Put some joy in your soul
PUBLISHED: 21:03 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 21:03 11 June 2013
Anyone listening to the music of the Suffolk Soul Singers can’t help but tap their feet and smile – and that includes the choir members themselves. In the lead-up to one of their biggest ever gigs, Sheena Grant went to find out more and hear why even soul sensation Ruby Turner is a fan.
WHEN the Suffolk Soul Singers take to the stage of the New Wolsey Theatre next weekend to belt out hits made famous by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Adele the experience will undoubtedly be a mood-enhancing and uplifting one for everyone in the audience.
But what many theatre-goers won’t realise is that it will be equally life-affirming for the singers themselves.
It’s no exaggeration to say the joy of singing in this high-energy feel-good choir has changed the lives of many of its members.
Take, for instance, Christine Dancey, 60 (pictured right), a professor of psychology at a London university for more than 20 years.
Before joining the choir last September she had never had a hobby in her adult life.
“I hadn’t sung in a group since I was very young, perhaps 15,” she says. “School choirs were the last thing before this actually.
“My working life was very stressful and busy and there wasn’t much time for anything else. Life just got in the way.
“Around six years ago I got ill with ME and had a year off work. I started to reassess my life and realised I didn’t have any hobbies because I was working all the time. I had this sudden desire to sing. I wanted to join a choir and to do something that would uplift me.”
Christine applied for voluntary redundancy and as soon as she got it started looking for a choir close to her home in Suffolk.
“I couldn’t do it while I was working,” she says. “My working days were just too irregular. I looked at several choirs but many did not do the sort of music I wanted to sing or didn’t feel right. Then I went to an Olympic event in Ipswich where the Suffolk Soul Singers were performing. It was a completely chance encounter.
“I thought they were brilliant. They were all laughing and looking as if they were having a great time and smiling and had great energy. It made me feel good. I was scanning their T-shirts to see who they were and when I got home I looked on the internet and went about seeing if and how I could join them.”
Having found what she believed would be the perfect choir for her Christine was then, however, overcome by nerves.
“I thought I wouldn’t be good enough - it was so long since I had done any singing,” she says. “So I took lessons for a few months before making contact with the group and asking if I could join.”
Suffolk Soul Singers is a community choir, meaning it is open to anyone without the need for an audition, but Christine had to join a waiting list for a few weeks before a space became available.
“I was very apprehensive before my first session but I needn’t have worried because there is such a wide age range and everyone is very friendly,” she says. “I feel really at home there and totally accepted. It is my first hobby in my adult life.
“Singing is just so very pleasurable and uplifting and we have a brilliant musical director in Andi Hopgood. She has so much energy and makes you feel energised and better about yourself.”
“Now I wonder why I didn’t do this earlier. Maybe I should have made the time while I was working, but I didn’t. Life just took over, with my job, shopping, housework and all the other things you have to do. But singing is so good for everybody, as I have found.”
Helen Oldfield (pictured right), who runs a PR agency in Ipswich, joined the choir to seek respite from a busy worklife and recharge her batteries after her husband developed severe depression.
“Whereas some people get a prescription or join a gym our enlightened crew make themselves feel better equipped to feel happier by singing the hits of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and other soul giants,” she says.
“So many members, like me, joined for personal reasons. Some people are taking respite from full-time carer responsibilities at home, want to take their minds off a stressful personal situation, overcome shyness or make a concerted effort to gain confidence in group situations.
“We all come together to sing but it’s like stepping into a rather unconventional but very lovely ‘family’. The people are funny, caring, supportive and encouraging of one another through life’s ups and downs. The wellbeing benefits have been immense. It’s kept many of us going through tough times and it’s even kept some of us out of the GP surgery.
“Some choral societies can feel rather elitist and off-putting - particularly if you cannot read music - but Suffolk Soul Singers is different. It’s a very open and diverse choir singing a huge repertoire of soul and gospel, reggae and a bit of upbeat jazz. All the songs are taught by rote so there’s no need to read music, both men and women are given equal chances to sing solo, people of all social and ethnic backgrounds are involved as are people with various physical and hidden disabilities and there’s a big age range – from 20s right through to 70s.
“It’s a great representation of how local clubs and societies ought to operate, including everyone and making it simple and easy to join in.”
Rob McMaster (pictured right), who lives in Felixstowe, is one of the choir’s longest-serving members.
“I was at the very first rehearsal almost four years ago,” he says.
“I was one of those people who was always singing in the car or the shower but the last time I actually sang in a choir was in the 1960s when I was a pupil at the Royal Hospital School (in Holbrook). I went on to be a photographer in the RAF and did a couple of things on stage while training but nothing since, although my love of music never left me.”
