You’re about to hear the first half of my chat with Astrid Jorgensen. You could say I enjoyed this chat immensely. It was just as wonderful as I was hoping it would be, with a few little surprises thrown in there. Many of you know Astrid from Pub Choir fame, Pub Choir, and Couch Choir, and she’s just an amazing musician and a really wonderful person. I think you’re going to love listening to this chat.
In the first half. We talk a bit about Pub Choir and the highlights of her career and the people who’ve been influential in her life. I think you’ll enjoy it, there are some little surprises in there. She has been quite unwell. I really appreciate her taking the time to chat with me. It was lots of fun. Enjoy the first part.
About ‘Read the Episode’: Sometimes, we would rather skim visually instead of listening to a podcast! That’s a great way to learn too! The transcript of episode 023 of The Crescendo Music Education Podcast is below.
Episode 23 “Read the Episode” Transcript
Hello, and welcome to Astrid Jorgenson of Pub Choir fame. Welcome to the Crescendo Music Education podcast.
Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be speaking with you. Thank you for having me.
Astrid Jorgensen’s Bio
I would like to start by just reading your short bio and there are so many things I want to talk to you about. But I like to let the people who maybe had been living under a rock and have never heard of you, or maybe if they’re overseas and Pub Choir hasn’t got to them yet, they may not have heard of you. So here we go. So Astrid Jorgensen is a Brisbane-based choral conductor, composer, producer, and presenter with an unquenchable thirst for teaching the world to sing. Oh, I’d like to teach the world to sing.
She is the Founder & Director of Pub Choir™, and its online COVID adaptation Couch Choir, as well as Co-creator and Co-host of live TV spectacular, Australia’s Biggest Sing-Along. Well, Astrid has sung with over 300,000 people worldwide since 2017, including the likes of Paul Kelly, Neil Finn, and Olivia Newton-John.
Astrid was nominated for the 2020 Australian Young Australian of the Year and was named one of the 40 under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians in 2021. Oh my goodness. You are such a famous person.
Oh, I don’t feel famous.
And you know that although you’ve done all these amazing things. You have just sort of started out at least, as one of us.
So I hope I’m still one of you. Yeah, so before Pub Choir, I was a school teacher and I studied music at uni with Dr. James Cuskelly. I’m a big Kodály fan. I use it every day in my work. Yeah, yeah, I definitely hope I’m still allowed to be part of your club.
Oh, absolutely. We claim you, whether you like it or not. We claim you. So and Pub Choir is obviously, it’s the big thing. That’s, I mean, you would say that is sort of your work now. That’s it really, you wouldn’t have time for anything else much, would you?
Yes, it’s very full-time. There are lots of little avenues. So there’s, of course, like the public shows where people buy tickets, and we travel around as much as we can. And then there are little avenues like I do corporate engagements with Pub Choir as well.
So I might go do like, some poor corporate business team building activity they’re dragged along and forced to sing with me at work, or you know, I do like a little bit of presenting, public speaking around Pub Choir, but yeah it’s all wrapped up under that Pub Choir bow. So yeah, it’s a big job, which is, you know, I’m very grateful.
That’s a unique sort of job too, I guess, isn’t it? Can I ask how, like, in a nutshell, how did it all start, come about, and happen?
How Pub Choir Got Started
Sure. So in 2017, I had just come back from a year teaching in Townsville and I don’t think that I’ve ever heard of another school that’s done this. But in Townsville, I was taking a compulsory whole school choir at the local high school that I was teaching at. So they forced every kid at school to sing once a fortnight in choir. So it was like a 500-population school, and everyone had to sing with me, and it was the first time that I’d ever had a choir that didn’t have some judgment metrics associated with it.
Like I’d worked in lots of schools before and had lots of choirs and we were always preparing for some competition or some something that we were going to be judged on. And then at this school, there was no outcome that was being measured other than the experience of singing in a choir. And that really freed up my mind a lot. I had never really considered music-making in that way, I’d been like marking kids at school, giving them a mark on how good they are at music, or I had been, you know, rehearsing my choirs for eisteddfods or things like that.
So Pub Choir kind of really grew out of that awakening in 2016, where I worked for that year, and I just thought this is the best job ever. And why are we so competitive with music? There’s no finish line, we can never be the best, we can never complete music, you know, it’s just an experience. So then when I came back to Brisbane in 2017, Pub Choir started pretty soon after that. And it’s really just the same idea.
