Choirs are the new book clubs. All over the country in parish halls, disparate groups are coming together to join in song. And while there's camaraderie, community, voices raised in heavenly chorus and home-baked goods, Emily Hourican wonders is there another side to the story
Presumably we have all been members of a book club by now. Probably several book clubs, give the usual rate of attrition these suffer from. And there is a very good chance that we have also been through the various sideshows that tend to spoil the main act – haven't read the book; again. Hate that girl who's always suggesting we read Dostoevsky, in the original. Sick of having to tidy the house and pretend to live graciously before welcoming fellow members in. Unable to think of one single thing to say about the latest choice, the story of one woman's courageous mission to set up a home for distressed goats in Albania ... Well it's no wonder choirs are fast taking over. And they are.
Partly this has to do with Glee, which reminded us just how much fun there is to be got from group singing, and partly it's a trickle-down of the X Factor effect (once you have seen enough amateur choirs launch into Hallelujah and Oh Happy Day, you start to wonder whether you couldn't do just as well yourself), but really, we have Gareth Malone, and the recession to thank for the new craze. Gareth Malone, of course, is the irresistible force behind the resurgence of British choral singing, the man who fronted BBC's The Choir: Military Wives and The Big Performance, and was awarded an OBE in Britain this year for services to music.
Malone may be a by-word for enthusiastic charm, but what he really did was tap into an immense latent enthusiasm for what is communication at a most profound level. After all, in the beginning was the word, carried by memory and voice. And so there is a wave of enthusiasm for this most simple, cheap, and satisfying of activities – blending one's voice with others to create something greater than the sum of its parts – sweeping across the country. And it's not just for Christmas.
Joining a choir, even for those who don't necessarily have the kind of voice that is going to make you a shoe-in for the Ave Maria solo, is an extraordinarily satisfying experience. Not only does it tick all the book-club boxes – gets you out of the house, engages you in something other than the mundane details of everyday life, gives you an excuse/ reason to socialise – it also brings a specific psycho-physical dimension all its own.
"People have always sung and used their voices to express, through times of hardship, pleasure and pain," says singer Lauren Kinsella, who is part of Thought-Fox, a collective named for Ted Hughes's poem, who have just released their fifth album, My Guess.
Now a full-time professional singer, Lauren has sung in choirs since she was a child. These days, as well as performing, she also teaches others to sing. "It is a very powerful thing, to open your mouth and express something through song. Doing this as part of a choir creates a connection at a deeper level with those around you." Singing, she explains, is a seriously physical thing, "the vibrations moving through your body are very relaxing. Singing produces a kind of high, a release of tension that brings great pleasure with it."
It is a theme I hear from nearly everyone else I speak to – who range from deathly serious to those looking for a fun way to get out of the house, with ages from late-20s to mid-70s.
Eileen Carpio, artist and dedicated choral singer – everything from madrigals to contemporary compositions she writes herself as part of a five-woman group who are currently nameless, but planning a series of public concerts within the next year – talks about the sensations created: "There is a lot of deep breathing that goes on, meaning that you are engaged at a very physical level, as well as an intellectual one." She also mentions the wonderful feeling of camaraderie that comes with "getting to know a piece of music so well, understanding it, and sharing that with people around you".
For hairdresser Caroline Downey, who joined the Dublin Gospel Choir 10 years ago, singing "is a release. It's a feeling I don't get from anything else in my life. I could go out to rehearsal feeling a bit down, or tired, and I always come back uplifted and in great form". Like many choir-joiners, Caroline sang in school and church choirs as a child, then stopped as she got older and life intervened with all its many demands. "I didn't have the confidence to go to any of the choral societies," she says. "I thought they were all closed shops, full of people who already knew each other, and had the right repertoire of songs. Then a friend told me about auditions for the Dublin Gospel Choir, I went along, and I got the call to come back. That was a great confidence boost."
"I can be feeling exhausted, wretched and reluctant to go to rehearsal, but once there, out of nowhere, rises up an energy," is how Doireann Ni Bhriain, radio producer and former presenter of the Eurovision Song Contest puts it (her parents met in a choir). She has sung with the Culwick Choral Society for over 15 years; Olivia O'Leary is a fellow choir member, and the society performs an annual Christmas concert in the National Concert Hall. "It's like gardening, or something else that is both manual and meditative. You are so completely inside the music that everything else goes out of your head. You are so focused, and that is an extraordinarily healthy thing." In fact, there are proven benefits to choral singing for a range of ailments, including Parkinson's, depression and lung disease.
This idea that singing produces a particular kind of happiness, one not found anywhere else, is something Anne Roper, a producer working with RTE, also mentions. "I have always loved singing, and have been in choirs on and off since I was 16. Some of my happiest moments have been preparing Christmas carol concerts, for example, rehearsing on cold, foggy nights. It's a combination of deep breathing and mental engagement that is almost meditative."
In fact, enjoyment rather than ambition is what motivates most of those who join. TV producer John Caden describes the process that brought him to the Frascati Singers. "I always thought I couldn't, I'm the person who wanted to leave the room when anyone started a sing-song. But I had a growing feeling that I should give it a go." And then he saw an ad in the local shop for auditions for the Frascati Singers. "I expected to be sent home," he laughs. "Three years later, I'm still with them, and I've learned that, if you can hold a note, you're raw material." A good director, John says, will "craft you and join you with others. Together, you become a single instrument, but for that to happen, everyone therein must be playing their part to the highest level. It is an extraordinary moment when you all bring yourself to understanding and singing the pieces exactly as the composer intended."
