… singing up Australia …

Copyright © Elizabeth Sheppard, 17 March 2020. All Rights Reserved.

A note for Media Presenters, Reviewers and Scholars : Quoting or referring to my original concepts, words or ideas, as presented here or elsewhere, during media programs or in your own publications, requires a fully referenced citation, and accurately identified attribution of my work to Elizabeth Sheppard BA DipEd DipMus BTh/BPhil STB ACertCM(UK) NILA DipAdvAbStuds as their author. For the avoidance of doubt, this post should be cited as :

Sheppard, Elizabeth, “Active Music Making vs. Passive Music Consumption.”, Elizabeth Sheppard Media [WordPress Blog], 2020.

 Original music making is an enjoyable, rewarding, creative, deeply human activity. It uses every human sense, it’s like a gym workout session for your brain, to play or sing original music that comes from the heart of your country and community. Original music making and live performance promotes health, it’s a human survival weapon that people have always turned to in difficult times. And it can also be done online, to ensure healthy social distancing, and boost morale in struggling communities, in this current pandemic crisis.

Indigenous Composers Troy Russell and Elizabeth Sheppard with Inara Molinari, Manager of River City Voices Choir, at Riverside Theatres Parramatta for the premiere of Gandangarragal (Elizabeth Sheppard) and The Chant (Troy Russell) – Grant Leslie Photography

I love composing new music, so much of my time is devoted to that, but I also enjoy listening to and singing the music I grew up with, and to today’s music. Lots of parents, like me, enjoy music that we can share with friends and family. Concert going is an expensive luxury, limited by my low income. Since my parents immersed me in original music making as a child, I’ve always been aware that consuming someone else’s music by listening or mimicry, although it’s fun, is at best an amusing, ephemeral secondhand musical adventure.

Immersing ourselves in other people’s music can be therapeutic, educational, fascinating and enriching. But experiencing music from the outside in isn’t at all like composing your own original music, or performing it, or hearing others perform it. Releasing the music that lives inside me and my country, and sending it out into the world, is exhilarating and enlivening. I’m energised  by it. When I make my own music, I discover and celebrate the music that’s grown up with me, as I’ve matured. It’s been formed in me by my country and my people, and so I must release it. By closely attending to and translating the music of my country into music that communicates with audiences, I process my emotions and understandings, and contribute to community understandings. When my music is performed, it affirms the undervalued experiences of Australian communities that are deeply embedded in our agonising, enduring, surviving, reviving, rejoicing country. So through music, I empathise with others, celebrate them, and acknowledge contrasting viewpoints.

Expressing myself in communion with my country and my people comes naturally to me, but I’m not a genius or a virtuoso, and everyone can learn to do what I do, to some degree. Instead of drowning in information input overload, we can process our own knowledge, gathered from events that we’ve experienced and absorbed, and reflect it to audiences, who can then respond with their own music. This open musical dialogue, that can sustain social harmony, is the best, most constructive use for music. When my own music connects to an audience, it starts a social and spiritual chain reaction that goes on forever. And that’s wonderful.

There’s a huge difference between creating original music and lyrics from scratch, and compiling playlists for listening, or imitating pre-recorded music as karaoke. But in today’s contemporary music genres, songwriters often use AI to invent songs and lyrics, by reorganizing collected audio clips, loops and cliched phrases. So in many popular songwriting genres, regurgitating loops and common phrases is rated as musical, and not using clips, loops, and not repeating common phrases, is deemed unmusical. By that measure, I’m not musical at all, because all my brain has room for, is my own music. On the TV show Spicks & Specks, competitors guess the title of a song after hearing a fragment of it. The winner, who identifies and imitates other peoples’ songs best, is judged “good at music”. That’s fine, if you just want to memorise other people’s songs, but is this really “being good at music”? Isn’t it just fandom, attentive listening, an excellent memory, a good ear for a tune, and consumer mimicry? 

Reminiscing about the past is unpopular these days, but I grew up in an Australian community where people constantly created their own music, as well as playing and singing classics, radio “hits”, and inherited music. Making live music was an everyday, undigitised, praised, often informal, highly valued event. Criticism of average or wobbly music performances was rare. No one expected everyone to perform music perfectly; and we were all encouraged to perform music at gatherings, with some degree of applause. Everyone in my world sang, whistled, and memorised songs around the house, often imperfectly, and unencumbered by technology. We all knew a large repertoire of church hymns and psalm tunes by heart. We sang them at church in two or three parts, and hummed when we were gardening, helping Dad in his workshop, or doing housework with Mum. We handwrote music scores, played and sang solo and in groups, practised “party pieces” to perform at clubs, parties, and community fundraising concerts. Each week, we performed selected pieces of this well known music as parts of a seasonal musical calendar, at home, at school and in church. Performing music was a social necessity, an absorbing team game built on learning cooperative music skills. Engaging in church and community music in those days was certainly not a Marxian dumbed down “opium of the people”: it required strict discipline, regular work, a dedicated commitment to social justice, and sustained creative effort.

We listened to music on the radio, and later to LP records on the stereogram my parents purchased in 1963, when I turned 15. But when we wanted to “do music” properly, we made our own music, building on the music traditions we knew well, to do so. Tape recorders, computers, CD players, iPods and streamed music targeted at consumers, were completely absent, they arrived much later. I heard my tape recorded singing voice for the first time in 1963, at a church youth club, and bought my first computer, a Mac SE, in 1989. By 1992 I had a CD player and a clunky Walkman audio player with earpieces, but the iPod, smart phones, music software and music streaming didn’t arrive in my household until 2000, when I was 52 years old. Like most Australians, we simply didn’t have sufficient disposable income to buy the latest music technology as soon as it hit the shops.

My hardworking parents scrimped and saved to buy me the beautiful Bosendorfer upright grand piano they gave me on Christmas Day 1955, when I was 7 years old. I still it have today. My sister learnt to play the violin, and so we learned music together, at great cost to Mum and Dad, who paid for our weekly music lessons until we turned 18. Recently I counted the cost of these music lessons. In all, Mum and Dad paid for about 500 piano lessons for me (about £5000, or $10000 in decimal currency), and my antique piano cost £150. This was a huge slice out of their meagre income from their 9 to 5 work as an electrician and teacher, and this shows how much my family valued music.

When the folk music craze arrived from America in 1963, my Great Aunt Anne Foulsum gave me my Great Uncle Bill’s old steel string guitar, that he used to play in a Dixieland band at the old Melbourne Palais. I learnt to strum a few chords, and sang Scottish folk songs, and songs from the Seekers, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Nina and Frederick, and Bob Dylan, that I heard on the radio. As a teenager I owned only one precious Nina and Frederick record, a 45′, called Little Boxes, and I listened to my sister’s classical and folk World Record Club collection. My musical cousins in Wonthaggi, Victoria, played the piano or organ, or marching band instruments like fifes or euphoniums, and everyone in my extended family sang. Some could read music, others sang from sol-fa notation, and many older folk sang or played songs and dance music from memory. My Grandad Ebenezer Simpson was the most accomplished musician in our family, he played the button accordion for dances, sang folksongs from memory, and produced the annual Wonthaggi pantomime at the Union Theatre. One of his daughters, my Auntie Jean Fullard, was the Church organist at St Andrews Peace Church, Wonthaggi, for many years. On my mother’s side, my Grandfather Gus Ridge was a singer in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Carnarvon in the early 1900s. My musical ancestors passed on their love of country based music making, and their skills, to me, so through making new music that’s in tune with the past and present, and looks forward with hope, I keep faith with them and with my country.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard, 24 May 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Over the last forty years or so, I’ve witnessed the escalating incursion of AI (Artificial Intelligence) into the domain of music created by humans. When AI began to generate music content, music scholars compared generated AI composition content to content made by composers and performers. As AI imitates human creations more and more closely, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish AI content from human content. Some believe that Large Language System AIs trained in all Westerners know about music, can already surpass humans in intelligent music composition. So do any differences remain between virtual AI composition and real time human music composition? Indigenous song systems based on evolving, adaptive oral systems of place have much to contribute to this ongoing debate.

The AI revolution has changed the way many humans engage with sound. Like written music, printed music, and musical instruments, AI is inert, not alive, but it imitates the organic creative strategies of living beings so well, and so rapidly, that it appears to be alive. So in Western cultures, instruments and scores are seen as an extension of human agency, with performers controlling sonic instrumental output by reading scores that channel composers’ intentions. The instrument is not the music, the score is not the music, the technology is not the music: these are powerful intermediaries, skilfully manipulated to activate passive performative codes that output expressive sound designs. So Western instruments, music scores, and their virtual counterparts, can be said to incorporate preconceived musical, and sometimes interpretive, AI algorithms.

