Names to the nameless

“More than 300,000 people in Britain – equivalent to one in every 200 – are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes, according to figures released by the charity Shelter… London, where one in every 59 people are homeless, remains Britain’s homelessness centre… Shelter’s figures show that as of April this year 281,000 people were living in temporary accommodation in Britain. A further 21,300 were in single homeless hostels or social services housing, while 4,500 were rough sleeping.”

I was staggered and horrified to read these figures (The Guardian, 8/11/17). I had no idea they were so high. To me it beggars belief that homelessness on such a vast scale can be an issue in a first-world country in 2017. How can our society be that broken and that unjust?

These headlines particularly jumped out at me because only a matter of days earlier I had been visiting The Choir With No Name, often known as ‘the homeless choir’. Conductor of the South London choir Sam Chaplin clarifies, “We usually say that the choir is for people whose lives have been affected by homelessness – so people tend not to be actually homeless, although sometimes they are… There’s one guy who was not here this week because he’d put his name down for the night-shelters which the churches start this week; if he turns up late he loses the place. They’re all massively over-subscribed. I was surprised – he’s quite well turned-out – but recently he turned up with his bicycle and loads of pillows and duvets and told me he was on the streets at the moment. I feel like offering these people a space in my house! I’ve got a spare mattress!”

I’m embarrassed to say I was nervous about coming to this rehearsal. I always try to say hi to rough sleepers on the street, and to offer them a cup of tea, but I had no idea what to expect of this choir rehearsal. I felt a clichéd sense of guilt as I got on a bus in Westminster to hop down to Elephant & Castle; I had a luxuriously warm coat on, a Tesco meal deal to munch on the bus. I was surrounded by civil servants from smart offices, was admiring the bright lights of the South Bank. I could casually check the directions on my phone to the rehearsal, because I have a phone and know that I can afford the data to look (it took me a double-take to realise that this is why on the choir’s website the directions are spelled out so clearly, rather than just giving a postcode for copying into Googlemaps).

What I was struck by when I entered the room was the sheer normalness of it. I could have been in any choir practice anywhere. There were a couple of rows of chairs in a semi-circle in a church hall, with about thirty people all doing physical and vocal warm-ups led from the front by a conductor who has a music stand in front of him and an accompanist at the piano to his right. They’re laughing, they’re singing, they’re preparing for a concert. And immediately the obvious clicks into place for me: this very normality is one of the most important things to many of the singers in the room.

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South London choir warming up

Sam tells me that many of them have had some sort of spell of homelessness. Several of them have mental health problems; these two things are often linked, as mental health problems can make it harder to hold down work. “If enough things conspire against you, you end up with nowhere to go,” Sam shrugs. Alcoholism is another factor. I learn that one of the ladies we were talking to after the rehearsal wasn’t in the choir for six months as she took herself off to rehab. Her daughter told her she couldn’t look after the kids if she didn’t go; she’d been filling Fruit Shoot juice drink bottles with brandy and taking them to the park with the kids. “She’s been doing pretty well. I know she had a bit of a fall off the wagon recently. But she sang solos in St Martin in the Fields on Thursday – from not really singing at all, to singing with no microphone in front of a filled church, making a good sound.” I’m left wondering how often these sentences go side by side? This kind of achievement and focus is such a positive step in any kind of recovery or healing process.

The service Sam refers to is the annual commemoration service organized by the homeless project The Connection at St Martin in the Fields, in which they read out the names of everyone who’s died on the streets that year. They number 166 this year. In a pause in the rehearsal, Sam brokered a discussion with the choir about their experience of the service, just a few days earlier. Some of the feedback was not what I expected (“they should put the short people at the front!” was the first comment! – to be fair, as someone who’s vertically challenged, I see their point….). But it quickly became clear that for some of these singers this was a tough and important occasion. “That service is the highlight of the year for me.” “It means something every year.” They knew some of the names being read out – they were from their community. Some didn’t know their own family would be on the list until they got there. The service always features some form of active participational remembrance. One year they had 167 lilies down the aisle, for the number of people who’d died that year, for everyone to pick one up and add it to a massive display at the front. Rev Richard Carter writes: “This year’s service focuses on the theme of ‘Invitation’. A home is not a luxury for the rich – it’s something every single human being should have. Everyone should be invited inside and no one should have to sleep outside on the streets or on buses or simply be walking all night to keep warm.” Sam expands, “They had a long table down the aisle with a lot of fruit bowls and invitations, with names of everyone who’d died on them, and a table cloth which someone had painted with vines – it must have taken ages! Everyone took an invitation to take home to remember that person this year, and took a piece of fruit, so the whole church was full of people sitting eating fruit – it looked like a massive picnic! It was beautiful, it was amazing. This service is my favourite thing of the year; it’s so powerful. It earths you in what it’s really about.”

