Con students share in song, culture and community on Yuwaalaraay country

5 July 2023
Gaba ngiyani bawildandaay – when we are singing, we are happy
In April 2023, a group of Sydney Conservatorium of Music students travelled to North-West New South Wales for a ‘wellbeing exchange’.

Con students Crystal Wang and Matthew Dobell-Brown were two of the lucky few who joined the recent tour to Yuwaalaraay country, along with the Barayagal choir and students from the Aboriginal Music Ensemble (SoundCircle). What transpired was five days full of music, storytelling and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Front row: Jenna Lewis, Crystal Wang, Charlotte Gaal
Back row: Umberto Debellis, Kevin Hunt, Matthew Dobell-Brown

Nurturing creativity through cultural exploration

SoundCircle is an ensemble unit offered to Conservatorium students, directed by Yuwaalaraay storyteller and musician Nardi Simpson, and Dharawal/Marrawarri composer Matthew Doyle.

“The course uses First Nations narrative and culture to interrogate your personal creative practice,” Nardi explains. “It also contains significant components about listening, amplifying and accompanying others – all guided by ancestral First Nations stories and practices."

Conservatorium academic Dr Kevin Hunt can attest to the value of the unit, and its ability to enrich students’ musical and personal development.

“The music making in this class is about creating sounds as collective responses to a cultural story,” he says. “Each Aboriginal cultural story contains aspects about life. The student-listeners connect their own life journeys to what they relate to in the story.”

Throughout the unit, students are invited to experience First Nations culture while also learning about the power and potential of sharing in song. This experience primes them for the tour, which sees them road-tripping around Walgett, Narran Lake, Lightning Ridge and Brewarrina.

Building connection through storytelling

Matthew Dobell-Brown is a jazz student at the Con, whose interest in exploring new music genres and learning more about First Nations practices drew him to the Barayagal choir.

“I gained a wealth of new experiences on the SoundCircle tour”, he reflects. “We got to perform at great venues such as Tin Camp Studios in Lighting Ridge and next to the Barwon River at a festival in Brewarrina, where we engaged with local residents and used music as a way of connecting us all.”

Vocalist and fellow student Crystal Wang shares this sentiment, reflecting on how the tour taught her a powerful connection between land, community and song.

"Playing while surrounded by the trees, and understanding the rich history of the land we were on, really elevated my connection to another level,” she says.

Learning the creation story at Narran Lake, with Yuwaalaraay elders Brenda McBride and Rhonda Ashby.

The tour was definitely a once in a lifetime experience
Matthew Dobell-Brown

Gaining wisdom through mentorship

For Nardi, guiding this tour to her own Yuwaalaraay homelands offered an even deeper sense of connection, which she hopes her students feel both within themselves and their music.

"I hope students see the beauty and generosity of my homelands and communities,” she says. "I hope through music they are able to have experiences that will strengthen their sense of self – as musicians and as people.”

For Matthew, this hope has certainly been realised.

“Nardi has a unique way of teaching music,” he says. “She asks us to imagine scenery, animals, and human and spiritual relationships from her homelands while embracing our personal experiences. As a result, we feel like the music belongs in the land where we perform it.”

Crystal also found that Nardi’s approach to writing has changed how she approaches music.

“I learnt that when you listen, you find even the simplest things in nature provide something for you,” says Crystal. “The gentle lapping of waves, the rustling of wind through bushes, the crackling of rocks under your shoes. As you become more connected to the external, your inner voice fills with a positive and calming energy.”

The energy was indescribable. Every moment was significant in its own way.
Crystal Wang

SoundCircle, Barayagal Choir and The Stiff Gins performed and recorded at Lightning Ridge's Tin Camp Studios

An exchange that will never be forgotten

One of the strengths of this tour, says Dr Hunt, is the way that it will stay with students ongoingly.

“The students receive different ‘gifts’ of experience on these tours,” he says. “Sometimes, these gifts aren’t realised until much later.”

Beyond the music, both Crystal and Matthew agree that the SoundCircle tour has provided them with knowledge that will hold them throughout their lives.

“I think it’s so valuable that I’ve come to have a better understanding of the origins of the land that me and my loved ones are living on,” says Crystal. “I would definitely recommend the Intercultural Aboriginal Music Ensemble unit to my fellow peers."

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