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The Rise Of The Choir

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Move over book clubs and artisan baking, Stylist investigates the melodious rise of the choir...

For many of us, singing in a group is mostly limited to inebriated karaoke, Girls Aloud concerts (we know you went), or awkward office-based renditions of Happy Birthday. At least that was the case until a new trend started taking over our lives – and lungs.

The unheralded joy of singing, in unison and in harmony, has become stylish again, with the amount of us joining choirs – and spending our spare time trying to imitate Florence Welch’s You Got The Love howl – exploding. The number of 30-something women adding chorister to their CV has grown sharply over the last couple of years.

Ensemble singing is the newest equivalent to baking; it combines the alluring possibility of learning a skill, setting ourselves a challenge and continuing in the pursuit of self-improvement, with the chance to de-stress from our hectic working lives. There’s something cathartic about leaving your desk to do battle with Rolling In The Deep. That’s why we sing; in the shower, in the kitchen, in the car when we think no-one’s watching but then suddenly realise we’ve been sat at the lights for 30 seconds. And it’s an activity more time-strapped, stress-ridden women are using to their advantage in order to pull back some balance into their lives.

Not only that, it also seems that choral singing is a chance to revisit the skills we loved exploring in our youth that are no longer commonplace in our professional world; that rare chance to unleash our inner performer. Choirs also have a current credibility on the music scene. Gaggle, an experimental all-girl choir that dip into dubstep and electro are fast becoming a firm festival favourite, and Ellie Goulding has chosen to feature choral backing from the London Community Gospel Choir on her latest single Explosions. It makes perfect sense that increasing numbers of us are breaking up our commutes with a stop off at rehearsal, downloading sheet music on our iPads en route.

ABOVE: All-girl choir group, Gaggle

As a result, new choir groups are springing up at a startling rate. According to Making Music, an organisation that supports voluntary singing groups, there are now more than 25,000 choirs in the UK. Rock Choir, a choral behemoth founded in 2005 has seen its numbers rise from 8,000 members in 2011 to more than 16,000 today in 240 towns across the UK. “Two years ago, we did a huge concert with all our members in Wembley Arena,” says founder Caroline Redman Lusher. “Since then, membership has doubled, so we’ll need to use the [20,000-capacity] O2 this year.” Choirs are also being integrated into the workplace, with companies such as Music In Offices bringing together colleagues to form choirs everywhere from law firms and banks to media conglomerates.

“I know I would be far more stressed if I didn’t sing. I honestly can’t imagine life without it,” explains Christina Kenny, 28, from London, a writer at a Healthcare communications agency who sings with the Voce Chamber Choir, an a cappella ensemble of just over 30 singers in their 20s and 30s. They meet once a week in London and have performed with the likes of Hayley Westenra. “My job isn’t creative. So I love the challenge; the sense of achievement of transforming a piece of music no-one knows and working together in unison to create a fantastic sound. It’s enormously gratifying.”

The stuffy choirs-of-old image has also been slowly shedding, and the public’s interest in group singing has reignited.

Years of X Factor auditions aside, the past decade has witnessed a burgeoning affection for ensemble singing. Take the success of The Military Wives Choir, whose single Wherever You Are reached Christmas number one in 2011 (they scored a number one album three months later, too). Their bespectacled mentor Gareth Malone, who shepherded them to success on the BBC’s Bafta-winning The Choir, has become something of an unlikely cultural icon, receiving an OBE from the Queen for his services to music. In the realm of cinema, zeitgeist hits such as Glee undoubtedly had an impact, too, paving the way for films like Rebel Wilson’s Pitch Perfect, about an all-girl a cappella singing group, and Song For Marion starring Gemma Arterton as a small-village choirmaster. The reverberation of the trend has even hit Hollywood.

ABOVE: Voce Chamber Choir sang with the Rolling Stones at the o2 in December 2012

The legacy of choirs is far-reaching, having been part of human history for as long as records began. The Old Testament talks of King David forming singing groups 3,000 years ago and many ancient communities found choral singing to be an integral part of society; such as the Greeks with their original ‘chorus line’ (the group of performers in the classical plays of ancient Greek theatre). The trend continued, with the notion of dividing up various parts of songs to fit voices developing in medieval times. But it was in the Renaissance period that amateur group singing really took off and some of today’s most popular choral music was penned.

Modern music artists are still being influenced by choirs that were first formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. R’n’B singers from Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye to Beyoncé and Whitney Houston learned the basics of their trade in gospel choirs, as did artists such as Beth Ditto and Janis Joplin. Also Kanye West is a current fan, arranging choral pieces in both Jesus Walks and Say You Will, while Elbow worked with the Hallé Youth Choir for their elegiac fifth album Build A Rocket Boys!. Rock legends have also had an enduring relationship with the choral trend, from David Bowie’s underground collaborations with the New Jersey Gospel Choir to Primal Scream’s Movin’ On Up, which featured vocals from the Inishowen Gospel Choir. “In December last year we sang with the Rolling Stones at the O2 in front of 20,000 people,” adds Voce’s Christina. “It was the most incredible rush.”

