ANYONE walking past the doors of Wardie Parish Church last night may have stopped to listen to some unusual noises emanating from the building. After all, it’s not every wet Wednesday evening that a crowd of strangers stand around shifting their feet nervously, humming their favourite bathtime sing-song numbers, producing the odd nervous doh, ray, me . . .
But then it’s not often the most successful amateur choir in Edinburgh, Sing in the City, launches a new vocal venture. Since its launch four years ago, it has taken the Capital by storm, playing at the Fringe, performing as a flashmob, even taking to the stage of the Queen’s Hall. Without a doubt what started as a single choir – which has blossomed into six, the Trinity version being the latest – has tapped into a need for many people in Edinburgh to sing.
Not that founder Kirsty Baird is surprised. The former Liberton pupil, who has been singing in pubs and clubs in the city since she was 16, always knew that people loved to sing – and that choirs were the way forward, especially for those who were unlikely to make it on their own, or who just wanted to sing because it makes them feel good.
“I was teaching Singing for Fun classes which the council ran and, to be honest, I thought I could do something more with the people who were attending, so I asked them if they were interested in a choir and they all said yes. I started with 31 people, now there are 325. It’s just exploded.”
In no small way the influence of singing shows on television has helped create the interest. From The X Factor to Britain’s Got Talent and, of course, Gareth Malone and his programmes The Choir and Sing While You Work, the ability to be able to hold a tune has rarely been so celebrated.
“I started Sing in the City before The Choir started when choirs weren’t so trendy, but it probably has encouraged more people to believe they can sing and want to get involved,” says Kirsty, 46. “I had no idea it would take off in the way it has. I didn’t have a plan to be honest, but people have come to realise that being in a choir is not just about singing hymns in church, that it can be so much more.
“We try to do a variety of songs because our ages range from people in their 20s to their 80s, and of course there’s a mix of men and women so we like songs to bring out the different voices and make sure there’s something for everyone.”
The choirs, which can also be found in Bruntsfield, Corstorphine, Leith and Musselburgh, have around 65 people in each, except the elite Aw Blacks which has just 50 singers at any time and entry to which means a proper audition. “Five of the choirs are made up of people who just want to sing. It’s good if they can hold a tune well, but even if they have not got the best voice it doesn’t matter, I just make a mental note not to put them too near a microphone,” she laughs.
“But if I had a pound for every person who said to me ‘I’ve not got a good voice, you won’t want me’ I’d be rich. Most people can sing to some extent. The Aw Blacks, though, are for those who want to take it more seriously.
“I go to three choir rehearsals every week and with my assistant musical director, Annette Hanley, we make sure we see them all every month. On top of that we work with the musicians who accompany the choirs. It’s become a very big commitment for us both, but it’s so worth it.”
Since she first started Sing in the City, the choirs have become involved in charity work, taking part in the Moonwalk, singing for Radio Lollipop, Maggie’s Centre and others.
“All the choirs work towards one show per year which is ticketed so it’s my job to make sure they are confident enough to take to the stage, to feel like they belong there, to be as good as they can be whether they’re singing The Proclaimers or Primal Scream,” says Kirsty
As well as Sing in the City, in the last couple of years other modern choirs have sprung up in the Capital, including the Edinburgh Popular Music Choir and Edinburgh’s Got Soul Choir. Others have been performing for decades such as The Voicehouse Community Choir, the Edinburgh Kevock Choir, and the Edinburgh Bach Choir, though the latter two focus more on classical choral singing. Edinburgh, it seems, is in fine voice.
“People sing at school, then they stop. I never did, perhaps because I had such a good time at school where there was a great music department which encouraged more rock and pop singing.
“Choirs are just a great way for people who enjoyed singing at school to take it up again, It’s a great stress reliever. And personally, it’s great to be able to sing to audiences of hundreds of people who have paid to come and listen rather than play in a pub to a lot of drunks.”
‘It’s a fantastic experience . .it increases your social circle’
GROWING up in Dundee, Sarah Whyte was always part of her school choirs. So when she moved to Edinburgh, attending council-funded Singing for Fun classes seemed an easy way to make new friends.
It’s also where she met Sing in the City founder Kirsty Baird, and when the idea of an amateur choir for Edinburgh was suggested she jumped at the chance to be involved.
Now, nearly four years on, the 35-year-old from Marchmont is a soprano in elite choir the Aw Blacks and loving every minute.
“I don’t have an amazing voice by any means but I can hold a tune and I’ve always enjoyed singing, she said. “Kirsty was the teacher at the Sing for Fun classes and so quite a lot of us joined the first choir. Most of the Aw Blacks are people who were in the original choir as we’re now the more experienced, and perhaps more passionate and committed to it. But people can audition to join.
“It’s a fantastic experience. Singing takes you out of yourself, it increases your social circle and everyone involved is very friendly and supportive. We’re a real team and have a good laugh.”
She adds: “When I was in the classes Glee had just started on the television and the choir sounded like it would be along the same lines, which spurred me on to join. I had that vision in my head, rather than church choirs.”
Certainly the songs Sarah and the rest of the Aw Blacks cover couldn’t be further from classical choral music. Rather, the repetoire includes modern- day classics from the last few decades, most recently Adele covers, Eva Cassidy and even David Guetta.
“There are lots of great choral choirs out there but ours is much more funky and we incorporate a lot of movement,” says Sarah. “Which is why we play venues like the Queen’s Hall rather than large churches or cathedrals. The concert at the Queen’s Hall was amazing. It was hard to believe we were there when you think about who has played there in the past, and that lots of people who were not family or friends paid to come and see us. I never thought that would happen when I first went along.
“Kirsty made us good enough to feel that we belonged there, had the right to be on that stage. She is also very good at picking songs which resonate with people, which really move them – as well as us. That’s what makes us so good,” she said.
The choir practises together once a week for between two and three hours, and members are sent a recording of their singing so they can rehearse at home – there’s no need to read sheet music. “That takes a lot of pressure off and hopefully makes it less scary for people. They just need to be able to sing and enjoy themselves,” Sarah, who is an an occupational therapist, explains.
She also practises the slower, gentler numbers by singing them at bedtime to her three-and-a-half-year-old son Angus. “We were rehearsing To Make You Feel My Love and now it just makes me think of him as I’d sing it to him all the time,” she says. “It makes me feel very emotional.”
She believes choirs are making a comeback, partly due to their TV coverage with the Gareth Malone programmes, but she says Sing in the City is not about competing. “It’s just about having fun. My husband Allan is a good singer too and I think he’s a little jealous that it’s me who’s in the choir. I’d encourage anyone to join a choir. There’s nothing scary about it.”