by Gordon Nary
Gordon: You have received degrees and certifications from several colleges and universities. Please list each school and your degree/certification/degree.
Fiona: I come from a musical family in Albury, New South Wales in country Australia and music infuses our lives. We were fortunate to have access to music education at school and in the community. I played violin at school and loved playing classical guitar, but singing was my natural home and would become the constant pathway forward in different ways throughout my life. At the encouragement of Sister Mary Esler RSM in primary school, I began singing at Mass when I was nine years old and am still in love with the power and beauty of liturgical music and the liturgy to form, touch and hold people across the lifespan.
I began my study of music at the tertiary level at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) in Melbourne with a Bachelor of Music in classical voice and sub-majors in keyboard and choral conducting. This degree was the only course in Australia with a focus on sacred music, and I was blest to have teachers and mentors like Roger Heagney OAM, KSCG and Sr Deirdre Browne IBVM, OAM.
I sang with Roger in the St Francis Choir, Deirdre in Musica Camara, with Dr Geoffrey Cox as a founding member of the mixed-voice schola on Sunday evenings at St Patrick’s Cathedral, and with Juliette Hughes-Norwood in an ensemble that sang all the repertoire of St Hildegard of Bingen.
I then went on to post-graduate study in Music Therapy at the University of Melbourne, as I wanted to know more about the wonderful way music works in memory, how it can heal, and how it holds people from diverse backgrounds and cultures together in lifegiving community.
I also studied education, as I knew that the strong and well-funded primary and secondary education system in Australia was a foundational way to work with children in some of their most formative years. I undertook a Master of Music Studies part-time at the University of Melbourne while working full time as a Performing Arts Leader and Music Director at Catholic College Wodonga.
After I completed my Masters, I undertook graduate studies in Religious Education at ACU, as I also taught senior Ethics in the Religious Education faculty at the school. I had been part-time carer for my mother Kathleen while working, and she passed away after a long illness in 2010. She was always my biggest supporter and influence, and this was a time of discernment as to next steps. I took the time to grieve well, and to listen with the ear of my heart to God in prayer.
I decided to pursue studies in liturgy at Boston College after attending the Summer Program there in 2012. I saw BC as a place that grappled with difficult questions in the Church and the world, where liturgy was rich and meaningful, and where this worship led to mission. I was awarded a scholarship from Boston College and completed a Master of Theological Studies majoring in liturgy in 2015. Professor John Baldovin SJ supervised my thesis, which examined the rounded formation necessary for music ministers in the 21st century.
I am currently working on a PhD at Charles Sturt University in Australia that looks at musical and liturgical resources to enable and empower people to sing the Responsorial Psalm as a regular part of the liturgy. Many Catholic communities choose to speak the Responsorial Psalm in Australia, or replace it with a hymn, so I wanted to provide a research-based resource that would address the need in this area. I had the good fortune in 2015 to study psalmody and hymnody with Professor Don Saliers in the Summer Program at Collegeville, Minnesota. Don described the Book of Psalms as “life at full stretch before God”, which is true to my lived experience. This is a creative PhD project and will incorporate the composition of up to 17 new Responsorial Psalms for use in Australian Catholic parishes and schools.
Gordon: What courses did you teach at University of Melbourne?
Fiona: I worked in the Music Therapy Faculty at the University of Melbourne teaching vocal skills as applied to Music Therapists. Singing as a Music Therapist is quite different to singing as a performer. You are often helping people to find their voice, singing with them, or singing music that accompanied significant moments in their lives. You may be at their bedside in a hospital or nursing home, or in a group session in a school or community health setting. You need to be open to embracing a range of repertoire and genres, adapting your music skills to the specific therapeutic context.
Gordon: When did you work as Cantor Trainer at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and what were your primary responsibilities?
Fiona: I still work on a sessional basis for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne as a workshop leader and resource writer in liturgical music. I co-led regular workshops from 1997 to 2004 when the Liturgy Office was still operational in the Archdiocese.
We would have seasonal liturgical music repertoire sessions and also offer specific days for cantor and psalmist training. This entailed breaking open the best liturgical music for parish and school Music Leaders around Melbourne, and also showing people how to intentionally lead others in sung prayer. Forming singers to offer their musical gifts for the service of the liturgy and the sung prayer of the people clarified how liturgical music enhances the liturgical season, day, and moment.
It was wonderful to see people come to a deeper understanding of how to lead people in song and how to proclaim the Responsorial Psalm. It meant that people now saw themselves as music ministers, not primarily as soloists and performers. People also understood that they sang the liturgical music of the Mass, not simply hymns at Mass.
Gordon: What is one of your favourite memories when you served as Head of Voice/Choral Director at St Columba's College, Essendon?
