By Nora Sumberg

Hilja Toom is the 2021 Victorian recipient of the AESL Aukiri Award.

Hilja Toom is passionate about Estonian music, singing and culture. It is a life-long commitment which dates back to her early childhood. When Hilja was 6 or 7, she regularly performed at Estonian functions in Nottingham, England, where she lived. Hilja remembers accompanying a child who played the recorder. Hilja played the piano, which she had taught herself.

When she was 8 years old her family emigrated to Australia. Whilst still in the migrant hostel, Hilja’s parents gave her a book on how to play the piano accordion, so she taught herself, then decided to hold a concert for the other children in the hostel. A blanket was put over the clothes line (as a marquee) and the kids came and even paid to hear Hilja play.

Her first official job was at the age of 14/15. Hilja accompanied a girl’s gymnastic group on the piano. Hilja attended Altona High School and whilst there sang in various choirs, also performing as a soloist in their annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions. In the middle of High School she received a Citizenship award for being choir leader.

Hilja moved to Canada after completing High School, where she studied a Batchelor of Science (Pharmacy) in Vancouver, whilst also singing regularly with the Estonian choir there. After completing her Pharmacy degree Hilja moved from Vancouver to Toronto. As a young woman living in Canada, Hilja attended numerous classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music, studying voice, music history and theory, choral and orchestral conducting. Hilja also sang regularly with fellow voice students, at functions (weddings) and in the Estonian church. Hilja studied with leading Estonian composers and conductors. She quickly became an assistant conductor and was invited to the Eesti Muusika Akadeemia in Estonia, to develop her ‘Estonian hand’ at conducting. During this time Hilja also started and led a hospital choir and she sang at the 1990 and 1994 Laulupidus. Hilja’s list of accomplishments is extensive and impressive.

Never one to shy away from an opportunity, Hilja helped one of her singing teachers from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, teach groups of adults how to sing. Hilja remembers her role as Assistant teacher being a great learning experience and also great fun.

When Hilja returned to Australia in 2002, her commitment to the Estonian Singing Tradition continued. She began a Master of Music Studies, graduating in 2004.

Her major paper for her Masters degree, is titled: ‘Baltic Choirs in Melbourne - are they thriving or declining?’ (A question that is just as valid today) Hilja’s research included working closely with the Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian choirs, and the friendship and collaboration has continued since.

Hilja did this whilst studying for the Australian Pharmacist Registration exams, simultaneously running tutorials at the Victorian College of Pharmacy (now Monash Uni) and working part time at the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.

Hilja agreed to lead the Melbourne Estonian choir at a very busy time in her life. As a member of the choir, I am glad she did. She knew there was no one else and couldn’t bear to see the choir fold. This is her nature.

Hilja will always put Estonian culture first. Our choir is extremely lucky to have her. We immediately recognised her knowledge and sound teaching practice. She sees her role as one of education and instruction. Hilja knows how to bring out the best in our voices. She understands the science, has an extensive range of warm up exercises and knows how to motivate us. She plays the piano and conducts. And most of all she makes it fun. We leave buoyant after each rehearsal.

Hilja makes herself available for rehearsals and performances. She also leads the Finnish choir and at times has to juggle leading two choirs performing at the same time.

It goes without saying that Hilja Toom is a most worthy recipient of the Aukiri award.

February, 2021