At a recent evening concert in picturesque Nethercote Hall, the audience was treated to an extraordinary moment.
Under the direction of local choir leader Geoffrey Badger, the 23-strong Bega Valley Male Voice Choir took to the stage. In their checkered shirts, they lifted the rafters and the spirits of all in the packed house.
We caught up with Mr Badger to ask him how the choir came about and why audiences respond so profoundly.
He has lived in and taught music around the Bega Valley for more than two decades.
He says he was lucky to experience music when he was a child, singing in choirs. His first impulse when arriving in the Bega Valley all those years ago was: “What? There’s no choir?”
He set about changing that.
“It was weird; there are choirs almost everywhere, it is part of the human experience as far as I’m concerned.”
Mr Badger started the Male Voice Choir after a passionate discussion with a local musician late one night.
“It was right after the 2019-20 bushfires, and he told me, ‘I had to start a choir for the people of the valley, that they needed to sing, especially the men!’ So I did. I approached 30 men and the response was yes from every single one.”
Mr Badger has been involved with many Bega Valley choirs over the years, as a chorister, leader and conductor, including directing, among others, the Heartsong Choir and the Mumbulla Das (fathers of Mumbulla School).
This time the impetus came from knowing the community was flat, “to put it mildly”, he says.
“We had three rehearsals and then COVID lockdowns hit.”
With lockdowns behind us in the Bega Valley, the Bega Valley Male Voice Choir has been rehearsing weekly and building a strong bond.
“There’s a very social element to it, and it’s a very supportive group, a bit like a soccer team that praises members all the time.
“And stuff comes up, so I said, ‘Everything is OK in this space. Whatever you bring here each week is OK, there is no judgment’.”
From the outset, Mr Badger did not want this to be a novelty choir.
“I was very clear, this is not a curiosity, it’s not comedy, so if you’ve come to sing those hyper-masculine Russian songs and sea shanties, you are not going to get it.
“My aim is to sing really beautiful songs and explore that in the group [think Brian Eno, Ron Sexsmith]. And also to show anybody who listens how beautiful men are singing together. It is not that common.”
These days there is a general understanding that singing is very good for us, physiologically, socially, and psychologically. The internet is bursting with articles about why it is good to sing, right down to the benefits at a cellular level.
“On that, there is no question, the science is in,” Mr Badger says.
“It has been tested that our hearts beat together when we sing, which is obvious because we all have to breathe together to sing the same phrases. So it makes sense that there is a unity with other beings.
“It is very tangible in a choir. You can discuss bliss in a meditation retreat and you may get there in that setting. But in a choir, in a good choir, you will get there every week and that is very healthy.”
Another element particular to local choirs that Mr Badger has set about changing is the cultural cringe.
“In the past, choristers have said things like, ‘Oh, that was a great show for a choir from Bega’ or ‘Aren’t we good for a choir just from Bega?’, or ‘We can’t achieve much because we’re just from the country’.
“I told the choir, ‘we need to change our attitude. We’re not ‘just hicks’ and we’re not ‘too old’.
“When I was running the South Coast Music Camp here, musicians from all over the country would come and say they’d love to live in the Bega Valley, how great it is musically.”
Mr Badger would like to see the choir grow.
“I’d like to see it grow to 40 voices. That would be a really big sound.”
He suggests audiences are moved by this choir as “it’s not something you hear often. A male voice choir is quite rare in Australian culture. It’s not rare in, say, Italy or Wales, or Scandinavia, or even America, but it is rare here.”
While the choir sings more contemporary works than religious songs, Mr Badger says “there is something sacred in listening to men sing”.
The Bega Valley Male Voice Choir is open to all male voices.
Rehearsals take place weekly, on Wednesday evenings, at Mumbulla School Hall in Bega.
Contact Geoffrey Badger for more information here.