Fiona: I loved working with the young women at St Columba’s College. I conducted a Junior, Senior, and an auditioned Chamber Choir and the girls were committed, energetic, and joyful in their music-making. I chose repertoire that would stretch them musically but would also empower them to be light-bearers in the world. We made a recording before I left the school after 10 years, and it captured some of the sheer life-force of the singers of that time. One of our favourite pieces was an arrangement of Amazing Grace in Gospel style by Australian a cappella leader, Tony Backhouse. The girls, all accomplished women now, still play that recording and sing the songs. It has been wonderful to see how music has become a treasured life companion for them all, no matter where life has taken them.
Gordon: Who is your favourite liturgical composer and why is that composer your favourite?
Fiona: Bernadette Farrell is my favourite liturgical music composer. Her music is always prayer, with poetry that is memorable and beautifully crafted. Her music skills also shine through in her magnificent choral writing. Bernadette’s music is suited to the liturgy and draws on both the richness of Scripture and tradition, gently but clearly pointing to Christ-like action in the world. Some of my favourites are O God, You Search Me; Restless is the Heart; God Beyond All Names; Everyday God; and Advent Litany.
Gordon: What did you enjoy most when you served as conductor of the Yackandandah Folk Festival Choir?
Fiona: The Yackandandah Folk Festival Choir is a volunteer all-ages choir of 130 plus voices that gathers for a six-week rehearsal period before a rousing performance of around eight songs at the Folk Festival each year.
The music comes from all over the world, and the power of voices singing together fills the air. Truck drivers, farmers, doctors, grandparents, retirees, teachers, nurses, students, politicians, business people…the diversity of the people who come together to sing is a highlight. One of my favourite memories is of us singing the Midnight Oil song Beds are Burning in 2009, arranged by Spooky Men’s Chorale leader Stephen Taberner.
It was the year after Australia’s Prime Minister at that time, Kevin Rudd, had delivered the official apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Parliament. The choir sang their hearts out and the energy was electric, with the 1000 plus audience members packing the Yackandandah Community Hall thundering their support and joy. We were all crying. Sacred moments in music happen every day, in every place.
Gordon: When did you serve as Performing Arts Leader/Director of Music (Choral)/Youth Minister at Catholic College Wodonga and what were your primary responsibilities? What was one of your most rewarding experiences as Youth Minister?
Fiona: I served as PAL, DOM and YM at CCW from January 2004 to December 2013. I was responsible for coordinating the instrumental and classroom music programs and teams, for coordinating the Performing Arts offerings (classroom and co-curricular) across the school (1100 students at that time) and co-led a group of young students in one level of our Marist Youth Ministry Program. I taught classroom music, took the Junior, Senior, Concert and Chamber Choirs, and also taught Yr 11 Ethics. I chose, rehearsed, and conducted all the liturgical music for Masses and Prayer Services. There was a lot on! It was a rich and formative time.
As a Youth Minister, it was beautiful to see young people bloom and shine. This was Marist Youth Ministry, so there was an emphasis on creating good Christians and good citizens, and on following the way of Mary, Mother of God. Some students in the group came from tough backgrounds, and their trust and confidence grew through the steady accompaniment and care of group members - grace unfolding right before your eyes. Students participated in social justice programs like Midnight Basketball to keep kids at risk connected to community; ran after-school homework clubs for primary-aged students; visited the elderly in nursing homes for conversations, concerts, and games; went on a week-long immersion to Condobolin in outback NSW to support the community at the height of a long and devastating drought; participated in a 10 day immersion to Timor Leste; and mentored junior students at their own school. Taking a little step along the way with a trustworthy adult was something I had experienced and valued as a young person at secondary school. Now it was my turn to do my small part.
Gordon: What did you enjoy most when you were part of the Folk ensemble Bells Flat Brigade?
Fiona: Bells Flat Brigade is a Folk Ensemble made up of David Pietsch on violin, piano and vocals, Alison Davey on keyboard, percussion and vocals, Treena Costin on percussion and vocals, and me on guitar and vocals. I have an eclectic singing background in early music, music theatre, art song, and other classical and choral music, but folk song is a long love of mine. BFB sang pure folk from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and Australia, and also the songs of contemporary interpreters and creators of folk music like Emily Smith, The Wailin’ Jennys, While and Matthews, and Lumiere.
Our group shared an innate and mutual musical understanding, and the harmonies we created together were glorious. The repertoire allowed us to explore the poetry and storytelling of Robbie Burns and other wordsmiths whose names are lost to history, as well as whirling instrumental jigs and reels. We sang life stories of both pain and joy. I also sang in a vocal ensemble at this time called MsBehavin’ which was a wonderful experience. This was led by talented local music teacher, Helena Brennan. The other choir I was part of at this time was a Chamber Choir at the Murray Conservatorium, conducted by David Carolane OAM.
Gordon: When did you serve as Wodonga Catholic Parish Choir Director and what were your primary responsibilities?