So in contemporary Western music, and in Indigenous composition, AI software introduces a fourth actor into the aural / oral or written compositional mix – a generative, rule-based, invisible AI algorithm. AI algorithms are often derived from standardised “global music” genres. This AI genre standardisation renders AI algorithms incapable of imitating realtime human composition that is localised (connected to place) and personal. An AI algorithm may be created by one person, or a collaborative group, who usually maintain anonymity, and may blur their creative boundaries.

New forms of music copyright attribution are being developed to protect the rights of AI developers, as opposed to the rights of AI users, publishers and performers of AI generated music. The agency of Western music creation has rapidly shifted towards AI developers, and away from passive, non-creative AI users. So for composers, screen musicians and sound designers, it’s become essential to avoid passive AI user engagement with AI, and engage actively with AI systems as a creative AI developer. To comprehend and adapt to this cataclysmic change, it’s useful to review how AI entered our daily lives, and how it may or may not interact with non-Western Indigenous musical systems.

How should composers approach and relate to AI in Africa and Australia? In these places, all singing voices, instruments, and written inscriptions (whether the songmaker is conscious of this, or not) are embedded in complex Indigenous contexts. In Africa and Australia, sounding Country includes dancing, speaking and singing in channelled ancestral spirit voices, in songs received from ever-evolving, organic, living Countries. The spiritual power of Indigenous Australian music comes from this realtime organic integration with living Countries.

Guarding against invasive external AI corruption of the living, organic Voice of Country, is a custodial obligation for Indigenous peoples. To communicate this important cultural obligation, in 2004 I co-composed a song with Anmatjere/Arrernte singer-songwriter Rhubee Neale, called “Keep Guard of our Dreams.” At that time we had just been introduced to computer composition systems, and we were using Logic to mix and master our studio tracks on iMac computers, but we were also taught to handwrite our song scores, and were expected to sing from them in concerts. In 2006 Rhubee and I sang “Keep Guard of our Dreams” at an Eora Aboriginal College concert, at Petersham RSL Club. In 2007 we sang it at our Aboriginal Song Seminar at Reconciliation for Western Sydney in the Karabi Centre, Wentworthville NSW.

In September and October 2022 Dharawal Inuk soprano Sonya Holowell and Biripi opera tenor Elias Wilson sang the eight part SSAATTBB arrangement of this song with The Song Company, as part of the Songs from the Heart concert, in response to the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. It reached a huge audience when it was toured to Canberra, Parramatta, Newcastle, Wollongong and Sydney, and was broadcast on the Australian Digital Concert Hall. If it had been composed with an AI algorithm in 2004, it may have reached the charts, been recorded on a label, and heard more widely, before 2022. But it wasn’t composed with any kind of AI, it was composed in real time by two Australian women who poured out our love for our Country, in a small rehearsal room, strumming chords on a guitar, singing, picking out a melody on an old piano, and scribbling on a scrap of manuscript paper. In 2004, we knew this song was great, but we didn’t realise that AI pseudo-cultural control of radio playlist codes meant that it would probably be permanently silenced. I can’t help but wonder how many real time, living Australian songs have been silenced, and consigned to media playlist bins, because of bungled AI music coding that censors music and languages that don’t conform to algorithmic formulae.

In my Australian female experience, the escalating AI invasion of written and oral human music composition began around 1988, with improved access to software programs of two kinds. Before this, only small groups of academic music researchers – who were mostly men – had privileged access to this technology, and funding to compose using it. I was still using a tape recorder well into the 1990s. In global Western music systems, the first kind of AI compostion software (Finale, Sibelius) imitated hand written music scores, and the second kind (DAWs like CoolEdit, Cubase, Reason, Logic and ProTools) offered transposable chord pattern graphs, keyed to beats, and overlaid by recorded (but rarely previously handwritten) melody tracks. But since the DAW, not the human composer, “wrote” the first version of the music in binary code, studios began to claim mechanical song copyrights in recordings, unless the artist asserted their copyright by requiring the studio to sign a Master Release form. Notating composers who prioritised melody and interlocking polyphonic patterns bought Finale and / or Sibelius, while oral musicians who improvised tunes over chord patterns and used chord charts, found DAWs an easier, quicker, and much cheaper option. The advantage of notating with digital software was that, if used correctly, it was copyright friendly. Composers skilled in notating music could write their original scores by hand to establish their prior copyright, before entering their notated scores into licensed software, or recording their tracks. At the same time, musicians from non-Western cultures (e.g. India, Samoa, China) were translating non-Western notations and previously un-notated sound clusters into software that (unlike Western scores, DAW piano rolls and spectral studio tracks) integrated oral music systems with ornamented, expressively coded, modal sound fields.

Art & Image Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2019.
All Rights Reserved.

When I used Finale Notes in the 1990s, I applied my acquired Western music handwriting skills to producing and printing digital scores of my own songs, on my Mac SE computer. The Finale scores I produced were not as sophisticated or as flexible as my handwritten scores or my graphic song charts; they were limited by the tasks and signs offered by the Finale software. In 1988 I’d explored acoustic spectral analysis of song using MacSpeech, by measuring sung vowel and phoneme durations and transitions, but MacSpeech didn’t graph sung pitch or intonations adequately, so its usefulness for song research was limited. I also tinkered with Hypertext, and made networks of linked files and folders. I replaced my manual typewriter, carbon sheets and roneo with a word processor, then a computer keyboard. By 1989 Australian composers like my contemporaries Martin Wesley-Smith and Barry Conyngham were grappling in earnest with the creative arts potential, and the limitations, of experimental AI computer music programs.

In the mid 1990s I was exploring the acoustics of pitched sung vowels via digital recordings, and Plomp’s European research into the mechanics of the singing voice had taken off. Linguists at Sydney University used acoustic speech research findings to develop AI speech systems that joined segmented vowels and consonants into clunky words and sentences. Their AI speech models had distressingly flat intonation and wobbly phoneme transitions, but were nevertheless tested on astonished commuters, in hilarious Sydney railway announcements. Overseas, in France, Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM acoustic music research centre, which I visited in 1993, was attempting to harness the power of computers to music creation and sound design, with various degrees of success. After observing these distant, costly projects, I decided to prioritise my own cultural heritages, and engage with AI and computer music only insofar as it was useful to my country-based living music goals.

As a trained church Cantor in the 1990s and 2000s, I worked with the interface of texts and neume formulae in Gregorian chant and Western hymns and anthems, singing in Greek, Latin and English. I studied how this chanted and harmonized interface had been adapted and simplified for metrical congregational performance, by Reformation musicians like Luther, Calvin, Merbecke, and the Bach family, who contributed many chant-based metricized hymns, chorales and psalm settings to the Scottish Psalter and English hymnbooks. This tradition of rearranging texts to metricized melodic formulae, and synchronizing accentuated lyrics in parallel languages, is part of my Scottish musical heritage. Familiarity with the rhythmic, accentuation and intonation patterns of any language makes expressive melodic text setting possible, so I can, with cultural guidance, apply this skill to text setting in Indigenous languages.

Like modal chant and tonal music systems, AI organizes formulaic fragments into layers, to develop new music. However, I have chosen not to use random, contextless collections of sound objects to assemble songs; instead I rely on intuitive, context driven reception of lyrical song melodies from Country. Some call this dreaming, but it is not an unconscious process. Like chant, AI algorithmic music is limited by the preconceived formulae and criteria that underlie it. If an AI program designed by an outsider lacks cultural content from my Country, or is derived from foreign music concepts, or doesn’t speak my inherited languages, or is not familiar with the birds and creatures of my lands, and doesn’t know about my people or our laws, how can it walk with, hear or sing the melodies my Country gives me? But I can certainly develop my own country-based AI codes and algorithms, create my own sound samples, and integrate them into my songs, as a self-determined Indigenous AI developer. Many Indigenous Australians are harnessing audio and video recording, AI resources and app coding to serve our cultures, in original ways. Drawing on external AI resources is unnecessary for us, since passive AI music, while easy and cheap to produce in comparison to the demanding, costly effort of creating and recording “real” human music, lacks the infinite, musing malleability and deep, rich cultural context of humanised, meaningful, emotional, language driven Indigenous music.

