Ideas for 2016: A year to join the choir
All this week on irishtimes.com/culture, we’ll be looking at arty projects you could complete by this time next year, with advice from experts and amateurs. First off, we’re looking at how to lend your voice to a choir
Dublin Gospel Choir at this year’s Electric Picnic. Photograph: John Soffe
A rehearsal of Setanta Choir in Dundalk
Maybe you have one of those families that has a Christmas sing-song: children dramatically present themselves from behind the sitting-room curtains; someone takes out the guitar; your dad sings My Way.
Maybe you love the chorus when every voice in the room comes in to join you. Maybe you feel you’re the best singer there and are no longer prepared to settle for just one showcase a year. Maybe you have unresolved Billie Barry aspirations that niggle at you with each passing Late Late Toy Show. Maybe this is the year to bring more music into your life by joining a choir.
I joined the Dublin Gospel Choir in 2009 and was a member for 2½ years. Before joining, my experience of public singing was limited to that offered by a typical convent school choir: no laughing or smiling; standing perfectly, militarily, still; the less tuneful being told to mime; the constant battle for a bit of make-up; skirts rolled down, please; and The Rhythm of Life ringing in your ears for five years straight.
I loved every minute of it.
The Dublin Gospel Choir came along at just the right time for me. Life was unsteady, I was anxious, there was bereavement and bad decisions. And here, suddenly, was music that soared.
The audition process was scary and had a touch of The X Factor about it, if The X Factor took place in the Capuchin Friary on Church Street in Dublin, in that little room behind the altar where the priests’ vestments hang purple in the corner and the holy wine sits waiting on top of a press.
You had to sing in front of the director and two senior choir members. I sang Etta James’s At Last, a song regularly trotted out on reality TV auditions but one that I was so comfortable with I could sing standing on my head. (I once sang a shaky rendition of Big Spender to a roomful of nuns and students at a school talent show, so I am not averse to singing sexy songs in saintly surroundings.) I was nervous and my legs shook.
I didn’t get through on the first round but got lucky when some better singers took fright and left.
Singing in a choir is wonderful. You summon a song from inside your body, throw it out to the room and it comes back to you as harmony.
I spoke with members and directors of various choirs, who explained the requirements for joining their choir, who it would suit, and how choir members benefit from taking part.
No auditions, no sight reading.
Director of Sing in Axis, Ballymun
“The point of this is that everyone gets to sing. It really is as simple as that,” says Hussey of Ballymun Sing, a community initiative that puts out a call for singers from the northside of Dublin in September. There are no auditions.
“A couple of women had come up to me and said they haven’t done singing in years, and this is a nice way to go back into it because it isn’t intimidating,” says Hussey.
The time commitment is 1½ hours on a Tuesday over a manageable period of eight weeks, culminating in a Christmas performance at Axis in Ballymun on the ninth week. “The performance is a really nice achievement to come out of it at the end.”
They have 42 members on this, their eighth year, with a near-even split between old and new members and an age range of 30-70. “It’s about the enjoyment of music and of singing, and the act of coming in and forgetting everything else that’s going on. For an hour and a half you give yourself over to something completely.”
Member of Marist and Setanta choirs, both Dundalk
Dundalk’s Marist Church Choir is 50 years old next year, and Brian Lennon will have been a member for 49 of those. He has also been a member of Dundalk’s Setanta Choir for 39 years, where the repertoire runs from the Beatles to Christmas carols.
“I’m in a choir because I like to sing, and you can sing without putting yourself forward and without the pressure,” he says. “There’s comfort in singing with others.”
He enjoys the social aspect, too. “There’s a few pints every Wednesday. That’s my night out.” The Setanta Choir recently went as a group of 50 to a choral festival in Prague, which was “great fun”. As a social outlet, Lennon compares it with something like golf, “although we wouldn’t be as fanatical as golfers”.
Podcast: Catherine Conroy on joining the choir
With Setanta, Lennon attends a two-hour rehearsal every Wednesday night, which he rarely misses. “Unless I’m sick or something big, I never miss a night of practice. I’d cancel a lot of things so that I wouldn’t miss a choir practice. I like to be on top of it. I like to know my stuff. I put the work in.”
