Words: Jeremy Miles Photos: Hattie Miles
Jenny Deacon is a bubbly bundle of bouncing energy. Bopping up and down in front of her electronic keyboard, she’s punching the air and giving Abba’s Waterloo some serious welly in the vocal department.
A few feet in front of her a swaying choir sings along. A karaoke machine pumps out the backing music. “...so how could I ever refuse I feel like I win when I lose…” they sing. This bunch - mainly female and mainly aged between 25 and 50 - certainly look like winners. There’s a lot of smiley faces. They’re having a whale of a time.
This is Rock Choir - the singalong phenomenon that’s sweeping the country, Dorset included. This cleverly organised learn-how-to-sing fest started life relatively modestly half-a-dozen years ago, initially operating from founder Caroline Redman Lusher’s garden shed. It is now a multi-million pound business with 7,500 members across the country and new singers queuing up to join. Earlier this summer their massed ranks gave a concert at Wembley Arena and in June and July a three part ITV1 documentary followed their progress on national network TV.
Jenny, is the choir leader responsible for a sizeable chunk of the south coast including Bournemouth and Christchurch where she coaches two choirs through four sessions a week.
A 24-year-old trained classical flautist, she dropped out of university midway through a Masters degree in composition and signed up with Rock Choir. She is positively evangelical about the way in which singing together can transform people’s lives.
“It has literally revolutionised my life.” she tells me. “It’s like having a big extended family in which, whatever their age,whatever their race,whatever their sex, everyone is equal.. It’s really really cool.”
It’s therapeutic too. When Jenny joined rock choir she had been battling serious bouts of depression for six years. “Coming to Rock Choir has made my life so much better, I’m so much happier. It has helped me through a lot of problems.”
Diagnosed with clinical depression and wracked with irrational fears about her health - “I was constantly convinced that I was about to have a heart attack” – she underwent cognitive therapy in an attempt to cure her anxiety and hypochondria.
“None of it really worked. It’s only since I’ve been working for Rock Choir that everything seems to be fine,” she told me. “ It just puts everything into perspective when you meet so many lovely people and everything is so happy.”
It sounds almost too good to be true and when Jenny adds that she just wants to share the joy of Rock Choir with others and tells me “Even if I do have a bit of a blue day, even if I’m feeling absolutely awful,the minute I get to rehearsal everything (my problems) just melt away” - I begin to wonder if I’m being given some carefully formulated PR spin.
But watching one of Bournemouth Rock Choir’s regular Monday evening rehearsals at the town’s Glenmoor School, the atmosphere really is tangibly ebullient.
Apart from Waterloo the assembled throng are also helping to boost Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ already groaning coffers by tackling Abba’s Mama Mia.
Having finished that they set about deconstructing the oohs and aahs in Martha Reeves and The Vandellas’ Motown classic Dancing in the Streets. I look at the happy housewives getting down with the claps and clicks under Jenny’s expert direction.
They are absolutely loving it.
Simon Whitlock from Southbourne, one of only two men in the room, tells me why: “It’s absolutely the best fun,” he tells me. The atmosphere is amazing and Jenny is unbelievable, I don’t know where she gets the energy from.”
The 28-year-old who works at The Chiropractic College in Boscombe says that he and a colleague decided to give Rock Choir a try after seeing a flyer in the college staffroom. “Right from the first session it was incredible. We were buzzing, giggling all the way home in the car. The interesting thing is that the songs we learn aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect to like but once you start singing them and learn how they’re constructed you get a new found appreciation. Singing these great pop songs with other people in three part harmony gives you a great feeling. It’s a real stress buster.”
Di Browning from Ferndown, a 58-year-old pastoral lay worker with the Methodist Church, agrees. ‘When I joined I was at quite a low ebb. Rock Choir gave me a real boost in energy. It’s great. It certainly beats medication. You can meet people of all ages and there are absolutely no boundaries. It’s been a real pleasure.”
Her friend Jo Collins, also from Ferndown, finds the weekly sessions perfect for winding-down from her job as a busy home-maker and caterer. “You’ve been working all day, taking care of your children and keeping house.This is the idea way to let go, relax and have some fun.”
While Kelly Reynolds from Bournemouth is keeping up something of a family tradition. Her parents, singer Joan Savage and pianist Ken Morris, were a leading variety act in the 1950s and 60s appearing on TV and stage with popular acts of the day like Arthur Haynes and the Black and White Minstrels.
Kelly who works for an insurance company says she has no plans at present to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a professional singer.
She joined Rock Choir because: “I wanted something I could have fun with and songs that I enjoyed singing. I did try a different sort of choir first but it was far more classical in style. It wasn’t really for me.”
Everyone I spoke to agreed that one of the big attractions of Rock Choir is that you aren’t expected to be able to read music and there are no auditions.
“Absolutely anyone can come along,” says Jenny. “You hear people saying ‘I couldn’t join Rock Choir because I can’t sing’ but that’s rubbish. If they can speak they can sing.’ With a bit of guidance they’ll be amazed at the wonderful sounds they can help to create.”
*Rock Choir meets regularly in Dorset with weekly sessions at Glenmore School in Beswick Avenue, Ensbury Park, Bournemouth and at the Regent Centre in Christchurch High Street. The new term starts in September. For full details and booking information go to www.rockchoir.com