The intersection of algorithmic AI machine music with human music making has escalated at astonishing speed. From an Indigenous worldview, the genre coded sound objects that AI apps are spitting out, fulfil market expectations, but lack culturally grounded depth and richness. The current AI music genre paradigms are not uniquely Australian; most are imported from overseas. Australian Indigenous composers have begun to work with AI systems as developers, to retain control of the coding and marketing of our cultural musics. Traditionally, the only way a song can be birthed by an Australian Country is still through a human Songmaker embedded in Country. So as an Australian composer, I draw on the live, organic intersection between my trained sensory perceptions, the living inhabitants and features of my Country, and the stories of my human communities, as the primary sources of my creative songmaking practice.

Nevertheless, it’s totally clear that AI systems are not going to disappear. As long as AI is managed ethically, it offers amazing opportunities, but passive virtual embedment in AI systems (as opposed to active, organic real time embedment in Country) can be socially divisive, alienating, disempowering, addictive, and downright unhealthy. Digital obsessions have created social divides between generations, and widened the gap between the haves and have nots. People with financially privileged access to passive AI software and virtual gaming systems see no harm in boasting of their technological superiority over people with no access, or limited access.

It’s likely that indulgence in passive AI systems and virtual gaming will never be universally beneficial, unless manufacturers, in collaboration with governments, introduce rules to make it so. Until then, a substantial risk to human diversity and musical evolution exists. Addiction to AI systems that incite social division and conflict, and promote alienation from geographical and cultural contexts of origin, may develop. This risk is enhanced when AI systems promote passive attachment to globalised, regionally marketed music genres, and ignore the contextual needs of local populations. Researchers who create and demonstrate AI music systems need to think about the social effects that dislocated AI systems, and the genre coded music made with them, may have on clients, and on those without AI access.

At present, the primary driver of Australian composer success and playlist track selection in the AI environment, is how much money is made. This is determined not by live gig / concert income, but by how many times a track is played. Ethical obligations to enliven and care for human societies, plants, animals and community environments, by funnelling AI track income back to traditional landowners, are rarely met or promoted. Generating quick income from cobbled together mashups that attract viral click swarms, is considered legitimate. As long as a song can be slotted into a globalised music genre, and meets market demands, it ticks the AI box.

The AI exclusion of local music cultures from standardised global music codes appears to be driving a massively expanded cultural suppression campaign. Conformity to culturally impoverished AI criteria is rapidly replacing the obligation to compose ethical, altruistic music that promotes justice, aims to save threatened peoples, species and languages, warns against excess, reproves crime, or praises worthy things. Costly abstract sound designs stripped of cultural associations, with no discernable value apart from attention-grabbing innovation, are warmly praised for their nihilistic absence of attachment, fleeting audiovisual displays, unregulated extravagance, or eclectic pluralism. This utilitarian approach to music creation is, at the moment, a hugely profitable strategy, but there is little social responsibility, and certainly no future for humanity, in it.

Prioritising personally profitable, socially careless music criteria in AI is also reducing human attention spans, scrambling meaningful lyrics, and diminishing human hearing capacity. These are real risks that could be addressed and guarded against, with wise AI governance and expanded, free live music development programs for all ages. If, as musicians and composers, we aim to develop music that sustains healthy, intelligent human societies, that people can hear and respond to, we need to find ways to balance healthy, active developer interactions with AI, so it’s used responsibly to create peaceful co-existence, and isn’t permitted to foster hatred, or degrade human welfare and flourishing.

Singing the Uluru Statement

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Reposting this 2022 blog for NAIDOC Week 2023.


‘Songs from the Heart‘ was released on April 7 2023 by 1equalmusic on Hyperion – https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_1EMFTH

NAIDOC Week 2023 : ABC Classic FM broadcast “Songs from the Heart” in its NAIDOC Week Lunchtime Concert, hosted by Mairi Nicholson. Now available for listening on demand.

“Ancestry” by Elizabeth Sheppard, Eora Aboriginal College, 2004. Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2004. All Rights Reserved.

The Song Company’s upcoming Songs from the Heart tour in September-October 2022, directed by Antony Pitts and Francis Greep, with commissioned music by Sonya Holowell and myself, Elizabeth Sheppard, is designed as a musical interface between Australia’s 252 years of 1770-2022 colonialism, and the nationally affirmed, powerful contemporary Voice of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal First Nations, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Songs from the Heart will be premiered at Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral on 29 September 2022, and will then tour to Parramatta (Riverside Theatres Oct 2), Canberra (Larry Sitsky Room, ANU School of Music Oct 4), Melbourne (The Oratory, Abbotsford Convent Oct 6), Sydney (Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst Oct 7 and 9) and Wollongong (Wollongong Art Gallery Oct 8). With consideration for unavoidable Covid-induced cancellations and rehearsal disruptions during 2020-2021, the Australian Arts Council has just granted $25,000 to fund an additional Australian regional tour of Songs from the Heart in February 2023.

Proclaimed by lawyer Dr. Megan Davis, the Uluru Statement was gifted to all Australians, who have honoured, acclaimed and responded to it in many affirmative ways. My commissioned music for Songs from the Heart is my heartfelt response to the Uluru Statement: it echoes Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s affirmation of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

The Uluru Statement was gifted to the Australian people by the 250 government authorised First Nations Delegates to the 2017 Australian National Constitutional Convention, and distributed online, so every Australian has a opportunity, and an obligation, to read it fully, come to an accurate understanding of the whole text and the significant Anangu art that surrounds it, and respond to it in some meaningful way. Vigorous community based debates have surrounded the Statement: this is normal, and different opinions can and should be teased out and thoroughly explored, as the Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney, and Australia’s Special Envoy for Implementation of the Uluru Statement, Senator Patrick Dodson, have noted. Many Australians, conscious of Australia’s conflicted history, find engaging with the Statement difficult, but a wholehearted response is needed from all Australians, to enable Australia to move forward beyond Sorry, to the lasting Agreement between Australia’s First Nations and its non-Aboriginal peoples, that the Uluru Statement proposed. One way of approaching a personal and community response, is to meditate on the content of the Uluru Statement, though making and listening to music about it. The Song Company’s production, undertaken in consultation with Indigenous Australian composers and communities, echoes and reinforces the Uluru Delegates’ intentions, as one small step forward in the ongoing movement of the Australian people that the Uluru Statement from the Heart initiated.

My music for Songs from the Heart is conceived on a liturgical / oratorical scale that honours the full Uluru Statement as a sacred, uncensored text, an undeniable affirmation of Australian First Nations presence. This approach reflects my lifelong musical training and intercultural experience as an Australian Indigenous scholar and accredited Cantor. As The Song Company performs my songs, a mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal singers humbly walk with, attend to, echo and explore how to understand and enact this practical, forward looking roadmap for Australia. The words written by 250 accredited Aboriginal Australian National Constitutional Convention Delegates, are surrounded by Anangu artwork from the Uluru site itself, that the Anangu artists painted to show the cultural power of Uluru. No other document has communicated the wishes of all Australian First Nations so clearly, to the whole Australian people, and no other document has gained such acclamation and consent from all Australians, at local, regional and national levels.

Besides PM Albanese’s recent endorsement of the Uluru Statement, local Councils, regional bodies and corporations all over Australia have endorsed the Uluru Statement. In my own local area, Parramatta NSW, in December 2021 I moved a motion, as a Member of the 2021 Aboriginal Advisory Committee of Parramatta Council, to recommend that the Council endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. Phillip Russo seconded my motion. The ATSI Advisory Committee forwarded this recommendation to Parramatta Council, and Parramatta Council passed it in July 2022. So these compositions are not merely artistic works; they engaged with, reflect, and are the outcome, of a real Australian grass roots struggle to reach conciliatory consensus at local level at Parramatta, and the challenging creative process that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents engaged in, guided by the Uluru Statement and Makaratta truth telling, to arrive at an Agreement.

The whole Songs from the Heart production seeks to focus deeper audience attention on the clearly written and beautifully painted Uluru Statement from the Heart that was gifted to all Australians. The First Nations composers and singers invite consideration of the Uluru Statement, and The Song Company walks respectfully and attentively through the document. As The Song Company engages with the Statement intellectually and spiritually, the singers model how to walk respectfully and rigorously, as committed colleagues and allies, alongside Australia’s First Nations, by reflecting truthfully and empathetically in song, on Australia’s past, present and future. As Australians we are living through troubled times, but we all share hopes for a better future, and The Song Company’s realistic hope, tempered by discipline and skill, shines through.

