Biographical Non-Fiction posted December 3, 2023

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''Climb Every Mountain''

by Wendy G

The joy of music … the freedom of singing … the pleasure of being with other people who enjoy the same sort of music ….

In these times of individuality, it may be a little surprising that community choirs are enjoying a resurgence of popularity, particularly in Australia’s small country towns. Such choirs reduce a sense of isolation for farmers and their families on outlying properties, who come into town for practices, rehearsals, and performances.

The community choir promotes togetherness, unity, and a real sense of inclusion, along with temporary relief from the never-ending pressures and anxieties of battling drought, flood, and bushfire. Singing releases feel-good endorphins and brings an almost spiritual joy. These physical and psychological benefits are an inexpensive aid to optimal mental health.

There is enormous satisfaction at contributing to the joy of creating beautiful music and seeing enjoyment on the faces of listeners.

In 2018, the choir in Kingaroy, a small country town in Queensland, was to have a new conductor. She was initially accepted tentatively, but was soon welcomed and embraced with open arms as choir members started to appreciate her special gifts.

It is so important for singers to watch their conductor, for her signals and cues in order to produce the perfect musical outcome. The conductor speaks her own language with her hands as well as her facial expressions, and the singers interpret that language, and follow her leads.

The conductor sees everyone, and polishes her guidance, customising it for each individual choir member.

Not this conductor. Yes, she polishes her guidance, and customises it for each individual  choir member. But this conductor sees no one.

She is totally blind – and has been blind from birth.

 So the South Burnett Choir in Kingaroy is different from most. The attitude of the new choir conductor, Julee-anne Bell, is simple.

“Being blind only means you can’t SEE anything, not that you can’t DO anything.”

Navigating people’s assumptions is always a challenge for blind people, but despite an uneven playing field, Julee-anne has proven that her gifts and talents are sufficient for success in the role of conductor.

She has a Master’s Degree in Choral Conducting, and has learned to conduct from music scores in braille, which uses an intricate system of symbols, rather than stave music.

If a singer is blind, her braille music can just record her own part, in order to declutter the page. However, when a conductor is blind, she must be able to “see” all the parts. Her braille music score is therefore very complex and extensive, with a single page of music requiring many pages of braille.

Julee-anne Bell also had to learn the complicated gestures by touch, so that singers understand her directions accurately. She “reads the room” and “sees” everyone, with ears keenly tuned to every subtle sound.  She must sense what is needed and respond to it. She engages her singers and encourages them consistently, particularly before a performance.

So how does Julee-anne do it? She reads the braille with her left hand, her fingers tracing and racing along each page, while she conducts with her right hand. Occasionally overtaken by her own enormous (and contagious) enthusiasm, she conducts with both hands and thus loses her place in the braille music score.

Fortunately, she commits much of her time to memorising the parts and relies on her words and instructions during practice sessions to assist.  

Her goal is to bring out their best. A challenge for any conductor. But she does it and she does it well.

"There's an exhilaration when you get it right and that's so special and so treasured and so human, and I think it's just the most wonderful thing to do," says Julee-anne, always delighted when she transfers her musical thoughts through her hands successfully.

Julee-anne also teaches singing, and she herself is also a singer with a magnificent classically trained voice.

In 2022, she appeared on The Voice (Australia), a singing contest with four judges and mentors who choose and train a team of contestants. The initial screening process takes place through Blind Auditions, (oh, the irony!) where the judges face the opposite direction from the stage. If they like the sound of the singer they press a button, and their chair swings around to face the stage.

All four judges were amazed at her voice, and turned their chairs to face her at the end of her piece. All four wanted her to choose to be on their team. Most singers are very excited when all four chairs turn around. However, Julee-anne looked very alone and uncertain, nervous and vulnerable. Despite her success at choral conducting, being alone on a stage and on national television was daunting.

She had to explain that she didn’t know if any chairs had been turned or not, if anyone was interested in mentoring her or not, and explained that she was totally blind. They were astounded. Guy Sebastian, one of the four judges, and a favourite pop singer in Australia, asked her to do a duet with him. The chosen piece was “Climb Every Mountain” – a very apt choice.

That’s what Julee-anne does, every day of her life


Google Julee-anne Bell and Guy Sebastian duet. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.
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