Know your choir - Geraldine Triffitt

Know your choir – Geraldine Triffitt

At the age of four I played chopsticks on the piano, hit a tennis ball against the wall of the house and heard my sisters practising French and German words at the dining table. Today my interests are still the same – music, tennis and languages.

I was born in Hobart, Tasmania during the Second World War. My mother and my two sisters, Mary and Helen, were New Zealanders and my father, a Victorian, managed a life insurance branch in New Zealand before coming to Tasmania as manager in 1936.

Mum and Mary both played the piano but I had my heart set on the violin from the age of four. I had to wait until I could read music so that I was seven when I started violin lessons with Ronald McKay in Hobart.

My first public performance was playing Greensleeves at the age of eight in the Hobart Eisteddfod. I played in eisteddfods for many years but never won first prize, although I picked up a couple of seconds.

My most traumatic experience was playing in the New Norfolk Eisteddfod at night in the hall at the mental hospital. I was playing a Handel sonata when the pegs of my G and D strings both slipped. Not being a proficient tuner of my violin I stopped but the adjudicator did not realize the cause and thought it was the effect of a late night on a 10 year old! My friend Anne Walker (who later joined the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra) was the winner, but I was the only other competitor and was allowed second prize.

Anne had her violin lesson after me and I used to stay and listen to her. We both played in Ronald McKay’s orchestra. I remember hearing about the death of King George VI at an orchestral practice on 6 February 1952.

My parents were very interested in classical music and had a subscription to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra concerts. They had friends who bought long-playing records which were slowly appearing after the war. They played their new purchases on Friday nights, and I went to these evenings and also to the symphony concerts.

I went to the Friends’ School in Hobart from the age of 5 to 17. This was a Quaker school which was very progressive. The headmaster had been recruited as a young man to teach at the International School in Geneva. He was a good pianist and was very interested in encouraging music in the school. We had a school orchestra which I led for a few years. In my penultimate year at school I played the Bach E major Concerto for Violin at Speech Night.

A great influence and joy at school was the gift from the Carnegie Corporation of 5,000 classical records and the set to play them on. Morning assembly started with silence and then a piece of classical music. This provided a calm and reflective start to the day.

During my school career I sat examinations for the AMEB, the London School of Music and Trinity College. These external examinations qualified as a subject for the Matriculation and also a university subject for my Bachelor of Arts.

At school I played tennis every day and regularly entered tennis tournaments in various parts of Tasmania. I found tennis a useful method of meeting people in a new environment.

My other lifelong interests have been languages and geography. In 1948 my mother and I went to New Zealand and the Maoris at their marae at Porirua fascinated me. A friend’s partner was Maori and she taught me some words of her language.

At school and the University of Tasmania I studied French and German languages. I was keen to learn Italian but it was not offered.

My music career went through a dormant period for a number of years. I did a geography honours degree, followed by marriage to Tom Triffitt, a fellow geography student. Our son Iain was born in Hobart and two years later in 1966 we moved to Canberra where Tom took up a position at the National Library of Australia.

I worked at the Department of Treasury Library while I completed my library studies for the Library Association of Australia. Tom worked in the Training Section of the National Library and instructed me in the finer points of librarianship while we did the washing up.

In 1968 and 1969 I compiled maps for the Atlas of Australian Resources and Queensland Geographical series in the Geographic Section of the Department of National Development. In 1970 while working as a research assistant in the Sociology Department at the Australian National University I gave birth to my second son, Ross.

In 1972 I joined the staff of the National Library of Australia and worked there until 1984. During that time I studied Indonesian language for a year at the ANU. At the library I was introduced to a different form of music. A bush band was formed to perform at the National Library Christmas Party one year. This introduced me to Irish music and folk music generally.

Another important event in the 1970s was our first visit to Fiji in 1973 on a tourist 10-day package. We met up with friends whom Tom had trained in librarianship. This had the eventual result of Tom being invited to the remote village of Soso. He had been a professional photographer, and was involved with audio-visual methods of training at the Library and these were considered ideal qualifications to record the culture and heritage of the village. He was adopted as the son of a prominent member of a clan in the village and as a result our whole family was adopted into the social structure. One condition was that we should learn the language of the village. This was a dialect of the Western Fijian language which is different from the standard Fijian language.

Our family was involved with the Fijians in Canberra and later a Tongan student stayed with us while he was a student at Narrabundah College and completed his Science degree at the Australian National University. While working I studied Linguistics at the ANU and one of my units involved a study of Tongan.

After some years of serious illness, Tom died in 1985. I had left the National Library and worked in special libraries. In 1986 I joined the library of the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, later AIATSIS, as the language specialist. I moved to Kambah and joined a church which had a bush band. This led me to joining the Murrumbidgee Band which played at bush dances, church fairs and other events.

Since 1994 I have attended the National Folk Festival at Easter regularly and participated in workshops featuring different types of fiddle music. As well I attended a music camp in January located first in Tasmania and later in the Kyneton district of Victoria for ten years. After leaving the Murrumbidgee Band I joined Canberra Scottish Fiddlers and a group who play Irish music. This year I have joined the Brindabella Orchestra. This has proved a challenge to revive my limited technique, to learn to count the bars of rest and to be consistent with my bowing!

I retired from AIATSIS in 1997 but continued working under contract in libraries and government departments. In 1999, Lois Carrington and I compiled OZBIB: a linguistic bibliography of Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, published by Pacific Linguistics. This was followed by a supplement in 2006. AIATSIS bought the copyright, converted the printed works to a database and employed me to update it until 2015.

Since my retirement I have studied Italian with various tutors including Livio Chicco. He encouraged me to join the musicians for the Dante Musica Viva Choir. This is my fourth year with them. It has been a fun time. I enjoyed particularly the trip we had to Griffith, and of course our social events. It is inspiring to play music to groups who have not heard the songs of their youth for years. A happy coincidence was my trip to Spain to walk the Camino. I mentioned I was doing that one night at the Choir and was asked when my friend Penny and I were going. I said 17 June 2015 and was told that Yvette, Sue, Annie, Maria and her husband Bruno were doing the same thing a day earlier. We met up and together finished at Santiago de Compostela.

I have travelled widely, with several visits to Italy, where I studied at language schools in Firenze and Lucca. I have also studied French at Montpellier and German at Kassel. My family has kept in contact with Soso village over the years. We have visited there and members of the Nayato family have stayed with us each year since 2010. As a result I have been able to record the village culture by publishing a book of portraits of several generations of each family, Soso families (2012, 2014) and a recent publication with Onisimo Nayato, Soso village (2017), which describes life in the village and changes that have taken place over the years.

I have been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to follow my interests of music, tennis, languages and travel, to have had interesting work using my skills and stimulating hobbies for my retirement. My family has supported me since Tom’s premature death, and I have had the opportunity to learn about different cultures through my Fijian family and my travels. My only wish is that I was fluent in languages other than English. The more bits of language I know the more they get mixed up.

Geraldine Triffitt