How virtual choirs are keeping Yorkshire singing

Several Yorkshire choirs have launched virtually to help boost spirits, support mental wellbeing and keep people singing during the coronavirus pandemic. Laura Reid reports.

Monday, 13th April 2020, 4:45 pm
The Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir is running virtual rehearsals. Photo: Stuart Cousins

It’s a Tuesday evening and Gail Bowen sings away in her dining room. Her husband, David, belts out the same song from the study at their home in Boston Spa near Wetherby. It’s a slightly different arrangement from the weekly rehearsal they usually attend with their choir at Wakefield Girls High School’s Mulberry Hall.

But these are far from normal times, and like many choral groups across the country, The Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir (YPC) has ‘gone virtual’. They’ve called the initiative Rompons le Silence, which translates into English as ‘break the silence’. It’s a line from a classical piece called Cantique de Jean, one of the songs that the choir performs from memory.

After the second virtual rehearsal, Gail sets out why the choir, which was founded in 1953, decided to take its presence online.

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Rock Choir has thousands of members across the UK. Photo: Jeanette Blamire

“First of all, it’s to keep our voices fettled, to keep them in the best order they can be,” she says. “If you don’t exercise your voice and your body in order to sing well, then you won’t sing well.

"It’s also to keep our repertoire up to scratch. You’ve got to keep singing pieces, familiarising yourself with pieces, in order to sing them well. The third reason is to prepare for future concerts. We need to familiarise ourselves with those works as well.”

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Gail, who became part of the choir two years ago, joining her husband who has been a member for nearly 30 years, says Tuesdays would feel “oddly empty and silent” without a YPC rehearsal.

“The virtual presence is also about keeping the choir’s togetherness,” she says. “There’s a dynamic there with a group of people singing together, there’s a creativity and it was really about keeping that going somehow. We want to stay as one choir throughout this period so that when we come back again we can pick it up running.

“The fifth reason we wanted to continue online was to support the informal social side of the choir. There’s quite a strong ‘esprit de corps’ in our choir. And the last thing is to support the physical and mental wellbeing of the choir because singing is so good for you. It’s good for your body, mind and soul.

"Physically, because it’s a workout, you’re using your diaphragm, you’re using your stomach muscles, you’re using your larynx, you’re using your face muscles, your sinuses. You’re using so many parts of your body to sing. But also mentally, it lifts your spirits and makes you feel happy.”

The choir’s musical director Dr Andrew Padmore and accompanist Thomas Moore, together with several of the YPC group, worked to take the singing online for choir members. There are vocal exercises and warm ups that can be completed daily, as well as Tuesday’s weekly virtual rehearsal. Of the 100 members from across Yorkshire, around 85 per cent are thought to have accessed the resources.

“People are doing it in different situations - in their living room or kitchen or bathroom or whatever but everyone has said how much fun it has been and how much they’re looking forward to the next one.

“My husband and I are both in the choir - I’m a soprano, he’s a bass and we can’t do it together without putting each other off so he goes up to his study to do it and there’s me in the dining room singing away. It’s a lot of fun. And also it’s providing us with some much-needed structure, which in this peculiar time, don’t we just need?”

The nationwide Rock Choir has also become part of a weekly - and even daily - routine for people across the UK with its Keep Britain Singing project. The choir has more than 32,000 members in branches around the country and each day one of its 85 choir leaders is hosting a musical broadcast through Facebook.

Anyone can tune in for vocal warm ups, singing tips and a feelgood song that viewers are encouraged to sing-along with at home. And members of the choir can also access their normal rehearsal schedule through interactive teaching sessions online.

“People might have in their mind that in a virtual choir everyone can hear each other and it sounds like a choir, says Steve Brown, who runs Rock Choirs across North Yorkshire. “But that’s never going to happen because of the technology.

“It’s quite different to what people might expect but we’re trying to keep the singing going and the flow of the social aspect of things. We do have a good laugh, we have good fun.”

Steve, who lives in York, has already taken a turn to host the daily broadcast. “The choir is all about feeling good and having fun,” he says. “The singing is not a byproduct of what we do, it’s the main thing, but it’s also about the social side. Keep Britain Singing is about uplifting people and making them feel good and forget all this bad stuff that’s happening.”

Lucy McLean, who runs Lucy’s Pop Choir in York, Leeds, Harrogate and Peterborough, has also taken her singing groups online. The choir is open for anyone to join, with no auditions or sheet music - and the virtual sessions taking place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings are currently free.

“Lockdown has been stressful for many of us,” says Lucy. “Loneliness is rife, anxiety has sky rocketed and fear is overshadowing our thoughts. But, singing is a proven stress reliever.”

Singing teacher Lucy started her pop choir in York in 2013. There are now more than 300 members across its locations. The singers are currently ‘meeting’ through video conferencing software Zoom, where members can choose to turn their camera on or off.

Lucy teaches a pop or chart song and participants join in from their own homes. “It’s very different to how we normally run choir, because everyone has to stay muted except me, but I can see them all singing along and getting their whole families involved which is so amazing to watch,” she says.

“I get to see everyone dancing around their living rooms, being a bit silly, and clapping and singing along. It’s nice for people to join in from their own homes. People have been showing off their glasses of wine and their pets on the screen, all for the fun of it really.”

Lucy launched the virtual sessions to give people a regular dose of social interaction that she hoped would lift spirits and support wellbeing, particularly for those feeling lonely.

“I really want to do whatever I can to make sure people have got something to cheer them up in the week even if it’s only for an hour. It’s so important, especially at the moment when things are stressful and scary and no one really knows what’s going on. This is something that can take people’s minds off things and boost spirits.

“I’m really worried about the effect all this isolation is going to have on people’s mental health so whatever we can do to combat that is a win for me.”

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