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For those about to rock

'National phenomenon', 'life enhancing' and 'an anti-depressant' are just some of the enthusiastic descriptions of the hugely successful Rock Choir, which in a few short years has swept across the UK. Be Happy editor Paul Critcher speaks to founder Caroline Redman Lusher about how she got the nation singing

 

Rock Choir has become hugely successful in only a few years and you are fast becoming a 'national treasure' how do you feel about your success?

I never dreamed that Rock Choir would make such an impact on so many thousands of people. It’s overwhelming at times. I created Rock Choir in 2005 and started teaching just 70 adults in Farnham where I live, and now there are 16,000 members taking part across the UK – all embracing pop music, singing, dancing, coming together and learning! Over the last 3 years Rock Choir has created careers for nearly 100 musicians and individuals who work behind the scenes. Unbelievable when I think of the economic problems we are in at the moment. Mind you, we are working round the clock to ensure everything works. 

It hadn’t really hit home just how much happiness Rock Choir was bringing to the members until I toured around the country last year to visit each location and watch them perform. Members would come and embrace me afterwards thanking me for changing their lives. It was an emotional experience for me – but reinforced that it IS possible to make a difference and create something unique for people to believe in. Rock Choir has been described as ‘The People’s Choir’ and it is! It’s for the people of the UK and it makes a difference. I’m very proud of everyone involved.

Although your bigger events have generated a lot of publicity, I've seen Rock Choirs at all sorts of local events from farmer's markets to local fairs – what benefits do you think these events give both Rock Choir and local communities?

In my view, the local events are a very important aspect of what Rock Choir offers each community. Everyone benefits. Firstly - any event we put on allows the members to test their skills and deliver the current repertoire to an audience – a challenging and often scary experience for the members but worth it for the massive high everyone experiences afterwards. It also creates an opportunity to bond, which is an important social aspect of the experience in Rock Choir.  Secondly, local organisations and charities benefit by attracting a bigger crowd to the event who are there to see the show. Ultimately money is raised from ticket entry as well as extras from refreshments, for example, and we feel satisfied that we have sung for a good cause. It’s also important to me that each Rock Choir in each community is taught by a local music graduate so we are keeping it all local and offering jobs across the UK.  Rock Choir is not a franchise and it’s important that they train with us and join our team effectively, but as they live in the community itself they can communicate and build relationships with local charities and organisations who might benefit from Rock Choir. We managed to raise over £45,000 last year for local charities and organisations and we’re known to attract huge audiences who love our upbeat shows – everyone has a good time; it’s a perfect combination!  

A recent study found that singing can improve physical and mental health. Can you give examples of how joining Rock Choir has benefited members' health?

I have had a lot of feedback from members who have benefitted from Rock Choir who have experienced an improvement to their health. The basic improvement is general well-being –  feeling more positive and happy, and loving life. Husbands often write in to me saying that Rock Choir has changed their wives  – back to the happy, light-hearted women they married years before …quite emotional and lovely feedback! 

Members who admit to suffering depression have come off anti-depressants. GPs are recommending Rock Choir to patients who might be low or suffering low self-esteem. Why take drugs when you can join Rock Choir and achieve a natural and ongoing state of happiness? An increase in confidence is the most common improvement. It's part of being safe in the Rock Choir rehearsal where everyone is equal, and involved in an entertaining, stress free and exciting experience that is ‘time-out’ for everyone, away from their often stressful lives. This new found confidence often leads to weight loss, better relationships at home and a more productive work life. Then there’s the brain and the effect learning the songs and coordinating the dance routines has on it…something that might prove tricky at first becomes natural and you realise that you don’t need to do a Sudoku everyday – you just need to download the Rock Choir harmonies and sing and dance around your living room! Rock Choir has a domino effect …the first step is for the members to come into the rehearsal room ...and before you know it, everyone’s happy. It's amazing to watch! 

