Music in Communities ‘Creative Ageing’ Awards (2)

By Alex Masso. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 2 (February 2013)

A project to connect younger generations with the songs of Top End elder indigenous women, a music-driven research program to give voice to stroke survivors with little or no speech, and a Rugby choir bringing blokes together through music are prize winners in the MCA’S 2012 Music in Communities Awards.

Deborah Mills writes in this issue of Music Forum that a National Arts and Health Policy Framework will ensure that the many practitioners in arts and health – already doing great things across Australia – can see the bigger picture of what they are involved in. This resonates with our recent experience judging the Music in Communities Awards.

When we set our ‘Creative Ageing’ theme we expected that like most years, each with a new theme, there would be a range of interesting initiatives. As usual, the nominees came from far and wide and from groups covering the full gamut of community music: choirs, brass bands, rock bands, music therapy programs, country music and songwriters’ opportunities, University of the 3rd Age groups, and more. What emerged was a bigger picture of community music for older Australians.

It is clear that some community music groups have a strong contingent of older people, as leaders and participants. This will be familiar to many in the community and certainly came through in the awards process. Our report on Community Orchestras in Australia found that 88% of adult community orchestras have members over the age of 65; a forthcoming report on Community Choirs in Australia shows a similar trend of older people having relatively high participation in community choirs.1

What we found interesting, and sometimes unexpected, was the way in which older people were being encouraged to start making music, try different things, pass their music on to younger generations, break away from stereotypes, and find healthy outcomes in their community music activities.

The winner, Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen, involved respected singer-songwriter Shellie Morris returning to the country of her maternal grandmother to learn the songs of the ‘Borroloola Songwomen’, a group of elders. Through the project these women communicated their music and language in a way that engages with younger people within the community, and indeed many people beyond Borroloola.

Besides making some wonderful music and evidently creating a great learning experience for Shellie Morris and others, the project demonstrated how a considered rigorous approach to community cultural development can engage with older people in a community. ‘Working with people to engage their memory and tap into their rich knowledge is incredibly intimate,’ said the Music in Communities Award judges. ‘The real skill here is that through this intimate process the knowledge gets passed on to a wider audience, as a gift.’

The fifteen finalists show something more than the dedication of their participants and leaders to making music together. They demonstrate the value of community music to people’s lives and to their community.

Melbourne’s Stroke a Chord Choir, a runner up in the 2012 awards, is for stroke survivors with aphasia. The choir members have little or no speech but can sing, a neurological phenomenon due to speech and music being processed in different areas of the brain. This is an extraordinary phenomenon and the involvement of a research project in this community music group puts it at the forefront of understanding how it can be harnessed to help people with aphasia use their voice again.

Equally valuable is the way in which a group like Stroke a Chord can change the lives of its members. We hear about a member who was a performing arts coordinator at a large secondary school before his stroke. He now accompanies the choir with one hand (the only hand he is able to use). Through this, we are told, he is ‘re-engaging with an activity that has been central to his identity.’

‘This project allows people to use their voice in a community setting, and to have a voice,’ said the national judges. ‘Through music, people are given confidence in their daily lives.’ While this can be seen as a therapeutic intervention for aphasia, the way it is run as a community choir enhances the social benefits for the participants.

The Wagga City Rugby Male Choir takes a very different approach but the benefits - a particular section of the community singing together and social inclusion - are equally apparent. It was formed by a group of ex rugby players who enjoyed ‘a good sing along’ after each home rugby game at a local hotel. Since then the choir has expanded to 65 members, the youngest member being 46 and the oldest 87.

With the support of a musical director and accompanist, the choir has developed into a well-established community music group in the area, performing at many local, regional and state wide civic and community events. They are planning international appearances including at Rugby matches, and have collaborated with other male choirs from outside the area.

Our judges described the Wagga City Rugby Male Choir as having ‘a very non-confrontational entry to community singing’, with its strong links to non-musical social activities such as rugby and the opportunity for older men to be involved without singing, before becoming choir members. They even have their own ‘Pub Songbook’!

Other finalists in the Creative Ageing awards showed creative ways to engage with older people and the rest of the community, and the many benefits of community music activity. The Daytones, a sub-group of the Campbelltown Camden District Band, is a band of retired musicians who prefer to get together during the day rather than evenings. They use their time to perform in local schools and draw on 40 years of experience in music education in the area from their conductor Robin Young.

The U3A Recorder Orchestra in Canberra is driven by Margaret Wright OAM, also a retired teacher. For over 16 years Margaret has been teaching older people music, many of them for the first time in their lives, and now has a well-established system involving beginner classes, two ensembles, and musical activities throughout the year.

Meanwhile, Goulburn Regional Conservatorium runs a range of music groups for older people; the Silver Beat Rock Choir in Adelaide breaks down the traditional choir stereotype by performing the music of AC/DC, The Who, Joan Jett, and Pink Floyd; the Lane Cove Concert Band makes a concerted effort to bring back ‘lapsed players’; the Ultra Golden Country Music Association from Yangan runs concerts and a major competition for older musicians, and the Marian Grove Ukulele Group from Coffs Harbour has introduced the ukulele to residents in a retirement village and nursing home.

Reading about the finalists, a bigger picture emerges of older people being creative and highly engaged members of community music groups, using the full range of music opportunities available to them and in many cases trying things for the first time.

Each of these groups has their own story to tell about community-based music making, as do many individuals involved in them:

‘One lady in the village used to sit at home alone and had no interest in socialising. She now gets dressed up, puts on make -up and smiles though all the performances. Another couple had for years been looking for something they could do together. At 75 they finally found it through playing the ukulele and learning songs together.’ 


For more information about the 2012 Music in Communities Awards, see



1Community Orchestras in Australia: Music in Communities Network, July 2012. Community Choirs in Australia: report from Music in Communities Network, unpublished at the time of writing.

Alex Masso is Director of the MCA’s Music in Communities Network

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