This Saturday I’ll be singing in a choir of over two hundred voices as part of Southbank Centre’s Chorus Festival. The annual celebration of choral singing brings choirs from all over the country to celebrate a wide range of singing groups in different styles.
The choir I’ll be part of comes under Southbank Centre's Voicelab umbrella and is part of their Beyond The Bassline initiative, which aims to get more men singing in choirs. As anyone who has ever been in a community choir can tell you, there’s usually a huge imbalance number-wise between male and female voices, which is always a shame as singing in a group can be hugely enjoyable.
Although I was interested in music at school, it only really emerged once I got bands together in my teens. Like many young men I wasn’t confident about my voice and hadn’t really realised I was a bass, only that I couldn’t ever sing the high bits of the hymns (when I bothered to turn up to assembly). The choirs there were at my school focused on classical repertoire, which seemed really hard and as I didn’t read music, felt literally like an alien language. Singing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in latin when you want to be belting out something by Suede doesn’t really amount to much fun. Thankfully the resurgence of community choirs has started to change that.
I first heard of Voicelab from a friend who I’d sang with in the London Gay Men’s Chorus, when Elbow were looking to form a male voice choir for Massive Attack’s Meltdown back in 2008. Lovingly named ‘Geoff’ by Guy Garvey, the choir was led by the world-renowned singer and voice coach Mary King, who was instrumental in the development of Voicelab. I was lucky enough to later be part of Pulse - a six-month in depth training course with Mary and jazz composer Laka D, as well as one-off choral projects with Ian Shaw and Bobby McFerrin.
All of these improved my musicality and fed straight into my own music in a way that I hadn’t anticipated and put simply, I don’t think I would still be making music if I hadn’t been part of Voicelab. Being a solo performer has certain pressures and demands but merging into a group and being part of a team helps you flex other muscles. At the end of Pulse, we sang in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, where I had sold ice creams a decade earlier – which felt like a dream come true (singing, not selling ice creams). I’ve also gone on to perform at Paul Burston’s Polari several times and hope one day to bring one of my own choral creations to one of the Southbank stages.
In the current Beyond The Bassline choir we’re singing songs by brilliant soul singer Andreya Triana, who’ll be joining us at the concert, as well as a new piece by beat boxer Shlomo. Before I read about the project I didn’t imagine I’d ever even try beat boxing, but Shlomo has taught us the basics and written 'March Peace' (punnily enough for a piece to be performed in March) around our voices.
Our leader this time round is Dom Stichbury of Chaps Choir – like Laka and Mary he’s an inspiring teacher and brings out the best of the group. What’s great about it is that although some of us can read music, Dom’s ‘by ear’ teaching approach means you don’t have to (we've actually been encouraged to learn it without our faces in our folders unlike many choirs), which means it really is open to anyone.
I’d encourage anyone to get involved in Voicelab, whatever your level of experience – their projects are free and although you have to audition for some of them, for a lot of their weekend classes and workshops you can just turn up on the day and join in. Rehearsals for big concerts are usually just one evening a week over a few weeks, so you can fit them around work or any other commitments – and more importantly they’re great fun. I am still friends with a few ‘Geoffs’ and several Pulse singers and hope to stay in touch with some of my fellow Beyond The Bassline beat boxers – singing together really brings out a team spirit and is a great icebreaker.
One of the great gifts with music is that it is a journey – you might well be selling ice creams in the foyer one year and singing (or beat boxing) onstage at the same venue a few years later. Singing in the Festival Hall with Elbow and a group of thirty to forty men was a really powerful experience that I often remember fondly when I ‘throw those curtains wide’ - and I'm sure performing Shlomo's 'March Peace' will be another one to treasure - come and find out for yourselves.
Tickets are available here: