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Podcast Episode 017: Musician and Choir Conductor Cath Mundy outlines the importance of the contrast between sound and silence

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Cath Mundy’s work composing original music for theatre has explored diverse ground, including sacredCOWs, The Quivering, which won a Green Room Award for Outstanding Sound Design / Music Score 2007.

In 1996 with British singer-songwriter (& husband) Jay Turner, Cath formed acoustic-music duo Mundy-Turner, performing as a vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (violin, piano, ukulele, percussion).

Over two decades, they released seven albums, their debut High Life winning a Queensland Recording Association Award 1999 for Best Folk/Ethnic Album. They have toured many countries performing at festivals, venues and events, including supporting The Corrs and Fairport Convention.

Cath conducts three community choirs: Freedom Train, Mixed Beans multicultural choir and With One Voice Brisbane. She witnesses first-hand every week the power that group-singing has to make positive change in individual lives and to create healthier, more connected communities. Cath is passionate about empowering all people to reclaim their human right to sing.

Tune in to learn

  • What audiences can learn from a musician and a customer.
  • How we are listening on a number of levels.
  • It’s a skill to listen and train as a choir. They listen to themselves, what’s around them, and the whole group.
  • The difference between local listening, neighbourhood listening, and regional listening.
  • How a conductor not only listens to the choir, but they also listen to the audience.
  • The importance of relaxing. Getting people to play to help them relax.
  • Visual cues and people’s breathing. Changing the shape of their mouths and helping them hear the difference.
  • Shining eyes and an inner smile are signs of being engaged.
  • A surprise visit from John Farnham and the Choir of Hard Knocks.
  • Hearing an intensity of motion beyond the sound.
  • The conductor’s role listening to the audience. The importance of engagement.
  • It can be difficult without the visual, but you can feel their energy.
  • Smiles, brightness of eyes, and an open body facing towards you signals engagement.
  • Making creative choices as opposed to mistakes.
  • The importance of eye contact especially with connecting with the choir and keeping them focused.
  • Reconnecting as a lost listener.
  • Silence is important. Not forgetting to pay attention to the silence.
  • Paying attention to the space and where we breath.
  • Silence can be difficult for some people. A sign of a good friendship is comfortably sitting in silence. Where more emotion gets heard.

Transcript

Episode 017: Deep Listening with Cath Mundy 

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

Cath Mundy: 

I like to draw my choir’s attention to those moments of silence. They might be just very small ones, but they’re just as important as the notes that we’re singing and the sound that we’re making. The contrast between sound and silence is where all that wonderful, interesting interplay happens.

Oscar Trimboli: 

In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, I have the opportunity to interview Cath Mundy, an extraordinary musical performer and choir conductor. She takes us on a magical journey of conducting two and a half thousand people in a large public space, with a big surprise guest who turns up at the last moment and everybody’s listening very deeply. Listen carefully as Cath talks about the difference between local listening, neighbourhood listening, and regional listening. Explore how a conductor not only listens to the choir, but how a conductor listens to the audience.

Let’s listen to Cath.

Oscar Trimboli: 

You’re a performer as well as a leader in musical context. What do you think audiences who are listening to this podcast can learn from a musician, to start off with, about how they listen to the conductor?

Cath Mundy: 

I guess a lot of it is levels of listening, because when you’re working in a group, there’s a number of levels that we’re listening on. Just learning of how to listen in a choir is quite a skill. I talk to my choristers about the amazing skills that they’re actually developing when they’re training together as a choir, and the fact that they’re actually doing a heap of things at once. There’s the listening that you do to yourself. When you’re singing, you do have to listen to yourself.

Otherwise, you’re not going to be in tune or in time. You need to be checking in with how you’re creating your sound, as a singer. Particularly your body is what’s creating the sound. Your body is the instrument. You need to be thinking about how you’re creating the sound with your body, with your breath, with your mouth, with your throat, with your head, with all the different resonating parts of you, how you’re shaping that sound. Then you’ve got to listen to what’s around you, who else is singing your part, who’s standing next to you, behind you, in front of you, and tuning in to them and blending with them.

Listening to yourself record the local listening, and then branching it out a little further into what’s around you, we call that the neighbourhood listening. What are the other people in your part group singing? How are they going? Then you’ve got to listen to the whole group, so that’s right, regional listening, and how your voice, your neighbourhood is fitting into this greater whole and how it’s sounding as that whole. The conductor’s job is to facilitate those three basic levels of listening and bring it all together as the focal point. When I’m conducting, I use my whole body to help people to find the tone, the rhythm, and the emotional energy that we’re giving the work that we’re singing. There’s lots going on when you think about it.

