Around a campfire many years ago, our mates asked each other “what is something you’d really like to do in your life?” Some said making a film, others said climbing a mountain and one said they wanted to write a book. My partner delivered this clanger: “I’d like to come up with a fair tax system.” (In retrospect, good on him!) I was quiet, then confessed, “I’d like to sing on stage.”

A few months ago, the reality of our tenuous hold on life hit me and churned me back out into the world with a new sense of hunger for creativity and connection. It had been a routine test, leading to hospital time and treatment, and I emerged from the shock of it wanting to grasp life, claim my space and find my voice.

When I was offered a place in Melbourne Indie Voices Choir for term 3, I waited all of three seconds before signing up. I had been on their waitlist for a while. Work, study and family had got in the way. Maybe other things had got in the way too; some things I hadn’t recognised. A sense of being trapped, perhaps; of being passive rather than active.

Recent research from the University of Oxford discusses “how group singing can improve physical and mental health, as well as promote social bonding.” In a paper for the Royal Society, researchers state that singing fast-tracks connections between people, acting as an accelerated ice-breaker. And Creativity Australia, a group running community choirs, cites studies of the neuroscience of music and singing claiming that ‘it makes us happier, healthier, smarter and more creative.’

Tuesday night choir at Schoolhouse Studios. Image used with permission S Exiner.

Sophia Exiner has run Melbourne Indie Voices for over three years, and now has over 250 singers attending rehearsal sessions across three nights in studios in Collingwood and Fitzroy. Building community is a big part of her drive. “We’ve tried to build a community with the choir. People lead such busy lives, and choir offers a unique space for connection and also a chance to let go,” she says.

Before I headed off to my first Melbourne Indie Voices session, I watched a video of Jen Cloher bashing out her song ‘Strong Woman’ accompanied by the MIV choir last year. Suddenly I found myself not just singing, but sobbing: “I was born to let it out. I am a strong woman!” I scrawled down the lyrics in a notebook as I heard them: “young lady/Catholic girls school/she could want for more…”

Towards the end of the song Cloher sings, “I’m sorry, can’t you hear me speaking? How is it now, now that I’m screaming?” Oh, I could hear her. And yes, I would be scream-singing.

On that first night of choir, we launched into a sublime rendition of a Fleet Foxes song, ‘White Winter Hymnal’, and I felt like I had found another campfire. “I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats…” we sang, and there we were, all huddled under gas heaters in the Collingwood warehouse, singing away, as happy as strawberries in the summertime. I drove home with the song blaring at an unsafe level, singing over and over again, finding the rhythm, testing the notes, doubting my pitch, but singing anyway. I was definitely planning to follow this pack.

Melbourne Indie Voices collaborators, Josh Teicher and Sophia Exiner

How is it that Exiner chooses her songs, I ask her after a few weeks of rehearsals. “I focus on Australian songwriters that are predominantly women,” says Exiner, “and I’m drawn to songs with a message, rather than typical love songs.” The main thing for Exiner is “that the song is really fun to sing and belt out; musically uplifting, anthemic and often left of centre — not what you’d expect a choir to sing.”

Over the months, we have moved from wearing coats and beanies and scarves, and now find ourselves heading into Spring and the last few weeks of rehearsals before two full scale performances at The Forum. The first show sold out so fast, Exiner has added another one.

The shows will bring all three choirs onto the stage, and not only promises secret guest performers, but audience singalongs. The audience gets to join our pack! That’s some impressive community building.

So, I’ll keep rehearsing, learning new songs and refining others, thrilled to know that I get to “Let it out!” and sing on stage. Who knows, maybe one day in the future, I’ll be brave enough to sing a solo. Maybe after we’ve created a fair tax system. Ah, the dreams we talk of around a campfire. And the joys of finding my voice in a community of indie singers.

Melbourne Indie Voices perform two shows at The Forum on Sunday October 27.

Watch Melbourne Indie Voices perform ‘The Seed’ by Aurora at The Forum.

Version now on Notes of Substance.

Curious reader and undercover scribbler. Published in The Guardian, The Age, Australian Traveller, Footy Almanac, The New York Times.

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