Years later, while working for Ipswich Borough Council and looking for a singing group to join Rob heard about a community choir called the Suffolk Soul Singers that was just starting up and decided to find out more.
“I was working at a desk job in social housing at the time and it was a really lovely escape to leave work and go and sing with some really pleasant people. There were 35 of us on the first night and from the moment we started it was great.
“I had colon cancer in 1998 and that experience tends to live with you a little bit. I started work at the council after that illness, first as a clerk then an officer for the final six years, working with tenant groups, before the opportunity came for me to take retirement at the age of 60.
“In some respects that was nice. I’ve been treasurer of the choir for three years, do a lot of work on the website and help with organising gigs so that all takes up a bit of time.
“Some days are good for me and some not so good. The music definitely helps. The minute Andi hits the first note on the keyboard is brilliant. The music is so uplifting. It is hard work but the music transcends all. I can recommend singing to anybody.
“We’re really looking forward to this show at the Wolsey. We’ve done lots of other venues before but this is a bit different because it’s our own show. There’s a lot of nervousness but once we get on we’ll be fine. When people see us perform and what we sing it can take them by surprise.”
The Suffolk Soul Singers may be open to anyone but that in no way compromises the standard of performance and ability of the singers.
The musical glue holding the choir together is 30-year-old Andi Hopgood.
Andi leads from the front, quite literally, as anyone who has ever seen the choir perform will know.
Her energy and passion for the music is a physical thing that transmits itself to the choir, which she founded while she was still in her 20s. A performance by the Suffolk Soul Singers features a lot of swaying, dancing, clapping and general joie de vivre.
Music is in Andi’s blood. Her father, ‘Slim’ Hopgood, was a professional jazz musican and she began playing the violin when she was only two years old.
She’s worked as a freelance musician since the age of 16, studying music at Colchester Institute before going on to do a masters in jazz performance at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music.
“I’ve been teaching freelance, running ensembles, gigging lots and making records ever since,” she says. “I do a bit of everything. I’m a singer, saxophone and piano player and work with several different bands doing lots of different styles of music from jazz to soul and pop.
“I do my own gigs with my band, the Andi Hopgood Quartet, performing mostly jazz standards all over the place, principally in Essex and London. I do lots of driving up and down the A12.
“I don’t compose – I’m an improviser really, taking things apart and putting them back together into something different.”
Her inspiration for the Suffolk Soul Singers came through some teaching work she was doing at Suffolk New College.
“I had the opportunity of having a little vocal group there for a short time,” she says. “I wrote some arrangements for it and when that finished I thought there must be lots of people in Ipswich who would like to sing soul, pop and gospel music as there was nothing like that in the area. There were classical choirs and you might have the opportunity to sing in a gospel choir if you were part of a church but outside that there seemed a bit of a gap.
“Lots of peole really enjoy the choir. We do everything from old gospel music to right up to the minute pop tunes and everything in between. We’re getting a waiting list now but are always looking out for male singers as we are a bit short of them.”
As well as leading the choir and writing the arrangements Andi plays keyboards for weekly rehearsals but for gigs they always work with a live band.
“That sets us apart from a lot of other choirs who use backing tracks,” says Andi. “That’s just choir karaoke and isn’t as atmospheric and exciting as singing with live musicians. There’s a good energy from hearing the band play.
“I never realised the choir would be quite so popular really and that so many people would want to be involved with it, which is lovely.
“The physical aspects of singing are really beneficial – breathing properly and helping you to relax and being around other people but not necessarily having a conversation. We are all thinking of the same thing and doing the same thing. It takes your mind off any worries you may have. Having a really good sing helps you let go of stress and anxiety. It is an uplifitng kind of thing really. There’s lots of tapping and swaying and moving – it’s really very positive.”
For Andi, the Wolsey performance represents a chance to showcase more of the choir’s music and range.
“The programme starts with gospel roots and soul and moves through the decades exploring how music has developed with the input of different artists,” she says.
Songs will include I Go To The Rock, which was done by Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, All Night Long, by Lionel Richie, before coming right up to date with Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and Jessie J’s Price Tag.
“There is quite a mix of music there and a few different twists with things where I have merged two songs together in a medley or a bit of a mash up,” says Andi. “The Wolsey is the biggest gig we have done on our own and we’re really looking forward to it.”
She may have been teaching and performing from a tender age but Andi says her youth has never put her off doing anything or affected her confidence.
“As a musician just to be making a living from music is an achievement in its own right,” she says. “It’s my passion and I just want to carry on doing what I’m doing, making my own music and helping others to do the same.”
The Suffolk Soul Singers perform at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, on June 15. For tickets call the box office on 01473 295900 or visit www.wolseytheatre.co.uk For more information on the Suffolk Soul Singers visit www.suffolksoulsingers.org.uk