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A leading part

Wednesday, 7th August, 2019

Eisteddfod performer, vocal coordinator and secretary Marilyn Harris. PICTURE: Callum Marshall Eisteddfod performer, vocal coordinator and secretary Marilyn Harris. PICTURE: Callum Marshall

By Callum Marshall

Marilyn Harris has played a huge role in the local Eisteddfod over the years, first as a singer and then as a vocal coordinator and secretary.

As the Eisteddfod approaches its 50th anniversary, she looks back at her own experiences and the changes it’s undergone over the years.

Marilyn’s early school years were occupied with piano lessons but by the time she reached seventh grade singing had become her new musical interest.

“I started piano when I was nearly ten and I studied it for nearly six years,” she said.

“Then I had changed teachers and my (new) teacher also taught singing.

“So I thought ‘I’m getting a backache from practicing so much, perhaps I’ll start singing.’

“Six months later I did my sixth grade singing exam and passed that.

“Then I went to the Conservatorium in Newcastle, studied for about ten years and then went to Sydney to study with an opera singer there. 

“I studied with her for about three years before I came to Broken Hill.”

Although she enjoyed singing, Marilyn said her first public performance was nerve-wracking one. 

“I can still remember the first time I sang in public by myself. I would’ve been about seventeen and I was in a small hall in Newcastle. 

“And I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.”

In a short space of time though, Marilyn was featuring in many eisteddfods across the state including the Australian National Eisteddfod in Canberra and the Newcastle and Sydney eisteddfods.

She came out to Broken Hill in 1979 and entered in several aria championship at the Eisteddfod. 

Picking up teaching not long after joining the Eisteddfod, Marilyn soon stepped back from the spotlight and instead used her other musical talents and began teaching.

“I did do a couple of arias, some duets and things like that (but) as a teacher I didn’t feel it was a good idea to be on the Eisteddfod.”

Although she moved away from singing, Marilyn’s involvement with the Eisteddfod continued to grow.

She became its secretary in 1982, filling the role for three years before stepping back into it in 1989 to become the vocal coordinator.

“I then left the secretarial job in 1993, still continuing on as the vocal coordinator,” said Marilyn.

“Then in 2016 when Pauline Rauert, who was a really excellent secretary, left to go to Mildura, I said ‘ok, (I’ll do it again.)’

“So it’s 40 years I’ve been involved in it.”

There have been a lot of changes over the years, she said.

“The change of technology has made things very different.

“When I first was secretary, we had to type everything onto a gestetner stencil and then operate the old gestetner machine to do our schedule and our program.

“You’d have to really press hard so that you’d make the ink go through the little holes in the gestetner.

“It’s so different these days.

“Everything’s organised on the computer.

“Years ago you’d have to type a letter and get somebody to sign it and then you’d post it and you’d maybe get a reply.”

The role of the accompanist has also changed, said Marilyn, but one thing that hasn’t, and which she reminds performers to note, is to their pick their songs early to help out their accompanist.

“When I first started as vocal coordinator we didn’t have backing tracks, they hadn’t been invented yet,” said Marilyn.

“I had to accompany everybody and that was a hard job.

“I’ve had a lot of experience accompanying and I now accompany the Philharmonic and Morgan Street choirs. 

“As they got more into popular songs, I found myself a little bit behind because I’d been used to doing classical stuff, art songs, aria, sacred songs and all that sort of thing.

“But then we had to make room more and more for popular songs, musical comedy and theatre songs and sometimes I’ve really struggled.

“I had one student once who couldn’t choose what to sing, so for the last few weeks before the Eisteddfod she sort of learnt all these new songs and I couldn’t get her to concentrate on one or two songs.

“The week before the Eisteddfod she said, ‘I’ll do that one, and that one and that one.’

“And I said, ‘ok, alright then.’ 

“They were songs that I had only ever played once and when it came to the Eisteddfod I was totally bushed. 

“And she never realised that you do need to practice - an accompanist needs to practice, too.”


* This year’s 50th anniversary Eisteddfod will take place from August 17 to 21 at the Civic Centre. The Eisteddfod Committee is also looking for photos or documentation of the first Eisteddfod to put on display. If you have anything to share, you may email it to podnars@aapt.net.au or call Merrilyn Podnar on 8087 7633.

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