Since learning the Australian First Nations way of walking on Country properly is a slow, gradual process, and since everyone is at a different stage of this process, neither The Song Company nor the composers make any claim that the Songs from the Heart music is perfect, culturally expert from all points of view, comprehensive, or definitive. The music simply invokes and enables audience responses to the Uluru Statement, opening the way to this, without undue demands. Due to Australia’s unresolved cultural dilemmas, responses to the Uluru Statement are necessarily diverse, volatile, dynamic, and ongoing. As in all projects with Australian First Nations themes, ongoing consultation with First Nations communities was required, and The Song Company engaged in cultural consultation, early in the project. Songs from the Heart is a beginning – one genuinely heartfelt engagement among many ongoing intercultural dialogues. May all music that honours the Uluru Statement completely and honestly, remain dynamically open to the inspired vision of a better Australia, that is offered to all Australians in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2022. All Rights Reserved.

In 2020 Dr. Scott Davie of the Australian National University commissioned me to compose a 5 minute piece for the 1770 Henrion fortepiano. This instrument, stored at the ANU School of Music’s historic Australian piano collection, dates from 1770, when James Cook first encountered Aboriginal Australians. Dr. Davie was interested to see how our Ngarra Burria Indigenous composer group would relate to the instrument, as a pre-colonial 1770 interloper, and a contemporary of Captain James Cook. The 5 octave 61 key Henrion fortepiano was manufactured the disputed territory of Saarland, Alsace, France by Henri Henrion in 1770. Coincidentally, 1770 is the year of First Contact between Lt. James Cook and the Guugu-Yimithirr people of north east coastal Australia. This little fortepiano was imported to Australia and played at concerts in the British colony of Sydney. I composed my music for this small fortepiano of reversed white and black keys, as if it were a set of detuned yoora (digging sticks or clapsticks). At the time of First Contact between Cook and the Guugu-Yimithirr, this instrument had no links with with my Noongar Country. But now, having suffered the inevitable consequences of cracked ageing and clumsy mechanization, it has been retuned, as far as possible, by experts. So (as a similarly aged, cracked, clumsily mechanized and retuned Indigenous Australian composer) I began to converse humanely with it, through a simple, repetitive theme that acknowledges my heritages, and primarily drawing attention to the country that all Australians live on. Our country seeds and produces hardy, courageous Indigenous survivor plants and peoples, like my maternal grandparents. So my Henrion fortepiano piece is about them.

After draft score consultations with Dr. Davie and my ANU supervisor, Dr. Sainsbury, and a Zoom session with Dr. Davie, Dr. Sainsbury, my Ngarra Burria colleagues, and ABC Producer Stephen Adams, I composed and finalised the piano score of a set of progressive variations on my “digging” theme. This descending fortepiano theme refers to Indigenous digging for planting and harvesting, and I set it against an opposing colonial theme of digging for gold mining.

Kalgoorli Silky Pear is based on my grandparents’ experience of life in Kalgoorlie in the early 1900s, where they built a cottage, raised a family, and were active in the community life of the time. My grandfather Gus worked as the Head Gardener of the Boulder-Kalgoorlie Council. He designed and maintained the public gardens, racing track and bowling greens of Kalgoorlie, and many private gardens (such as that of the Castlecomer homestead), at a time when water was very scarce. He had been trained in horticulture in Melbourne, at St Vincents Gardens. As a leading member of the Boulder Horticultural Society, he gave gardening lectures, acted as judge at annual gardening shows, managed a large plant nursery, and decorated halls and churches with Australian native flowers for public events. Gus was also a musically literate composer and amateur singer, and in 1943 he registered the copyright of his notated song “Our Defenders” with the Australian National Archives, where it can be viewed today. My daughter Emma, a Landscape Architect, whose father Peter was also a horticulturist, carries on the family gardening tradition that Gus handed down to us through his daughter, my mother Olive. The hardy Silky Pear bush, the karlkurla after which the city of Kalgoorlie is named, still grows in the Kalgoorlie area. It has woody fruits with hard cases, that are designed to survive bushfire. Gus and his wife Emma bravely and cheerfully endured hard times in Kalgoorlie, and like the strong Silky Pear, they grew and passed on a beautiful gardening and song legacy to their children and grandchildren. Through my mother, they passed on their legacy to me, of how to survive challenging times, through making music and gardening.

Dr. Scott Davie’s performance of Kalgoorli Silky Pear was recorded by the ABC’s Stephen Adams and Audio Engineer Huff Johnston at ANU’s Lewellyn Hall in November 2020. This recording was broadcast on Stephen Adams’ New Waves podcast, and released in 2022 on the ABC CD Ngarra Burria Piyanna, and on another ABC CD, Women of Note.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

In June 2020, with the intention of maintaining my vocal skills, and restricted by Covid pandemic conditions that limit my particiipation in live choirs and solo performances, I enrolled in an Open Academy Classic Song class at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. This turned out to be a wonderful opportunity, not only to maintain my vocal skills, but to introduce notated Australian Indigenous songs into a music education curriculum that is still largely dominated by an admirable, but clearly foreign, classical song repertoire – but now welcomes notated Australian Aboriginal song into the repertoire.

As a result, this Wednesday, Dec 2 2020, at 7.00 pm, I’m singing three of my Indigenous Noongar Australian classical songs and one European song – Kaya Mary, Mary Moorditj Ngaangk, and Ngalak Noonook Balga (Gasstrees), and Schubert’s An Die Musik – all workshopped with Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks in Sydney Conservatorium’s Open Academy Classic Song class, at the Classic Song Concert at Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium. Thanks to Classic Song teachers / accompanists Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks for their expert mentoring and cultural competence. Tickets are available at Sydney Conservatorium Box Office.


Here’s a link to my performance of Ngalak Noonook Balga (Grasstrees).

Bridging Music Gaps

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

It seems that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has woken Australians up to the important role that local community, Aboriginal and country based music can play (as opposed to globalised muzak) in bridging gaps between human mental health and community peace.

Dreaming, performing, and growing community, Aboriginal, and locally based music that comes from actual human situations and real life experiences, has a unique power to enliven, build and strengthen human societies and economies. Local song and local culture sharing and exchange between groups can, and should, be permitted to drive powerful cultural currencies that enhance mutual respect. Karaoke parrotting of imported cover songs is indeed fun, but it doesn’t build or support local cultural understanding, or local social networks.

The myth that promoting local Australian music will produce jingoistic nationalism, xenophobic hatred and war, is groundless. Where healthy local intercultural dialogue, assisted by song dialogue and exchange, is well funded, and provocative mass media reports inciting hatred, are erased prior to publication by responsible editors, peace has a chance to flourish. The proliferation of imported global music is still smothering local Australian music. which is characteristically respectful, and features intercultural sharing. Using music in good ways, local Australian musicians have outlawed deliberately offensive behaviour; many Australian songs promote justice by exposing and discrediting mischief making rumours that incite conflict.

Cultures that articulate and celebrate themselves in music, while engaging with environmental, spiritual and cultural concepts and structures, find ways to communicate peacefully with other cultures. Australian musicians have intelligent, inoffensive ways of agreeing to disagree, while expressing culture based viewpoints strongly. As their community music is heard and discussed, local audiences forge and maintain sensible behavioural boundaries, with humour and wit. In Western Sydney in the early 2000s, Australian Bishop Kevin Manning tested and proved this beyond doubt, when he organised a productive, peaceful series of interfaith conversations between large congregations of Christians and Muslims. These sessions included diverse local musics, and the discussions that ensued quickly restored community peace after an isolated but extremely provocative incident. It became evident to all that sharing common ground, singing together, clarifying intercultural issues and utterly discrediting false media myths, has an unrivalled power to promote and restore not only passive peace, but proactive, strengthened, responsible community relationships.

Songbooks such as the Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD, produced by Deborah Cheetham, Toni Lalich and Jessica Hitchcock in close collaboration with several Australian Aboriginal communities, also foster community peace. Such resources are valuable local community building tools for the challenging pandemic era we are living through.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD is available at http://www.shortblackopera.com

So, how much health-bestowing local community music is being produced and consumed by Australians, right now? Where is it performed and heard, how is it managed, recorded, licensed and distributed, and who is still making it? When an Australian musician or composer writes, performs and records some of their own music, how do they get it heard by Australian and international audiences? Are they expected to give their music away free of charge, to be heard?

And are Australian governments able to add to our National assets, by including the value of our national music in the National Budget, as an asset? Is wide, government sponsored media distribution provided to our Australian musicians, so their loyal, pandemically challenged fans can access it? And if our local music is being drowned out by insistent promotion of non-Australian music, why is this so?

Have a look online. Many unfunded Australian Aboriginal communities in remote and urban areas are making magnificent, uniquely Australian music. Many non-Indigenous Australian musicians and ethical researchers are collaborating with these communities, to grow uniquely Australian community music repertoires with a powerful Australian sound and presence. This is a learning process, that deserves music policy support. When every Australian gives first priority to supporting uniquely Australian music, instead of believing the globalised media hype that promotes non-Australian performers and imported music genres above our home grown music, local community music, community cultures, and community peace, will flourish healthily, and grow.

