The Cheshire choirs singing for Christmas
- Credit: Neil Kendall
A Handbag of Harmonies
Adorned with pink feather boas, and never without their signature glitzy handbags, the vivacious A Handbag of Harmonies’ repertoire is extensive, ranging from 1930s classics and current hits to original choral works written by musical director Matt Baker.
Not many choirs instantly switch from 1930s classics to Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell but expect the unexpected from the Handbags songbirds. The ladies sing in four-part harmony with dazzling choreography guaranteed to leave audiences with smiles on their faces.
Formed in 2000, the Chester choir was started by a few women who wanted to sing together. ‘Many of the original members had little or no experience of singing in a choir and most could not read music,’ explains Matt.
‘We created a choir that suited a very keen and charismatic bunch of people full of enthusiasm who had a real desire to learn to sing and perform together. At the time, there were not many choirs like ours, particularly in our area, so we could grow in our own way.’
Many members joined because of the camaraderie, fun and cabaret-style performances the choir put on.
‘As choirs began to grow in popularity, we began one-off workshops for anyone who wanted a taste of what it was like to be part of a choir such as ours and we reached out to other similar choirs in other countries, such as Belgium and Italy, and forged new exchange links,’ Matt says.
‘During the pandemic we realised there was a whole generation who were more isolated than most, and so we turned our attention to visiting the gardens of care homes to bring some joy to those who may have most needed it.
‘The fun and the very British humour that penetrates rehearsals and is, hopefully, reflected in performances is what I love about being part of the choir,’ says Claire Smith, one of the founding members.
‘When we started 21 years ago, a lot of us had small children and we were glad to have a space of our own. Group singing has always been part of Christmas and the Handbags are a particularly glamorous act at Christmas – picture lots of sparkle and glitter and lots of fun and celebration.’
The festive season is a very busy time for A Handbag of Harmonies as they will be out singing at a variety of locations and events.
‘You can expect lots of camp and kitsch glitter and sparkle from our Christmas performances,’ Claire says. ‘It’s all about high energy and we sing all your Christmas favourites with opportunities to join in, mixed with some beautifully moving more reflective music.’
Christmas dates include
a concert at All Saints Church, Saughall, Chester, on
Proud Marys are a Chester-based choir providing an inclusive and safe, supportive space for members who come from the LGBT+ community in and around Cheshire. Like A Handbag of Harmonies, they come under the expert musical direction of Matt Baker and are passionate about their singing and how they want their audience to feel after watching a performance.
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‘When the choir started as an LGBT chorus, some of our members said they had really lived their lives a little in the shadows,’ explains member Chris Walton. ‘In becoming members of Proud Marys, they have felt themselves grow in confidence and become happy in their skins.
‘Some of our songs do have a link to the LGBT community, and some have real poignance. We have frequently had lovely feedback from people saying that it made them feel more confident themselves, or from non-LGBT people, who have had their minds opened in hearing us perform.
‘We want to be good at what we do and to be appreciated for our abilities and not for who we are, but of course, we are very proud to be Proud Marys.’
The choir was founded in 2018 after Matt Baker was approached by Silver Rainbows, an organisation funded by Body Positive to help older
LGBT people feel less isolated. With more than 45 active members, with ages ranging from 23 to 70, the singers focus on celebrating diversity.
‘Christmas is a time for friends and family to gather, celebrate, remember, have fun and rest.
'Being in a thriving choir embodies many of these aspects and we hope that audiences see the kindred spirits and enjoyment that we all have in being part of a team,’ Chris says.
‘Few members of an amateur choir would say they are expert singers, but singing alongside others inspires confidence and the ability to up our game and improve our musical skills. So many audiences say they see such enjoyment in the group; we sometimes have to remind ourselves we are not there to have more fun than the audience – it’s important to put on a good show.
'Our musical director arranges all our music, so it often has a twist on the version our audiences know, we sing a variety of genres and so there is always something for everyone.’
Proud Marys have a packed Christmas period ahead of them. Throughout December they will be performing at Christmas functions at Chester Racecourse.
Little Belters are a group for children who love to sing together. Founded by sisters and opera singers Tina and Claire O’Brien, the Belters came about when they decided to start a local choir for their own children.
‘We wanted the choir to be accessible to all children regardless of their ability and we didn’t want to have to travel miles every week to attend rehearsals and performances,’ says Tina.
‘We have a choir in Altrincham, and also have choirs in Sale and Chorlton. We sing for lots of local, community events and we also sing regularly at Manchester Cathedral, the Royal Northern College of Music, the Stoller Hall, and also on TV, and radio, and in professional recording studios, including two Christmas specials with Jane McDonald.’
Alongside Little Belters they have a women’s choir, Absolute Belters, and a youth choir, Sing It. ‘Little Belters are a special choir to be part of because it’s for any child who simply loves to sing. There’s no audition – growing confidence and friendships is just as important as learning how to sing properly and taking part in amazing performances. We also sing songs that kids love – from pop and musical theatre to indie and songs from films,’ adds Tina.
‘Choir performances are popular around Christmas because music and singing, in particular, connects with something very deep inside us and you can’t beat hearing children’s voices and seeing their joyful faces. It’s so special and Christmassy. Our Christmas performances are always high energy and full of fun. We sing all the hits and the children give it everything they’ve got because they’re so passionate about singing. People always leave our performances with big smiles on their faces.
‘We aren’t a traditional children’s choir – we encourage the children to express themselves and this means the choir connects with audiences.’
This Christmas, the Little Belters will be singing at Manchester Cathedral for Prevent Breast Cancer’s Christmas Celebration on December 10.
‘Our big concerts often involve multiple families with two or three generations singing together on stage.
'We are different for this reason too
– Little Belters (and all our Belters groups across all ages) are run by sisters, involving generations of the same families. Even if you’re not a blood relative, once you’re a Belter you’re part of our family.’
Cheshire Pop Choirs
With choirs across Nantwich, Congleton and Northwich, Cheshire Pop Choirs are a locally run group where the focus is on having fun. Founded by Heather Baker, the choirs are open to anyone who enjoys singing. There are no auditions and no previous experience is required.
‘We believe singing is for everyone regardless of how good you think you are at it,’ says Heather. ‘We have a fantastic range of singers from complete beginners to those who’ve done it professionally and everything in between. We make a great sound and have a lot of laughs along the way.
'I think people enjoy our energy and enthusiasm for singing together, and the joy of hearing the harmonies come together is fantastic. We also sing the music that people love to sing – popular songs from the past 50 to 60 years.’
Cheshire Pop Choirs are not traditional choral groups, and they don’t sing religious or classical pieces. ‘I have a friend who runs a more traditional choir who refers to my groups as ‘karaoke choirs’. We’re a bit more organised than a karaoke session, but we certainly aim to have as much fun as we would at karaoke. We make a great sound but we don’t take ourselves too seriously – life’s too short.’
Aiming to leave their audience feeling uplifted, Cheshire Pop Choirs are currently planning their Christmas events. ‘Our Christmas set tends to be a mixture of popular Christmas hits, traditional songs and ballads that fit the Christmas theme,’ explains Heather.
‘We like to throw in some popular sing-a-long songs, such as Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and All I Want For Christmas Is You, alongside some harmony-focused pieces.
'There’s something special about hearing choirs singing together at Christmas. It lifts the spirits and sets the mood. We love Christmas music.’
For their Christmas performances, see cheshirepopchoirs.co.uk