Oscar Trimboli: 

If I’ve just joined your choir and it’s week one, and you’re teaching me to listen to myself, my body as my instrument, what are the things you think it’s teaching me? What would you give me as a couple of tips as a first-time choir participant? How do I listen to myself?

Cath Mundy: 

First of all, I want people to relax. That’s a really big important thing, because we have so much judgement of ourselves and how we sound. People are very scared of being judged for how their voice sounds, and my choirs are community choirs. They are choirs which welcome everyone, so we get a lot of people who maybe never had the opportunity or the courage or the time even to step into a space where they’re allowed to just sing and use their voice. I encourage people to relax to start with, to help them to get rid of any fears and anxieties, because it doesn’t help our voice. We get choked by fear and anxiety and tension.

Relaxing is important. I get people to play. We normally start with a bit of a singalong song, something that a lot of people know. We throw the words up on a screen so people don’t have to pick pieces of paper. I love to get everybody moving. I think it’s really important to embody our singing. The voice is the instrument, the body houses

the voice, so if we get moving and relax and we start to be silly and we start to play, then we start to release the voice and we start to release any judgments. We stop thinking about, “Oh, how do I sound?” We stop worrying.

Then we can start drawing attention to what we’re doing, once we’ve relaxed and released those sorts of anxieties. We might just start with making some vowel sounds and just holding some notes together and listening to how that sounds inside our heads. I also do this thing where I ask people to hear the sound without making it. I might sing them the note and the vowel that I want them to sing. It might just be a note, woooooh I just get them to take a lovely deep breath, relax, close their eyes and hear that sound inside their head without actually making it yet. Wooooooooh, then once they’ve heard the sound in their head, I ask them to join me in creating the sound, so they join with me with the … wooooooh It’s just such a beautiful, gentle way of making sound together and listening to yourself without judgement.

Oscar Trimboli:

Cath, when you go through that exercise with a vowel, how do you notice that people are actually listening to themselves at that stage and those that are struggling?

Cath Mundy: 

Yeah, usually the people who are sort of fidgeting are struggling a little. You might see physical discomfort coming through. The people that relax and just go into it and go with it, you can see that they’re comfortable holding that note. Some people might start to exhibit some problems with breathing. I watch a lot as well as listening, so there’s lots of visual cues. Also, you might hear that the sound is not blending, that it’s jarring, so you might help people to change the shape of their mouth, maybe do something contrasting, go to something that’s very jarring, so they can hear the difference between a wooooooh and eehhhhhhhhhh… If you get people changing the shape inside to make that jarring sound, they can feel the tension in their body. They can hear and feel how the sound has changed. Yeah, sometimes using a contrast really helps people to hear and to feel the physical sensation that makes those changes to the sound.

Oscar Trimboli: 

One of my favourite conductors is Ben Zander. What he says is look for the bright eyes, look for the shiny eyes. Do you notice when these people are in their different listening states? To what extent are you paying attention to their eyes and what do you notice differently in their eyes?

Cath Mundy: 

Sometimes people close their eyes and get very inward when they’re doing maybe those toning sort of exercises, but they might have this little smile on their face. I really love it when I see that sort of inner smile. It’s the same with children, when you see that children have those shining eyes, you know that they’re engaged. You know that they’re loving what they’re doing at that moment. When you see them start to glaze over and they start to fidget, you’ve lost them, so you need to do something to help them reoxygenate and loosen up again and reengage and change things up.

Oscar Trimboli: 

How do you listen to yourself in preparation for a performance? For example, what are the things you go through?

Cath Mundy: 

I love to do a vocal warmup and I like to team that with physical stretching. If I’ve got the opportunity, then I will do a full stretch and vocalise series. But if I haven’t got somewhere where I can do that, then often it’s you’re in the car, on the way to somewhere, and I do humming, a lot of humming and sirening, just very gentle, woooooooooh. Especially when you’re working with someone else, I think it’s really important to do that together, to align your energies, so that you really are listening to each other and responding to each other, in tune with each other on an energetic level before you get out on stage.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Think about yourself as a conductor in that choir setting. The music and the vibrations from the voice of the choir will provide one level of listening, but I’m curious how you listen to other dynamics in the choir beyond just what’s coming across in sound.

Cath Mundy: 

We performed last year at the Queensland Performing Arts Complex on the concert stage, and we were in a greater group, a bigger group of about 600 voices, mass voices working together, and then I brought my group of about 80 people in front of those to perform for the audience. I think that beyond the sound, it was they were so totally focused, they were so totally tuned into each other, they’d worked for months towards doing this performance, and they’d worked all day on a rehearsal beforehand, and, yeah, what I heard was just a total alignment of their energy. I felt like I was floating on it. Then we’ve just had a similar experience, where we performed as part of the largest choir I’ve ever been in. It was 2,500 voices at the South Bank Piazza for a Queensland music festival event called You’re the Voice. It was the culmination of an hour-long concert where 2,500 people sang together a 10-part arrangement of the John Farnham hit, “You’re the Voice.”