Fiona: I served as Wodonga Catholic Parish Choir Director from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2013. I left Australia at the end of 2013 to take up my scholarship at Boston College for 2014/15, as the academic year in Australia runs from January to December.
The Wodonga Catholic Parish Choir was a group of volunteers who sang each month and at all the major feasts of the liturgical year. I provided a keyboard scholarship for one of our CCW students or alumni to accompany the choir, and also supported other instrumentalists to take part in music ministry in the parish. I trained the accompanist and musicians, chose the repertoire, and ran weekly choral rehearsals. I conducted the choir and also was psalmist and cantor when required. It was a great way to offer a welcoming and supportive space for young liturgical musicians from the school and wider community to be mentored and encouraged alongside parishioners.
Gordon: When were you Graduate Assistant for Liturgical Music at Boston College and what were some of your favourite events that occurred while you were there?
Fiona: I was the first Graduate Assistant for Liturgical Music at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry across 2014 and 2015. I sang in the STM Choir at BC under Lynn Burns, which was a fantastic experience. Lynn chose repertoire that was true to the liturgical season, day, and moment and that also expressed the diverse identity of those who studied at the STM. We had people from nearly every continent represented in our student body. The music reflected this, and it was enriching to be part of sensitive liturgy that was collaboratively planned and led. It was true to the teaching of Vatican ll. I helped to choose the repertoire, liaise with other singers and presiders, and to construct the worship aid each week. Lynn and I also shared cantor and psalmist roles around the choir. Singing next to wonderful singers who understood that our song was prayer and belonged to all was an unforgettable experience.
I also participated in the BC Liturgy Arts Group (LAG) with the fantastic Meyer J. Chambers and was blest to sing in the LAG tour to Washington, DC in 2015. We sang at the Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle, and also at Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart at Georgetown University where I sang the solo in Give Us A Pure Heart by Australian Jesuit, Chris Willcock SJ. Another highlight was being asked to conduct the combined BC Choirs for Martin Luther King Jr Day in 2015 - an amazing and humbling experience. Martin Luther King Jr is one of my heroes and the BC choirs were extraordinary, singing with conviction and magnificent artistry. It was a privilege to be part of this remarkable service to honour MLK. One of the most powerful songs the choir sang that day was the spiritual Lord, I Don’ Done.
Gordon: What is one of your favourite memories when you served as Liturgical Music Coordinator at the YEP Youth Engagement Project?
Fiona: Seeing young liturgical musicians grow in confidence, experience, knowledge, and skill is always a joy. Our monthly youth-led Masses provided a safe and steady way for senior secondary students and post-school young people to connect and pray with a healthy and supportive intergenerational faith community. They could then continue that good work and share their experience with others. As an adult mentor, I loved this model and work.
Gordon: You worked at Marcellin College twice. What were your positions?
Fiona: I was Music Director before my two-year secondment to the national Marist Life Formation Team, and then Choral Director and Religious Education Teacher when I returned to the College.
Gordon: What did you enjoy most at Marcellin College?
Fiona: I had worked in Marist Youth Ministry at Catholic College in Wodonga and had been attracted to the Marist way by the lived witness of the Marist Brothers here in Victoria, especially that of Br Doug Walsh OAM. I loved the balanced emphasis on being a good Christian and a good citizen, and the focus on accompaniment of people in all seasons of life through the way of Mary. The Music Program at Marcellin was Kodaly based, and this suited my training and skills. We had a wonderful choir and the singing of the boys across the school was inspiring. It was incredibly special to hear them sing the Sub Tuum (Lambilotte setting), the oldest known hymn to Mary, and also to sing The Power of Your Love by Australian composer Geoff Bullock at every assembly and Mass. We also had Mass every Thursday, and this was a positive experience of prayer for both staff and students.
Gordon: What does 2023 hold for you?
Fiona: I’m currently working part-time at St Monica’s College in Epping, Victoria as Coordinator of Liturgy, Faith, and Mission while I continue my PhD study. It is a large school of 2300 students and 350 staff, grounded in the Benedictine charism of the Good Samaritan Sisters from Australia. I also serve as Music Consultant, Choir Leader, and Cantor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hawthorn, which is under the care of the Jesuits. It was a great honour to serve for six years on the National Liturgical Music Council for the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (NLMC, ACBC), and I remain on the National Executive of the Australian Pastoral Musicians Network (APMN). I am also a sessional academic in Ritual, Symbol and Sacrament at ACU, working with young teachers in Catholic schools.
I believe in the power of music to form and feed souls, and our liturgical music embodies and gives voice to the gift of faith. It is said that if you want to know a person’s image of God, ask them their favourite hymn. Mine is As Gentle As Silence. What’s yours?
Gordon: My friend Marco Lo Russo wrote an Ave Maria for Pope Francis.
Thank you for a great interview.