Brian Martin’s infectious smile is in place (this headshot supplied by Brian Martin)
Music is a language that crosses cultural divides, it heals body and mind. It is universal.
It was about three years ago that people began stopping writer, Gay Liddington, in the street, urging her to write a story about Brian Martin, the relatively new-to-town creator and conductor of their choir.
By Gay Liddington
Choir member Anne Buff said: “Singing with Brian provides a soft cushion to fall on. He provides a very comfortable and safe environment to sing, to falter, and to get up again.”
And so it was that I met with Brian Martin at Mountain View Café. Dressed for the occasion, his top hat emblazoned with the word ‘conductor’ grabbed my attention.
Born in the Riverina town of Griffith, Brian, the youngest of five grew up on a 57-acre grape farm.
“My family moved to Bellingen when I was ten. Mum was always into singing and my dad played, You Are My Sunshine and not a lot more, on a number of instruments: harmonica, button accordion and organ. My next oldest brother got into music pretty early and so I kind of followed him.”
Brian’s musical pursuits began on the humble family organ.
“I liked it during lessons but didn’t practise. Around the end of the first year I heard a fellow playing Axel F, the theme from Beverley Hills Cop,” said Brian amid humming the tune.
“The teacher told me it was a challenging piece but that’s all I wanted to learn. It took me eight months to put it together. Then music became a central focus.”
When Brian reached high school, he was proficient in piano and singing. As there were no singing teachers at the school, the Grade 8 student was invited to teach higher grades.
“For my final Year 12 exam I conducted an a Cappella choir. I was already addicted to conducting.”
At the age of 18, Brian attended the Brisbane Conservatorium of Music. After a year, he deferred and moved back to Bellingen where he played keyboard with a jazz crew. Afro-Cuban flavour became part of the mix.
“Because I was a singer they asked me to be front, so I decided to learn more about singing. I attended Southern Cross University and completed a Bachelor of Arts in Contemporary Music.”
This experience found Brian Martin a teacher and mentor, leading him to create his own community choirs.
“I didn’t think teaching was my career. I resisted that path for a long time because I was going to be a jazz pianist; then a composer. This singing thing was what I did on the side to earn money. My identity was very much composer, keyboard player, performer…not teacher, but that’s what kept coming.”
Sunshine Statesmen Barbershop Chorus – 2018 – image supplied by Brian Martin
Studies in NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) gave Brian insight into the dynamics of his musical journey leading him to own the title of Vocal Director.
“In the late ‘90s after finishing university, I taught at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium of Arts Centre in Lismore then became head of their vocal department.”
Highlights in Brian’s career are many and varied but one significant experience left its mark.
“By invitation, I took Ancestral Tones, a men’s group, to Numinbah prison farm. We felt anxious walking through the grounds being led to the chapel.
“We started singing. There was one fellow who had been sent in to see what was going on with others hovering at the door. One by one they came in.
“There was a definite shift when a warrior-looking guy with tats and dreads came in and sat down. Everyone kept directing their focus back to this guy.
“He uncrossed his arms, leaned forward and began tapping. Then, they were all into it. By the end of the concert everyone was on an equal footing. The toughest looking fella and one of my crew who had retired as head of Tweed Heads police were almost arm in arm singing the same part. It dawned on me that everyone had forgotten their story.”
Over time, some of the inspiration and education for Brian came from feedback circles in workshops.
“People used words like peace, joy, connection and sense of community, to describe their group experience. So, the definition of music kept expanding and was more inclusive. And now, one of the high values I have in music is the community aspect. It’s a tangible experience of community.”
We talked about community choirs in the context of tribe and personal growth. Brian’s mention of ‘connection to juice’ being passion, composition and inspiration, added yet another layer to our conversation.
Joy of Singing Maleny rehearse at Maleny Community Centre – Image by Gay Liddington
Brian’s travels have taken him to the Pacific Islands, Asia and Europe. Concerts, workshops, and sing tours in Japan led to a group of Australians travelling to join with Japanese singers. An intention to live in Japan was thwarted when two and a half years of work was cancelled due to a tsunami.
Since moving to Maleny for love four years ago, Brian founded New World Rhythm at Maroochydore and continues to conduct and inspire through choirs: Joy of Singing Maleny and an advanced group, Mouth Orchestra. He is also Musical Director of Sunshine Statesmen Barbershop Chorus.
“Other than that, I tutor private students, work as a studio musician either on backing vocals, piano or percussion and sometimes on tour. I also conduct workshops at annual events and in the corporate sector. If I can teach a workshop in a prison then everything else is relatively easy.”
An aspect of Brian’s work that is close to his heart is harmony leader training. The idea being that by teaching community choir conductors they could act as locums for each other.
Brian states that it’s his own personal juice that drives him. “It’s spreading harmony with harmony. To help people recognise the harmony that is, and can be, in any moment is really useful. How can I have conflict with you if I’m connected to your heart?”
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