Monday interview: Kirsty Baird, founder of Sing in the City

Kirsty Baird visits each  of her choirs at least once per eight-week term. She says it is all about the 'personal thing'. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Kirsty Baird visits each of her choirs at least once per eight-week term. She says it is all about the 'personal thing'. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Baird relishes witty banter as she flies the flag with the Fivers choir at Fisherrow

It’s a Wednesday night in Musselburgh, and through a warren of corridors and up the stairs at the Fisherrow Community Centre, Kirsty Baird dons a wireless headset as she prepares to lead the “Fivers” in their weekly choir rehearsal.

Only a couple of the 40-plus members assembled have not previously met the founder of Sing in the City. Aided by the microphone curved around her left cheek, Baird introduces herself. “Who else here hasn’t met me – you?” she calls out, pointing to an upraised hand at the back. “Hello, what’s your name?”

The reply is almost lost in the jovial chat and general shuffle of the crowd, but Baird manages to pluck out the response.

“Susan, so nice to meet you. And all those things they say about me – they’re not true.”

The banter lifts the already elevated spirits of the vocal ensemble, which takes a few more minutes to settle before launching into Primal Scream’s Movin’ On Up.

The Fivers, as the name suggests, was the fifth choir set up by Sing in the City following its launch in 2010. Seven groups now meet regularly around Edinburgh, with an eighth in Dunfermline, each with its own dedicated coaching team.

The Fivers are usually led by Dorothy Lister and Claire Cameron, who are both members of Sing in the City’s premiere Aw Blacks choir, but Baird steps in from time to time. She also visits each group at least once per eight-week term.

“It is important to me that I am there and I am with them,” she says. “For me, it is all about the personal thing.”

Which is why she’ll be in Kirkcaldy tonight for the inaugural meeting of Sing in the City’s ninth choir. More than 50 are expected at St Peter’s Episcopal Church as growing numbers of “ordinary” people seek to unlock their inner voice.

Non-denominational groups for amateurs were rare when Baird launched Sing in the City, but television programmes such as Gareth Malone’s The Choir have helped fuel a proliferation of vocal performance ensembles. With more than 500 members and multiple waiting lists, Sing in the City hasn’t suffered from the increase in competition. Baird reckons she could expand further, but with a lengthy career in live entertainment, other ambitions are taking priority.

“More choirs would get more money in the tills, which in one way is sensible, but it’s not like that for me,” she says. “I want to perform.”

Every group puts on at least one main show per year, with members encouraged to sell at least five tickets each. Income from these performances supplements membership revenues which amount to about £150,000 annually, along with additional earnings on sales of t-shirts and other Sing in the City merchandise.

With that, Baird employs one full-time and one part-time member of staff, and pays for the services of ten coaches who lead the various choirs. Rather than relying on Karaoke-style backing tracks, she also has a stable of contracted musicians who play at every rehearsal and performance.

The latter have taken place through the years at churches, community centres and charity fund-raisers of nearly every description. Larger venues have included the Church Hill Theatre in Morningside, seating about 350, as well as Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline and Portobello Town Hall, with room for roughly 500 and 600 respectively.

The largest audience to date was a crowd of 750 at The Queen’s Hall in 2013, where the Aw Blacks sang a mix of covers from the 1960s to the modern era, as well as original material written by Baird and band leader Annette Hanley.

The closest Baird ever came to what her mum might have called a “proper” job was four years of part-time work at Scottish Gas.

While there, she took advantage of the opportunity of a three-month sabbatical to set up her first business, Kids Rock UK, in 2007.

Kids Rock – a combination of after-school club and music camp – paved the way to teaching Singing for Fun classes on behalf of the council, which in turn was the final stepping stone to Sing in the City.

With the Festival Theatre now in her sights and an all-choir performance set to follow at Usher Hall, Baird muses she might one day lead her troupe onto the stage at Edinburgh Playhouse, the UK’s largest-capacity non-sporting theatre.

“After that, I don’t know – Carnegie Hall in America maybe?”

30 SECOND CV

Born: Edinburgh, 1967

Raised: Rochdale and Edinburgh

Education: Liberton High School

First job: Waitressing

Can’t live without: Music

Favourite musician: I love Lionel Richie, to be honest. It’s not like it’s what I listen to all the time, but I saw him at Edinburgh Castle last year, and he is a proper showman

Favourite city: Edinburgh

Preferred mode of transport: Car and cycling

What car do you drive: Suzuki Grand Vitara

What makes you angry: Bad manners and thoughtlessness

Best thing about your job: The music and the people