The group dynamic of a choir is a big part of the appeal; the subtle pressure of not letting a team down, matched by the collective glory of transcending each individual voice and together creating something magical. However, let's not forget that, as Mark Twain said, "Everything human is pathetic." And not just pathetic, also subject to jealousy, resentment, backstabbing and bitterness. Just because you're singing the most sacred and holy of music, doesn't mean to say you will absorb those sacred, holy emotions. "There is real bitchiness between those who can read music and those who can't," said one woman, who asked not to be named and who is not in any of the choirs named in this piece, "with those who can't being totally looked down upon." She added: "There is something about choirs that seems to appeal to the control-freaks and nuts, people who want to boss others around and think this is a captive audience."
Another man, also wishing to remain nameless and who is not referring to any of the choirs named in this piece, went much further, painting a picture of Jilly Cooper-style intrigue and back-biting. "I joined expecting camaraderie, community, voices raised in heavenly chorus and perhaps some home-baked goods. Instead I was faced with endless barracking between the bass line – the studs of the choir – and the tenors, who along with the altos were objects of ridicule. The sopranos, meanwhile, were all divas, who didn't sing nearly as well as they thought, and after every rehearsal, everyone scuttled off home as fast as they could without ever socialising. The conductor behaved as if he was wasting his time, and disregarded the tenors completely. There was one chap who never opened his mouth to sing a note, even though he turned up and took his place at every rehearsal and concert. Loads of the choir sang bum notes. Actually, in quality terms, it was the choral equivalent of gathering round the piano for a sing-song." Ouch! There is clearly a novel, right there. In fact, He Who Shall Not be Named did say the experience "put Trollope in the shade."
"There were the ones who were intriguing to get rid of someone else, constant low-level bitching, sopranos running out weeping because the conductor wasn't paying them enough attention, and of course the occasional bubbling over of sexual tension. It's a passionate thing, to sing powerful words to wonderful music: 'let thy hand be strengthened and thy right hand be exalted...' from Handel's Coronation Anthem, would really get them going." Perhaps there is something to be made of the fact that in the tantric yoga tradition, the throat chakra is the seat of the emotions, which can be released by a series of vocal exercises.
A lot seems to come down to the personality and ability of the choir leader or conductor. "A good choir leader will encourage a healthy spirit of competition, to get everybody singing at their best, but will curb it before it gets out of hand," says Anne Roper, while Joanne O'Hagen, documentary-maker, says: "A good choirmaster needs charisma. They guide you, you sing for them, so they need to be able to lead, and to have personality." Joanne also spelled out something remarkable, that several choir members mentioned. "There are very few people who can't sing in a choir. Even if you're tone deaf, you'll find you can carry a tune once 10 or 12 people are around you to help you hold it. If you can listen, you can sing in a choir."
Judith Lambert has a view from both sides of the fence. She sings with St Ann's and the St Patrick's Cathedral Close Chorale, and has toured the US and recorded as part of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir. She also conducts two choirs, Cherry Orchard Community Choir, who sang for the unveiling of the live crib at the Mansion House, and a youth choir consisting of 11-16-year-olds from Rialto, Cherry Orchard, and Ringsend.
"The conductor brings together a choir, they select voices which will create their ideal sound, choose music suitable for the capabilities of their choir and draw out the best performance they can," she explains. Which, in the case of the youth choir, includes numbers by Robbie Williams, Adele and Rihanna, as well as traditional Christmas songs. And there, too, the unifying power of singing can be seen. "At first, there were three separate entities in one room, they all stuck within their pack, but now they have come together brilliantly."
The stakes can be high or low, as you like them. There are choirs where you don't so much audition as simply turn up, where you will not be chucked out or even looked at sideways for singing flat, and where public performances are largely restricted to close family and friends. A bit like a school play really. And then, at the other end of the spectrum comes something way more formal, such as the New Dublin Voices choir, under the meticulous direction of conductor Bernie Sherlock, which has a whole shelf-ful of awards to its name.
Feilimidh Nunan, who has been singing with New Dublin Voices for three years, explain how it works. "There are plenty of amateur choirs that wouldn't have very strict quality control, where it's more of a social thing. In more serious choirs, however, if you're not up to speed, you will be asked to leave." Funnily, it isn't always a question of vocal quality. "There are people with decent voices who don't have a good idea of singing with other people. They can't blend. That is a different skill, one that requires you to listen." So you see, if you do get kicked out, you can always say it's because you were too good...
And for those with serious, far-reaching singing ambitions, choirs are the perfect place to start. Eunan McDonald, Stephen Fennelly, Barry Finn, Jeremy and Simon Morgan together make up The Key Notes, a close harmony group who have performed in The National Concert Hall, the RDS and The Aviva, as well as at Glastonbury and Electric Picnic. The five have been singing together in choirs since they were all in school, including the UCD choir and Anuna. "It gradually became a bigger and bigger part of all our lives," explains Stephen Fennelly. "We just realised that singing is a deeply fulfilling thing, and we wanted to do it professionally." Originally a barber-shop quartet, they realised they could expand their range by adding a fifth member, and these days perform everything from opera numbers to jazz and trad Irish. Even so, the real heartbeat of what they do is still the basic enjoyment of the physical process of singing. "It's not just the throat and head, you should feel it in the stomach muscles, too, if you're doing things properly. At its best, you feel completely uninhibited, tuned into the moment and the people around you. You stop that inner voice that is so constantly commentating on everything you do, and communicate at a deeper level."
There we are, back to the wonderful psychological benefits of choral singing. So what are we waiting for? There are choirs up and down the country, in churches, community centres and school halls (the Frascati Singers are actively looking for tenors, for example). We've established that you don't need to be Aled Jones, or even have much cop at all. Just willing, and a tiny bit able.
For a choir near you, try
The Association of Irish Choirs. See www.aoic.ie. The Key Notes perform at the RDS tomorrow (December 17). See www.thekeynotes.com