THE TIMES MAGAZINE – May 14 2005
Ginny Dougary

Singing in a choir is a real joy — especially when you can also spread a little harmony, says Ginny Dougary.

For reasons that I am unable to explain or to justify, the physically and mentally handicapped have always left me suspended in a state of indecision. I see a blind person struggling in the Underground and start arguing with myself: “Get off your seat and go to his assistance immediately.” “But what if he resents interference?” “So what? Better to offer than to stand aside.” “But I’m in a hurry and he may hold me up.” “What kind of excuse is that? You’re just procrastinating until a better person than you jumps in.” “Yes but, no but . . .”
Worse than this, I feel clumsy, awkward, uncertain of how to behave around people who are profoundly damaged in some way. If I notice that someone who is clearly unbalanced is walking towards me, for instance, I will invariably cross the road. This fearfulness is not something that marks the rest of my life and I am quite often ashamed of it.

A few months ago, I had a small breakthrough, and this is what this story is about: how sometimes when you do something you enjoy to help yourself, you can end up helping others to enjoy themselves. It all started with the choir I joined two summers ago and wrote about in these pages not long after. In the intervening time, the Brighton City Singers has swollen from half-a-dozen people in a living-room to sixty fully paid-up members, with another twenty or so part-timers.

How do I love the choir? Let me count the ways. Of course, I love having been there at the start and seeing it grow. I love its organic, unstructured nature: the way people disappear for a while because of work or family commitments or travel and return even after an absence of six months or a year; the curious affinity with people with whom you might not normally have very much else in common; the feeling of almost familial recognition when you look around what is now a crowded rehearsal room every Wednesday night and see faces that were there at the very beginning, and others from all the different stages as the choir has developed.

I love its democratic all-are-welcome spirit: there are those who read music and, mostly, those who don’t; the youngest member is in her teens; the oldest are in their seventies. There are dreadlocks and pink locks and piercings. There are couples and best friends, and mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. There’s a chef, car mechanic, auctioneer, theatre manager, builder, DJ, postman, clothes designer, piano tuner, heavy metal musician and a duo of air stewardesses. There are people who came nursing a broken heart or who needed a break from caring for sick partners, and those who are in terrible pain who have discovered that singing is the best pain relief. There are members who felt propelled to “get a life” beyond their jobs and seem happy that this is the life they got.

The last time I wrote about the choir it was about the joyousness of the actual experience of singing: how good it felt for your body and your soul. There are definite parallels between the minimal but exacting exercises of Pilates and the breathing techniques and correct posture that is required for you to sing out effectively. It has also been well documented that belting out a song, surrounded by other voices in harmony, creates a sense of wellbeing and, indeed, euphoria. I compared it then to the headiness of falling in love, the exhilaration of catching the perfect wave, the melting sensation of eating chocolate. If you work at it, there is a deeply satisfying balance between discipline and abandonment. But there are also other benefits from being involved in a dynamic community choir. From our earliest days, the Brighton City Singers have been keen on performing; flaws and all. We have sung at weddings, fundraising concerts and — at regular intervals — we busk along the seafront or in the gardens of the Brighton Pavilion.

Some of our most upright members have been recruited from seeing us busk, even though we are quite often joined by intoxicated fellows — sometimes surprisingly tuneful — of no fixed abode. (Like most mixed choirs we are always on the look-out for more men.) The choir director once heard a genteel woman complain to her husband: “You know, they let drunks sing with them”, which rather made my heart soar.

What is striking is that the combination of singing and the experience of community seems to draw people out of their shells. I have seen shy, reserved members blossom and gain confidence. It is almost as though finding and strengthening their voices has liberated their buried selves. There is also something oldfashioned and village-like about the car pooling, the sharing of childcare, the unobtrusive acts of kindness, people volunteering for this or that activity, and we come up with any excuse to sing and dance and party.

A mere six months after we really got going, the Brighton City Singers were performing in the Brighton Fringe Festival. This year we have a generous grant from the Brighton and Hove Arts Council. This, too, is a learning curve: developing the skills to approach funding bodies effectively; booking venues; organising tickets and publicity, lighting and sound.

Our new production, Vocal Tango, is an evening of specially commissioned music by local Brighton and Hove composers — some of whom are members of the choir — with tango dancers strutting their stuff for the title piece and the choir singing as instruments. We are also performing songs from David Blunkett: The Musical for the first time before its West End run, since the show happens to have been written by the choir’s music director, MJ, and me.

But there has been a rather more unexpected highlight, which takes us back to where I started. Towards the end of last year the choir decided that it was important to extend our sense of community beyond ourselves. In December, we went carol-singing to collect money for the Martlett Hospice (£369 over two nights! Yes, we were chuffed). And every month this year we have some sort of activity booked: Lewes prison in June (almost as hard to get in as it is to get out; we think this is ingenious forward-planning to line up more men); a centre for the blind; a conference of care workers for the mentally challenged; a gig in Martlett Hospice.

A few months ago we were booked as the live entertainment for the annual party of vulnerable adults — those with acute mental and physical disabilities — and their carers. We lined up in the room and took in our audience: maybe 20 tables, each one with a patient and his or her supporter. In some cases, where the disability was particularly out of control, patients had two or more carers. A great effort had been made to transform the utilitarian setting into something more festive: colourful banners and balloons and streamers; home-made food on a long trestle table; a disco for after our performance. In one corner was a giant screen on which flashed the words for our grand finale: Dancing Queen by Abba.

As we started one of our rousing gospel numbers, a young man became agitated and started to jump around his table. He was wild-eyed and drooling, and was gently escorted back to his seat. But after a couple of numbers, he seemed happy to make a dancing circuit around his space, shadowed by his carer. It became clear that he was having the time of his life. Around the room, blank-faced men and women in their wheelchairs began to smile and clap, and to move around in their seats. One or two of the less severely disabled stood up and did a wobbly waltz with their carers.

There was such a powerful atmosphere of warmth and shared pleasure in that room, and I can honestly say that we have never had a more appreciative audience.

I hope that they’ll book us again. As for me, this experience was the best way of getting over my hang-up that I can imagine.

The Brighton City Singers (www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk) will be performing in the Brighton Fringe Festival on May 21 at the Vocal Tango concert, St George’s Church, Kemptown. For tickets, call the Brighton Dome box office on 01273 709709