And choiring is a real skill. There’s a whole new lexicon to be learnt and a field of technicality to negotiate. “It’s not just a case of turning up and singing in tune” says Natasha Tomalin, Stylist’s deputy art editor, 25, from London who has sung with the Union Chapel Choir. “Choirs are about splitting up voices and people taking on different roles. Women’s voices fall into two groups in a choir: sopranos – those who sing the main melody and have a slightly higher range – and altos, who provide the harmony, so you need to work out where your voice lies.” So surely these choirs must be hotbeds of competitive energy as successful career women battle for the leading role? “Actually, everyone wanted to be an alto in my choir, I think they were nervous to be in the spotlight,” says Natasha. “But it was quite competitive. There’s often a hierarchy if people can read music, those that can will normally lead the choir, and get the best parts to sing.”

Having spent 10 hours in back-to-back meetings and negotiating office politics, the process of turning our attention to music can come almost as a form of therapy for women who would otherwise find it almost impossible to put down their BlackBerrys. “Choir rehearsals are a great form of stress release as they allow you the opportunity to concentrate completely on something other than your daily life,” says Jo Hornsby, 35, head of logistics at London’s National Theatre – who joined a choir 12 months ago. “It’s a chance to learn skills in harmonising, rhythms, blending of voices, intonation, breathing techniques and musicality without the feeling that the spotlight is on you – you get a real sense of achievement knowing that you have contributed to a song sung well too.”

According to experts, this is the precise reason why singing in groups is so addictive. “Shared social contact is good for your mental health,” says psychiatrist Dr Jan Wise, flagging up the strong psychological and emotional benefits. “Creating something positive in a communal, cooperative environment has powerful results. The endorphins released while singing create a sense of reward: there’s a feel-good factor.” “It’s said that before humans talked, they sang,” adds Tessa Marchington, founder of Music In Offices. “Research has shown a human need for calling and vocalising in our ancestors, before we got to speech.”

ABOVE: The Military Wives choir performing

As well as responding to a basic human compulsion, it’s been proven that singing is good for your health.

Last year, the Sidney De Haan Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University examined the links between singing and health, and identified several particular health benefits of regular group singing.

Firstly, singing exercises all the major muscle groups in your upper body and like any aerobic activity, improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system. Taking deep oxygenated breaths as you sing makes you more alert: in simple terms, singing makes you smarter. Then, as your synapses snap into shape, all that aerobic activity reduces stress just as it would if you were in the gym. Increasing airflow into your respiratory system also decreases the chances that bacteria will flourish there, meaning you’ll catch fewer colds. There’s no doubt it’s a physical process. “Warm-ups will normally last for about half an hour,” says Natasha. “You’re taught to sing from the bottom of your belly so you need to get used to breathing properly and expanding your chest to take in huge gulps of air to be able to really project your voice.”

There is also the community aspect to consider. Marchington recently gave a lecture at the Royal College of Psychiatrists explaining that the structure of singing in a choir (listening, repetition, learning harmonies, preparing for regular concerts, having a drink afterwards) provides a haven of certainty at a time when many of our lives don’t feel certain at all. “In our increasingly robotic lives, where we’re more likely to communicate by email and text message than face to face, singing provides a more natural way to communicate. Singing is a therapeutic tool that promotes happiness, calmness and a profound sense of achievement,” she explains. Indeed, a recent study from the University of Stockholm showed that singing increases the levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, in both men and women.

Consider that post-choir buzz coupled with the adrenaline rush of being faced with something frightening, such as performing solo, and succeeding, and you can see how choir singing becomes a draw. “The best thing about our choir is the women involved; students, lawyers, wives, mothers, artists and teachers,” says Gaggle member Jade Coles. “But being in our choir has never been about the day job. It provides adventure; a break away from the usual responsibilities of work and the chance to bond with people you never thought you would even meet. Think of the clubs you were in as a child – Brownies, Guides, netball – being a part of a choir is a little like that. It’s a regular hang-out, with great people and a clear sense of purpose, direction and goals. A bunch of truly unique personalities, living outside of the comfort zone.” Not much about that says Songs Of Praise.

JOIN THE CHORUS LINE

INDIE CHOIR

Some Voices are a younger choir group based in Shoreditch, London. They cover pop rock and soul – everything from Mumford & Sons to Take That, Fleet Foxes to Adele (they also take requests). Rehearsals are held on Monday evenings, lead by musician Laura Howe, who writes all the original arrangements. New recruits are welcome and they perform at events around five times a year. £75 per term (10 weeks); facebook.com/somevoicessing

ROCK CHOIR

Rock Choir have groups in 240 UK towns and 16,000 members. Their weekly rehearsals are open to all levels of experience. You’ll find yourself singing a mix of pop, Motown and gospel; from The Zutons’ Valerie and Heather Small’s Proud to Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer. Free taster sessions are offered to newcomers. Groups sometimes perform in public but there’s no pressure to take part. £25 per month; rockchoir.com

MIXED CHORUS

In Glasgow, Newcastle and, as of this month, Edinburgh, Voice Of The Toon mixed choirs perform anything from big band swing and Beatles and Beach Boys classics through to tunes by such north-of-the-border superstars as Emeli Sandé’s Heaven and Paolo Nutini’s Last Request. There’s also plenty of chance to sing solo if you’re feeling that way inclined. £80 per term (12 weeks); voiceofthetoon.co.uk

CLASSICAL

Pass a basic audition and you could find yourself part of the Royal Choral Society, mastering musical monsters such as Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah and performing in the Royal Albert Hall. Established in 1872 and based in London, the group meet weekly in the Barbican Centre and hold open rehearsals twice a year where potential members are encouraged to come along and sing with them. £100 per year; royalchoralsociety.co.uk

Additional images: Rex and Getty

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