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Healing through singing: London International Gospel Choir opens rehearsals in Stratford

PUBLISHED: 12:00 30 September 2018 | UPDATED: 07:25 02 October 2018

The London International Gospel Choir during rehearsals at St John's Church in Stratford. Picture: Ken Mears

The London International Gospel Choir during rehearsals at St John's Church in Stratford. Picture: Ken Mears

Archant

With more than 130 members, The London International Gospel Choir is one of the largest non-audition singing groups in the capital.

Reporter Rhiannon Long finally getting into the swing of things. Picture: Ken MearsReporter Rhiannon Long finally getting into the swing of things. Picture: Ken Mears

The choir’s been running sessions in Islington and Notting Hill for 10 years, and two weeks ago, opened weekly rehearsals in Stratford. Reporter Rhiannon Long was (reluctantly) sent along, to find out why so many people are hooked.

“I was supposed to be a doctor, that was always the plan.”

I’m sat outside a rehearsal room in St John’s Church, Stratford, perched on some steps with a piece of cake in one hand and my reporter’s notepad in the other. It’s one of the choir member’s birthdays, and she’s been dishing out cake to newbies.

It’s an unusual moment, because I’ve managed to get choir leader, Nav Arles, to sit still for a minute. He’s animatedly explaining the relationship between singing and health.

“I was going to give back, to help people through medicine,” the 40-year-old said.

“A long time ago, I found out that when people come and sing, a lot of the stuff in the head goes away, the heaviness in their heart leaves.

“I wasn’t confident I could do this – it’s not what I was meant to do. But that’s what the choir is for many – something they’re afraid to do.”

A warm-up which involed touching the nose, ear, and face while singing. Picture: Ken MearsA warm-up which involed touching the nose, ear, and face while singing. Picture: Ken Mears

I agreed. I’d been full of trepidation about rehearsals. I’m not a natural singer, and I was totally out of my comfort zone. Tuesdays, being deadline day in the office, are always stressful. I wasn’t exactly celebration ready.

Rehearsals took place in a small hall at the back of the church. There were around 30, although I was told sessions in Notting Hill and Islington usually reach about 50.

Suddenly, Nav started shouting ‘dum’ at us and people spontaneously seemed to join in. For most of the rehearsals, I found myself just following whatever the person next to me was doing. This was no different.

For the first few minutes, I felt immeasurably awkward. We began chanting sentences, still without a tune, but I quickly felt very aware of what I should do with my arms, and was conscious someone might be silenty judging me for how I was saying ‘dum’.

Confused? Reporter Rhiannon Long, not quite sure how everyone else knows the words. Picture: Ken MearsConfused? Reporter Rhiannon Long, not quite sure how everyone else knows the words. Picture: Ken Mears

Before I knew it, broke into song. Although this was only the second rehearsal, and eighty per cent of the people there were new, they miraculously seemed to know the words. Harmonies started appearing out of nowhere, and we’d begun a sort of synchronised step to the side. Nav ran to the piano, then ran back again, and there was an explosion of energy in the room.

“It’s simply about having fun,” said 50-year-old Andy Perera, who’s been coming for four years.

“It’s about bringing different people together, whether they can sing or can’t sing, to release the happy hormones.”

Again, I couldn’t help but agree. Within 50 minutes, we’d learned a song, choregraphy, and harmonies. My initial awkwardness had disappeared - my singing was no better, but suddenly, I didn’t care as much. Scientific or not, Andy’s “happy hormones” didn’t seem to be a myth.

The choir is led by Naveen Arles, who's won awards for the work he's done with choirs in prisons and refuges. Picture: Ken MearsThe choir is led by Naveen Arles, who's won awards for the work he's done with choirs in prisons and refuges. Picture: Ken Mears

There were people from their early 20s to 60s in the room, all united by the singing. I spoke to Chris D’Souza, who travels from Watford for rehearsals, who said it was singing which saved him after developing MS. The 39-year-old used to be a keen musician, and after falling ill, couldn’t play the piano anymore. He confirmed what Nav had said – singing was a form of healing.

After a short break, half the choir disappeared into another room. The singing group is notorious for the gigs it secures – they’ve performed on X Factor, Radio 2, and Radio 4. At our rehearsal, they’d been told about the Asian Restaurant and Takeaway Awards happening that Sunday, and were asked if they’d like to join to sing in front of the mayor. If they wanted to go, they simply had to learn two songs in a separate room. Most of them accepted the challenge. I took it as my queue to leave.

Stratford rehearsals take place on Tuesdays from 7-9pm at St John’s Church in the Broadway. Visit internationalgospelchoir.uk to find out more.

The choir's been running for about 10 years, with rehearsals at Notting Hill and Islington. Picture: Ken MearsThe choir's been running for about 10 years, with rehearsals at Notting Hill and Islington. Picture: Ken Mears

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