Surrey choirs: why singing has never been more popular

As the Surrey-based Rock Choir continues its assault on the global music scene, it seems that joining a choir has never been more popular. Siân Rowland meets some of the best-known around the county

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2010

As the Surrey-based Rock Choir continues its assault on the global music scene, it seems that joining a choir has never been more popular. Si�n Rowland meets some of the best-known around the county – from the most traditional choral singers to one that even includes punk standards in its repertoire

WITH musical drama series Glee the television hit of the year, BBC One’s Last Choir Standing still fresh in our minds (who can forget the stirring performances from Guildford’s ACM?) and choirmaster Gareth Malone persuading even the most apathetic, growling teens to exercise their vocal cords in BBC2’s The Choir, choral singing is well and truly back in fashion.

So, if you’ve ever crooned into your hairbrush in front of the mirror, or belted out the latest chart hits in the shower, then isn’t it about time you joined the stampede to sign up to a choir?

Singing SurreyHere in Surrey, a lack of choirs has never been a problem with well over a hundred local groups listed on the British choirs’ website.

Ranging from gospel to barbershop and church to community, there’s something for everyone – whether it’s the cool new breed of contemporary choir, such as Reigate’s Voicerox and Tongham’s Phoenix, which have sprung up as recently as 2009, right through to the rather more well-established Kingston Choral Society, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Indeed, you’re never too young, or too old, to get stuck in as The Wonderyears prove. A choir of mature rockers who believe that life begins at 70, this Virginia Water based group can be found belting out punk standards such as The Ramones’ I Wanna be Sedated on stage at GuilFest, sharing a bill with the likes of Status Quo and N Dubz.

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But it is undoubtedly Rock Choir, Surrey’s biggest success story so far, that is leading the way. Founded in Farnham five years ago by Caroline Redman Lusher, for those who wanted to sing pop, gospel and Motown (sorry Metallica fans, this is as rock as it gets), they are now the largest and most popular contemporary choir in the UK – with almost five thousand members at the last count.

Just this summer, they broke the Guinness World Record for the largest act to be signed to a record label, with a four-album deal from Universal Decca, and now look set to go global following the release of their first disc of toe-tappers such as Valerie and Dancing in The Street.

Most groups are adult-based but there are junior and teen versions, too, and as there’s no audition to get in, anyone can join up. So with many traditional choirs relying on members with solid musical experience, what is it that’s so appealing about Rock Choir?

“Well, I think people like the fact that it’s so completely inclusive,” says Philippa Agyemang, who recently joined her local Rock Choir in Wimbledon. “You don’t need prior experience and you don’t need to be able to read music.”

This can come as a bit of a culture shock if you have a background in traditional choral singing. “Learning the songs by ear is a different skill altogether from reading music,” agrees Philippa, “but it’s good for the grey matter! I actually find that singing can be a freer experience once you’ve memorised the music.”

Long waiting listThe Elmbridge Choir, a community choir based in Cobham, is another Surrey success story. With 132 members and a long waiting list, it has become so oversubscribed that a ladies’ group has been set up to run alongside the mixed choir. South African-born choir director Cliff Van Tonder set up the group for locals to sing their hearts out in a fun, social situation.

“In our choirs, we sing popular music and particularly encourage the ‘pure enjoyment’ element of singing as well as the social interaction,” says Van Tonder. “We don’t hold auditions either, so no one feels excluded because they’re not good enough.

“I’ve also noticed that because we do everything for charity, members have the added advantage of knowing that their enjoyment is helping others as well.”  

He too believes that TV programmes such as Last Choir Standing have helped to boost interest. “We did notice a surge of enquiries, and our ladies’ choir swelled from around 40 members to almost 90 shortly after the programme aired last year,” he says. Guilford’s own ACM Gospel Choir were, of course, worthy runners-up in the competition.

But if all that rocking and rolling sounds like a step too far, never fear; there are plenty of choirs that cater for more traditional tastes and for those who wish to flex their music-reading muscles.

Oxshott Choral Society has been going strong for 35 years under the expert eye of the director Valerie Beynon and has been a stalwart of Dorking’s Leith Hill Musical Festival, returning home each year with trophies and prizes for their exceptional singing. “There is nothing like using your own unique voice together with others to make a good disciplined choral sound, recreating the works of the great choral composers both past and present,” says Val. Choral societies have a repertoire of lighter songs but like Oxshott also tackle larger works such as Handel’s ever-popular Messiah.

And singing is good for you; it’s official! The Sidney De Haan centre in Canterbury is dedicated to researching the link between singing and feeling good. Their recent survey into singing and health shows that choir members experience the emotional health benefits that come with feeling good and working in a team as well as physical benefits due to breathing and relaxation.

Back in Elmbridge, Van Tonder couldn’t agree more about the wellbeing side to joining a choir. “There’s nothing quite like singing from the bottom of your heart,” he says. “It’s so good for the soul and really regenerates your spirit!” 

Another person who agrees is internationally acclaimed tenor Jeremy Ovenden who was educated at Reed’s School in Cobham. Now to be found on the most prestigious stages in the world, he understands better than most how music can uplift both singer and audience.

Many benefits“The audience can be transported to another plane,” he says. “Music is extremely emotive and hugely powerful. Take the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem, for example. It is one of the most powerful pieces ever written with huge timpani and brass creating a spine-chilling atmosphere. Only music can do this and whether you’re performing it or listening to it, the experience can be just as exhilarating.”

Ovenden again acknowledges the role television has to play and adds wryly, “Gareth Malone has certainly managed to take away the uncool image singing in a choir once had, and this has been fundamental to the recent resurgence.”

So release that inner Mariah Carey and discover your hidden Tom Jones and sign up to a choir near you – it might just be the best thing you ever did.

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HAVE YOUR SAY!Do you sing in a Surrey choir? Perhaps you have a concert coming up that you’d like to tell Surrey Life readers about? Or maybe you’re even starting up your own singing group in the county? Why not let us know by commenting below.

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