There’s no auditions or sheet music or membership, you know, you can just buy a ticket to one show and that’s enough. You can be the worst singer as in, you know, you might sing out of tune. I mean lots of people like to say that they’re terrible singers, but in my mind, I’m like, who cares? You know, if you’ve got a mouth, it’s enough. It’s I’ll take you, so you can’t get kicked out of Pub Choir. Yeah, it’s just been building since then.
It is magic. There is something magic about it. And I think that’s something we do in primary probably more easily than secondary like my whole school sings together all the time and I’m being more intentional about that now. And the magic of them all singing We have beautiful choirs at the school where I work. But there’s something magic about it when the whole school sings.
It’s not like giving shade to choirs that do prepare for competitions or eisteddfods, you know, there’s a place for everyone in music. It’s just that I think we kind of forgot a little bit about adults who might just want to make something and have a nice time. You know. Yeah, I think you’re right, we do kind of lose it as we get older. But, you know, I think Pub Choir might fill a little gap in that market, just letting grownups know that it’s okay to just sing loudly with your friends and have a nice time.
Well, the success shows that it’s needed, doesn’t it?
Yeah. I hope so.
There are thousands of us doing it. Now, you did a little keynote over zoom for our Kodály AGM, last year I think it was. And you said, I’ve been trying to think of the exact quote, but something about being in the average in reveling in, no living in the average. And that story you told us about the recording of your first virtual choir. Do you know the story I’m talking about?
I think so. I mean, for me, Pub Choir and Couch Choir, which is the online version of it during COVID is yeah, really always about embracing average and letting people be free to be average. Because I just think like, as a society as, like culture, we’re very obsessed with trying to be the best and feeling really competitive about stuff, but it’s really quite freeing to feel unimportant. And to not be trying to strive to beat everybody, we’re not in competition with each other, you know, I hope we all make it.
And so with Couch Choir, which was the online version, it was the first time that I had heard people’s voices one on one. So at Pub Choir, the live show, it’s just a big room of sometimes thousands of people all singing as loudly as they want. And I never hear any one person’s voice. But with Couch Choir, people were sending in videos of themselves performing my instructions. And so it was very intimate, was actually weirdly intimate.
We still have lots of people, you know, sometimes thousands of people joining in with this online singing, but I had the privilege of hearing their voices one by one. And some of them were just bloody awful. In it, like, you know, it’s I mean, it doesn’t matter if you’re not the most in-tune singer in the world, you don’t have like some curated, beautiful singing tone. I mean, people were just trusting the process, singing in a way that made them feel happy, doing their best and then sending in the video to me and my crew.
And the beautiful thing is that even though each individual voice might not have been particularly remarkable, when you added them all together, it always worked out and that’s what choirs are made up of anyway. It’s just individual people kind of doing their best and, you know, it’s pretty awesome that the sum of the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. You know, like once you add those voices together, you know, some people are sharp and some people are flat and some come in late and early. And then when you put it all together, it’s this really rich, average.
It’s kind of like that’s what life is, you know, embracing, like a larger whole. Yeah. And if you can find a way to bring people in, you get a really exciting result I find.
I love that and there is a richness to that, a resonance, if you like, that you don’t get when it’s all perfection. Yeah,
Yeah. And sometimes I like listening to perfection too, you know, like those really high-class choirs, I mean, I like listening to them. But I’m not sure if it’s applicable to just the wider public generally, you know, there are people that dedicate their whole lives to pursuing this one musical goal. Whereas for most of us, we have music in our lives, and we like it and it makes us feel happy and we don’t know how to get involved. So it’s nice to find a way in for people.
Pub Choir ‘Notation’
I think that’s absolutely brilliant. And I love for those of you who haven’t, who are listening who haven’t experienced Pub Choir, and because I hadn’t, I don’t know, been a good girl and done my homework and seen your online videos, I didn’t know how you were going to approach it, you know. So I’m there as a music teacher, I can tell you there were some interesting notes around behind where I was standing, but the whole thing still came to life.
So the way that you use colours for each part, and that your lyrics are written to show relative pitch. So there’s a big PowerPoint behind you, for those who haven’t been, and the arrows, the end of the phrase or the end of the slide showing your pitch direction for the next phrase, and some of your words in caps, in larger font, and that showed longer notes, but sometimes it also showed accents, didn’t it? It was sort of, it’s almost like you’ve developed your own form of quite logical graphic notation. Really?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s kind of sheet music. And I think that written music notation is quite logical, but it feels very alienating to a lot of people. So I’m presenting the same information that you get with sheet music, except I’m just using words. And I’m really proud that it’s taken me like, you know, a good five years to really hone in on the best way to describe that to people.