How do you get such a professional sound from amateur singers?

The Rock Choir members aspire to be great performers. The secret is confidence and the key to building their confidence is the approach the Rock Choir team takes to teaching and the way in which we communicate with the members from the front of the room. I am very particular about who joins the Rock Choir Music Team. On average, for every 50 music graduates that apply only a handful are invited to train – and even then some drop out as it’s so demanding. For example, it took me two years to find the right Rock Choir Leaders for Wales even though it is the land of song! Being able to care, nurture, inspire and lead are four key characteristics the Rock Choir Leaders must have as well as the high standard of music skills and teaching experience. Guiding and improving the skills of the Rock Choir members and making them believe they ARE good enough is very important and it takes someone very special at the front of the room to gain the trust of a group of people who have never been on stage before! We’ve certainly made it work though – and being signed to Universal for a 4-album record deal was evidence enough!

There seem to be more women than men in the choirs - is it a struggle to recruit men?

Everyone is welcome in Rock Choir but yes it does tend to attract more women than men. I’ve often tried to work out why. I used to think it was my choice of songs, being a fan of Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin I started to introduce songs by Phil Collins and Robbie Williams instead but there wasn’t a significant increase in men because of it. More and more individuals would join anyway as all the songs were great feel good songs! Friends would recommend Rock Choir and word of mouth made a huge impact. I think a lot of our female members see Rock Choir as their precious time out each week – their husbands come home early from work and look after the kids leaving them to get dressed up and head for Rock Choir followed by a drink with their new friends afterwards. The morning rehearsals attract nearly 100% women who then go off for coffee afterwards. The coffee establishments nearby brace themselves each week – it’s lovely for them and for the members. I do think more men should join though and the ones we do have love it AND the attention they get from the masses of female members around them! In fact - there are a lot of single adults out there who might benefit from meeting a potential new partner in Rock Choir – a Rock Choir Romance! 

I like to sing but I'm a little bit shy - how would you convince me to give it a try?

(Did you know you made this question rhyme?) If I knew you personally you might already be singing. Every friend and family member close to me is in Rock Choir! Also - just experiencing Rock Choir at Wembley last summer would (hopefully) have been enough for you to want to be part of it – the electricity in the venue and all the members from across the country coming together to sing was the most awesome experience of our lives. A lot of the friends and family who were there witnessing the event ended up joining afterwards. 10,500 individuals, all singing together! ITV followed us there filming for our ITV1 documentary, ‘The Choir That Rocks.’ The final episode really showed the sense of emotion and accomplishment that we went through together on that day. I’d certainly recommend that if you were interested in joining Rock Choir you might try and see the documentary or look on YouTube or our website for clips of Wembley just to get an idea of it all. If that didn’t work and you were still too shy to come …I'd probably telephone you and say …” Life’s too short, join Rock Choir and sing your heart out!”

The sudden impromptu performances that you organise where choir members are milling about in a shopping centre and then suddenly start singing make for a great spectacle? Can you tell us bit more about them

These impromptu performances are nicknamed flash mobs. We choose a public place and plan a performance but that performance takes place amongst a transient audience who are the public. The public are there, going about their daily business and are startled by what looks like an impromptu performance of other fellow members of the public. What they don’t know is that these people are in fact Rock Choir members who start to sing and dance to the shock and astonishment of onlookers standing right next to them. Should they join in? How do they know the moves? Is this a joke? At the end as the song finishes, the Rock Choir members immediately carry on behaving normally as if nothing had happened! That’s the bit I enjoy the most – they’re rehearsed to simply walk away into nearby shops or back to reading their papers or drinking their coffee and not even looking around them to gage a reaction.  Train stations, shopping malls, airport terminals are all places we have investigated to create a Rock Choir flash mob. It’s something different for the members to experience. Everything is planned and well rehearsed, but on the day the one element of the performance we can't control is the reaction of the public. Who knows how someone will react? This element of the unknown adds a double dose of adrenalin, which creates either a massive high at the end or an opportunity to fall into fits of laughter!

