Perhaps talent shows are to blame, but for some reason the Irish have become too shy to sing. Somewhere along the way it was decided that only the pitch perfect and professionally trained had permission to perform in public. Friends Yvonne McDonald and Mary Lowe-O’Gorman wanted to bring back the fun of a good old sing-song, which have become too infrequent. To change that, seven years ago they decided to set up a singing class where the focus is on enjoyment, without the pressure of learning to read music or the commitment demanded of a choir. Yvonne remembers that from day one they were inundated with interest from people who were thrilled at the idea of an informal choir. “We started out and booked a space. We put in one hundred euro each and handed out fliers in Dundrum,” she says. “On the night we set out twelve chairs and forty people arrived. We looked at each other and realised we had hit a nerve!”
From there it grew, and now the group, CÓRus, operates classes throughout Dublin and also Greystones and Maynooth, with hopes to expand in September. They are in the middle of a recruitment drive to find new leaders for classes. “We are so busy we are meeting ourselves coming backwards with work, but there’s great enthusiasm for this. The singing classes bring about a sense of community that has been lost for a lot of people,” Yvonne says. “Churches and pubs are a bit adrift now, where before they were part of every get together which also involved singing. So we are trying to change that and bring about a singing revolution in Ireland. We think this is something that could work well in any town or village in Ireland, we’re just not there yet.”
Yvonne and Mary never set out to build a thriving community of singers but it was one of those lightbulb moments they couldn’t resist acting upon. They know the value of singing, and also the value of friendship and support. The pair originally met as teenagers in a local singing group, before life took them in different directions. Yvonne works in media and making documentaries, and now lectures in media for Maynooth University. Mary worked in RTE and is a professional singer, having performed with Linda Martin and Rebecca Storm of Blood Brother’s fame and is also musical co-ordinator and director of St. John’s Gospel Choir in Ballinteer. They didn’t meet again until years later when completely by chance, they were both attending a course for parents adopting children from Russia. “It was a stressful time for me as a single parent and for Mary and her husband, so we would meet up for coffee,” Yvonne says. “We brought our babies home within one month of each other and have been best friends ever since.”
The idea came to them over coffee at Yvonne’s kitchen table. “We were thinking of creating a documentary about putting a singing group together, inspired by Gareth Malone and his military wives choir in the UK,” Yvonne says. “We realised that there wasn’t really anything in Ireland for people who wanted to sing purely for the joy of singing. Of course there are loads of amazing choirs, but we wanted to create something for those people who didn’t feel able, either because they couldn’t read music or because they felt they weren’t good enough, or those who wouldn’t enjoy a gospel choir, or the more choral work you would associate with a choir.”
The classes are open to anyone. There are no auditions and all the songs are taught aurally so there is no need to read music. After signing up members receive a CD or MP3 file with all the music they need to practice in their own time, and they can attend as many or as few classes a week as they like. “That’s what appealed to me, I’m a single parent so I couldn’t always commit to a lot of rehearsals required of a choir. That’s why we styled Córus as a class rather than a choir,” Yvonne says. “You come for an hour and a half to learn, enjoy yourself, be taught the songs, and have fun.”
For Mary as someone who works in music it was liberating to move the focus away from flawless performances. “We are inclusive, we encourage everyone to come along whether they believe they can sing or not. We really throw out the rule book,” she says. “And it ends up sounding really good, because people are enjoying it so much and effortlessly giving it their all.” Many of their members have revealed that they have been discouraged from singing in the past. “When people were younger they were told to mime, and they say to us that this is the first time they were told it is okay for them to sing,” Mary says. “There is a bit of a feeling out there that people who are not really good singers shouldn’t sing. We believe everyone can sing and it’s our birthright to sing! “ Mary says.
The members come to sing but part of the reason they stay is the welcoming community atmosphere. “We have class members ranging in age from their 20’s to 80’s and as you get older there aren’t an awful lot of things for people to do in the evenings. Your confidence to try new things can be knocked. One woman told me that she had driven to the car park three times before she plucked up the courage to come in to the class,” Yvonne says. “That broke my heart to hear but then she said when she finally came in it felt like she was coming into a family environment, a safe and fun place.”
The classes have also proven beneficial to wellbeing. “Attending class helps you exercise those singing muscles, practice your breathing and your voice is improving every week,” Mary says. “We start off the classes with physical and vocal warm ups, teaching vocal and breathing techniques and songs in two and three part harmony.” There is no obligation to participate in CÓRus’s public performances but they are a fun and exhilarating experience for members. “We do a lot of charity singing, at Christmas all the classes raised €10,500 with their performances, and in March we have an event called Sing For Smiles where we will visit a number of hospitals and nursing homes, not collecting money but just to sing,” Mary says. “In May we do a show in The Helix with three or four hundred members on stage and it is experiential, the audience is just blown away and the members are having a ball.”
The CÓRus end of year concert, Our Year in Song, is on at The Helix on 25-26 May. Over 600 members of CÓRus from Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare will take the stage and perform songs they have been working on all year. Buy tickets, €20 for adults and €15 for children, here.
This article originally appeared as a Community feature in the March issue of Irish Country Magazine
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