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Karen Stretch meets three organisations already transforming lives via the power of singing.
Imagine a choir where the ‘singers’ have never sung before, sometimes have trouble keeping appointments and most of them don’t know anyone else who is there.
Chuck in a conductor with a penchant for cheesy warm-up exercises and you could be forgiven for thinking the process is doomed – but this is The Choir with No Name (CWNN), a UK charity set up in 2008 for those affected by homelessness and now with four branches (Liverpool, Birmingham, North London and South London) meeting weekly in cities around the country. Members turn up, rehearse and have a hot meal and a chat afterwards but they also perform and have recorded an album and an EP and toured with Coldplay.
Conductor Sam Chaplin was there at the launch of the South London choir in 2012.
‘You’re taking people from believing they can’t sing to them actually singing, doing gigs or a solo and people go on a massive journey,’ he says. ‘The warm-up is very much about making sounds and making a pitch and finding your voice. I do that with incremental growth so I am making small agreements with people. To perform, you have to come out of yourself and share something from somewhere inside.
‘That’s what singing is and the sound from within you comes out and that takes quite a lot of emotional bravery. One reason why people come away from these rehearsals feeling amazing is because anything that helps you to shed your inhibitions and releases dopamine and oxytocin suddenly opens you up to the world and the people around you.’
It’s not to say the music is a quick fix. Homelessness goes hand in hand with other problems such as mental health and CWNN works together with St Mungo’s and Centrepoint among other organisations to help members access the support they need.
‘People are on a journey and sometimes they come for a bit and drop out for a bit because things aren’t always plain sailing,’ says Chaplin. ‘But what is good is that it is a home to the choir and people come back. We try to keep it that you come when you can and there is always a welcome.’
With almost 1,000 people participating in CWNN choirs last year and 76 per cent of them reporting an improvement in their mental health (not to mention 60 per cent finding stability in employment, volunteering or housing since joining the choir), it is evident that such initiatives are doing a fantastic job.
In October 2017, the then co-chair of the UK’s All Party Group on Arts, Health and Well Being, Ed Vaizey MP, made an impassioned plea to the Government to engage in the issue and develop a cross-departmental strategy incorporating both health and arts ministers to ensure the promotion and support of such projects.
In July 2017, following two years of and research and discussion from the worlds of academia, health, arts and politics, the All Party Group published an inquiry into the effect of the arts on health.
‘This report provides considerable evidence that arts-based approaches can help people to stay well, to recover faster, to manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life,’ said Vaizey at the Commons debate. ‘Arts engagement can have a positive impact at every point in life.’
Mentioning childhood mental health problems that can be prevented or mitigated through early arts interventions, Vaizey also highlighted a growing initiative aimed at the senior end of society, A Choir in Every Care Home run by Live Music Now.
‘This is encouraging music and singing in care homes across the UK,’ he explained. ‘It supports evidence that regular group singing can enhance morale, reduce loneliness and improve mental health. It can also help those suffering with a terminal illness as well.’
Chief Executive of Live Music Now Evan Dawson couldn’t agree more. Two years into the initiative, A Choir in Every Care Home is really taking off with its practical approach producing impressive results.
‘Even if we had the most enormous Government grant, there is no way that we could deliver professional music leadership in care homes or communities on a scale that the evidence would suggest is necessary,’ says Dawson. ‘We will do as much as we can and we will also inspire and train and support care staff to use music as well. It doesn’t have to be expensive: care staff singing when they get people up in the morning and when they get them dressed. It can be incredibly effective. What they need is permission and encouragement but they also do need support sometimes.’
Live Music Now is training 350 musicians throughout the country to coach and support care staff to deliver interactive music sessions. In each of the 18 care homes where they started the scheme six months ago, all are now using music in their day-to-day lives.
The project will continue to develop in the next six months, going into six care homes and introducing a ‘bells and whistles’ music programme, training staff and working with the residents there. With a framework designed by senior staff at some of the big care chains involved – BUPA, MHA and the Orders of St John Care Trust – the project will be evaluated by the University of Winchester.
‘My hope is that we will make a really strong case for care homes to invest in this work,’ says Dawson. ‘It doesn’t have to be expensive and actually will save money. The British choral tradition is a precious thing and I think we may have lost the connection between choirs and communities. Of all the social problems that we have, this could be one that we could fix quite cheaply.’
Of course, it’s not just the elderly who benefit from social networking and musical support. Across the pond in Boston, Massachusetts, the Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC) has been linking communities through music and providing a safe, friendly space for open discussion since 2003. Founded by the former Dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work, Hubie Jones, the not-for-profit choir brings together diverse communities and now has 12 different choirs in five locations across the city. There are 500 children aged from seven to 18 involved, with four out of five receiving financial aid.
Associate Music Director Robbie Jacobs moved from his position as Acting Artistic Director of the London Youth Choir to join the organisation only a few weeks ago.
‘As well as being a fantastic musical organisation creating fantastic artistic output with the kids, probably the most important part of this organisation’s work is facilitating conversations about sometimes difficult subjects,’ he says of BCC. ‘We are hearing the students’ point of view and encouraging them to come into contact with students from parts of a city which is a melting point of different cultures.
‘Beyond that, we are having conversations about things that are difficult to discuss and facilitating them as part of the musical process.’
