Do you believe that choirs are only for the elderly, dull or classically trained? Well, think again. The good news is that there’s a choir out there for everyone, whatever their age or musical talent, it’s fun and, best of all, singing is officially good for you!
You can’t switch on the TV without finding a talent show or documentary featuring singing. From X Factor to A Cappella, The Bach Choir to Gareth Malone, any form of group singing – choral, barbershop, rock or pop – is popular and ‘cool’, while research continues to highlight its many benefits to physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing.
Gold standard singing
Established in 1876 The Bach Choir has been described as ‘the finest independent choir in the world’ (London Evening Standard). Nowadays, the choir is as likely to be recording a soundtrack for a Ridley Scott film or the Christmas TV advertisement for John Lewis as it is to perform a Handel oratorio.
Members of the 250-strong choir rehearse in Victoria every Monday night and audition regularly to maintain professionalism and ensure the right mix of voices. With a third aged under 30, members are drawn from all professions – from high court judges to students – and live in many different areas including Sevenoaks, Hildenborough, Rochester and Gillingham in Kent alone.
“It’s a good mix,” says General Manager Nick Cutts. “It’s a coming together of like-minded people who simply wish to sing for pleasure.”
Closer to home is the Sevenoaks-based ladies’ A Cappella chorus, Green Street Blues, which recently came sixth overall in a national competition, gaining first place in their mid-sized group. Member Jenny Gorniak puts their success down to the hard work and talent of their musical director, 2017 Barbershopper of the Year Ros Kipps.
“The singing is fun and a real stress buster,” she says. “It requires hard work and focus but everyone has a part to play.”
Tuneless, not useless
What if you love singing, but are not very good? That was the unhappy experience of Nadine Cooper from Nottingham who was once drummed out of a school choir. In 2016, she redressed the balance by setting up the Tuneless Choirs franchise for those who want to sing for pleasure but lack musical training or ability. The concept caught on, with choirs springing up all over the country. Watching Nadine’s Nottingham group perform on the BBC’s One Show was Sheena Wickenden. She took the plunge and launched tuneless choirs in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells.
Both choirs meet fortnightly. Sheena organises and leads uncomplicated karaoke-style singing using backing tracks and printed lyrics. There’s no pressure to attend, either, as members can pay as they go.
“Everyone can sing,” says Sheena, “but not necessarily in tune or in time. At Tuneless Choir we sing like there’s no one listening. There are many health benefits and we also raise money for charity.”
Many charities run choirs, too. The Hospice in the Weald’s Community Choir welcomes patients’ families, carers, staff, volunteers and anyone else who wants to sing, as well as patients themselves.
“There are no auditions, everyone is welcome and we try everything from Carl Jenkins to The Beatles. You just have to enjoy singing,” says Choir Administrator Jenny Saggers.
In October the choir joined other choirs of children and adults at Sevenoaks’ New Beacon School in a performance of Ahoy! Sing for the Mary Rose, composed and conducted by Alexander L’Estrange. Other concerts and events are planned for the festive season.
With Advent underway many of us will be singing carols, in or outside church. Most churches have at least one choir, although St Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church in Sevenoaks bucks the trend with two. Led by Angela Simmonds, the Music Group – a mix of singers and musicians – tackles contemporary works, including a Mass written by Angela herself, while the Traditional Choir is organised and accompanied by Barbara Page.
It sings earlier church music, including Plainsong, and often in Latin. The small group has been together for years. “People like to hear old church music and we sing at weddings and funerals. We know each other well and regularly experience the joy gained from a few voices singing in harmony,” says Barbara.
If choral music isn’t your thing then the Rock Choir might be. It’s the country’s largest contemporary choir with more than 24,000 members, and over 500 based in Kent. The ethos is that everyone can sing and you don’t have to read music. Choirs from all over the county regularly perform rock classics and contemporary hits.
All the benefits?
A number of research projects, including the Republic of Ireland’s Sing Yourself Better, Canada’s Connecting through Song or West Kent Mind’s community singing pilot with Canterbury Christ Church University, have shown that singing helps with a wide range of physical, mental and emotional problems.
During the Mind project, a mixed group of people, including some with mental health difficulties, regularly sang together. The results showed clinically significant improvements in their mental health and wellbeing. Singing together built confidence, reduced distressing symptoms and helped them to feel happier and better connected with others. The D’Vine Singers, as they are known, are now independent, self-funding and perform regularly at concerts and local care homes.
Bach Choir member Dr Julia Palmer is a consultant psychiatrist. “Research shows that singing can improve wellbeing and behavioural problems in dementia patients who struggle with memory loss and incoherent speech. Music can play a part in unlocking memories,” she explains.
People with depression or schizophrenia are often isolated. Choral singing brings them together in a group without having to talk. “It’s diversionary therapy, a communal activity that helps you to concentrate on something other than voices or paranoid fears,” adds Julia.
West Kent Mind’s Friday lunchtime ‘Skiffle’ group offers music and singing to the community at their Sevenoaks base, with the support of volunteer musicians. “We sing George Michael, The Beatles, Carpenters and everything else in between. It helps people feel good at the end of the week,” says the charity’s Marie McEwan.
• The Bach Choir, visit www.thebachchoir.org.uk
• D’Vine singers, call 01732 744950 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Green Street Blues, email email@example.com or visit www.greenstreetblues.org
• St Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church, call 01732 741693 or visit www.sevrcparish.org.uk
• Hospice in the Weald Choir, contact Hannah Bruce/Jenny Saggers on 01892 820558/01732 360243, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
• Rock Choir, call 01252 714276 or visit www.rockchoir.com
• West Kent Mind, call 01732 744950 or visit www.westkentmind.org.uk
• Tuneless Choir, call Sheena Wickenden on 07595 639145, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.facebook.com/tunelesschoirtunbridgewells