We had found out that day, at noon, that John Farnham would be the one joining us to sing the lead part. The audience didn’t know. It had been kept a huge secret. The moment when he walked out on the stage and the whole choir just stood up and was ready to sing as one, 2,500 people singing as one with John Farnham, it was an incredible moment to feel that energy, to hear how aligned we were. Our conductor for that was Jonathon Welch, Dr. Jonathon Welch. You must look up Jonathan. He became very well-known for his work with the Choir of Hard Knocks. For those in our audience who haven’t heard of the Choir of Hard Knocks, they were a group of people from the streets, a lot of people from homeless backgrounds, people who’d suffered extreme disadvantage in life. They may have been people with different abilities, disabilities. Jonathon brought this group together maybe 17 years ago now to create a choir, and they called it the Choir of Hard Knocks.

Jonathon’s a professional opera singer, so he was coming together to work with people who had no background in performance or singing necessarily, and his mission was to bring this group together to create this choir, which then went on to perform at the Sydney Opera House and other extraordinary settings. He did groundbreaking work, and it was covered by a documentary that the ABC put together, and it won many awards, this documentary about Jonathon and the Choir of Hard Knocks. For us to work with Jonathon Welch with this amazing You’re the Voice event, and we were singing for a purpose. We were singing to turn the tide on domestic violence, so there was just this incredible emotional energy at that moment. We were all following Jonathon. John Farnham was out the front, and 2,500 people all blended to come together in time. Beyond the sound, you could hear this incredible intensity of emotion and joy. It was so joyous. We had the most magical five minutes singing that song with John Farnham, and my choir members were on a high for the rest of the week. It’s a performance experience that they will never forget what it felt like to come together like that.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Cath, one of the things we explored earlier on was local neighbourhood and regional listening, so I’m curious as a conductor. The role you play in how you listen to the audience as opposed to the choir, with your back to the audience, what do you notice? What are you hearing? What are you listening for in the audience while you’re conducting?

Cath Mundy: 

There’s definitely engagement with listening to your audience. Always as a performer and as a conductor, listening to the audience is so important. Sometimes it’s difficult when I haven’t got that visual, if I have got my back turned to them, is to fear where they’re at. But you can feel. You can feel the energy of your audience. If they’re engaging with what you’re doing, you’ll feel that. You’ll somehow feel that energy. I do turn around and I talk to the audience. I turn around and I ask them to join in with us quite frequently. You see the smiles, and we’re talking about the brightness in the eyes. If you’re seeing that brightness in the eyes and the smiles and the bodies open towards you, you know that you have your audience with you. If you turn around and you don’t see that, then you need to do something to help, I suppose. I tend to focus mostly on my choir because I believe that if my choir is feeling in congruence, as you were saying before, if they’re all feeling in harmony and they’re feeling great about what they’re doing, if they’re having fun basically, the audience is going to have fun too.

Oscar Trimboli: 

As a conductor, there’ll be times where you may be distracted during a performance. How do you stay focused during the performance for extended period of time, either as a performer or as a conductor? Can you think of a time where you did get distracted and how you got back in?

Cath Mundy: 

Yeah, I have a time in my memory when I was performing with my husband on a stage, quite a beautiful big theatre in the UK, and we were the support act for a band called Fairport Convention, who are a well-known folk rock band in the UK. They had a full house, and I started playing the piano and singing one of my own original songs. My husband hadn’t come in to join me yet. It was just my solo bit, and I don’t know why, but my brain just sort of dropped out and I couldn’t remember the words, for a song that I’d performed I don’t know how many times, hundreds of times. My brain just went, “Nope.” No words were there. Instead of panicking, I just kept singing. I just let whatever sounds come out of my mouth. I was just … la da da la da da, instead of the words, and then suddenly the words dropped back in. It was like my motor memory had been switched off and then it came back. I think the key to me not losing it altogether and stopping the performance and all of the disaster that that would’ve been was the fact that I just kept singing. I just kept going.

One of my gurus is a man called Brian Martin, who’s a wonderful community choir conductor. He says if you get distracted and something goes wrong, just keep going forward, because that moment’s already in the past. If you keep dragging it forward with you, then you’re just keeping going with that mistake or that moment of distraction. Live performance is all about that. Always the unexpected happens.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I think that’s a beautiful example of staying in the moment and staying really present.

