Why choir singing is as popular as ever in Somerset

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 April 2020

Gareth Malone, who is well-known for his brilliant choir creations (c) WENN Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Gareth Malone, who is well-known for his brilliant choir creations (c) WENN Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: WENN Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The hills are alive with the sound of singing – well, not just the hills of course but the whole of Somerset, discovers BERNARD BALE.

Avon and Somerset Police ChoirAvon and Somerset Police Choir

At the last count there were about 550,000 people living in Somerset and quite a few of them love to sing and for a variety of reasons, one of them being that singing is good for you. Yes really!

Somerset Chamber Choir is one of the best known in the county and beyond. Based in the Taunton area, the choir has quite a repertoire, ranging from modern music all the way back to hits of the Medieval period. They perform two major concerts a year at Wells Cathedral and King’s College Chapel, Taunton, but when they are not performing they do not put their feet up but practise, practise, practise.

It was back in 1984 when Adrian Male and Anothony Leigh decided to form a choir and it is still going strong to this day with both of them still singing. The idea at the time was to perpetuate the friendships and love of performing in the Somerset Youth Choir. It turned out to be a brilliant idea and today the fraternity that has grown among the singers blossoms into a stunning performance every time they appear.

The Somerset Chamber Choir’s ethos is that singing is their passion and at the heart of that passion is the belief that life-long singing can transform lives.

That, of course, is a way of saying that singing is good for your health but is it really?

Gareth Malone, well known for his brilliant choir creations, including the Military Wives and many others from all ages and walks of life, reveals: “Yes, singing is definitely good for your health, especially if you have any lung problems. It helps with your breathing and it helps to exercise your inner organs, if you’ll pardon the expression. It is also great for the facial muscles and for general well-being so if you are feeling a bit low start singing and, better still, join a choir!”

That opinion is endorsed by Catherine Mowat, a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network and a community choir leader in Somerset at Taunton and Wells.

“Singing releases tensions, feeds the soul and opens the heart,” says Catherine. “Everyone should sing, it is such a rewarded experience. Learning and remembering the songs is good for the brain and there is always such a great, friendly atmosphere, a family feeling whenever the choir gets together for practice or performance.

“We all have a voice even if people are not very complimentary. The problem can be that we inhibit ourselves. When we join with others it helps to free our voice from those inhibitions. We relax and enjoy ourselves and therefore the music and the singing makes us feel so much better.”

Initiative Sing from the heart includes a weekly community choir – the Wood Street Choir – in Taunton and a monthly workshop in Wells. Anyone can go along and join in, there are no auditions, just a friendly atmosphere with everyone making friends through music and singing. The repertoire is not restricted to the well-known choir favourites but includes traditional songs from around the world as well as pop classics.

What other choirs and singing groups are there in Somerset? Quite a few actually, possibly more singing voices per square mile than in any other county. Even the police have their own male voice choir.

The Avon and Somerset Constabulary Male Voice Choir has been singing together since 1974 and is made up of retired and active police officers. How do they get away with being a ‘male’ voice choir in today’s world? Simple, only male voices work in a male voice choir but to help make the music there is choir conductor and musical director Marysia Gorska-Saj and accompanists Alison Howell and Sheila Rice on hand to keep the boys in order.

The choir’s repertoire covers a wide range, from Medieval and classical choral music, much loved ballads and operatic choruses to arrangements of popular songs and songs from stage and film musicals. The choir enjoys a good reputation for its quality of performance for which it has been awarded numerous cups and certificates at choral competitions.

There is no truth in the rumour that their favourite piece is A policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One from Pirates of Penzance, but it must be right up there. The choir regularly perform all over the county and are clearly on the ‘wanted list’ for many functions.

The Blackdown Community Choir consists of an enthusiastic group of singers many who have been meeting since it all began in 2002. All are there for the fun of it and most enjoy the performance too. The choir attracts people from Wellington and the surrounding area including the Blackdown Hills, Taunton, the Quantocks, Milverton and mid and East Devon.

The minimum age is 16 and it is so popular that there is a waiting list for membership.

Popularity seems to be the theme running through all Somerset choirs whether they are ecclesiastical choirs, performance choirs or in it just for the fun.

Wellington certainly seems to have been one of the most influential areas in music and singing for many years. Concerts have been held in Wellington since at least the mid-1800s. In December 1855, William Manley, the schoolmaster at the town’s National School, together with Henry Crowe, a cornet player who was also the manager of the local gas works, presented their first concert at Wellington Town Hall. William Manley’s concerts became an annual event and in 1871 he founded, and was the first conductor of, the Wellington Harmonic Society.

Later, in 1940, Andrew Brunton, a well-known and popular local tenor who had performed in many concerts in Somerset and beyond, revived the dormant Harmonic Society and renamed it the Wellington Choral Society, which is where they are today and performing electrifying concerts.

There are enough choirs and singing groups throughout the county to fill a directory, all successful, all happy to welcome new members and friends and all delighted to engage in the greatest medicine of all – music and singing.

The general ethos is that if you have a voice and can speak then you can sing. If you can sing there is a choir near you in Somerset – so why not let your voice be heard!

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