So I’m really proud actually, of my PowerPoints. And I think that the people that come to the show, you could come for the first time when you’ve never read music in your life, but I like to think it makes sense. And it might get people curious about how music is presented visually. Because as you say, I’m trying to incorporate that musical information into words. So yes, I’m trying to show them rhythm and dynamics, and phrasing and, and pitch and things like that.
Oh, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s like, God, this is awesome. You’re so clever. And better than that is the GIFs. Oh, my goodness. And it’s just right you know, the one that I went to, we had to repeat the initial phrase, three times. So you had us in a big circle times three. But your GIF had that poor woman running into a glass wall for want of other things three times, and everybody started losing theirs. Because it was so funny.
So it’s just when things start to get a little heavy, but not really heavy. But it might be heavy for people that have not experienced it before. You know, it’s a lot of information if you don’t have experience singing, you know, but you didn’t let it get heavy because there would be another GIF. And it was just right. I mean, you have this to perfection, that like the whole thing is so balanced. It’s amazing.
Thank you so much.
This is awesome. I must admit, though, a part of me wanted the music. I just want to have a look. So it was actually good for me to experience it without the music in my hands.
Yeah, yeah, I think there’s a challenge for everyone. And I’m so glad, though, that you liked the GIFs because I put really a lot of effort into those. I mean, for me, I’ve realised and this was before Pub Choir too, everyone’s got their skill set as an educator, and it just so happens that telling jokes and mucking about is one of mine.
So I like it might not be something that’s comfortable in everyone’s toolkit, but for me, I just try and do what’s comfortable for me, and just poking a bit of fun at the music and not taking it too seriously always feels really good to me.
And I think you’re right. I hope that people who feel a bit apprehensive when they come because yeah, it’s a big deal singing in public, for a lot of people. I think if you can just break the tension a bit and tell a few like fart jokes and you know, just relax a bit. Then people sing better when they’re happy and relaxed.
Absolutely. You do it to perfection and in fact, I was talking to Paul Holley on a previous podcast and he does this very well with his choirs as well. But the way you use positivity and humor to basically tell people actually that’s wrong, but you don’t say excuse me, that’s wrong.
That’s an interesting interpretation, just listen to me do it again, you know, you had just the right manner to correct us when needed to be corrected without being even vaguely condescending. Like the whole thing was so accessible for everyone, which is obviously the big charm of Pub Choir.
Oh, thank you so much. I’m so glad that you liked it. And I’m so glad that these are your takeaways because that’s what I try to do.
Well, it’s perfection. It is perfection. What other notes did I take after, what a nerd, imagine taking notes about Pub Choir. Oh, I just wanted to mention your team of videographers and photographers seem pretty awesome. Like, that was like, I thought that’s cool. To have that around you is wonderful.
Yeah, a support network of people who are trying to help you achieve your goals is very important in any area of work and life, I’m sure. I mean, I’m very lucky at Pub Choir to have a group of people that work really hard, they’re motivated and enthusiastic. And those are, you know, the two best qualities I feel when it comes to sharing work with people.
Oh, and of course, the musicians. I mean, they had Camerata, and I mean, that was, yeah, it’s brilliant. You’ve always got those brilliant musicians and a lovely surprise. And the only other thing that I wanted to mention, and then I’ll get off Pub Choir and ask you some other questions. But it was pretty amazing, you know, thought, Gee, I wish I’d got off my butt to go earlier.
But anyway, is the linking up to the worthy cause at the end or middle? Whenever it was, I thought, you know, this Astrid just can’t get any better. Like not only that, you know, helping support a really worthy cause. Do you do that in all of your Pub Choirs?
Yeah, so we do that in all of our Brisbane Pub Choir shows, and we’ve done it for a few years, is to select a local charity at every show, and we donate a portion of ticket sales to the charity, but as well, we like to invite a speaker from the charity. They don’t always come, it’s actually really hard to get people from charities sometimes to come and, like maybe it feels like a lot to stand on stage in front of 1500 people and talk, but I try and get them to do a little elevator pitch to the crowd and explain what their charity does and what the money would go towards if the audience donates at the end.