Cath Mundy: 

There’s been times when I’ve made mistakes with the choir. I’ve led them in the wrong direction, and by “wrong” I’m saying not the direction that we had practised. But I say to them in rehearsal, “If you follow me, if we all make that mistake together, it’s actually then not a mistake, it’s just a creative choice.” They did. They followed me into this mistake, and I went, “Oh, okay. That was a different creative choice.” And we just kept going. I was really proud of them because they had followed me, and the audience then wouldn’t have known that there was any distraction going on or any incongruency in what we’d rehearsed and what were doing. They just would’ve thought, yeah, that was part of the performance.

Oscar Trimboli: 

If we think about the four villains of listening, we’ve got the dramatic listener, we’ve got the lost listener, we’ve got the interrupting listener, and we’ve got the shrewd listener. Which one frustrates you the most?

Cath Mundy: 

What’s the lost listener? I’m curious about that.

Oscar Trimboli: 

They got that blank look on their face. They’re in the conversation but they’re not really. They seem quite vague in their response. They’re a bit confused. They’re not even sure if they should be in the dialogue.

Cath Mundy: 

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s me sometimes when I’m a parent.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Can you think of a situation where that happened recently?

Cath Mundy: 

Oh, gosh. I think it happens all the time because I’ve got so much on my mind, so many projects that I’m working on at the moment, and I have to really force myself to be present when I realise I’m not a present listener for my son. When he says, “Mum, Mum, you’re not listening. What did I say?” you go, “Oh, gee, yeah. I’d just gone. I was here but I’d gone.” I think what helps me in those moments is to make eye contact, and thinking about that, that draws me back to the choir, because I really deliberately make a lot of eye contact with my choir members, in order to help them to connect with me, but also to help them to stay focused, because some people have different abilities and some of them do have real problems with staying focused. Engaging eye contact helps me to stay focused, helps them to stay focused. That’s what I do when I’m a lost listener with my son is reconnect the eye contact.

Oscar Trimboli: 

How does silence work when it comes to conducting?

Cath Mundy: 

Silence is just as important as making the sound. Often, it’s more important, because we pay so much attention to the sound, but we forget to pay attention to the silence. I like to draw my choir’s attention to those moments of silence. They might be just very small ones, but they’re just as important as the notes that we’re singing and the sound that we’re making. The contrast between sound and silence is where all that wonderful, interesting interplay happens. There’s a quote that another of my favourite choir gurus told me, and I’m not sure whether he said it himself or he got it from Sam Cooke, but this man’s name is Tony Backhouse. He’s an amazing choir conductor, singing leader, an incredible singer. He took me and my husband, a small group of Australians to the US.

In 1995 was the first US gospel tour that he led. He took us into the Baptist churches of New Orleans, Birmingham in Alabama and Memphis in Tennessee, where we got to experience the way that gospel choirs work in churches over there. We sang with them. We sang for them. It was the most amazing experience. One of the things that Tony said to us when we were rehearsing for that tour was, “There are no funky notes, there are only funky spaces.” That’s always really lived with me, that we need to pay attention to the space and where we breathe and where we allow the audience to feel the music with us, because it is in those spaces.

Oscar Trimboli: 

How do you think silence plays out in conversations that aren’t music?

Cath Mundy: 

I think it’s difficult for some people to sit with silence. Some people feel the need to fill every space. I think it’s often been noted that the sign of a good friendship, a comfortable friendship is when you can comfortably sit in silence with each other. There’s moments where you’re both happy to not say anything.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What do you think gets heard when there’s silence?

Cath Mundy: 

Maybe more emotion gets heard in silence. Breath. You can hear more of the breath of the other person. Perhaps you’re more in tune with their body language.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Which brings us to a complete circle where we started off today, where you were noticing the fidgeting and the body language of your choir. Cath, it’s been an extraordinary privilege to spend some time listening to you today, and thanks for sharing your musical gifts and conducting capability with the audience.

Cath Mundy: 

It’s my pleasure. It’s been lovely to talk with you and to think about these beautiful concepts in the way that we listen and how we can be better listeners and deeper listeners. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What a joy it was to listen to Cath. You could feel her body movement in every story that she was telling, particularly as she went to the United States with the gospel choir. I loved how she used her own energy to get centered and listen to herself at the beginning, and the way she used sounds to make sure she was present and ready to perform. The question that went through my head while listening to Cathy is: How well do I engage my eyes with the people I’m speaking to? Am I deliberately using my eyes to draw them in to the dialogue? Think about that for you when you’re coming into a conversation that you feel you may struggle with. Be conscious of what your eyes are doing in engaging with a person or group that you’re listening to. I think there’s a lot we can each learn from each other in the way Cath said every performance is live and just keep making progress. The same true is when you’re listening to somebody else. It’s all live. Just focus on having an intention to make progress for you and for the listener. That way, you’ll become a deep listener.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words.

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