Until January Leeds Male Voice choir was on the brink of collapse but they’ve found a new voice. neil hudson caught up with them as they approach their centenary
Singing in public is not everyone’s cup of tea but for the members of Leeds Male Voice Choir, it’s chapter and verse, so to speak.
And if you think singing in a choir is all about Welsh hymns, think again – in recent years they have covered the Kaiser Chiefs’ I Predict A Riot and last month they brought Ilkley Beer Festival to life with a rousing rendition of On Ilkley Moor Bar T’at and later this month they can be seen singing a medley of songs at the Best of British festival on Leeds Minster on June 14.
The choir was founded in 1916 and has its origins in the Middleton Broom Colliery and until the 1930s, the name reflected that.
Up until January this year and for around the last five years, the choir had been teetering on the brink of closure but, with its centenary approaching, it has found a new lease of life.
Today it has around 40 members with ages ranging from 19 to 89 and taking in people from all walks of life from plumbers to barristers and everything in between.
Robert Butler, 36, is a human resources manager and has been a member of the choir for the last two-and-a-half years. He was introduced to the group through a friend and, although he had some reservations about joining, he says he hasn’t looked back.
“There’s an idea out there that there are some people who can sing and others who cannot, when, in reality, what we have found is that, it’s like anything in life, if you practise something, you become better at it.
“Certainly, our group has encouraged people to sing and be confident at it and to enjoy doing it.”
Robert says he’s not afraid to sing in public but he still sometimes surprises people with his singing.
“I’ve been caught out a few times singing. The thing that appeals to me and others is that it’s not just about one person, it’s about the group, it’s not about individuals being stars, it’s more a case of everyone together and there’s a real team mentality.
“There’s a great tradition of male voice choirs from Yorkshire, Wales and Cornwall and historically it goes back to the pits.
“We’re two years away from our centenary, which we’re quite excited about. There are some people who have been in the choir for 40 years and so their memories go back a fair way but there’s a period we don’t know much about, which is from about the 1916 up to 1945.
“At the moment we perform a couple of concerts a year but we also do one-offs, such as the Ilkley Beer Festival, where we all turned up and sang Ilkley Moor Bar T’at while wearing flat caps – it really got the crowd going and everyone into the swing of things.
“That’s one of the things you can’t really put a price on: the appreciation of people and it’s something we enjoy.”
Far from singing stereotypical ‘churchy’ songs (which they also do, by the way), they will turn their hand to just about anything.
Robert continued: “A while ago, we approached the Kaiser Chiefs to ask permission to do an arrangement of their song, I Predict a Riot and they gladly gave it but we’ve also been known to dabble in Gene Pitney, songs from Les Miserables and even McFly.
“Our director, Tim Knight, who is one of the few living composers to be nominated for the Classical Music Hall of Fame, wants us to be able to sing anything from Westlife to classical music.
“For me, the fun is in learning and there are all kinds of things you wouldn’t think about, like breathing techniques and how to sing in four different voice parts, which sometimes means you are not necessarily singing the tune of the song but that’s all about blending with other the other voices so that the listener doesn’t hear 40 people each singing their own song but instead they hear one song.”
The man responsible for helping create that unified sound is Tim Knight, principal of the Leeds-based Yorkshire College of Music and Drama, who is, incidentally, one of the few living people to be nominated into the hallowed classical music ‘hall of fame’, to which he was nominated this year by readers of ClassicFM magazine.
Tim, 54, only came across the choir in January and said the move away from ‘traditional Welsh hymns’ was a conscious one.
“That’s the idea people have of a male voice choir and I totally understand the reasons for it but the only problem is, we’re not Welsh and I think it’s almost because of that image that the male voice choir has diminished.
“I think choirs can tackle anything these days and that’s what the men of Leeds Male Voice Choir are doing, including some pieces people would just not think we would attempt.”
Tim, whose musical life began as a choirboy aged seven, also conducts two other choirs in addition to writing classical music, said he didn’t see their short-term future involving competitions.
“They’ve done an awful lot of work in the last 12 weeks so that they are now at the stage where they can go out and sing just about anything with confidence.
“Competitions are a big part of brass bands but in terms of us doing that, I would rather them be able to sing a variety of things well than to be able to just sing two or three pieces well, which is what happens if you do enter competitions. At the moment, we are more focussed on the centenary in 2016, which sounds a long way off but isn’t. There’s a plan to re-ignite the relationship the choir had with Dortmund [Germany] and to get them over here and vice versa and we would also like to stage an event in Leeds Town Hall of ‘a thousand male voices’, inviting choirs from York and surrounding towns to take part.”
He added: “The main aim is to keep it relevant, not to make it stuffy and to get people interested in singing things they probably didn’t know they liked and that’s why we have such a broad repertoire of songs.
After spotting a picture in the YEP of the choir in May 1980, members gathered to recreate the picture 34 years on. They meet to practise every Thursday at 7.30pm at Yorkshire College of Music and Drama. To get in touch with Leeds Male Voice Choir, contact Laurie Wood on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Best of British concert will take place at Leeds Minster on Saturday June 14 at 7.30pm.
The choir will be performing songs from around the four corners of Britain and will commemorate 1914 with a number of popular songs from the First World War, including Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the home fires Burning, together with classics such as Jerusalem, Highland Cathedral, Rule Britannia and but also some from the musical Scrooge.
Tickets can be booked via www.leedsmalevoicechoir.eventbrite.co.uk or by telephoning 0113 2431605.
They stage two main concerts a year, including another around Christmas time but they are also available for bookings and one-off events.
The Christmas concert - The Spirit of Christmas - will be on December 13 at Leeds Minster.