Because I find that singing is not just like entertainment, it’s very cathartic for people. And often they might leave the show feeling really positive about the world and about building a community. And they’ve just spent 90 minutes agreeing with strangers and all sharing a goal. And then I really want to convert that into something real. It’s nice that they feel nice. But what would be even better if that’s yet converted into something tangible in our community? So when they leave with this sense of goodwill, I’m like, ‘Oh, well chuck in five bucks on the way out and change something for our community.’
So people yeah, do get really generous at the end of Pub Choir. We’ve had a couple of like, really big fundraising-focused shows and, you know, occasionally we’ll raise like $110,000 in an evening like people just feel good. Singing makes people feel really good for themselves and for each other. So yeah, I think it’s a very good vehicle for social change to be honest.
It’s proof, isn’t it? Proof of the power of singing together?
Love it. Okay, so in your journey as a musician, conductor, music educator, what would you consider highlights apart from Pub Choir?
Astrid Jorgensen’s Other Musical Highlights
Well, I had violin and piano lessons as a young kid, and I hated them so much. I really did not enjoy them and I remember every day I would ask to quit violin, I just thought it was the most torturous thing ever. And so I actually turned away from music. I didn’t study it at high school or anything. Like I just felt like my experience as a kid, just music was like a chore. So it’s so surprising and wonderful to me that I’ve ended up with my whole life revolving around music, because that’s not the way it looked for a while.
I think what really changed it for me was, well, to be honest, I failed chemistry in high school and I switched to music because I thought it would get my marks back up because I could read music from studying it as a kid. And I signed up to do a music elective at university. And I think that’s what really changed for me was actually learning about Kodály and studying with someone like James Cuskelly. It really changed the course of my relationship with music, because for as long as I can remember, I’ve been really good at hearing things in my head, like music I mean.
Not the little voices.
Yeah, I’m not crazy, just music stuff. And I’ve always been able to hear songs and play them pretty much immediately on the piano. Like for some reason, my mind can contextualise sounds. And I didn’t know that that was a big deal until I got to uni and I learned to name the sounds.
So I mean, it’s when you don’t have an instrument like to press keys or anything, and you’re singing, it’s hard to contextualise what you’re doing. So learning solfa really changed everything for me, because I’m like, I can name the sounds that I hear. And it turns out that I was good at it. So studying at uni and learning those tools, yeah, really changed the trajectory of my life. And then so I started changing all my subjects to music subjects at uni. And I studied conducting, and I had some amazing teachers at uni.
And it really got me thinking about like, maybe I want to write music, maybe I want to sing so then I continued my study after my undergrad. And I went and did my masters in voice as well at the Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane. Yeah, I don’t know, it was just like a sort of a surprise, shift in direction for me, I didn’t expect to be a musician when I was younger, because I just hated those lessons so much.
But now I have come to realise that what I was being let down by, in that early education was a focus on judgment, I think it was all about getting your exam mark, getting an A plus, or whatever it is in your AMEB exam, and it just felt like torture. Whereas for me, music is just like this revelation, it’s like a magic spell. You know, you can conjure up feelings, and you can express yourself, and you can connect with others.
And that’s not what I was getting when I was younger. So I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to revisit music again, and to find that path through of, you know, inclusive music-making. And now I’m here.
The Importance of Music Educators
But what you’re saying really reinforces how important our job is, as educators of young people in schools, because we have to make sure that we do that for our kids.
Yeah, and I mean, no shade to music teachers, I was a school teacher for a bit, and it’s a huge job. I have nothing but respect for teachers. I think, a sad thing is at Pub Choir, sometimes I will hang out after the show and talk to people and they’ll say to me, oh I haven’t sung for 40 years, because when I was in school, my teacher told me that I should mime in choir because I’m such a bad singer and I’ve been ashamed about it my whole adult life.
So I guess it’s important to remember how much power you have, you’re very powerful people, because especially when it comes to singing, singing comes from your body. And so when you criticise someone’s voice, you’re criticising something fundamental to them. It’s not like they’ve pressed the wrong piano key. It’s like your body is creating music wrong.
And I think that really feels so personal to people sometimes and they can hold on to that their whole lives. So yeah, I guess that comes back to like, is there a positive way that you can connect and make a change? Yeah, with music students and whoever you’re working with? I don’t know. Yeah.
I could not agree more. I had a parent of a little kids class, when I was doing just some small Do-Re-Mi classes. So when she wrote me this letter, and said you know, I’m crying while I’m writing this. Actually, I’ll have a breath because it’s still really emotional, even though it was a while ago. She said that she sang Happy Birthday to her son for the first time ever, because she was told when she was at school that she could not sing and she had a terrible voice or whatever was said to her.
