Choir mistress Helen Williams loves to share her passion for singing and all the benefits it brings, especially at this gloomy time of year. Katy Edgington learns more
“My love of singing with gusto came from singing at school. Then I studied classical singing, and that was my life – to be a performer,” says local choir mistress Helen Williams.
Helen has always sung herself, but it was a little over 10 years ago when she was asked to run a local school choir and – rather reluctantly at first – agreed. From there, she embarked on conducting courses and running choirs has been her life for nine years this January. Helen now runs four course-based community choirs under the Everybody Sings banner – two in Sutton Coldfield, one in Lichfield and one in Solihull.
Although most of those who attend are retired, there are some choir members in their 20s and 30s, and people of all ages are welcome. The music each choir learns and performs is a mixed bag, from folk songs and pop songs to songs from musicals and more.
“In Everybody Sings, I want to give my members what they want to sing,” explains Helen. “We did 21 songs on Zoom over the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, so we’ve been revisiting those together. They’re songs like Loch Lomond, Blue Moon, Skye Boat Song, Memory from Cats, True Colours, The Way You Look Tonight; good, wholesome, hearty songs that it makes people happy to sing. If they’re not feeling uplifted and better by the time they leave the rehearsal then I haven’t done my job properly!”
Sing me sunshine
Helen works with the same accompanist, Clare, at each Everybody Sings session, and Clare is also her partner on Sing Me Sunshine, a pay-as-you-go choir in Boldmere on Tuesday afternoons. Starting off as a dementia choir, it soon evolved as the pair realised just how much isolation and loneliness were affecting the community. Now, many more people with other health conditions – and their carers – benefit from an hour a week around the piano. They include a 93 year old man and a 93 year old woman who have started attending since lockdown restrictions were lifted.
“The lady said she hadn’t been out in two years, but this is now the highlight of her week,” said Helen. “It’s about the social enjoyment of singing. We sing in parts so we have music, but most people don’t read the music; it’s all about getting people laughing and singing and chatting. We do have regulars who come along every week without fail, but sometimes they just can’t make it.”
Choir practice in the time of Covid-19
Understandably, the pandemic had a huge effect on Helen, who was teaching singing and piano as well as doing the choirs when everything ground to a halt. The singing groups moved online onto Zoom, which she describes as “an absolute saving grace”. Around 70 people each week attended this way, keeping the choir connected and engaged while most members were unable to go anywhere or do anything. Helen still hosts Zoom sessions on a Friday for those who are still reluctant or unable to go out, as well as for others who have come back to live rehearsals but enjoy the online interaction.
“Because I thought we might have lots of technical hitches – I’d never even heard of Zoom before lockdown and I knew lots of my members hadn’t – I decided to open up half an hour before we started singing,” says Helen. “In fact, the technical hitches were sorted out pretty instantaneously, but we kept that half hour. Now when I do live rehearsals we open up early for some social interaction, because we all need it now more than ever, I think.”
Indeed, Helen believes Everybody Sings might have folded because of COVID – as many other choirs did – without the transition to online practice. Not only that, but singing together was even more important in keeping everyone’s spirits up during the lockdowns.
“Even though they couldn’t hear everyone else singing – just themselves singing individually – keeping that choir community together really helped. My members have been really happy to come back. Over the four sessions, I have about 150 members, which is amazing, so I’m thrilled to be back doing it. I have a riot. I feel like I go out to play and other people come out to play with me.”
Keeping loneliness at bay
You might be surprised by what Helen loves most about being a choir mistress, as it’s not those perfect two-part harmonies!
“I love getting people singing, but I love getting people laughing,” she says. “If I can hear the room erupt into laughter then it’s happy days for me, because it’s such a tonic.”
Equally, for the choir members it can be the amazing friendships that they form, the bonds that are built by singing together, that are most rewarding. The pandemic was a chance to form new friendships when members of the various Everybody Sings choirs met on Zoom. Helen explains how they now sometimes come to other rehearsals just to see each other.
“They would never have known each other if not for the choir. It’s an amazing thing to combat loneliness, which is a major problem.”
Sing Me Sunshine is tremendously important in this regard – not just for people living with dementia and other conditions – but for the people who look after them, by helping them to deal with the pressures and stresses of being a carer.
Start singing – it’s good for you!
If you’re thinking, “this all sounds marvellous, but I can’t sing!” Helen would encourage anyone who is nervous or worried about singing in front of other people just to come along and give it a go.
“It’s called ‘Everybody Sings’ for a reason. Even people who don’t think they can sing should, because of the benefits it brings. I think there’s a lot to be said for safety in numbers; you can hide within a body of people. Like any skill, the more you sing the better you get at it. In all the years I’ve done this, I’ve worked with hundreds of people but only four or five of them really couldn’t sing.”
Those benefits are mental and physical, with the endorphins released by singing in a group creating a feelgood factor that Helen reckons can rival the euphoria many people experience after running or a gym session.
“Michael Mosley did a podcast called ‘Just One Thing’, about little things that you can do in your everyday life that make a difference to your health, and one of those was singing,” she says. “He made reference to ‘endocannabinoids’ – chemicals that are released in your body that give you a kind of natural high. When you sing on your own it’s good for you, but singing with others is much better.”
Whether you decide to go it alone with a hairbrush in front of the mirror or you think joining a choir could be for you, Helen has these recommendations for songs that will help lift those post-Christmas winter blues.
“Bring Me Sunshine is always a good one. We’re starting Don’t Worry Be Happy for the new year, which seems fitting, and we’ve been doing a really fun arrangement of Mr Sandman which is quite challenging and very uplifting.”
Want to get involved?
Everybody Sings takes place weekly in term time at the following venues and online.
- Solihull Women’s Institute, Warwick Road, Solihull: Tuesday morning (doors at 10.45am, singing 11.15am-12.45pm).
- Lichfield Methodist Community Centre, Backcester Lane, Lichfield: Wednesday morning (doors at 11.30am, singing 12pm-1.30pm).
- Holy Trinity Catholic Church Hall, Lichfield Road, Sutton Coldfield: Wednesday afternoon (doors at 1.00pm, singing 1.30pm-3.00pm) and Thursday morning (doors at 9.30am, singing 10.00am-11.30am).
- Zoom: Friday morning (chat opens at 10.00am, singing 10.30am-11.30am).
Sing Me Sunshine is hosted at St Michael’s Church Hall, Boldmere Road, Sutton Coldfield. It takes place on Tuesday afternoons from 2.00pm-3.00pm and is £5 per session including tea and biscuits.
Head to the Everybody Sings Facebook page to find out more, including how to get involved. Alternatively, you can call Helen on 07981 957061.