Obviously, Australians don’t dislike overseas musics, they are all wonderful, but why should Australians prioritize non-Australian music genres, or promote them above our own musics, to the detriment of the strong internal multicultural musical bonds we have always lived with and built? All Australian citizens have a cultural right and duty to support, grow and enjoy our very own music, that connects us to, and takes pride in, the beautiful country we are fortunate to live in.

Australian community music is slowly re-emerging from the cultural silencing that the post World War II flood of imported and globalised music induced. We are beginning to realise that muting our local musicians’ voices, obediently patronising, consuming and imitating the avalanche of non-Australian music genres that were, and in some cases still are, permitted to dominate our airwaves, and allowing overseas music scholars to interpret, pass judgement on, and appropriate our home grown Australian music cultures, is not likely to benefit Australia. We can and should take credit for our own musical prowess. Australia is no longer stuck in a colonial music time warp, that wrongly deems all imported music and opinions superior, and all home grown music irredeemably inferior. However, many Australians think it safe to sit timidly on a musical fence, and are still vacillating between patronising non-Australian music, and prioritising our local music.

Can Australia’s thirst for our own sovereign music really be fulfilled with instore muzak such as “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “White Christmas”, or “Jingle Bells”, to cheer us through our smoky heatwave-and-bushfire summers? I don’t think so. Sadly, the yawning gulf that divorced the community music (of both Aboriginal and immigrant origin that many older Australians still know and love), from the overwhelmingly foreign music repertoire studied and performed in Australian Universities, Conservatoria, and concert halls, has certainly not been bridged.

Hands up, if you’ve heard identifiably Australian music, performed, recorded and distributed by Australians, in Australia, on an Australian-produced radio or TV program, or a streamed podcast. Hands up, if the adoring praise Australian media curators and announcers heap on the imported music of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Mozart, and American style jazz seriously outweighs their half hearted, grudging endorsement of “second class” Australian music. Hands up, if you’ve heard, played or sung Australian music in the last week. Music by non-Australian composers of non-Australian music genres, still floods Australian airwaves, and is still promoted by massive government handouts of public money, that all flows out of Australia. This money should be flowing into local Australian community music systems, to support and grow homespun Australian music.

Supporting local music is not narrow parochialism or isolationist nationalism, nor is it driven by anti-competitive rhetoric. It’s commonsense local social capital building. Many researchers claim that academic studies of “popular music” such as hip hop, rock, soul, electronica and gaming music have broken through the academic / community music divide, by validating the selection and insertion of a carefully selected canon of globalised ‘popular music’ into Australian school and academic curricula. The theory behind this policy, is that establishing a secularised global music repertoire shared by all, will eliminate intercultural and interreligious conflict – John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine” vision of world harmony. But despite this populist educational policy, a strict academic / community music divide survives, and is promoted by, imported music teaching and examination systems that many Australian music teachers are required to endorse. Grass rooms musos are studied by Australian music scholars, but how many of them read, or are permitted to respond to, the thousands of academic papers written about local Australian abd Aboriginal musicians? Popular music syllabuses that include lists of set examination performance pieces, and also teach computer music skills, are shaping future Australian musicians, but only a tiny percentage of the teaching repertoire included in these syllabuses is composed by Australians, or supportive of uniquely Australian and Aboriginal music genres and performers.

So what can be done to promote and support the growth of health-giving Australian community music systems and repertoires?

1. Immediately reduce the high percentage of non-Australian music heard on Australian airwaves, by 50%, and replace it with uniquely, recognusably Australian music, funded by Australia, and performed by Australians.

2. Teach and show Australian children that healthily home grown Australian music is highly valued by Australians, and is just as good as any music of non-Australian origin, or music based on a non-Australian genre, or music composed, produced and distributed by non-Australian musicians and companies.

3. In our present pandemic situation, generously fund and facilitate the creation and local community performances of uniquely Australian music content, by Australian born and raised composers.

4. When the coronavirus pandemic subsides, fund healthy, safe live local music events directed and staffed by local Australian musicians, and endorsed by local Australian Aboriginal Elders as fully supportive of our sovereign Australian cultures and ecologies, instead of draining Australia’s music coffers by importing or promoting “big names” who don’t actually need promotion, and who often put youth audiences at risk by staging drug-ridden megaconcerts, and then depart, taking our funds with them.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

When I began Postgraduate composition studies at the Australian National University School of Music, Canberra in January 2020, my academic skills were, to say the least, a bit rusty. But having lived through and survived the Australian summer bushfire crisis, the effects of the devastating hailstorm that hit Canberra, and the Covid-19 pandemic that followed, in Semester 2 2020 I’m continuing with my Postgraduate studies, working at upgrading my academic and technology skills with expert help, ploughing on with composition, writing my thesis, and preparing video presentations.

Click on the link below to see what I’m doing at ANU this Semester.


ANU School of Music (aka Llewellyn Hall) and its web of dedicated multidisciplinary music performers and researchers, is both challenging and inspiring. ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop, Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt and Professor Kim Cunio are the driving forces behind this Australian Music School, that welcomes talented musicians from diverse backgrounds to explore, perform and develop uniquely Australian, and often cross-cultural, musical repertoires. Currently, ANU music students include hip hop artists, gaming music researchers, orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, community music specialists, audio engineering trainees, music therapists, Indigenous composers, opera singers, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and diverse ethnic musicians who specialise in performing and recording culture-based traditional music. Their talent and diversity, together with the reliable support of the ANU School of Music admin and academic team, and the admin and academic Colleges that support them, makes every encounter, whether live, or on Zoom, an informative, productive, collaborative adventure.

So, on with the music!

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

As Australia comes to terms with COVID-19 protocols, musicians and composers are working out how to “do” music online. If we had a choice, live music would win. These photos of our Ngarra Burria Composers recording sessions at the Australian National University Studio in 2017-2018, and the first Ngarra Burria concert at Eora Aboriginal College in 2017, show how contemporary musicians (Claire Edwardes, Ensemble Offspring, and the five inaugural Ngarra Burria composers Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Tim Gray and myself) normally work together, in close proximity, to make music. But it is also possible, as demonstrated by the brilliant Lux Aeterna virtual choir a few years back, to gather in virtual spaces to make great music. The current COVID-19 crisis is pushing musicians and composers towards online collaboration. And as an accommodation to social distancing, Italian balcony music also seems to have taken off! So despite my advanced years, and my unfamiliarity with webcams, video conferencing, podcasting, and Skype, I’ve decided to jump into making balcony music, video conferencing, jamming and broadcasting virtual music online. Yes, I do have a balcony – in fact, two balconies! And hearing Mikey O’Neil’s presentation on interactive gaming music at ANU School of Music last week was a great introduction to crafting multiple responsive loops.

Composing in Canberra

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

As an Australian composer and singer, I make music that’s deeply engaged with, and inspired by, the vast, wonderful country that has always nourished and sustained my people. My music records and celebrates the everyday lived experience of my generation, my communities, and my ancestors, from one Australian woman’s perspective, over a lifetime. In 2019 I was awarded a Postgraduate Scholarship from the Australian National University in Canberra, to study and develop my Australian composition, document my music, and create new works. My course requires me to “develop an online presence” as a composer, so links to my music, writing. and published scores will be posted on this blog. Click on the My Music tab to see / hear audio clips or purchase my scores.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2019. All Rights Reserved.

My first blog post about the scandalous absence of Australian Aboriginal church music in Australian churches, except for token performances, has sparked positive responses from concerned Australians and prominent musicians.

Anong these are Dr. Roland Peelman, Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, who championed Australian Aboriginal church music by including the Pitjantjatjara language hymns of the Ntaria Ladies Choir from Central Australia, in the 2019 Canberra Festival. Yorta Yorta opera composer and singer Deborah Cheetham took Australian Aboriginal church music to a new level, with her Eumeralla Requiem in Gunditjmara language, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Chorale, and the Dhungala Children’s Choir, at Hamer Hall on July 15 2019.

In 2018 I was fortunate to have one of my Noongar language church music compositions, Kaya Mary (Hail Mary) recorded by the ABC, and broadcast on Stephen Adams’ New Waves podcast. This piece was commissioned by Mooghalin Arts, the Australian Music Centre, Eora Aboriginal College and the Australian National University, and composed with mentorship provided by Dharug Elder Dr. Chris Sainsbury’s Ngarra-Burria First Peoples Composers program. The podcast also includes powerful Australian Aboriginal music by Ngarra-Burria composers Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Rhyan Clapham and Tim Gray.