They don’t hold auditions. “That said, if you can’t sing you wouldn’t be long being found out,” he says.
The Setanta Choir sang at his mother’s, father’s and sister’s funerals, and at the weddings of his children. They learned an arrangement of Elbow’s One Day Like This for his daughter’s wedding. “That’s what I like about the choir: when they’re needed they turn up. I appreciate that.”
Director of The Line-Up
Róisín Savage is a former member of the Dublin Gospel Choir and the founder of The Line-Up, a new contemporary music choir that began in 2012. “Initially, it started out as a rehearsal once a week to see if people wanted to join a pop-rock choir where you didn’t have to learn to read sheet music. I taught by ear and you didn’t have to audition.”
Word spread, and Savage is now managing a formidable, 120-strong choir. “Most of the members have no experience other than maybe a school choir.” The Line-Up have sung at Electric Picnic, Body & Soul, and on The Late Late Show. “The energy of the group is quite positive. People are all in the same boat.” The choir members range in age from early 20s to 60s.
Savage’s approach is slightly novel in that her members pay to be in the choir, adopting the method that has been so long utilised by social dancing clubs. “I provide a service. I’m teaching them music. So they sign up for every 10-week term.” Members tend not to leave, and she has a waiting list of 200 people.
“Because people are paying, they are expecting new songs all the time. We’re always learning. People want to be challenged. When people get to perform, when the group struggle with something and then next week they get it, there’s a euphoria.”
She believes that the social element is really important. “The better you know the person standing beside you, the better you sing.”
The most important thing, though, is “to be singing at home. Most people haven’t sung since school, but it’s muscle memory. In fairness to a lot of music school teachers and choirs, they’re really disciplined; you learn so much. I’m trying to bring some of that out again and take away the restraints of competition.”
Member of Gardiner Street Gospel Choir
Maria Markey-Greene has been in the Gardiner Street Gospel Choir for 15 years. The waiting list is about two years. “At the moment, you get called when spaces become available and then you come in to do auditions. It’s not necessary to be able to read music yourself.”
It’s not just about the voice. You have to demonstrate the ability to “sing as part of a choir, so as part of one voice, and fit in with the harmonies and follow the dynamics that a director is giving you”.
As with many of the better-known choirs, the commitment level is high, with two rehearsals a week and more if there is an upcoming performance. “At the level that we’re at, we’re not a new group of people singing together. It really is a commitment that’s not for the faint-hearted.”
The choir has been good to Markey-Greene. “I met my husband there. He was the piano player, an original member. There’s a good few of us at this stage who’ve met our partners through it.”
On the theme of the mental-health benefits of choir membership, Markey-Greene believes it suits Ireland’s new, more secular society. “It gives you a sense of spirituality without being overly religious. People are looking for a sense of belonging.”
Despite long waiting lists, “there’s always a need for guys; they’re not as attracted to the whole thing”. This is echoed by other choir leaders, with tenors and basses thin on the ground.
Member of the Mornington Singers
“I was delighted to be back singing because I found that when I wasn’t singing, I was emotionally a bit more pent-up,” says Cullen.
“It’s a release. It’s such a physical experience, singing. You can’t think about anything else. It’s all your body, all your mind. I missed using my body as an instrument and making music with other people in that way. There’s nothing like it.”
After a four-year choir hiatus, Cullen now sings with the Mornington Singers in Dublin. They are mainly a classical choir; you must be able to sight-read, and they hold auditions for new members.
Cullen is a veteran choral singer. She joined RTÉ Children’s Choir when she was nine, joined the chapel choir when she studied music at Trinity College Dublin and went on to Christ Church Cathedral Choir, which she was in for eight years. She missed it hugely when she stopped singing. “It’s a way of existing. It takes over your life a bit. You can’t half-do it.”
Cullen, a music teacher, co-ordinates the choirs in her secondary school and has plenty of advice for beginners.
“Don’t be intimidated. I see that with the kids at school who say, ‘I can’t sing’. Everyone can sing. Not everyone one is Kiri Te Kanawa, but go along and give it a try. Sometimes people are afraid of their own voice when they actually hear it. I see it with the kids at school: you coax the voice out of them and then they stop all of a sudden because they’re like, ‘Did that sound actually come out of me?’ ”
Do teachers still tell pupils to mime? “Absolutely not. In our choirs we encourage participation. Pupils get great self- discipline from it and it also gives them a very strong sense of belonging. It’s about the group as a whole, and them working together, and for a lot of young people that can be something they don’t have an experience of.”
