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Hitting the high notes with BBC's Stratford East Singers

PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 December 2015

Recorder reporter Phoebe Cooke tries to hit the high notes

Recorder reporter Phoebe Cooke tries to hit the high notes

Archant

As someone whose primary experience of organised singing is based on alcohol-fuelled karaoke, I wasn't sure I was best pitched to be joining a TV-famed choir.

The Stratford East Singers in rehearsal at the Theatre Royal in Stratford The Stratford East Singers in rehearsal at the Theatre Royal in Stratford

As someone whose primary experience of organised singing is based on alcohol-fuelled karaoke, I wasn’t sure I was best pitched to be joining a TV-famed choir.

But these concerns melt away on arriving at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where laughing ladies line the hall, introducing this newcomer with expansive warmth.

A charismastic choirmaster with a name – Byron Gold – as excellent as his taste in jumpers, kicks off proceedings with a professionalism which belies his youthful demeanour.

“Carpets or wooden floor boards?” he asks us, as we answer in quick-step, our flooring preferences revealed around the circle in seconds. A question on pantomimes or serious plays produces even more hilarity when it appears almost all 40 of us would prefer the more serious option – while the next-door technical rehearsal for Robin Hood gets underway.

A number of vocal warm-ups see the higher notes remain elusive – despite opening my mouth to whale-like proportions – and I join the altos with relief.

After recovering from the shock of not having music or words to aid me, I manage to get stuck into a four-part a capella version of Stand By Me. The sentiment of the Ben E. King song rings true, as I stand bending down next to my fellow singers in an attempt to follow their lead – and hit some interesting notes.

For someone with a voice which has on multiple occasions been compared to that of a sextegenarian male, it’s with delight that I see a number of women among the tenors. Tenor and bass are traditionally male parts, but with far fewer men wanting to sing in choirs, a number of women have stepped up to the mark.

Mum-of-four Antoinette Thelwell, 38, is one of them. Antoinette is part of the smaller “choir within the choir”, who were catpaulted into fame when Gareth Malone’s The Naked Choir aired on BBC2 this autumn.

“It was a completely unique experience,” she tells me, as her next-door-neighbour launches into some human beatboxing – one of the skills the choir were taught over the duration of the programme.

“They gave us tips on listening to people, and having the confidence to tell others when they’re not doing it right.”

Coming third in a national choir competition is no mean feat, yet there is an overall mood of humility and sheer enjoyment in the room that would make their success in such an arena hard to believe if it weren’t for the quality of the singing.

The break is over, now, and it’s hard not to throw yourself completely into the rendition of Hold Back The River that singers from 20 to 70 unleash.

The two-hour funathon finishes off with a reggae medley and everyone begins to dance, while a veteran singer puts Bob Marley to shame with a stunning solo performance.

Singer Gaynor Davies, 62, joined the group after seeing them on The Naked Choir and being encouraged by younger colleagues who had just got involved.

“It’s a beautiful sound, a real precision sound, but it’s full of love and life.

“Everybody tries so hard to get it right, but it’s also very relaxed.”

Join the new term in February 2016. Sessions costs £4.50 a session or £38 for a term.

Watch Stratford East Singers live at their concert at 5pm on January 31. Tickets £12. Book at stratfordeast.com

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