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Community choirs

No matter how strong a singer you are or what kind of music you like, there’s a Greenwich community choir that’s right for you

Choirs are enjoying something of a moment. Perhaps it’s all down to Gareth Malone, the bespectacled choirmaster who inspires even the most reluctant of choristers in his BBC show The Choir. But whatever the reason, choral singing is no longer just for Christmas; it’s for life, and it’s for everyone. It’s even good for your health. The renaissance, it seems, is in full swing.


And nowhere more so than in Greenwich. The borough has a particularly illustrious connection with choral music. Its stately parish church, St Alfege, is the burial place of Thomas Tallis, 16th-century composer of the Chapel Royal and one of the fathers of English church music. It’s quite a legacy, but the church choir has always proudly lived up to it.


The standard may be “cathedralesque”, but St Alfege’s Director of Music, Stephen Dagg, is quick to point out that singers of all ages and “all walks of life” are always welcome to audition. Musicality is only part of it. Performing 60-plus services a year, the choir has both “a wonderful spirit of friendship and purpose” and “a responsibility to lift the spirits of others”, 
says Dagg.
The repertoire ranges from the English cathedral tradition to Bruckner, Britten and contemporary works, but unsurprisingly Tallis’s own music, including his famous Spem in alium, often features. St Alfege also plays host to the Thomas Tallis Society, founded in 1965 and now also lead by Dagg. It performs just three or four concerts a year, but, like the church choir, is open to anyone who wishes to audition.


If classical choral music is not your thing, however, all is not lost. Community choirs specialising in all manner of genres have sprung up right across Greenwich. And contrary to what you might think, outstanding vocals and the ability to sight-read are not pre-requisites.


Blackheath Halls, for example, under the aegis of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, runs a variety of singing groups for all tastes and abilities. From standard classical to lighter repertoire, gospel, musical theatre and even opera, there’s something for everyone. There are no auditions, except for solo roles, and they often work with local schools, so inclusivity is key. Community engagement manager Rose Ballantyne explains: “People join for a huge variety of reasons, because of a passion for music, because friends have joined and enjoyed it, because they’ve always wanted to sing in a choir but never had the opportunity or dared.”


Catering for such a broad range of singers, the emphasis is very much on fun and building confidence. “Every choir performs in our Great Hall, which is a professional performance space, and this gives people a big sense of having risen to unexpected heights,” says Ballantyne. It’s clearly a winning formula: “Almost everyone who comes loves it and stays for more!”


One of the most unusual – and accessible – local groups is the Greenwich Soul Choir. It was set up in 2010 by professional singer Abi Gilchrist, after scouring her neighbourhood for a soul chorus and finding that there wasn’t one. Which is odd, she says, as the genres are well suited: “I can often hear harmonies shouting out at me in soul songs as they’re playing on the radio.” Gilchrist does most arrangements herself, and has transformed soul classics by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations, as well as modern hits by Michael Jackson, Rumer and Plan B.


The choir defies convention in every way. It’s entirely independent and Gilchrist’s choristers range in age from 20-somethings to 70-somethings: “It’s about people in the community coming together to sing music that they love – not a generic format being rolled out everywhere.” The choir performs at least one local concert each term for family, friends and fans – they have even performed in Greenwich Market, to herald the Christmas lights.


Everyone is welcome, and the warm, have-a-go atmosphere at rehearsals soon brings even the least confident out of their shell. “I am constantly surprised and delighted by what wonderful voices come out of the most shy and unconfident people after a very short time,” says Gilchrist. The appeal, she thinks, is simple: “Singing is probably the most accessible musical outlet for people, and joining a choir is a great way to tap into this.”


So even if you’re not the world’s best singer, even if you don’t know a crotchet from a minim, even if you just want to have fun, there is a choir out there for you. Go, and sing your heart out. It might just change your life.

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