And she said she’s never ever sung, and could not even sing Happy Birthday to her son, until coming to these classes where like, everyone joins in because you just do, you know, and I just, imagine not singing Happy Birthday to your own kid because you’d been told that you’re a bad singer in whatever context.
Really a lot of people carry this internal shame about their singing voice with them. And it’s happening in places outside the classroom too. Don’t get me wrong, you know, people’s families tell them that they’re awful at singing or friends or whatever, you go to a birthday party. But yeah, I think it’s really important to to be mindful of your words, when it comes to talking to people about the way that they sound. Because sometimes it’s like, part of who they are, you know, that’s a big bit of feedback, saying that your voice is gross.
There’s not a lot we can do about that is there? Like each of our voices is unique to us. So yeah, I think it’s very important to be mindful. But then of course, you made a difference. You know, we can still change this for people and there you go, you’ve got the feedback. You can unlock this for people again, if we know how.
Yes, which is really powerful, and you’re doing that for thousands, which is amazing. Mind you, I think you have a lot of teachers and music teachers in your audience. I’ve posted that I’d been to, a bit ashamedly, went to my first one, and lots of people commented, oh yeah, I was there too. Oh, okay. So next time I go I’m going to post and we’ll go with a big group, and we’ll stand right at the front.
Nice, maybe that’s why it always works out, I’ve always got a secret population of music teachers in the room.
Influential People in Astrid Jorgensen’s Life
Always, that’s what we love. Could you tell us, you’ve already mentioned a few influential people? Would there be anyone else you’d like to name that have been really influential in your life? Personal or professional?
Oh, there’s so many people, you know, I think, rather than, like one person who’s changed everything, or whatever, I mean, of course, yes. In music, having a teacher like James Cuskelly, who was very helpful to me, but I know there’s so many wonderful teachers in the Kodály world as well, he just so happened to be the first person that I ever learned about that stuff, happened to be him. But he’s great. By the way, if he’s listening, you’re great.
Look I think, for me it’s more whenever I come to a crossroads in my life, or in my career, where I have to make a big decision, I always try and go with the pathway where I can see someone who believes in me, and so I’ve had lots of influential people who have not even, maybe they didn’t even consciously know that they were influencing me, you know, like, I’ve gone to choose between two jobs.
And I’ve gone with the one where the person has, I don’t know, yeah, shown me support as the person that I am, rather than me chasing after something that and trying to like, scratch my way into something and make it exist, like I find, I often try and find support networks, and everything opens up like a beautiful flower if you’ve got people to help you along the way. Yeah. So I mean, I, for example, when I graduated from uni, I was desperate to try and find a teaching job and I was scrambling around and then Andrew Pennay, who’s a really wonderful Kodály, yeah, he’s such a good teacher and such a nice person, reached out to me.
And I was like, and it was such a small job. It was like a two day a week job at the school he was working at. But I thought to myself, like you should always go where someone has shown you a little bit of, I don’t know, faith, or, you know, belief in what you do. And I was and so I could have gotten jobs that I didn’t know anything about the school and I didn’t know a lot, but they would have had more full time work.
But I was like, Oh, it feels kind of good to go somewhere where someone wants you. And I find whenever I come to those crosswords, and I make the same kind of decision, usually it works out for the best. So the influential people are the ones who have just shown me a little bit of self belief in any area.
Pardon me, I just would like to proclaim that I’m actually sick. Very little control over my bodily functions. Is the first burp you’ve had on your podcast?
Yes, it is.
I can’t control it. You’re welcome everybody.
We’re all very appreciative Astrid.
I didn’t know it was coming, I’m so sorry. Wow, ok, this is. Yeah, next question.
Next question. That was actually, though, very profound, not necessarily the burp, but the going with your finding the support and the faith, I love that, it is it’s quite profound, actually.
Thank you for joining me for this podcast. Don’t forget, you’ll find the show notes and transcript and all sorts of information on crescendo.com.au. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, or found it valuable, you might like to rate it on your podcast player and leave a review. I’d really appreciate it if you did. All I couldn’t be as the best version of me. All you can do is be the best you. Until next time, bye.
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Just for Laughs
As we know laughter relieves stress, don’t lose sight of the funny side of life. What do you call a nun who sleepwalks? A Roman Catholic
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