To listen, click on the link below :


But despite these efforts to promote Australian Aboriginal church music, grass roots inclusion of Australian Aboriginal church music in immigrant churches is not fully under way. There are many historical and ideological reasons for this, but there is no doubt that Australian churches are missing out on a great faith resource that has unrivalled power to connect Australians realistically, to Country.

Australian Aboriginal church musicians and their communities are clearly not welcomed into Australian immigrant origin churches as full liturgical participants, with the unrestricted rights to speak and sing their own languages, that immigrant participants enjoy. In our churches, Australian Aboriginal church musicians and Elders are treated very differently from non-English immigrants, whose cultures are warmly celebrated, and collaboratively included in all forms of church worship and social activities.

Two hundred years of genocidal bans on speaking and singing in Australian Aboriginal languages have retarded the development and acceptance of uniquely Australian church musics and cultures. This gross injustice is slowly being addressed, as Australian Aboriginal church music emerges from the deep shadows cast by racist colonialism. It is important to understand that acceptance of Australian Aboriginal music into any church repertoire, does not mean that immigrant church musics are being rejected, considered inferior, or downplayed. It just means that a just balance is being restored, and that Christ’s law of love and equal sharing is being carried to its proper, peaceful conclusion. Australian churches are journeying together, through the Cross, together with Australian Aboriginal church communities, and the story of our long journey can and should be told truthfully, in our church music. All Australian church musicians and their communities have an obligation to engage intensively in this healing, restorative process, as respectful friends and colleagues of their local Australian Aboriginal church communities.

Reversing the almost total exclusion of Australian Aboriginal church music from all Australian denominational church music publications, is one achievable goal, that can be accomplished quickly, with proactive goodwill. Local Australian Aboriginal church music could be commissioned, selected and approved by Aboriginal church music consultors of the correct clan group, appointed to each local church music management Committee. All churches have these Committees. Churches that manage their music regionally or nationally, or from overseas, should seek advice from Australian Aboriginal church music consultants who are familiar with both the repertoire, and local cultural requirements. This process will take time, but there is no reason why it should be delayed.

Many Australian church music managers who have been charged with reviewing and approving a range of church music for inclusion in official worship books, and promoting selected compositions and composers, have rejected Aboriginal church music as ineligible for inclusion in worship. Pressured by unsustainable theological and moral objections, these managers have summarily excluded the vast repertoire of Aboriginal church music from church approval. As a result, Australian church music publishers, as an inflexible rule, still give pride of place to any and all immigrant church musics. This censorious behaviour of church music afficionadoes began with the 1788 British invasion of Aboriginal Australia, and is still mandated by illogical fears of moral contamination, that are used to perpetuate apartheid church music policies. So our immigrant Australian church parishes remain ignorant and deprived of magnificent Aboriginal Australian church music, and (apart from token annual “native performances”) uncharitably neglect the talented Aboriginal church communities that produce it.

In Stephen Adams’ first Ngarra-Burria music podcast, broadcast by the ABC in November 2017, my church music composition Walken Rainbow, performed by Ensemble Offspring, was played. This instrumental piece was inspired by the words of the Noongar Prayer, which is a translation of the Our Father into the Noongar language of South West Western Australia. In Noongar culture, the Rainbow, Maadjit Walken, is the female Creator Spirit who gives birth to the male Rainbow Serpent, who then shapes the ancestors, the land and all its creatures, harmoniously. This Noongar theology is taught in Aboriginal churches, supports ecological sustainability, and is considered compatible with the Christian theology of the Trinity.

To listen, click on the link below :


Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2018. All Rights Reserved.

When it comes to racist apartheid in churches, Australia’s clearly a winner. Have a look at Australian Church hymnbooks. The official hymnbooks of all Australian Churches may have a token Aboriginal hymn (or two, or unusually, three). This token inclusion is often cited as proof that no racism exists in Australian churches. Indignant pastors, when accused of musical racism, may divert attention to the African or black American hymn repertoire, because they think of all coloured people as one homogenous group, and so they’re incapable of valuing our many Australian Aboriginal Church musics as unique repertoires. No Aboriginal psalm settings or liturgical chants are ever included in Australian Church hymnbooks, so to the casual overseas visitor, and to Australia’s large immigrant population, it’s obvious that those churches who have intentionally edited out the rich repertoires of Australian Aboriginal Church music, are deeply and selectively racist.

This ingrained racism has historical roots in the British Empire colonial mission era, when conversion to Christianity was linked with an all-pervasive campaign to civilize, enslave and assimilate the Australian First Nations populations that remained from the killing times. In the colonial era, Government bans on speaking and singing all Australian Aboriginal languages worked effectively to silence traditional Aboriginal music everywhere. That era has now passed, but malignant echoes of these inhumane bans on Aboriginal languages still infect many Australian State school language policies and curricula. Official over-promotion of English as the Australian lingua franca has, to a large extent, legitimized musical, conversational, and literary racism in Australian Churches. And paradoxically, immigrant languages are accorded privileged status in Australian Churches and schools, over and above Australian Aboriginal languages.

In 2017 the passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill opened a door to including Aboriginal languages in NSW school curricula. Revival of local Aboriginal languages such as Dharug, Wiradjuri, Gundungurra, Gambayngirr, Gamilaroi, Dharawal and Dhurga, on a large scale, suddenly became possible. Many NSW Aboriginal communities, inspired and encouraged by the example of the Aranda / Pitjantjatjara language Songkeepers Choir, are now reviving their languages and promoting their unique musical genres. New South Wales has led the way in changing the repressive legislation that banned Australian Aboriginal languages in our schools. If all Australian Churches follow this example, and begin promoting Aboriginal languages in parishes, and including Aboriginal hymns, psalms and liturgical music in their worship repertoires, the overt racism shamefully displayed in most Australian Churches every Sunday, may begin to recede.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2018. All Rights Reserved.

My adventures in integrating my Church and Conservatorium music background with my Australian Indigenous music heritage are continuing in 2018. This year I’ve been working with the Dharug Aboriginal community, who are reviving their threatened Dharug language by teaching indigenous and non-indigenous people to sing contemporary songs with Dharug language words researched and revived by Dr. Jeremy Steele, Dr. Jaklyn Troy, and Dharug Elders Auntie Edna Watson, Jacinta Tobin, Richard Green and Julie Bakhari Webb (among others). This revived Dharug indigenous music comes from the bountiful land we live on, that gives us life and breath and food from our Creator.

In 2018 I continued my internship with Dr. Christopher Sainsbury’s Australian Indigenous Composers Initiative, sponsored by Mooghalin Arts. We began in March 2018, and progressed through performances of works for Ensemble Offspring by Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Rhyan Clapham, Timothy John Edward Gray and myself (Elizabeth Sheppard) at the Biaime’s Nghunnu Festival at Brewarrina, on Murawari country. Nghunnu is the word for the Murawari fish traps on the Barwon River, and Biaime is the Creator. Undeterred by surgery on my left knee, I became a Bionic Woman, and soldiered on with composing a series of new works while completing demanding rehabilitation exercise routines. After attending face to face and Skype Composition tutorials with Dr. Kim Cunio, Music Lecturer at the Australian National University, I and the other four ICI Composers were ready to workshop our brand new music with the Ensemble. One of my new pieces, inspired by the tradition that the Dharug Aboriginal Women used to sing to the baby glass eels (burradowi) as they swam upriver, was undertaken with the permission of Dharug Aboriginal Elders from Parramatta.


On May 10 2018 Dr Christopher Sainsbury, the ICI Director, an Australian National University Music Lecturer, and an eminent Dharug Aboriginal composer, welcomed us, gave the Aboriginal Acknowledgement of Country, and welcomed Yorta Yorta Aboriginal composer and opera singer Deborah Cheetham. I’d met Deborah previously at a Madjitil Moorna Choir rehearsal on my mother’s Whadjuk Noongar country (Perth). Deborah talked with us about using Aboriginal languages in our compositions, shared how she composed and performed an a capella song in Gadigal Aboriginal language with Eora College students, and encouraged us to share our music and collaborate in community and with each other, as this is an important principle of Aboriginal music.

After we welcomed the Ensemble performers – Jason Noble (Clarinet), Sonya Holowell (Dharawal Mezzo Soprano), Anna McMichael (Violin) and Roland Peelman (Composer, Canberra International Music Festival Producer and Director, and Pianist), they tuned up, and we began the Workshop. First off the rank was my piece, Burradowi. The Ensemble played it right through several times with all instruments, with Roland Peelman delighting us with his comments and improvisations. The piece was treated to a real workout, with every possible variation being applied to it, including some skilful eel-like sounds from Jason’s Clarinet, beautiful ethereal singing from Sonya, and smooth, soaring violin melodies from Anna. No new ideas were introduced, and no changes to my music score were made, but my mentors, Indigenous colleagues and the performers provided me, through their performance itself, with valuable musical knowledge that would help me to refine my composition score, and my direction of performances, more effectively.