And are you planning anymore of these surprise performances? If so, have your got anything special in mind?

I am planning lots of exciting events for Rock Choir members – locally and nationally. As for Rock Choir flash mobs – it would be shame to spoil the surprise, but if members of the public see anything advertised about Rock Choir locally to them across the UK on Sunday 25th March (Sport Relief Weekend) they should certainly turn up and see what’s happening! 

It feels like you've done everything - what's left for Rock Choir?

Rock Choir has huge support and loyalty from the public and continues to grow. This week alone we experienced over 300 people joining every day across the UK!! I'm quite amazed but thrilled that more and more individuals are taking part and experiencing what we have created. Rock Choir is for the UK public and is designed to make everyone happy – so the network of communities who are benefitting from it will continue to grow and continue to experience the benefits and the excitement of local and national shows. It’s important to bring members across the country together to bond like we did last year at Wembley Arena. So in terms of what's left – there are hundreds of experiences I will continue to plan for the members. Maybe we will release another album, maybe we will film another TV show but what’s most important is to maintain the roots of Rock Choir, that were my original reason for creating it in the first place; the members coming together each week for the fun rehearsals, the social interaction that this environment creates and the power of the music that locks it all together. The big crazy moments we have achieved in the past few years are amazing of course, but it’s the roots of Rock Choir that create the life force which allows us to flourish.  

Do you have plans to expand outside of the UK?

We have discussed taking Rock Choir to other countries and certainly at this stage we have investigated how we would do this. We have been approached by hundreds of individuals abroad asking us to go to them in America, Australia, Mexico, France, Japan but at the moment I’m quite content and busy looking after the British public – there are only 7 days a week available to me and they’re fairly full at the moment! 

Last question – a tough one to finish – name your top three sounds to sing in the choir and why you've chosen them?

A very tough question indeed…..so many songs…so many brilliant song writers!!!

No 1 Rock Choir song for me is ‘Walking on Broken Glass’ by Annie Lennox from her Diva Album (1992). I was introduced to this song whilst I was studying for my music degree in Manchester. It is a beautifully crafted song with layers of different musical and rhythmic motifs that allowed me to create a complicated but hugely satisfying arrangement for Rock Choir. The members found it difficult at first but love it now they can perform it. I’m a big fan of Annie Lennox from her Eurythmics albums to her current albums – her voice is stunning. I’ve learned a lot from listening to her over the years and even wrote my University dissertation on her song writing skills. It was a pleasure to write. This track is on Rock Choir Vol. 1, available on Amazon.

No 2  Rock Choir song is 'Mr Blue Sky' by ELO. The epitome of a feel-good, uplifting smile-on-your-face song …perfect to listen to first thing in the morning to get you going. I only wrote the arrangement recently and the members loved it – so did the audience. It really reflects what Rock Choir is – happiness!

No 3 Rock Choir song is Tina Turner’s 'River Deep Mountain High'. High energy brilliant song!! It’s also the favourite all time song of music producer Nick Patrick who produced our albums, as well as those of Kathryn Jenkins, Russell Watson and the Gipsy Kings. There’s a section in the Rock Choir version of the song that I choreographed for the members that breaks down into a fast Latin American feel, building and building until it reaches the chorus again. The routine starts of gently and builds with the music, ending in a very sexy, glamorous way. The members love the wolf whistling they get from their husbands when that section starts. Nothing too risqué of course (Wouldn’t want to offend anyone!)  - but you can imagine the reaction of 10,500 people when we performed it at Wembley!!?

