A life full of wonderful memories is the legacy that multi-talented Helen Pain continues to build through following her passion for music, singing and art.
> Hi Helen. Tell us how you came to be in Port Macquarie.
David and I made the sea change north from Sydney four years ago. We had lived in Kiama on the South Coast, and then in Sydney for many years. We loved the buzz of Sydney – the theatres etc, but really wanted to escape the congestion and traffic when work wasn’t the determining factor. We initially thought of returning to Kiama, but a trip to Port in early winter when the weather was still mild and the wind wasn’t blowing, was enough to makes us rethink. We had friends here as well, and we knew that Port had a pretty vibrant arts community, so all those factors helped.
> Where did your passion for music and the arts come from? And how did it develop into your career?
When I was growing up, music and art were a part of normal family life. My father and grandfather were watercolourists, my mother was a ceramics decorator, so art was encouraged. Everybody sang, most played piano (with varying degrees of skill but a lot of enthusiasm) and all my family were involved in church choirs and concerts. It was just what we did!
At primary school, I was lucky to have several far sighted teachers who really valued learning through the arts. I remember sitting near the school fence and drawing and painting the beautiful jacaranda trees opposite the school. At 9 I entered and won my first art competition with a rather impressionistic outback scene about drought (I still love painting the outback.) But singing was my first passion. I was always in choirs – the kid in the back row who opened her mouth really wide! I never stopped singing, really – I always had a song in my head.
At 15 I started singing lessons, and with two school friends ventured into show biz in a trio called “The Debs” – matching dresses, gloves, beehive hairdo’s, the lot! We knew two songs when we auditioned for “Six O’Clock Rock” with Johnny O’Keefe. We got the gig, and then came a very fast learning curve finding more songs, with my Mum and sister frantically sewing more matching outfits! However, the end of school saw the demise of the “Debs” as we all followed different career paths. But my appetite for performing was whetted!
> How did singing become a career?
By accident really! I graduated as a primary teacher from Sydney Teachers’ College, so I “had a real job to fall back on”. This was particularly important to my parents, and as things turned out, was very good advice. However, I loved singing, and when an opportunity arose to join the Channel 7 Singers, I jumped at the chance. This was in the days when TV stations supported live variety shows – Channel 7 had 20 full time singers, 8 dancers, and an orchestra, and produced about 4 different variety shows each week. I mainly worked on “Sing Sing Sing” which was hosted by Johnny O’Keefe, and “Music Time” which was a more middle of the road show – more cabaret and music theatre. This was a totally exciting experience for a 17 year old, but eventually the TV work finished, so I looked elsewhere and moved into music theatre (with JC Williamson) and then into the chorus of the Elizabethan Opera Company – which eventually evolved into the Australian Opera.
I spent about 6 years studying and singing Opera, and I have many wonderful memories of this time – including making it to the final of the prestigious “Sun Aria” competition, sharing the stage with a young Kiri Te Kanawa. That same year I was lucky to be selected for the chorus of The Sutherland Williamson Grand Opera tour – an amazing 4 state tour with opera greats Joan Sutherland and a young Pavarotti. When I think back, I find it incredible that such opportunities came my way. It was another member of that tour – Dianne Helgesen, who later introduced me to the fabulous lifestyle of Port Macquarie.
When I married, I happily swapped opera for a more settled life with David in Kiama. Our two kids arrived. I returned to primary teaching, and found I loved it – particularly training and conducting choirs. How lucky to be able to blend the two careers that I loved!
So that started the second part of my career. After a few years of classroom teaching, I was seconded as Music Consultant for the South Coast Region. This was when I first met Robyn Ryan, who was then Music Consultant for the North Coast Region. We’ve been friends ever since. Robyn of course, is well known in music circles in Port Macquarie, specially as Musical Director of Hastings Choristers, which I joined when I arrived. I am now President, so we work closely together.
> Tell us about some of the highlights of your career and involvement with the schools spectacular.
When Dave and I moved from Kiama to Sydney, I worked in a number of Performing Arts consultancy positions with the NSW Department of Education. This gave me the opportunity to be involved in some amazing programs. Highlights would have to be standing on the Sydney Opera House stage conducting massed choirs of up to 800 voices at Primary Choral Concerts. What a thrill that was. Other wonderful memories – organising kids from across the state to be part of the choirs at the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Opening Ceremonies, and singing with them at the ceremonies. That was a major highlight. Another would be helping young singers find their performing feet. I remember Human Nature’s first ever public performance singing “Earth Angel” in a concert I was directing. I remember 15 year old Paulini turning up with a friend who was auditioning for a show in Bankstown, and asking – can I have a go too? She blew us away!
I’m very proud of my 20 year association with the Schools Spectacular. I started in stage management, then moved to conducting the massed choirs and working with the soloists – I did this for 10 years, and then I became Associate Director. Many of Australia’s top entertainers have come through “Spec” and are still friends – John Foreman, Human Nature (now performing a major show in Las Vegas), Paulini (of Australian Idol fame), The McClymonts, Felicity and Darren Coggan in country music, and Julie Goodwin who has a huge career ahead of her in Opera. Focus interviewed Julie in the October issue when she came to Port to sing in Choristers “Bach to Broadway” concert. It’s great to look back now and track the careers of the kids I’ve worked with through the Schools Spectacular. Many are doing really well now, in music varying from Opera to Cabaret and the record industry – both here and overseas.
> Tell us about your involvement with Hastings Choristers.
When I first met Robyn Ryan 20 hears ago, she had just started a community choir in Port Macquarie. That of course was Hastings Choristers, which has gone from strength to strength, presenting 3 or 4 quality concerts each year. Joining Choristers was one of the first things I did when we came to Port. For years I had trained choirs and soloists, but not done much singing myself, so it was great to have a reason to be a performer again. I also made many new friends through the choir. There’s nothing like being part of shared music making – with everyone doing their utmost to get it right. We are starting working on “Christmas In The Glasshouse” now, which will be lighter Christmassy music. People can still join – I recommend it to anyone who loves to sing!
> What is life like in Port now and what do you get involved with?
I love our life now in Port. We live near the beach, which is spectacular! Every week is different. Dave utilizes his huge music collection by presenting two shows each week on Radio 2Way FM. Apart from joining Choristers, I have also rekindled my interest in art which gives me great enjoyment and I’ve had a modicum of success. I have joined Hastings Valley Fine Art Society – a fantastic group supporting local artists. I learn from Julie Goldspink and thank her for getting me started and for and inspiration. I was thrilled to have an exhibition of my work at Sunset Gallery in 2008.
Life is very busy now. I still continue to assist young singers when I can. I direct the North Coast’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), which is held here in Port Macquarie for students from public schools in the North Coast. I’ve also continued as a Director of Bankstown Council’s Talent Advancement Program, which means many trips to Sydney, and some touring – we’ve just returned from a Sister City Exchange to Japan.
> Final Say?
I think I’m so lucky. Even though I’ve officially retired, I’m still involved in the aspects of my career that I love most –singing, choirs, and working with young singers, and now I’ve added painting as another special interest. Port has so much natural beauty – and a great community feel- it’s a fabulous and vibrant place to live – I’m so happy to be here!sincerely thank Robyn and everyone else for the joy this brings me and for the camaraderie and challenge of Choristers. Port is a fabulous and vibrant place to live – I’m so happy to be here!
> Thank you Helen.