Community choir: something to sing about

Shona Brown conducts at Soundroutes in Motherwell. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Shona Brown conducts at Soundroutes in Motherwell. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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FORGET frilly blouses and Nymphs And Shepherds, today’s choirs are singing from an altogether different song sheet – and it’s good for your health, writes Anna Burnside

BACK in the day, choirs were about as cool and groovy as brown bri-nylon underpants. Madrigals and polyphonic arrangements were discussed only by trainee geography teachers unsuccessful with the opposite sex and choirs unconnected to a church or a Gaelic-speaking community were for serious amateur musicians prepared to wear frilly white blouses and read music. Singers were tenors or sopranos and they tackled a complex puirt-a-beul, or Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

No longer. Today’s choirs are more likely to perform the work of the Dead Kennedys than the St Matthew Passion. Ace Of Spades is sung more often in three-part harmony by a bunch of accountants and nurses than by Lemmy.

In Glasgow and the surrounding area there are more than 60 choirs, from the Eurydice Socialist Women’s Voice Choir with its repertoire of stirring revolutionary feminist anthems to the Glasgow Cathedral Choral Society which performs Handel’s Messiah once a year. The majority, however, are the new breed of choir, with no auditions, no scores to read, no rigid seating plan in place since John Major was prime minister. Out goes Purcell’s Nymphs And Shepherds. In comes Jessie J’s Price Tag.

“Traditional choirs can be so cliquey, they give you funny looks when you’re new, if you sit in so-and-so’s seat,” says Harry Campbell, the leader of Voicebeat community choir. “I would even argue with the word ‘choir’ – it’s so unappealing, rows of people doing something distinctly classical.” He prefers “community choir”, or even “song group”. And he’s not the conductor. He’s the “choir leader”.

Being a bloke in charge of a choir – especially one that specialises in world music – makes him as rare as a cheerful Rangers fan. “The typical world music choir leader,” says Campbell, “is a middle-aged woman in a long Laura Ashley frock who believes in crystal healing.” In fact an acute Y chromosome shortage is the bane of every choir. “If you are British, it’s just about the gayest thing you can do,” he adds Campbell. “But we have a tradition of blokes in pubs singing about fox hunting and wenching. It was not in the least gay in the 18th century. In America, the original glee clubs were full of men singing in harmony. But it’s died out in the UK.”

Voicebeat, says Campbell proudly, sometimes has a 30-70 ratio of men to women. He puts this down to his own presence (“although I’m not the most macho of men”) and the lack of warm-up exercises at rehearsals. “Men are more easily embarrassed. They don’t want to make noises like puppy dogs. Women love it, and men think, beam me up Scotty.” To empathise with new male members of the choir, he pictures himself “on a freezing rugby pitch, my weedy knees knocking together with a big scrum half bearing down on me”.

At Soundroutes in Motherwell on a Monday night, choir leader Shona Brown can only dream of Voicebeat’s abundance of testosterone. Women come pouring in from all directions (including Linda Buxton, who drives from West Lothian). They bring their sisters, teenage daughters, friends. Only one brings her husband. Two men arrive together, doing great things for the percentages. It turns out that one of them is blind and the other chap is his non-singing carer.

It’s warm-up time. There is much removing of padded jackets and cardigans. Brown, who at 28 is half the age of many of her members, takes no nonsense. Stand up, deep breath and hands to the ceiling. Neck stretches. Shoulder circles while breathing. Deep breath for seven beats. Big sigh. Scales. Zingamama zingamama zing in several keys. “Really make your mouth work,” she says.

Tonight the Motherwell Soundrouters are working on the Bob Marley song One Love, The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes (you may be more familiar with Limp Bizkit’s strangled 2003 version) and I Can See Clearly Now, originally written by Johnny Nash in 1971 and since performed by everyone from Willie Nelson to Donny Osmond. No repertoire is too outré: they also sing Primal Scream’s Movin’ On Up, the Proclaimers’ Sunshine On Leith and gospel familiars Jacob’s Ladder and Mary Don’t Weep. At Voicebeat, Campbell’s current favourite is an Italian rice weeders’ song, although he notes acidly that a couple of other Glasgow choirs also have it in their folders. The Parsonage, Glasgow’s first alt choir, was formed by a group of friends who had been in bands and on the fringes of the music scene and wanted to sing Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash songs.

“It has certainly broadened my musical horizons,” says Carol Davidson, 54, who joined Soundroutes 18 months ago after her husband died. She had previously sung in a church choir and was unfamiliar with the work of Bob Marley. She particularly enjoys I Can See Clearly Now. “It’s upbeat. It’s about moving on in a journey.”

Since choral singing has become a reality TV fixture, its benefits have become well known. A couple of hours down at the community centre belting out Lost Highway or Valerie has been shown to help people recover from heart disease. It is an aerobically demanding upper body workout, improves airflow to the upper respiratory tract and boosts neurological functioning. It creates a sense of community, joint purpose and achievement. It also releases endorphins and makes the singer feel great. Professor Grenville Hancox, who is leading research into the health benefits of joining a choir, is lobbying the NHS to provide singing on prescription.

It also makes great telly; witness the BBC’s Last Choir Standing, ITV’s The Rock Choir and Gareth Malone’s status as national treasure. Malone is an convincing cheerleader for the benefits of communal singing and his enthusiasm and charm in helping lonely military wives and surly adolescents find their voice has done a good deal to convince thousands of others that they too might enjoy joining a choir.

His theory is that humans have always sung together, it’s only in the recent past that we have become shy and sheepish about it. “Archaeological evidence shows that humans have been making music for tens of thousands of years,” Malone says. “The camaraderie of communal singing is of benefit to people – you don’t get that when listening to a CD, no matter what style of music. You don’t even get it in karaoke because that’s focused on individual performances. It’s mostly at football matches and religious gatherings that people sing en masse with no thought of their own ability. I think it’s important that people feel free to sing and that there is somewhere for them to be heard. People can feel very isolated, and singing is an excellent way to combat that.”

Brown’s choirs – there are also branches of Soundroutes in Carluke, Hamilton and Glasgow city centre – bear this out. They are organised to maximise singing enjoyment and minimise jargon, bureaucracy and other barriers to joining in. All four learn the same songs, so if you miss Monday in Motherwell there is always Carluke on Wednesday. They come together several times a year for performances.

“Some choirs are very snobby, they want you to read music,” says Joyce Dunn, 65, a member of Soundroutes since they met in the back room of the Electric Bar and sang everything unaccompanied. “Here we are taught without music. There are no tenors or sopranos. You are a one, two or a three. And if you decide you don’t like being a one, you can move to the twos.”

Another founder member, 34-year-old Julie Dickson, enjoys it so much that she has dropped amateur dramatics to concentrate on Soundroutes. She comes with her friend Gail Collins, 48, who she met at choir. “We are singing buddies,” says Collins. “I was reluctant at first. I had a bad experience on stage, but this is the best thing I’ve ever done. I wish I’d done it when I was younger.”

Linda Buxton, 57, who traverses the central belt to sing beside her sister Norma Duncan, 60, finds it the most therapeutic hour and a half of her week. “You concentrate so hard on what you are doing that you forget everything else. Then it’s back to the real world.”

“I wish I’d heard about the choir before I started taking my blood pressure pills. I wouldn’t have needed them,” adds Duncan.