The choir that rocks
The genesis of the group was in 2005, when musician and singer Caroline Redman Lusher introduced a weekly singing session at Farnborough Sixth Form College, where she was teaching music and performing arts. The sessions proved so popular that Caroline, with the help of a loan from her father, launched a Rock Choir in her home town of Farnham in Surrey. The first meeting was a resounding success, with more than 70 people attending – even though there were only seats for 40. Word spread and the group grew. Within three years there were Rock Choirs in 12 locations across Surrey. In 2009 articles in the national press led to invitations for the Rock Choir to perform on a number of TV shows including BBC Breakfast and the Paul O'Grady Show. A multi-album deal with Universal Records was soon to follow, with more than 1,000 choir members recorded on Rock Choir Vol 1, this was followed by a special performance at the Hammersmith Apollo to which every single member of the choir was invited to participate. By 2010 membership was 5,000 strong across London and the Southeast. The time had come to expand and Caroline focused her efforts on establishing choirs throughout the UK. There was more media exposure in 2011 when ITV filmed a three-part documentary 'The Choir that Rocks' following Caroline and her team as they established a new choir in Yorkshire and prepared for their biggest concert yet at Wembley Arena. The event raised more money for Rock Choir's two official charities Refuge and Missing People. There are now 16,000 members right across the UK with rehearsals available in 160 locations. A 'national phenomenon'? We think so.

Taste the music
I've dived with sharks, bungee jumped 300 feet off a crane, paraglided off a mountain, so I wouldn't describe myself as the nervous type. But there's no doubt that I felt a degree of trepidation as I entered the church where Kingston branch of Rock Choir meets. I'm not sure what it is about singing publicly that makes me (and I'm sure many others) feel so vulnerable, but too late I was inside now – I would have to go through it. Looking around, I saw a sea of female faces – where were the blokes?! – before choir leader Jim Hawkins introduced himself. With a reassuring smile, Jim gave me a couple of song sheets and placed me in the bass section, flanked by another newbie and one of the more experienced choir members. I felt a little out of place not just because I was new, but because there were so few men – I spotted another two, amid about 50 women, sounds like a dream but I was feeling seriously disconcerted. Anyway on with the singing.

Jim packed us all in close together and started off with a few simple exercises – making lots of oohs and aahs and fzz sounds. Then it was onto the song – a classic, River Deep Mountain High. First we sang 'ooh', moving from one to eight getting progressively higher and then lower. Jim gave each of the sections (sopranos, altos and bass) a different number which identified how deep or high we should sing. When the three sections sang together, suddenly we were singing in three way harmonies – amazing!

And so it went on. We gradually made our way through the verses and before I knew it I was belting out the words. There's something liberating about singing your heart out with a group of other people – it feels great – and the wall of sound we were creating genuinely sounded quite good.

So there I was thinking I'd nailed this, when Jim through a spanner in my works – the actions! The actions are the little dance moves that accompany the singing – it's only little sways or throwing your arm out in the right direction, but it was enough to throw me off my game. I had always thought I could dance, I'd even go so far as to say I'm a bit of a mover. But I'm afraid that based on my performance at Rock Choir, I need to have a serious look at my moves – I even had trouble swaying in time! But it didn't matter, everyone seemed to enjoy the moves and there is no doubt they add something to what would otherwise be a static performance. So, by the end of the session, and with the next Rock Choir group arriving and watching on, we brought it all together. Sounds and actions were in unison – and this hitherto reluctant newbie was singing his heart out: 'River deep, mountain high – Yeah, Yeah, YEAH!'

If you're thinking about trying out a taster session – do it, you'll have a great time. And single guys, forget nightclubs and supermarkets all the ladies are at Rock Choir.

Get involved
Rock Choir offers people of all ages the chance to sing pop, Motown and gospel – there is no audition process and members do not need to read music or have previous singing experience. Membership is £100 per term (three terms each year). There are also several branches of Teen Rock Choirs, specifically for younger people aged 10 to 18. You can give Rock Choir a try at one of the free taster sessions that the choir runs, simply go on the website and choose your local branch. For more details go to www.rockchoir.com

 

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