that does take effort.
We are all from different cultures, are different ages, span religions and belief systems so we have to be careful to be respectful at all times. Our commonality is a love for music and a commitment to multiculturalism. This is very different from a group who are all from the same culture and background. I guess that we are like a mini United Nations in a way and we are proud of what we have achieved. We have members in our group from cultures that have been at war with each other for many years - and we work together well. We have had members from Muslim and other religious backgrounds, women with disabilities and even a transgendered woman who was attending early on. We have young mums right up to great grandmothers. We have had members who have had babies while coming to choir. When you think about it, it's remarkable how far we have come with such a disparate group of women.
Do you have any sponsorships or other funding support? If so, how did you secure and sustain them?
We have some local sponsors who are businesses that we have approached to provide some financial assistance. We hold a concert each year and have businesses donate goods for our raffles and door prizes. We find that most smaller businesses will assist if asked. We have received some funding from the Gambling Fund to buy a keyboard and instruments. Otherwise we look for grant opportunities and award opportunities as they become available.
Did acknowledgement in the Music in Communities Awards make any difference to what you do?
It made a big difference – the money assisted us to keep going and the publicity was a great boost. It is also wonderful for our members to be recognised and we attracted new members through the publicity.
How has your program grown or changed over the last three years?
We have become self-funded through performances and we are trying to get listed on the cultural register so we can achieve deductible gift recipient status. We have been an incorporated association since 2006. In June we released our first CD which is a collection of lullabies in different languages. Our song list continues to expand. We have also performed for the then State Governor, Quentin Bryce, at Government House. We also have a famous patron, singer-songwriter Katie Noonan.
How has having a high-profile patron, singer-songwriter Katie Noonan, helped?
Having a patron gives you another angle of newsworthiness to promote your organisation. It adds the celebrity focus that the media love in order torun a story. We just emailed Katie's management and asked her and she agreed (much to our surprise). It also means that we have asked her to write the foreword to our CD. We also go and support her performances when she comes to the area and we have had our picture taken with her which we were able to use for more media coverage. Having a high-profile patron also lends credibility to your cause. In the future we hope to be able to perform with Katie as well.
What do you think it is about singing together that satisfies you and meets your objectives as opposed to, say, knitting together or having a book club?
There is something very special about coming together to sing and make music. The health benefits of community singing have been recognised for many years. It also enables us to have a deep understanding of the difficulties faced by people who have English as a second language, as we learn and perform the songs in over 45 different languages. This reminds us of the difficulties while also giving us some insight into various cultures. We also have different members who make presentations to the group about their cultures, countries of origin and special days or holidays. This also helps to increase our understanding of each other.
Bronwyn’s tips and ideas.
- Have a dream. I “saw” the choir performing in my mind’s eye and knew that we had to get it up and running. You need to have passion and a strong belief in what you are doing.
- Find some seed funding. Our choir got off the ground through a Harmony Day grant though DIMIA – auspiced by a local NGO. We have since become an incorporated association so that we’re better placed to secure grants. Get the assistance that is needed to teach members to run the organisation.
- Continue to look for funding and sponsorship opportunities from many sources – think outside the box. That includes awards, philanthropy and performance fees. Don’t be reliant on government funding – the reporting and acquittal requirements are often not worth the effort for the amount of money given.
- Short term projects often don’t work – there is nothing wrong with running a pilot project but you need to have some way of keeping it going or you will lose the momentum.
- Get a high-profile patron. This will help with getting media coverage and lends credibility to your cause.