The Sing with Us network of choirs brings together cancer patients and their families from across Wales. Rosie Dow describes her role as manager of the choir leaders.
In 2012 I read that cancer charity Tenovus was setting up 15 Sing with Us community choirs in Wales for people affected by cancer. A simple idea but a brilliant one. I had been involved in choirs all my life and knew something of the sense of achievement, support and fun they could bring. What could be better than giving people a nice time when they had been through such a hard time?
Since becoming a manager for Sing with Us in October 2012 I have built up a team of nine professional musicians across Wales to lead the choirs. This is a special project and it takes a special team to manage the logistical, musical and emotional considerations brought about by running choirs for cancer patients and their families.
People are generally shy about singing so I need choir leaders who can inspire others and give them the confidence to sing out
Energy is fundamental to the experience. We want our choir members, who may be sick, fatigued, anxious or grieving, to feel a buzz from the moment they arrive at rehearsal. So everything our choir leaders do, from ice breakers and team building warm-ups to conducting epic anthems, must be geared towards giving the choir members an amazing experience. We do not audition people or use scores - everyone is welcome from the sublime singer to the tone deaf - so the choir leaders have to be good musicians and great teachers, in order to teach three or four-part harmony to people who have often never sung before. We sing pop, motown and rock, and we want the choirs to sound amazing so that everyone gets a real sense of achievement from performing. Our anthem is a storming gospel version of ‘Lean on Me’ and it is rare for us to leave a gig without a standing ovation and a few tears (happy ones of course).
I recruit the leaders through auditions, by putting them in front of a real Sing with Us choir and giving them ten bars of music to teach and conduct. I am not looking for perfection in those auditions, but it is easy to spot the candidates who get it just by looking at the choir members. It does not matter if they sing a G rather than an F sharp, so long as they are smiling, joking and giving it their best. The ability to build a rapport with groups and individuals is key to the choir leaders’ success. People are generally shy about singing so I need choir leaders who can inspire others and give them the confidence to sing out.
However, there is one crucial thing that our team members need to have that has nothing to do with choirs or leadership: they have to care and to want to help people during the dark times in their lives. Choirs have an immense power to bring people together and heal them – our preliminary research with Cardiff University has proven that choirs reduce anxiety, depression and even the perception of pain. We have over 800 regular members, which is testament to how much support and enjoyment people get from it. In my mind a choir leader is a superhero musician who uses their powers for good. Their role is physically and emotionally demanding so I help them with a whole range of things, from scheduling and promotion to dealing with people who are upset, as well as representing the team both within the charity and to the outside world. We gig a lot so I keep track of all that activity centrally and I work with other Tenovus teams to make sure choir members use our other support services such as counselling or benefits advice when needed.
I am a member of 14 choirs (which must be some sort of record) and every time a choir member tells me how much the choir has helped them it makes my day. As a team our rewards speak for themselves when we witness the inspiring people in our choirs, some of whom are too ill to work, are not getting better, or who have lost the most special person in their lives, but they still stand side by side with fellow choir members and sing proudly with a smile on their face.
Rosie Dow is Sing with Us Manager for Tenovus.