It started as a choir for the homeless, but Singing on the Edge is now reaching out across an entire city. Sarah Freeman reports.
The sounds coming out of the former Oxford Place Methodist Church in the heart of Leeds city centre are the same as any other choir preparing for Christmas.
There’s the odd strain of Ding Dong Merrily on High as scales are practised and the tenors search for the perfect pitch. However, this is no ordinary choir. Set up for the homeless people of Leeds a month or so ago, before the first note had even been sung it had expanded its remit to include those with mental health and addiction issues.
Every member of this tight-knit group has a story to tell, one which often involves personal tragedy, loss and often just sheer bad luck. They also have stories of how the group gives them a much needed release from their troubles and provides a little routine to lives that are often erratic.
Take Adam* for example. He suffers from anxiety attacks and has been going through a particularly bad spell of late. His illness means he hasn’t worked for sometime and is often reluctant to mix with other people. Not on a Friday afternoon though. From 3-5pm is choir time. Often it’s the only thing in the week he has to look forward to. Then there is Deidre. She doesn’t like to talk too much about her current problems, but without prompting she will wax lyrical about the joy she finds in learning a new song.
“I used to sing at school and I’ve always loved music,” she says. “No matter what mood I come in here in, I go out feeling a whole lot better. It’s a chance to meet people and make new friends. In a big choir you can feel a bit lost, but here there’s around 20 of us is about the right number. There’s enough of us to make a decent sound, but not too many of us that people feel intimidated. I go to another choir which has about 80 people in it and most of the time I sit at the back. I’m at the front here, I really feel part of something.”
The sessions at Oxford Place, just off the Headrow, are an informal affair. They start with tea and cake, have a midway break for more of the same and then afterwards those that want or need to can hang around for the soup kitchen to open at 5.30pm.
“It’s deliberately set up that way,” says Emma Tregidden, creative director of Space 2. The organisation was set up to provide activities for people living in challenging neighbourhoods and was instrumental in setting up the choir. “Sometimes, someone offering them a cup of coffee and asking how they’re doing might be the only conversation they’ll have that day’. It’s important that they feel welcomed here.”
Emma has always been a great believer in the power of music and Singing on the Edge was born out of a number of other projects Space2 had run in the city.
“We supported a choir in East Leeds called Voices of the Day which was funded by the Big Lottery,” says Emma. “At the end of two and half years it had 150 members and it really confirmed to me the power of song in bringing people together. It might be great for our lungs, but it also has massive social benefits. There were two particular women in that choir who really demonstrated that. They were both recovering from cancer and the illness had made them depressed and isolated. However, through the choir they found each other and their friendship made a real difference to their lives.”
Last year Voices of the Day was part of a 2,500-strong choir, jointly directed by Jane Edwardson and Peter Churchill, which performed in Leeds as part of the Olympic celebrations. Jane had previously worked on the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain project and with a background in mental health was already convinced that a choir for the homeless in Leeds could deliver real benefits.
There are already a number of homeless choirs in other parts of the country, including London’s Choir with No Name and Emma decided that if they were going to go ahead with the project they would need a wider remit. Rather than just being open to homeless people, the choir would also be dedicated to those with mental health problems and recovering from addiction. With the choir focused on those who live on the fringes of society, quite quickly they settled on a name. Singing on the Edge was born. “When Jane first approached me about launching the choir, I didn’t take much convincing,” says Emma. “However, the one thing we had to be sure of though was that it really is open to everyone. It’s one of the reasons we don’t use song sheets, instead the choir learns pieces by ear. It’s something which Peter was always very keen on and it’s a technique which Jane has embraced. You don’t even have to be a great singer. In a choir everyone’s voice finds its own place.”
Under the leadership of Jayne, who some of the choir like to refer to as the female Gareth Malone, the choir is preparing for its first public performance. This afternoon the doors of Oxford Place will be thrown open as the members of Singing on the Edge demonstrate what they have learnt over the last few weeks. It won’t be a grand affair and those that come to see them will be encouraged to stand and sing alongside the group.
“Performing in public allows the choir members to feel they are giving something back, it’s about a sense of self-worth, but I also hope that it breaks down a few stereotypes,” says Emma. “When people think of the homeless, they think of someone in rags, an absolute down and out. That is often far from reality. For every person on the streets, there are dozens more going from different sofa to different sofa. There is a stigma attached both to homelessness and mental illness and I hope that projects like this can help break down those barriers.
“At some point in our lives one in four of us will suffer from mental illness and that often overlaps with addiction issues and homelessness. It’s the kind of problem which doesn’t have any respect for class, age or education. It’s there that by the grace of God go many of us.”
Like many involved in the choir, Steve Francis watched his life spiral out of control and for years didn’t know how to claw it back. He is what the healthcare sector refer to as alcohol dependent. He prefers the more old fashioned description ‘drunk’. Steve doesn’t sing with the choir - he says he’s tone deaf - but he’s there for most of the rehearsals offering moral support and his wife has recently signed up.
“I came to Leeds to go to university 43 years ago and that’s when I really started drinking in earnest. I’ve been more or less dry for the last two years, but I’ll admit there has been the odd blip and I’m old enough now to know that it is something I will have to live with forever.
“I’m certainly not the singer in the family, but even standing at the back, there’s something about listening to a choir which lifts the soul. It’s been wonderful, just wonderful.”
The choir has big plans. While the last of the money to pay for the venue hire and the services of the choir director runs out in April, they have already organised a fundraising concert for March where they will join forces with other groups, including London’s Pink Singers. All they need now is a venue and they are secretly hoping the good people at the Town Hall might offer them a room.
“It costs around £12,000 a year to run the choir which is not very much in terms of the impact it can and is having,” says Jane. “We will find the money somewhere. It’s too important to fail, but should anybody out there want to give us an early Christmas present, whether that’s a donation of time or money, then we’d love to hear from them.”
Singing on the Edge’s first performance will take place at the Oxford Place Centre, near Leeds Town Hall, from 4pm today. The choir meets at the centre every Friday from 3.30-5.30pm. For more details call Ben Tagoe on 0113 320 0159 ext 6 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the work of Space2 go to www.space2.org.uk. * Some names have been changed to protect identities