Choirs: Meeting a need in the Community

by Jennifer Barry

They enter the hall in ones and twos, greeting each other, some setting out chairs in a semi-circle, others helping the conductor to get her gear sorted. Some hand over money to the treasurer who records the payments on a chart. The women settle on chairs to the left of the conductor, the men on the right. Interestingly, there are twice as many men as women. The group is called to order and warm-ups begin.

A range of tonalities and voice qualities emerge and the look on the conductor's face along with the chuckles from various choir members indicates that quantity of sound is not going to make up for quality of sound. The conductor smiles wryly, the group refocuses and the exercise is repeated. There is a marked improvement and the group gets the sense they've got it'. The weekly rehearsal is underway.

This is the beginning of another weekly rehearsal of the St. Alban's Community Choir in Christchurch. The choir members are passionate about their membership. It's more than a group of people who sing together once a week, it's a reflection of the community, a part of the community and a contributor to the community.

The conductor of the choir, Heather Gladstone, began the group with Margaret Stronks, responding to a need they had perceived within the community. The choir started in 1997 with the philosophy of making music accessible to as many members of the local community as possible. It was decided the repertoire would comprise secular music with the emphasis on lighter music and folk songs. Songs were to be primarily sung in unison, with variety provided by using arrangements with women's voices only, men's voices only, and men's and women's voices together. There was a deliberate decision to avoid the traditional conductor and accompanist set-up. Heather plays the piano accordion and conducts as she plays. She selects and arranges the songs, taking into account melodic and rhythmic challenges, stylistic elements and lyric content.

This emphasis on the accessibility of music making continues. There is no audition to join the choir; members simply need a desire to sing with others. As a result, members come from all over Christchurch and surrounding areas, areas far beyond the immediate St. Albans neighbourhood. The only restriction to membership is that members must be over the age of fourteen years.

Fostering community spirit is another important aspect of the choir, and this is evident in two ways: firstly, within the choir itself and secondly, how choir performances bring the local community together. The atmosphere at rehearsals is relaxed and purposeful. Suggestions and plans for performances are discussed and members are encouraged to share their expertise in various areas, such as catering, publicity, arranging events and venues, and accounting. Messages from former members are passed on and contact maintained with those who are absent for any reason. Members speak of the friendships developed through involvement with the choir, and the informal support and encouragement they get from other members beyond choir activities.

The second aspect of promoting community spirit is that of the choir's performances within the Christchurch community. The choir regularly performs at the Cornish Association and at the monthly concerts Heather runs for her music pupils. There are also concerts and performances with the Christchurch Accordion Association. Performances at school galas and other local events have also featured. Each year the choir sings at the Carols in Packe Street Park event, as well as singing in the Christchurch Central Post Office for the workers. Busking at the Arts Centre has been added to the choir's activities more recently.

Another important role for the choir is that of education. Choir members enter the choir with differing levels of singing ability and confidence, from enthusiastic first timers to those with a high level of skill and experience in choral singing. Most members belong to more than one music group within the community. The choir provides an opportunity for members to improve their performance skills, their singing technique, and music reading skills. Members develop confidence to perform in the group and some have gone on to have singing lessons, study for singing exams, and sing individual items at community concerts.

Funding the choir is an ongoing concern. Providing music for the members and hall hire for the rehearsal venue are on-going costs. When the choir began, it applied for funding from various funding groups under the umbrella of the St. Alban's Residents Association. It is now self-funding with choir members each paying a nominal weekly fee. The choir runs a barn dance biannually and the proceeds from this boost the coffers as swell as allowing the choir to reach a different part of the community and have a bit of fun.

This is a successful, thriving choir with a sense of vitality and community. At the core of its success is Heather and her philosophy of accessibility and caring. Members are welcomed and the personal and collective accomplishments are celebrated. Many members speak of times when they were discouraged from singing as children, of times when they have been intimidated by the audition process to join choirs, and then tell of the joy and sense of accomplishment and belonging they have experienced with this choir.

Community choirs form for a variety of reasons, and to meet a variety of needs. Each reflects the philosophy of its conductor and members, but the real reason people get together to sing is because the, have a desire to sing with others. Social and educational benefits are secondary to this. The St Albanís Community Choir welcomes people who just want to sing. One member described it as an entry-level choir that allows anyone to get singing, whatever their level. The energy and enthusiasm of the choir members is evidence of a successful approach to music-making.