On the day we speak, America is still reeling from the previous day’s news of lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, shooting 58 people dead from the window of his Las Vegas hotel, before turning the gun on himself.
‘I’ve got a group tonight and I would say it’s pretty likely that we will talk about gun control in the context of Las Vegas,’ says Jacobs. ‘That is a current event that is on people’s minds and particularly for a teenager that might be a very scary thing.
‘Here, we will make an environment where people can share their views. There may be a disparity of views in the room and the discussion of that will be empathetic and open so that nobody is going to be shouted down and all views are represented.’
To facilitate such discussions alongside the music, two-hour rehearsals take place twice a week, giving plenty of time to rehearse and create an environment to discuss social change.
‘It couldn’t be further from the idea of a Cambridge choir,’ admits Jacobs. ‘That was my background because I was a choral scholar at Kings [College, Cambridge] and I would argue a lot for the better. In the UK, my experience of working with a youth choir is that we take people from a young age and train them, then an 11-year-old will audition for an intermediate choir and we’ll say, ‘Sorry, you’re not good enough, goodbye’. With BCC, no child is going to be turned away and once you’re in, you’re in till you’re 18.’
As for his future with the choir, Jacobs is excited to see what’s around the corner. ‘It’s very new and quite hard to know exactly what direction it is going in,’ he smiles. ‘I hope it is going to be a life-changing experience for me too!’
Header photo: Boston Children’s Chorus © Gretjen Helene Photography
I was at Crisis’s office on a Wednesday which so happened to be the day that The Choir with No Name got together to rehearse. A member of staff asked me along for a rehearsal.
I haven’t sung in a choir before this because I was a very isolated person and such things didn’t really interest me at the time.
I am a massive fan of metal, Avenged Sevenfold in particular, but I enjoy all kinds of music. My favourite piece with CWNN is undoubtedly Human by Rag’n’Bone Man. I enjoyed this song when I heard it myself and suggested it for choir and it went down fantastically with the other members during our song selection process.
Singing with the choir makes me feel ecstatic. Whole. It gives me a feeling that I’m part of something so much bigger than myself and that is an amazing thing for me.
Being in choir has given me something to look forward to on a Wednesday evening. It has given me a reason to get into bed on a Tuesday evening and wake up somewhat early on a Wednesday. It gives you people to look forward to seeing. It makes you feel proud of yourself when you smash out a gig or new song in rehearsal.
Join if for nothing more than to get yourself out of the house and watch as you find yourself eager to come back every week. Come for the hot meal cooked by the talented volunteers. Come for the camaraderie. Stay for the amazing singing.
When I was in my previous care home, I asked the Head of Activities if we could have a choir.
Then I moved to this care home – it has the same Head of Activities, Alistair – and joined their choir. Singing with the choir makes me feel happy and helps me get to know people. I’ve sung in choirs all my life, starting at school. I like all music as long as I can understand it. I would encourage others to join a choir – it’s a good feeling.
One thing I love about BCC is that we go beyond singing traditional choral music and are able to redefine what a children’s chorus can do. While we do sing some classical music, for most of the year (especially in the upper choirs) we focus on more contemporary pieces that require so much more emotion and power in order to do them justice – and that’s what makes us artists.
Last year, my choir performed a concert with a theme of gender equality that was absolutely incredible – so much fun! – and we sang my two favorite songs we’ve ever done, Quiet by MILCK and Turn Our Eyes Away by Trent Dabbs and Ruby Amanfu. Those two songs were stunningly powerful. So much heart and soul needed to go into them and we rose up to the challenge beautifully – I think everyone was able to personally connect to the words and put all kinds of emotion into them.
Singing in BCC with my friends, some of which I’ve known since I was a little kid, just gives me a sense of pride and fulfillment that nothing else ever has. When you work so hard for so long at something, you bond with people in a way that truly makes you feel like family. Making music clears my head and helps me put things into perspective and just brings me endless amounts of happiness. BCC gives me a sense of clarity, purpose and accomplishment that I can’t get anywhere else.
The atmosphere at BCC is truly one of a kind. I walk into the room and always do a little bit of a double-take because I feel like I am stepping into a memory – countless hours of talking and rehearsing and staging in the rehearsal room have made it such a special place for me, like a little sanctuary where I know I can be whoever I want. The discussions that take place in the room have defined the person I am today. They allow us to be vulnerable and that helps us all grow closer and trust one another. Even though we are children, we refuse to avoid controversial topics. We work to make sure that all opinions can always be heard and appreciated. While BCC makes an effort to make sure everyone’s thoughts are accepted, we do not listen to those that are hateful or oppressive. Everyone at BCC has such a respect for one another and the discussions we have about modern politics make our group incredibly tight-knit.
I am from a town that is almost all white and there aren’t very many different kinds of people to get to know. When you come from a place like this, it is so easy to be ignorant. Because of our discussions in BCC, I make sure to direct my efforts into creating and inspiring social change, even in issues that do not affect me personally. BCC is one of a kind in that we manage to make incredible art with a purpose. When you unite hundreds of kids over a common goal of musical excellence and social change, incredible things happen and I believe that’s something that everyone has the right to experience.
After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.
Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol in the South-West of the UK.
This article was first published in November 2017