Director of the Dublin Gospel Choir
The Dublin Gospel Choir is one of the best-known choirs in the country. With membership comes a hefty time commitment. There is a two-hour rehearsal twice weekly as well as regular performances, “particularly in December, when we give you back to your family after Christmas”.
There are currently 50 members. What draws people to audition for the choir? “The energy attracts a lot of people,” says Gargan. “Everyone always looks like they’re having a brilliant time.”
When it comes to auditioning for the choir, “What we’re looking for are people who have a little spark. People who make me smile.”
This is particularly important, because “we’re always trying to communicate emotion and energy with our audience. After that we are looking for singers of a very high standard, be that with or without training.”
Sight-reading isn’t a requirement, and there’s no underestimating the courage that comes from “lots of performance opportunities surrounded by talented peers”, Gargan says. “People come in thinking they would never do a solo and gradually build up the confidence to do it.”
I tell Gargan that I found being a member of the choir incredibly consoling and heartening. She agrees. You sometimes walk into a rehearsal feeling wrecked or feeling down and you walk out on a cloud. “It’s like a warm blanket of sound around you.”
And it’s not just psychological. “Singing together in a choir actually does lower your blood pressure and your heart rate, and you all breathe together, all aligned. So it has physical benefits and reduces anxiety.”
Singing at commemoration services and charity concerts also helps. “You get to give that comfort out to other people.” firstname.lastname@example.org
ADVICE ON AUDITIONS
Have a little faith
“Auditioning is always a good process to put yourself through, successful or not,” says Orla Gargan. And what about dance? “We used to have a dance audition; now we call it a basic movement audition.”
Auditions happen in January and September for Dublin Gospel Choir, but not every year. “It’s always worth putting your name down. Whenever we’re auditioning again, I’ll drop them a mail.” Have confidence, is her main advice. “People come in to audition and say, ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ and then they open their mouth and they are beautiful singers. Sometimes its the hardest thing to gauge, your own standard. Think about your songs very carefully. Choose songs that you relate to. Rehearse them well and sing them for other people. “Also, do some research on the group you’re joining and take that into consideration when you’re choosing the songs.
Fiona Cullen also has some encouraging words. “Sing a song that you are comfortable with, even a folk or pop song, at a pitch that suits your voice. “Demonstrate commitment: A lot of the time, choirs are not looking for fabulous singers. What they need is for people to turn up, on time, who learn their music. Also, smile. Potential choir members must have energy and must smile when they’re performing.”
FLYING SOLO: SET UP YOUR OWN CHOIR
- “Starting up your own is a wonderful way to go about it,” says Orla Gargan. “You don’t need particular expertise; you can find someone who can lead it, a couple of people with a bit of experience.”
- Don’t worry about doing big choral arrangements. Start with unison singing. If you have a person who has an ear for harmony, utilise that person.
- “You need to meet the people you have in front of you at their level of musicality,” says Maria Markey-Greene. “Develop a sense of people singing together. Over the years your muscle develops. Over time people want to be challenged, too.”
- Fiona Cullen advises would-be choirs to have a clear idea of what kind of choir they want to be and what their repertoire should be. A first step might be simply “setting up a singing group. Get someone who plays the piano, get the words, and people can all just sing.”
- For inspiration, search YouTube for amateur group Choir!Choir!Choir! and their arrangements of songs such as David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.
- aoic.ie: The Association of Irish Choirs lists all the member choirs by their county to help you find a choir close to you. The association also provides choral training such as sight-reading classes.
- bbc.co.uk/sing/learning: An excellent resource for tips and videos on breathing and posture.
- The website of BBC2’s programme The Choir provides excellent checklists and tips for setting up your own choir, as well as free sheet music and audio clips. bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008y125
- mensheds.ie: Ask you local Men’s Shed organisation about their choir.
- Smartphone apps such as Voice Tutor and Singer’s Friend provide a convenient way to practise scales and improve vocal skills in the car or at home.