In 2005, the mimicking sounds of the famous lyrebird1 were overtaken by the voices of hundreds of school children recovering from bushfires that had devastated parts of the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne in Victoria. In one massive choir, they sang words they had written themselves, to music composed by a professional artist and played by local musicians. Others danced and twirled fire as the children interpreted the fear and tragedy inflicted on them and their communities, and the recovery from such an event. Their songs floated through the rainforests and helped to uplift and motive all who heard it. Such is the power of music in the Dandenong Ranges community.

The Fire Cycle was one of many community music events that are now a key function of the Dandenong Ranges Music Council. The DRMC plays a vital role in developing music in the community through education, partnerships, awards programs and professional development.

(The photo shows the finale of the 2005 Fire Cycle Concert, but much great content is lost in the web version; please open this pdf file for a detailed look … and try zooming to 200%! Ed)


The DRMC was established in 1979 by Bev McAlister, who experienced the immense value of school and community music while living in a remote town of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. She was inspired by the way community events integrated the arts and music performance with the history and folklore of the region, with children and adults participating in concerts and community festivals.

Bev immediately saw the need for and benefit of a similar program in the Dandenong Ranges, a region made up of small townships set amongst cool temperate rain forests and colourful bird life, especially the lyrebird. The Hills – as they are known locally – have also been the inspiration of many famous Australian artists and writers, including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, CJ Dennis, Lin Onus, Fred Williams and Jeannie Gunn. On her return home, Bev found overwhelming support amongst the community to begin the Dandenong Ranges Music Council. The broad goal was to establish music groups that would perform in the community and make music accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Performances would integrate into the lifestyle of the community and vary from a fanfare for the unveiling of a new fire truck, to a soiree for an art exhibition.

DRMC is now a diverse organisation with its own community music centre at Upwey High School, governed by a board of 12 members that oversee the direction and growth of the organisation, funding, publicity and governance issues. It has an administrative office with three part time staff, a music library, store room and performance and rehearsal space that is always heavily booked.

The organisation has helped to establish and support many music groups, including Ranges Young Strings, an African drumming circle, the Dandenong Ranges Orchestra, the Yarra Ranges Children’s Choir, the Sweet Sassafras Community Gospel Chorus, rock, swing and concert bands, a country music group and various singing groups. It provides music classes to children and adults, especially in those areas where a school music program is lacking. It also supports groups that give musical relief and stimulation in hostels and nursing homes and to people with disabilities. A key structure of the DRMC is to help develop community music groups and assist them to become sustainable incorporations. Many of these groups are directed by professional artists living in the Hills, passing on their immense experience and knowledge, and supported by voluntary committees.

The DRMC also provides an important musical pathway for artists wanting to take their interest and skill to a professional level. Former member David Thomas is now the principal clarinettist at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and many others are music educators, sound recordists or professionals in the music industry.

Engaging All in Community Music

The DRMC aims to engage all sectors of the community in music. It is not exclusive to people who already sing or play an instrument. Whoever wants to make music, write a song or say something through music can be involved in the DRMC. It prides itself on partnerships with non-arts groups, such as the Country Fire Authority, the Shire of Yarra Ranges’ environmental education officers, Parks Victoria, the Upper Yarra Community Forest Project and Worawa Aboriginal College. In 2005, it helped to establish a youth circus performance group, which recently became incorporated.

Working with Professional Artists

A key strategy of the DRMC is to bring professional artists into the community to work with musicians and students, and to compose new music. This is often done through special projects designed to inspire, motivate and interpret what the community wants to say through their music and the arts, such as the Fire Cycle. In 2006, it explored the issue of water conservation in Australia through the Water Cycle, and again involved hundreds of school children and a professional composer/songwriter (John Shortis, shown above working in The Patch Primary School creating the songs of the Water Cycle).

Hillsongs is a major annual event that brings together school children into a massed choir in a high quality venue with professional stage management offering professional development to community and school music staff (photo above). This program varies each year and can feature a guest conductor, music educator or guest artists in different genres. In one year, a commissioned composer visited schools and discussed poems with the students, then wrote songs and produced an accompaniment that was sent to participating schools to learn.

A work composed by John Shortis, Song of the Firees, with the help of the Sassafras/Ferny Creek Fire Brigade, was launched at the Torchlight Parade at the local Knox Festival and won two RACV Fire Awareness awards for excellence and community engagement.

Attitude was established to provide music programs for people with a mental health, physical or intellectual disability. Working with music therapists, Attitude enables participants to experience the positive benefits of contributing to group music making through creative and artistic expression. The participants’ work was recorded onto a CD and will be showcased at a concert on October 28, 2007.

Last year, the Composers Connecting Community Pilot Project, funded by the Music Board of the Australia Council, saw a professional composer, Dr Calvin Bowman, compose music set to the poems of CJ Dennis and Robert Herrick. Dr Bowman visited school children throughout the region and helped them make a connection with their local cultural history. A CD was also produced of this event. The photo shows him with project manager Karen Noonan and children from Ferny Creek Primary School who were involved in DRMC’s Composer Connecting Community project.

The DRMC also aims to develop musical ability. It employs professional musicians and songwriters to work with the community in specific fields, such as jazz and community orchestra. Past professionals have included Don Burrows, Bob Sedergreen, David Jones and Kevin Hunt, as well as musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The organisation also offers annual awards for musical excellence. The Chris Krans Music Award and Bill Borthwick Young Musicians Encouragement Prize aim to recognise and encourage young musicians.

Playing An Advisory Role

The DRMC has now become so entrenched in Hills culture, its advice is often sought from government and community groups on how best to administer or develop musical services, or the local council regularly refers music inquiries to the organisation. In particular, the DRMC has taken a leadership role over the past 10 years in the push for a purpose built performing arts centre. That project is now nearing fruition, and the DRMC has been heavily involved with the local government and other arts groups in developing the building to ensure it reflects the artistic needs of the community and those of visiting professional artists.

In addition, Community Music Coordinator Bev McAlister is frequently invited to give guest lectures on community music at universities and cross-sector events, such as the federal government’s National Music Summit. DRMC ensembles and music directors are also invited to share their experiences to other music groups and communities around the country.

The Future

The future challenges of the DRMC are to continue to grow the organisation and its services. A priority is to increase funding to employ more staff and the board is now working on a variety of strategies to help it add to its traditional sources of federal, state and local government funding. Importantly, the Victorian government recently allocated $100,000 over four years to help the DRMC further develop its services. This is a significant recognition of the DRMC’s role in providing an important community service in the Yarra Ranges and neighbouring municipalities. The DRMC board wishes to acknowledge the enduring support of the Shire of Yarra Ranges and the Music Board of the Australia Council.


Charisse Ede. Last updated 28 August 2007.


  1. The illustration is from, advertised as “a 100% free Australian information site.”↩︎

Board member DRMC, journalist AAP.

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