Four pieces by the other composers were Workshopped, including a beautiful atmospheric piece by Brenda Gifford, called Mirawar (Sky), a meditative lament by Troy, a mysterious cinematic piece from Tim Gray, and Rhyan Clapham’s complex, rhythmically challenging piece in 5/4, that included many tongue twisters for Sonya. Although our pieces are in the early stages of development, each has a particular Indigenous character, and each is closely related to the composer’s country.

It was great to be at Eora Aboriginal College again, and wonderful to meet up with Deborah Cheetham, Roland Peelman, Claire Edwardes, Chris Sainsbury, Kim Cunio, Kiriaki Koubaroulis and the other ICI Composers, and also with Dr. John Davis of the Australian Music Centre. On August 8-10 we’ll be hosted at Llewellyn Hall, ANU Canberra, to attend composition lectures, and to present the inaugural Indigenous Composer Initiative group lecture on Indigenous Contemporary Composition, at ANU School of Music. On September 3 2018 we’ll gather at Eora Aboriginal College, 333 Abercrombie St. Chippendale NSW, to workshop our pieces again, in preparation for two ICI Composer concerts in Canberra and Sydney, and another ICI Composer recording at the Australian National University Studio in November. Thanks to the Ensemble Offspring performers, and to everyone involved in this exciting, ongoing Indigenous Australian music Project.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2017. All Rights Reserved.

So what’s this topic got to do with church music, or cantor ministry? Quite a lot, actually.

As readers who follow my blogs and my music will know, I have Noongar Yamatji  (Western Australian) and Gundangurra (NSW) indigenous heritage. In October 2016, I was recommended for and awarded a mentored Composition internship under the Australian National University / Australian Music Centre / APRA AMCOS Indigenous Composers Initiative (ICI) Program. Since then, I’ve been composing a series of pieces on Australian Indigenous themes. All my Indigenous compositions have church-related content, whether liturgical, or social justice related. In that that sense, they are a continuation of my church music ministry, but unconfined by an institution that has been inexcusably reluctant to recognise, appropriately value and promote the unique, indisputable, all-pervading presence of the many cultures of Australian Indigenous music and musicians that have resounded since time immemorial, throughout our vast continent.

Church music is not Ensemble Offspring’s usual bill of fare, but virtuoso vibraphonist Claire Edwardes and her talented colleagues welcome all genres of new music, by any composer who’s willing and able to explore contemporary music making in any genre. This group workshopped some of my compositions on February 25 at Eora Aboriginal College. Then on June 22 2017, the five intern ICI Composers – Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Timothy John Edward Gray, Rhyan Clapham and myself – gathered at ANU Canberra to hear our compositions recorded at the ANU School of Music Studio. It’s fair to say that all of our indigenous compositions have strong spiritual elements. Christopher Sainsbury of ANU School of Music, Kevin Hunt of Sydney Conservatorium, and John Davis, CEO of the Australian Music Centre, have encouraged and supported the ICI Composers throughout the Program.

At 6.00 pm on August 3 2017 at Eora Aboriginal College, 333 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, Ensemble Offspring will premiere my three movement instrumental composition Kooranginy, as part of the 2017 ICI Premiere Concert. Kooranginy includes my musical setting of the Aboriginal Noongar Prayer. The Noongar Prayer is a translation of the Our Father prayer into Noongar, the Aboriginal language of South West Western Australia. My Kooranginy setting of this prayer (entitled Walken Rainbow) will be performed without words to symbolise the years of enforced cultural silencing endured by Noongar people, and the suppression and exclusion of Aboriginal languages in Australian missions and churches. Over many years the Noongar Language of Western Australia has slowly been reconstructed and revived, and is now taught in Western Australian schools. Recently, due to the dedicated work of many Noongar Elders and researchers, including (among others too numerous to mention) Father Bernard Rooney of New Norcia Abbey, Kylie Farmer, Gina Williams and Clint Bracknell, Noongar speech, stories, poetry and songs are re-emerging.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Last night I attended a seminar organised by Reconciliation for Western Sydney, on “Aboriginal Justice, Language Restoration, and Spirituality”, at Parramatta, Western Sydney, Australia. We heard sacred songs sung in Dharug Aboriginal language by Jacinta Tobin, a Darug Elder who is a descendant of Yarramundi, a chieftain of the Boorooberongal clan of the Richmond NSW area., and a Christian. Her presentation was followed up by Pastor Ray Minniecon from Redfern, who spoke about Australian indigenous spirituality and its connection to singing.

The enthusiastic audience, who braved freezing weather to attend, were delighted by Jacinta’s songs, and appreciative of Pastor Ray’s careful, patient explanations of complex indigenous spiritual concepts such as skin, songlines, and clan relationship laws. Jacinta has recorded three CDs of her Dharug language songs, and they are available for online purchase.

Jacinta and Ray, and many Australian Aboriginal people, express their Christian faith in complete consonance with their Indigenous identity and song. So why don’t Australian churches include more Australian Aboriginal music and ceremony in their parish worship? There’s plenty of brilliant indigenous church repertoire, and many great Indigenous church musicians out there, but most Australian parish church communities do not include and welcome Australian Indigenous church musicians sufficiently, or include sufficient Australian Indigenous church music in their worship repertoire.

Maybe someone at the upcoming NSW Sacred Music Festival can enlighten me as to the reasons for this unacceptable situation. Including Australian Aboriginal church music in church worship is a proven method of reversing racism and educating non-indigenous people, but none of my church music friends / colleagues seem to care a hoot about this issue. I’m not at all happy to settle for the unspoken / unwritten, racist policy of imposing church music apartheid, repertoire censorship and worship segregation on Australian Aboriginal Christians. An optional annual token Sorry Day or NAIDOC service is simply not enough. All cultures and genres of immigrant music have found prominence and supporters in Australian church worship, so why is our local Australian Indigenous church music excluded or tokenised?

Recorded Music in Church

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2016. All Rights Reserved.

In 1963 my church community (St Theodore’s Anglican Church, Elizabeth South, South Australia) purchased a large, cumbersome Phillips tape recorder for our parish. Despite listening to the radio every day, no member of our urban church had ever seen or heard how taped sounds were recorded, before this event. The reason for this was prevalent conservative prejudice against “devilish” secular music, that cocooned church youth of my generation from moral contamination. My church youth group tried the miraculous tape recorder out, supervised by our parish priest, Fr. Norman Kempson. We were amazed to hear our recorded voices singing back at us. The Phillips tape recorder served our parish well, but we never thought to use it to replace our valued church organist, or our singing voices. Our living worship was off limits to technology. Worship was not worship, unless it was enacted by live, physically present, musically competent human people, in real time. We used the tape recorder to produce plays and concerts, entertain at social events, and raise money.

Over the last twenty years, with digital technology ever present, many Australian churches have relaxed previously strict rules banning recorded music and audiovisuals during Church worship services. The digital church has now come to stay, whether technology-phobic older parishioners like it, or not. There is a sensible way of using recorded music and audiovisuals, but sadly, in some churches, nonsensical practices that are killing off congregational performance skills, have taken over. Sensible, moderate inclusion of recorded and enhanced music can help churches to teach and promote live sung and instrumental worship.

Some church communities have gone too far, and have totally replaced live congregational singing with recorded music and recorded singers. Some communities, who are unwilling or unable to provide costly music instruction, music staff, and equipment, even teach that total silence is always superior to sung worship. Of course silence has always had an honoured place in liturgy, but authentic Christian worship requires that intervals of silent prayer and worship are preceded and followed by well ordered, harmonious, sung worship, readings, preaching and rituals accompanied by music. I am one of many actively worshipping Christians who love to hear human voices raised in well ordered audible, intelligible worship of God, well balanced within liturgical rites, prayer and silence. I deplore the suppression of audible musical Christian worship, by parsimonious clergy and committees who refuse to provide adequate musical resources and experience for their congregations. There is no contest between silent worship and sung worship: each has its place in different stages of worship. God is present with us in both silent prayer, and also when we sing with heart as well as voice. In all human faiths, worship has always included both silence and song: why should Christian worship be downgraded, corrupted or silenced? Church singing, that is still valued and taught in many Christian churches overseas, is an important and effective way to proclaim our Christian faith publicly, and to introduce new members and children to doctrine, prayer and worship.

