Nerida Kirov. Photo by Clare Nolan

The power of song

Words by Clare Nolan

Nillumbik local, Nerida Kirov, still lives in the same house that she grew up in. Since attending Eltham High School as a teenager, Nerida has spent her life working in various roles in the local community. They include working at Eltham Shire Council (as it was known back then) as a youth counsellor. She started Music in the Park which was a concert series that brought live music to Eltham, she held singing workshops in Strathewen whilst they rebuilt after the Black Saturday bushfires. For 20 years she was the music teacher at the Melbourne Rudolf Steiner School, and for the past 30 years she has been the musical director of the choir, Chocolate Lilies.

Nerida’s musical journey started by way of happenstance. In the late 1970’s, at the age of 18, she was dancing in a production of Romeo and Juliet at Montsalvat with Sebastian Jörgensen. It was during that performance that she discovered her love of singing. Soon after, Nerida and two friends, Sally Grice and Lisa Young, started an acapella trio called Acacia. Both Sally and Lisa were musically trained and this inspired Nerida to pursue her own tertiary education. 

Whilst she juggled life at home with her husband and their two young children, Nerida completed a jazz diploma through RMIT. And although she enjoyed studying music, she says it didn’t come easy to her. “I was always the person in class with her hand in the air saying, ‘I don’t understand’”. But she persevered, and then went on to complete another degree, a Bachelor of Music at La Trobe University.  

Whilst working at Eltham Shire Council, Nerida put forward the idea of the council hosting a musical festival over summer. The council welcomed the proposal and Music in the Park was launched. The concerts were held once a month in summer in Alistair Knox Park. They featured local singers and musicians and provided upcoming artists with an opportunity to play in front of a live audience. The concerts were a success and ran for several years. 

In the early 1990’s, Nerida started a musical workshop at the Nillumbik Living & Learning Centre where, once again, she was able to combine her passion for community and music. Shortly after, she discovered that there was enough interest to form a standalone choir, and this blossomed into the acapella group, Chocolate Lilies. 

The choir welcomes singers with all levels of ability. However, Nerida says that some members join with trepidation. Some of them have a fear about singing that stems from a childhood choir teacher telling them to “mime rather than join in and sing”. Nerida says part of her job is to encourage the performers to let go of their ‘I can’t do this’ thinking.

As choir director for the past 30 years, Nerida has an acute awareness of the power of the voice. A particular observation she has made is that of choir members who have found more confidence in their life through singing. Nerida says once you unblock your throat chakra it encourages communication, and whether you believe in the spiritual side of things or not, once you start singing, you use your voice a lot more. 

When reflecting on the moments in her career that she’s most proud of, singing for the community after the Black Saturday fires is high on the list. Nerida lost many friends to the fires, so as a way of coping with that grief the Chocolate Lilies offered to go and do some singing workshops. The idea was to invite people to sing if they wanted to, or they could just sit and listen to the music. 

“It became an incredibly nurturing and healing thing for all of us – for those that were directly affected and for the people in the community as well,” Nerida explains.

When looking ahead to the future, Nerida says right now she is trying to “sit in nothing and wait”. But the fact is she already has an idea stirring within. Over the next few years Nerida wants to start another singing group, one that focuses on women at risk, women with young children, and women that need support. 

“It would be a safe place where they can come with their young children and sing and have a good time. Women need better support in the community,” she says.

And whilst she could already fill a book reflecting on her work within the community, it sounds like Nerida still has a few chapters left to write.