Casual Choir: ‘This is for everybody . . . it’s not about being perfect’

Roisin Savage has created a musical setting where participants can just have fun

Roisin Savage (front right) leads a gathering of the Casual Choir in Harold’s Cross. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Roisin Savage (front right) leads a gathering of the Casual Choir in Harold’s Cross. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

On a blustery Monday evening, a steady stream of cars and pedestrians are making their way to the Education and Resource Centre on the grounds of Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross.

Once inside, punters are directed to a lecture hall and asked if they want to sit with the highs, mids, or lows. Some are au fait with this jargon, others require further explanation.

There is a sense of giddy anticipation in the air as people ponder what’s in store for the rest of the evening. Newbies, including myself, seek reassurance from seasoned veterans that they haven’t made a grave mistake in coming along.

Soon, Roisin Savage is at the front of the room, setting up equipment and sifting through stacks of papers. At half past seven, the session commences. After a brief introduction, everyone in the room is instructed to get to their feet and they are led through a series of stretches and vocal exercises.

“I am a raisin face,” says Savage, with her face scrunched up. There is a nasal hum as the room repeats it back to her.

Soon the real reason for this evening’s gathering reveals itself as Savage plays a snippet from what she has been teasing as a classic rock song. “Loving you isn’t the right thing to do . . .” the song begins. The room erupts in excitement. The next two hours will be spent learning a choral rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way from scratch.

Welcome to Casual Choir.

Roisin Savage: ‘Most people sing at home or sing along to their car radio but there is a buzz from singing with a group of people.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Roisin Savage: ‘Most people sing at home or sing along to their car radio but there is a buzz from singing with a group of people.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

No experience necessary

Since 2012, Roisin Savage has headed up The Line Up Choir, a contemporary music choir. Through her work, she regularly heard from people who wanted the experience of singing in a choir, but couldn’t commit to turning up to rehearsals every week due to work or family commitments.

Last August, she decided to suss out if there was any demand for a casual choir. She envisaged a fortnightly music session with no auditions, no commitment and no concerts. Participants would not need any prior musical training and the emphasis would instead be on having fun. Each session would see participants learn a new song from scratch with the final performance being filmed for social media.

Savage put the idea out to the universe and was soon inundated with messages from people expressing interest in such a choir. Within a few weeks, she had secured a rehearsal venue, set up a social media presence, and sold over 100 tickets. Casual Choir was born.

We laugh, we smile and we have the best craic. I love every second of it

The maiden singalong took place on September 10th. Since then, it has become a phenomenon with each session selling out almost instantly.

“It’s just been beyond my wildest dreams,” says Savage. “I never anticipated that people would jump on board and be so enthusiastic.”

Savage is responsible for all the arrangements while musical accompaniment is provided by Aengus Devine. Her main objective is to make everything as informal and accessible as possible. She teaches modern pop and rock songs – think Hit Me Baby One More Time or Don’t Look Back in Anger – and avoids using too much musical jargon lest it alienate people.

In fact, you’re more likely to hear her commenting on the the toxic dynamic between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Bermingham than you are to hear her dropping any advanced musical terminology.

Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Aengus Devine (right) on keyboard. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Aengus Devine (right) on keyboard. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

‘Singing is singing’

At each session, singers are sorted into voice types – highs, mids, lows – and seated accordingly. Each group receives their own lyrics sheet with harmonies and rhythms written out phonetically like, “Ba da bap a dah! Ba da bap a dah!” and “Oooh bop bop, ooh bop bop, ooh bop bop”. It’s essentially Choir Singing for Dummies, which is exactly how Savage likes it.

“People have preconceptions of what a choir is and what it should be,” she says. “They think they don’t fit the box of what a ‘choir person’ is. I was a bit hesitant to put the word choir into the title because of that.”

“This is for everybody so you don’t have to have previous experience, you don’t have to read sheet music. Even if you’re thinking that you might not be able to harmonise or that you might struggle with that . . . It’s not about being perfect.”

“Singing is singing. When you listen to the radio, you don’t analyse it. I very much teach by ear and by feeling as well. I tend to use my hands and expressions to get the point across rather than being like, ‘Let’s use staccato’ because I don’t want people to think it’s getting too meaty or too technical.”

Savage says there is no one type of person who attends Casual Choir with attendees ranging in age from “18 to 85”. It does, however, tend to skew towards women. On the night I attended, I could count the number of men on one hand. Savage suspects that this is because women are more willing to embrace the choir as a form of self-care.

“It’s prioritising yourself, singing a song and having fun,” she says. “Maybe ladies are more eager or willing to put themselves out there whereas guys might second guess themselves with the singing or think it’s not for them.”

Avril White is a Casual Choir regular having attended five sessions. She describes it as “a powerful, uplifting experience”.

“There is such a sense of camaraderie,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how tired you are or what’s happened in your day. You’re carried by really positive people and it’s such an energising experience.”

Like many other attendees, she views it as a rare opportunity to take some time out for herself. “As a mum, I don’t really do a whole lot for myself and this is the one thing I do for myself and I love it,” she says. “It’s the one night I don’t have to put my kids to bed and I come here. We laugh, we smile and we have the best craic. I love every second of it.”

Members of the choir read from hymm sheets. Song selections comes from a range of genre including classics from the 1980s and 1990s right up to modern pop, rock and R&B tracks. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Members of the choir read from hymm sheets. Song selections comes from a range of genre including classics from the 1980s and 1990s right up to modern pop, rock and R&B tracks. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

High demand

Indeed, research has shown that singing in choirs is good for your overall health and wellbeing. It can improve your mood and alleviate stress. For her part, Roisin Savage says nothing compares to the rush you get from communal singing.

“Most people sing at home or sing along to their car radio but there is a buzz from singing with a group of people,” she explains. “When you’re all on that same hymn sheet, it’s pretty incredible. The endorphins you get from it . . . I can’t really compare it to any other activity.”

The response to Casual Choir has been “really positive” so far, says Savage. Among the most common piece of feedback she receives is surprise at what can be achieved in two hours. There have been some surreal moments, too.

Recently, she taught a group the nineties classic Kiss Me by Sixpence None The Richer. The band’s lead singer Leigh Nash subsequently shared a video of the performance on Instagram writing, “How absolutely beautiful is this?”

“That was lovely and I am sure there were loads of people at that session thinking, ‘I went to sing for two hours, sang a song from the nineties, and that singer has now acknowledged it’, ” says Savage. “I get a massive buzz from that.”

Over six months since the inaugural Casual Choir, Savage says she is still very much finding her feet with what works and what doesn’t work. While there is significant demand for tickets each week, she plans to continue with the current set-up for the foreseeable future.

“I am really enjoying it because there are so many different types of people there,” she says. “We’re never going to get the same 150 people again so it’s always a brand new group.”

“Sometimes I think maybe I should announce the song in advance so people can listen to it and get the general gist. Then I just go, ‘Let’s all be on the same level. Let’s just all go in with the same entry point of, we like to sing.’ ”

For more information on Casual Choir, check them out on facebook.com/casualchoir or instagram.com/casualchoirdublin

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