Choir Joys

Singing makes you feel good - and Henrietta Bredin has a song in her heart

The Lady, 24 November 2009

'I want a coffee in a proper copper coffee pot, I want a coffee in a proper copper coffee pot'; up and down the scale we go, shaping our vowels and nailing those consonants. We are the members of the Solo Singing for Beginners class at Morley College in Lambeth, led by the unfailingly enthusiastic Andrea Brown, and we're warming up en masse before venturing to sing alone.

Singing is fantastically good for you. It makes you feel wonderful: fact. I can arrive at Morley on a Monday afternoon, fretful, tired and distracted by the pile of work I've left on my desk, and within five minutes I'm crackling with energy and interest. Two hours later I'm biking back home with a foolish stretchy grin on my face and a head full of music, some of which has a tendency to escape via my mouth, alarming pedestrians at zebra crossings.

And there are opportunities galore to get out there and sing, at every possible level. Andrea is head of vocal studies at Morley, having first worked at the College as director of the Can't Sing Choir. This is a brilliant concept, designed to encourage anyone who has ever been told that they sound like a croaking frog, who thinks that they can't pitch a note or hold a tune. There is safety in numbers and no-one is ever singled out or made to feel embarrassed or inadequate in any way. The Choir is so popular that it's now divided into four, with around 80 students in each group.

'It's incredibly rewarding,' says Andrea, 'to see how people grow in confidence. There are people joining the Solo Singing for Beginners class who started with the Can't Sing Choir a few years ago and had a hard time even opening their mouths. Now they're up to having a go, on their own, at a Britten song or some Mozart, or a number from Oklahoma! .'

An important thing to remember is that music cannot actually be damaged by being sung. I was amazed that Andrea suggested that I try singing Schubert's An die Musik and Sondheim's I Remember Sky, both of which I would have considered far too good, and challenging, for me to be messing about with. Despite my lack of skill they of course remain nharmed, lastingly proof against anything I could ever do to them, while I had the joy and the satisfaction of singing both songs and learning the first rudiments of performance and interpretation.

But solo singing doesn't have to be the ultimate aspiration. There are choirs catering to every sort of taste, giving their all to gospel, madrigals, barber shop, folk and show tunes - it's not just churches and concert halls, long black skirts and Handel's Messiah, as Gareth Malone so cheerily demonstrated while getting the people of South Oxhey on their feet, jigging delightedly and Walking on Sunshine in BBC 2's The Choir.

Not that one would ever want to knock Handel's Messiah - it's glorious music that has inspired thousands of people and has a significance well beyond the religious. Last Easter, the Southbank Show broadcast an extraordinarily moving film by Matthew Tucker, following three Yorkshire choirs in their preparations to perform the work: the long-established Huddersfield Choral Society, the smaller Keighley Vocal Union and the gay choir, Sacred Wing, from Leeds. It demonstrated with great vividness how, in addition to the musical rewards, singing in a choir is a wonderfully sociable activity. It gets you out of the house, provides a sanctuary, a distraction and a place to meet people, peels you away from the television and the computer screen.

Howard Goodall, prolific composer and the man in possession of the fabulous title of National Singing Ambassador, couldn't agree more. He's been leading the campaign to get the nation singing, starting with children in primary schools and the Sing Up programme. 'It's actually much easier than what Jamie Oliver's been doing, trying to persuade children to eat vegetables they're deeply suspicious of, like cabbage and aubergines. I'm pushing at an open door - children naturally love singing. It's later on, when puberty starts and hormones kick in that people become inhibited. And there is a generation, between those over 45 and those in their 20s, who've missed out on singing being part of everyday life. They don't know any songs to sing to their children, not even lullabies or nursery rhymes.' If you look at their website (www.singup.org) you can browse through the Sing Up Song Bank, which has got songs with backing tracks to sing along with and lyrics and music you can download. It's inspiring, and great fun.

Interested in opera? A brilliant way to become more familiar with one is to sing along with it. Sign up for an Insight Day with The Royal Opera and assistant chorus master Stephen Westrop will treat you to a condensed version of the entire plot, before you get to sing your way through a selection of chorus and solo numbers that he's arranged specially. Over 100 people joined in with Il trovatore recently - the Anvil Chorus sounds even better when you sing it yourself.

Composer Jonathan Dove has created community operas in Hackney, Spitalfields, in Peterborough Cathedral and at the end of Hastings Pier. Amateur singers of all ages, shapes, sizes and origins have not just performed his work but contributed to its creation. 'It's a unique collective experience,' he says. 'I get musical ideas I wouldn't otherwise have found, in an atmosphere of huge enthusiasm engendered by people doing things they don't normally do, to a level way beyond anything they thought they could achieve.' And it's about play, something adults don't get to do very often. 'You play an instrument, you play a role, and on these sorts of projects I'm the person with the key to the playground - it doesn't get much better than that.'

For people who need a break from keeping their noses pressed hard to the grindstone, there's Music in Offices, an excellent initiative to get people singing and playing music in the work place. The Office Choir of the Year competition is currently underway, with choirs competing from the Guardian and the Times, Goldman Sachs and Great Ormond Street Hospital. The five finalists will perform at a public concert in April 2010.

And what about that currently unloved species: politicians? They're catered for as well. The Parliament Choir is made up of MPs, peers and members of staff in a rare example of all parties singing from the same hymn sheet. They're sponsored by BT, which enables them to recruit top soloists like Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen - 'That raises our game considerably,' says founder member Baroness Hollis. And there's home-grown talent as well; Lib Dem MP Sarah Tether apparently has a 'stunning high coloratura soprano', while other stalwarts include Alun Michael (Lab) and Caroline Spelman (Con), who even leads spontaneous sing-alongs with staff in her office. The Choir gives two concerts a year and, as they rehearse every Tuesday in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster, their music-making must echo pleasingly about the corridors of power.