Dandenong Ranges Music Council

Dandenong Ranges Music Council with Bev McCalister (Founder)

Music in Communities Awards case study

DRMC founder, Bev McAlister, created the Council on returning to Australia after living with her family in Montana in the US. She had been impressed with the vibrancy and depth of community life there, in which active music making was the heart, and was surprised to find that this wasn’t the case in the Dandenong Ranges. She has now changed that, supported over the years by committed volunteers.

Although Bev is not a musician as such, she believes in the opportunities and benefits offered by music. Her love of music started early when she would join her parents, her grandparents and the rest of the local choir as they piled into the back of a truck – with a piano strapped in for company – to drive around the backblocks in the hills, drawing neighbours from their houses as they stopped to sing carols at streetcorners.

Bev McAlister tells Richard Stubbs about the Dandenong Ranges Music Council, on ABC local radio, Melbourne


For nearly 30 years, the Dandenong Ranges Music Council (DRMC) has been creating opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to listen to, learn, participate in and perform music in the Yarra Ranges region. We develop and deliver a wide range of activities for people of all ages and musical abilities. These include workshops and masterclasses with professional musicians; music lessons on a wide variety of instruments; concerts in which communities can participate; and music therapy sessions and performances for, and by, people with disabilities.

How has the DMRC managed to sustain itself and grow over all these years?

We still operate, as we started, with enormous community goodwill. We started out with a desire to create opportunities for local people to get involved in music, and with a strong base of varied experience and networks in our Board, which was crucial. It ensured we had our people structure right, our governance, and we had ongoing access to sound advice about a whole range of issues we had no idea about in the early days.

We started with an overarching objective to foster music in the community and a fantastic Board. Underneath that structure we visualised many empty boxes that could be filled with any musical need driven by the community. Those boxes could and did - become anything from an orchestra, to a pipe band, bush band or choir. We said that if there was a need or desire to start a musical group, or fill in a box, there needed to be a voluntary support committee of no less than four people to manage and drive that group, which would get them started.

Over the years we developed our manuals and resources and gave the volunteers training (which was usually peer-run) to help those groups manage themselves, which they did. We also realised early on that we couldn't keep looking after all these groups under the DRMC umbrella. So we support these groups to become sustainable, financially, artistically, and administratively and if they become larger we help them become an incorporated body and move them out into the community. The DRMC must have spawned at least 30 of these groups that are now active in the region.

Do you think partnerships are important?

Essential. Partnerships have sustained the DRMC. Our partnerships with resident artists have been very important. We are always very grateful for their expertise and their contribution, and they usually have a great time with us because we take care of them & we pull together as a community to have these artists in our homes, to cook for them and to make music with them. (Former Go-Betweens drummer) Lindy Morrison did a residential with us a few years ago, working with young rock bands and drummers. She was later quoted saying "if you get a chance to do a residency with the DMRC, you just have to do it!".

Our partnerships with professional songwriters and composers have resulted in over 100 new works created by the people in this region. Mozart and Beethoven are fundamental.but you need to keep music fresh and relevant. It’s important that we keep producing new work too.

Our list of partners includes non-arts bodies such as Parks Victoria, local fire brigades, community health organisations and hospices. This means we can create really rich musical experiences in our community which draw a lot of different groups and interests together.

We've also initiated activities which use music to convey community health and safety messages, such as the creative music programs which were run in schools to heal grief and loss after we had disastrous fires in the region, or the bushfire preparedness CD we produced, with songs written and performed by local fireys. (You can access the song through the website here).

What do you think are the key factors in your success that others could learn from?

It's crucial that you involve people with a wide mix of skills and experience who, if they can't help with a question or some advice, are well connected enough to send you off to someone else who can. Having a switched-on patron (the late Sir Joseph Burke CBE, an Emeritus Professor of Fine Arts at Melbourne University), with excellent knowledge and networks, was very important. For the first five years we had no funding, then we realised that organisations such as ours could get project funding. Sir Joseph sent me off to the Myer Foundation, and their support helped me with a professional executive officer who could help me progress the DRMC. Then we were successful in getting a grant from the Music Board. It grew from there, with support and access to knowledge through our Board and Patron.

It's essential that community music activities are driven by the community, not imposed upon the community. Our activities are inspired by local people in partnership with resident music professionals, guest composers and songwriters, musical directors and instrument makers.

We also have a strong belief which guides all our activities: that music plays an important role in community building, wellbeing and cultural identity.

How has the DRMC made a difference to its community?

For a start, more people are now making music, both under the DRMC umbrella and out in the community, which we have helped develop. We have nine ensembles at the moment, from orchestral to swing, strings and artist with disabilities, and numerous projects on the go at any one time.

We encourage family participation in our projects, and in fact some local musicians had their first musical experiences as children with us. They have gone on to study and become music professionals, and have returned to live in this local community, which keeps our community, and our music making, fresh and vibrant. This cross-generational aspect to what we do is really important.

Where to next for the DRMC?

We've just set up a music instrument bank to make instruments accessible to talented or disadvantaged students, which has been a great development.

Thanks to the generosity of organisations such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, we own an ever-expanding collection of sheet music. We'd love to create a storage system to catalogue and house these, and training and develop the skills of volunteer community ensemble music librarians.

We've also started a fund for a small grand piano to give the community an instrument it can be proud of, and we're keen to develop a tool kit for communities, possibly using the DRMC as a model, next year.

We've always got new projects and we're always developing and learning. We work hard to convince funding and arts bodies that, just because we've been around for almost 30 years, it doesn't mean that we've arrived. Music in the community is always changing. The demographics are changing, the music is changing, new needs and ideas are always being generated. We are continually evolving with our community, so we need continued support to help us do that.

Bev's tips and ideas:

  1. Any group needs a volunteer support group of no fewer than four people to drive it in the start-up phase.

  2. Think about the cross-generational aspects of what you do: involve families where you can – this keeps your base strong, particularly in regional areas

  3. Musical activities must be suggested and driven by the community - from the grassroots up - never imposed on people.

  4. Have Board members, patrons, volunteers with an excellent mix of skills, experience and contacts between them.

  5. Think laterally about funding opportunities: think about getting funding for themed projects from relevant organisations eg for projects which use music to convey health or public safety messages. That's often easier than finding core funding for the running of the organisation.