Recorded church music, when used correctly, supports sung worship, but should never totally supplant it. Using recorded accompaniments for some services can quickly reduce parish music budgets stretched by weekly organist fees and organ maintenance. Church communities who value their music heritage adequately will always make room for skilled organists and choristers, and firmly connect recorded music with sound church music teaching and practice.

Recorded accompaniments and electronic music for churches has pitfalls, some of these being the cost of installing and maintaining a good sound amplification system, digital and / or pipe organ maintenance, and sound technicians’ fees. Reliable and skilled recorded audiovisual curation and synchronisation during worship is just as important as real time music rehearsal and performance supervision. A blaring and blurting sound system, uncoordinated hymn lyric slides, or selecting detested recorded songs sung by non-local performers in non-local accents, is a sure way to drive a congregation away to a more musical parish that welcomes and promotes local church musicians and composers..

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Following media adulation of secular “star” singers, some Australian churches have jumped on to the Church Music Idol Bandwagon, and are eagerly promoting star singers trained in popular secular music genres. But according to more conservative Australian church hierarchies, Australian Church singers and musicians trained to perform in secularised music schools should not be admitted to church music ministry without accreditation in church music. Although musicians trained in secularised systems may still select music repertoire and deliver technically competent performances, in these conservative denominations, supervision of church music in praise of God is now more closely tied to pastoral care and church ministry training.

Less conservative churches are encouraging young parishioners to idolise the current church music star and the latest church music “hit song”. Churches that commodify and market their in-house church music, composers and performers, often attack rival church music as sinful, in lengthy articles detailing musical offences. These Purity Brigades attack their competitors not only by taking the high moral ground, but by accusing church music rivals of evil motives. Evangelical Christians are marketing films about devil-worship using Catholic Gregorian chant soundtracks, and requiring their members to repeat the myth that Catholics are not Christians. Catholic priests, totally ignoring the vast repertoire of Protestant church music honouring the dead (e.g. by Protestant composer Johann Sebastian Bach), are preaching the slander that no Protestant Christian ever prays for the dead. Every male church musician cultivates his fan club, and the majority are signed to international corporation that manages their church music career, income and output. Many contemporary Australian church musicians, following the example of their commercially successful secular contemporaries in the rock, pop, country and rhythm and blues genres, and abandoning long held church music traditions, have imposed secular compositional styles on church texts, to cater for commercial market demand. These factional music divisions seem to be tearing Australian churches apart.

Use of secular tunes is not a new thing in church music: secular themes have always been used by church musicians to attract congregations, but this tendency was previously regulated by central Church control. No longer. Today the scale and speed of the demise of church music traditions in Australia, facilitated by musically illiterate clergy and compliant church committees, has been startling.

In Australia, this enforced demise of traditional church music forms and their exponents has included severe censorship of the education, performances and new compositions of women church composers and musicians. The few women church musicians who briefly ascend to the heights of star church music performer status in Australia enjoy only momentary glory, before they are ungraciously booted out of the church music pantheon, or expire from overwork.

Sounds like sour grapes, I know, but I have experienced working in a fine church music system in the past, and today’s commodified church music is a travesty of what good, honest, heartfelt local church music can be. Even free-wheeling French Taize chants, which were composed as templates to be shaped and enhanced by local music styles through prayerful improvisation, have become poor shadows of themselves in many Australian churches, that have banned local creativity and congregational education in church music. So please excuse me for expressing my disgust at this anarchic church music mess, which could have easily been avoided by funding a strong inter-denominational National Centre for Australian Church Music. The Wesley Centre in Canberra was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough, and the culturally narrow repertoire it supports has not attracted sufficient government funding. But God still values and inspires sincere church singers, just as he values every tiny sparrow that sings God’s praise from its heart. So I’m still singing and composing for God.

To express your views you can vote in my poll.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2015. All Rights Reserved.

You may have noticed that the title of my blog has changed from neocantor to neocantrix. This is because an online troll registered the word neocantor in his name on Twitter, and I am not the author of his @neocantor Twitter posts.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2015. All Rights Reserved.

In Australia, Church cantors minister to thousands of congregations, enriching worship with the music of many Church traditions. They work within many different church structures, and their work may be supervised, or not. No inter church agreements on the work of Christian musicians exist, although corporate church music conferences often claim dominant governance roles. Church denominations treasure their particular Church music tradition, which always contains and communicates their doctrinal position within the wide spectrum of Christian belief.


Yet despite being consigned to what is effectively a management limbo, where individual competition is not only promoted, but mandatory, Christian cantors are surviving. Their ministry survival strategies are varied. Some cantors have chosen to enlist with Church music corporations, and so are paid by parishes affiliated to these church music licensing corporations. Some work as part-time casual employees, and some choose to work as unpaid parish or emerging church volunteers. But more and more trained, experienced Church cantors are choosing to establish independent online cantor ministries, presenting church music workshops, singing for selected liturgies, composing church music, recording their compositions, and speaking at Church music conferences. Whatever survival strategy these Christian religious singers adopt, they are still serving the Church as cantors dedicated to Church music ministry.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2015. All Rights Reserved.

There are thousands of skilled female Church musicians in Australia. Two of the most skilled and dedicated practising Church musicians I know are my friend Antonia Deasey, an Anglican music teacher at Trinity Grammar School, Sydney, who also has private pupils and sings in a Cathedral choir, and my Anglican sister Anne Speer, who teaches violin at three Church schools in Western Australia, teaches private pupils, directed her local parish choir until recently, and plays with a regional orchestra. These two gifted, talented women are well employed by the Church, but are owed much greater recognition as professional Australian Church musicians and teachers. The private recognition they receive is not comparable with the public adulation regularly heaped upon their male Church music colleagues. Among many others, Rosalie Bonighton (dec.) is another under-recognised Australian Church musician who springs to mind, together with my Presbyterian aunt Jean Fullard nee Simpson, who served as the organist of St Andrew’s Peace Church, Wonthaggi, Victoria, for many years, and Robin Ruys, current Music Minister of the Anglican Parish of Hunters Hill, Sydney NSW.

In Australia, it is not unusual for fully trained, qualified female Church musicians to be undervalued, underpaid, and grossly overworked. Reform of this aspect of Church music ministry is overdue. Part of the problem is the assumption that technical skill and a willingness to serve voluntarily, is all that is necessary to be a Church musician. In reality, much more is required, including ethical Christian conduct and many years of enculturated, disciplined liturgical experience. Male Australian Church musicians seldom show concern about neglect of female Church musicians – on the contrary, indulgence in tasteless jokes ridiculing female Church music performers and composers, while basking in mutual male praise, is common among Church men. I have been fortunate, in my own Church music work, to be regularly employed as a Cathedral Cantor, and I learned much from the professional example of Catholic Cantor Kathleen Boschetti of St Francis Church, Melbourne, Anglican Church music composer Rev. Elizabeth Smith, and Catholic Cantor Donrita Reefman of St Ives Cathedral, Sydney, about working with clergy and lay ministers and requiring their respect. I trained entirely at my own expense. In 2013 I wrote a blog about my positive experience of being a Cantor – see



Elizabeth Sheppard vested for Church Cantor ministry, 2010

I loved Church Cantor music ministry and was praised for my success at it. In addition to exercising musical, liturgical and compositional skills, it required tactful multi-skilled liturgical coordination with a large group of male clerical and lay supervisors and female assistants. When liturgical worship is smoothly coordinated and the whole community is in tune with the Holy Spirit, Cantor ministry has its own very special rewards and fruits, not the least of which are enduring community friendships.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The effect of globalisation on Australian Church music has been as dire as its effect on that Aussie icon, Vegemite. Although many talented Australian composers continue to produce uniquely Australian Church music in many genres, Australian Church music governing bodies and clergy are paying minimal or no attention to local Australian Church music. In Australia, Church music licensing is dominated by globalised corporations who promote non-Australian Church music over the work of local Australian and Aboriginal composers. Australian Church music selection committees overwhelmingly favour non-Australian music over Australian Church music. Some Australian parish music programs use exclusively non-Australian music repertoires and genres. Public infusions of forward-looking, hopeful, uniquely Australian musical expressions of Christian faith are increasingly rare, ephemeral, and excluded from music examination lists.

For insight into why this has happened, read Jeffrey Tucker’s 2002 article about a multinational corporate Church music publisher whose policies and business ethics are not in tune with Christian beliefs, principles or practice (see link below)

The Hidden Hand behind Bad Catholic Music

The globalisation of Church music is also discussed in depth by a shocked Richard Barrett on the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Orthodox Christian) blog –