The Muse Community Music Trust in Otautahi Christchurch is challenging people’s view of themselves as musicians. Many of the people who join classes and choirs often believe they are too old, too young, or not talented enough to be real musicians. When you look at the Trust’s website, it says that they believe that music is not a question of talent, rather it is lack of opportunity that divides ‘musicians’ from ‘non-musicians’. They believe competition doesn’t belong in art, and that we learn best when we are having fun and we feel safe.

When we talked with Nikki Berry, who is the Musical Director and founder, we discovered that the philosophy goes even further. She says that providing people with the opportunity to participate in music can be life-changing for both individuals and communities. “Music has historically been a motivator for communities. In times past, the function of music has always been to help us do our work together. We get a great sense of cooperation when people play music together and a great sense of connection as well. It is comforting to us. Making music cooperatively helps us face the big questions
that we as a society need to face – like the climate crisis for example. And being connected with each other helps us become more hopeful and optimistic. Also there is evidence that when people are encouraged to break out of a mindset that limits them to the things they think they are good at (as our education system does), they are much more likely to be open to fresh ways of thinking. Given the right supports, music builds learning resilience.”

The Muse currently provides classes in music theory, drumming, vocal and performance skills, as well as the opportunity to sing in a choir, play in an African Drumming group or participate in a casual singing group. All the groups are open to everyone, but some have a particular focus. Keepsake Singers is structured to meet the needs of people with memory loss or learning disabilities. The Rockers of Ages choirs aims to meet the needs of older singers of all abilities. The West African drumming and dance class attracts people of all ages and levels of experience, and Random Acts of Music is a pop-up event that offers a musical experience to anyone who happens to join in.

The Rockers of Ages was set up in response to an urgent community need. Both Nikki and long-time member, Jacinta O’Reilly, live near Aranui, an area which was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake. The Muse worked with the local Aranui Community Trust to manage an area-wide doorknocking, listening, helping and bringing in resources project. They could see the isolation and stresses of a community cut off by damaged roads and discontinued services. After the crisis eased the Muse decided to offer a local, affordable and accessible daytime singing experience, which was soon extended to other areas. The Rockers of Ages is still going strong and the community choirs join for performances.

The repertoire offered is definitely not the usual music of the war era or the shows that many people associate with older singers. Rock songs that celebrate life or challenge stereotypes, songs from around the world in many languages, classical and original songs are all on offer, with most of the originals and the arrangements in four-part harmony.

When the project started the Muse had some support from the DHB’s Community and Public Health department and Hagley College’s adult education programme. The DHB has done two evaluations of Rockers of Ages which have consistently shown that people’s wellbeing has improved through participation in the choir. Singers have made friends and formed support networks, establishing bonds and helping each other. The cognitive benefits of learning a new language, though not measured by the evaluators, are well known. “And people tell us how great they feel,” says Jacinta. “How their lives have changed since joining the choir.”

Random Acts of Music usually happen when there are people gathering for a community event. A selection of carefully chosen instruments is arranged for easy access, with a team of skilled musicians establishing the framework. With some simple instructions, people who thought they would be the audience become the ‘band’. “They find themselves to be fully part of a beautiful and surprising event.” says Nikki. “Many people are shy at first, and it is very rewarding to see people gain confidence as the event unfolds.” Recently, the R.A.M. team joined a project where the latest IPCC report was being read and discussed in front of the art gallery. The people expecting to be the audience, became the orchestra, as Nikki sang and spoke the report.

Getting people to ‘join in’ and become their own small community is what happens with the West African Drumming classes. Maganui Stewart leads the classes, with the support of Ghanaian Master Drummer Koffie Fugah, a musician with an international reputation. “The thing I love about it,” says Maganui, “is that it is inclusive. We hold our classes in Phillipstown, but people come from all over the city. We have people from eight to 70 years, and from a diverse range of backgrounds. We become a family. It is an environment where people can come and be themselves.”

And the same might be said for KeepSake singers, led by Steve Langely, who also sings in the Rockers of Ages choir. This oldtime music singalong supports, (but is not limited to) people with memory loss or some disability. “The research is clear,” says Steve, “singing familiar songs from your youth activates your memory and that happens with us – often quite dramatically.”

Nikki sees herself as an educator and a musician. There is plenty of research to back up her pedagogy. She has a strong interest in the Kodály approach to music education, developed in Hungary by Zoltán Kodály during the mid-twentieth century. Wikipedia notes that “Studies have shown that the Kodály method not only improves music skills, but it also improves perceptual functioning, concept formation, motor skills, and performance in other academic areas such as reading and maths.“ The Muse has hosted Kodály teacher training, and is currently working with others to make this training more accessible to New Zealanders.

Most programmes at the Muse are by donation, with current financial support coming from the Rata Foundation and the City Council.