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Sam conducting the choirs at St Martin in the Fields

Sam is proud of how the choir performed that day. “The North and South London choirs came together and sang Sit Down Next To Me [hear a separate recording of them singing it here]. It’s effectively one of our theme tunes, we know it really well, and we had both choirs together; it was an epic sound, with fifty members. When we finished, the whole church gave a massive standing ovation. And the choir were proud of themselves. They knew they’d sung brilliantly, and done an amazing job. That kind of stuff is good for people. For me, quite a lot of the therapy happens in the gigs. Richard Stilgoe, who I work with in other contexts, says that one of the things you get in performance is the opportunity for people to say ‘well done’ to you. Some people have never really had that said to them. Whereas we get applauded very regularly, and we’ve probably grown up with our parents saying ‘that’s brilliant’, these people rarely get told ‘well done’, and the chance to stand up and earn that is amazing. Lou sang that solo, no microphone, just her in front of the whole church, totally getting it. For her to think ‘I did nail it – it wasn’t just the choir, it was me, stepping up and doing it’ – that’s real. We know what that feels like, when we go out on a limb as a performer, and to nail it, and for people to come up afterwards and say ‘that was amazing’ – it affirms something deep inside you. If that deep down thing is really broken, I think it starts to put it back together again.”

This sense of doing things well is present in the rehearsal too. They’re working on a Santa medley today for a big combined Christmas concert with the Liverpool, Birmingham and North London groups (have a look at some Christmas footage from last year). This is an efficient session and I’m surprised (catching myself making unfounded assumptions again) that it’s so focused. I think occasionally Sam chooses his language carefully to be particularly clear, but there is never any patronising. The singers have lyric sheets but not sheet music; everything is taught by ear, and they catch on quickly. Each phrase is sung to them, and they mimic not only the pitches but also the character and vocal quality of the phrase; there’s no need to instruct on how it should be sung: they just copy and get it! Then they add the piano and sing through the verse. WOW, the sound! I am unashamed to have completely welled up. There’s a lot of swaying to the music as they sing and there are some great voices here. Sam is effortlessly charismatic (well, actually, it’s probably very effortful at the end of a long day), and is doing an incredible one-man-show up front, singing all the parts in all the octaves, singing in all the parts the other choirs will sing too, conducting their part, all with a suave swing and boundless energy. And a lot of patience where it’s needed….

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The Choir With No Name at Christmas

I’m curious about how Sam got into this work. My previous encounters with him were either when he’s leading his brilliant band Jazzbomb, or at stupid o’clock in the morning putting the recycling out (we used to be neighbours). When he and his now wife Rachel met, Rachel was sharing a flat with Isabelle Adams, one of the most respected and in-demand animateurs around. “When I was new on the scene with Rachel, Issy asked me to go and play the piano for her choir of pensioners in Bethnal Green. I wanted to impress Rachel so said, “yeah, sure, I can do that!”. And she had some kind of magic! I accompanied her community choir in Harrow Road for two years, watched everything she did, wrote it all down. Then I did Spitalfields training for a year. Rachel and I set up Sing Hammersmith, and after two years of that, this came up, so I was well into my community choir leading. I was ready for it. And I wanted to take on something a bit grittier!”

Sam’s obviously got the bug; he’s just started a choir for women who have had multiple children taken into care, in conjunction with the charity Pause, which aims to help women hit pause on the cycle of having kids (perhaps five or six), and then having them all taken away. I’m astonished to learn that the NHS is funding this choir for its first year. Sam points out that the cost to the authorities of supporting children in care is vast, so if paying mere conductor and accompanist fees can help break the cycle it’s considered worth trying! (I subsequently find statistics citing that the average annual spend on a foster place for a child is £29,000– £33,000 and the average annual spend on a residential place for a child (ie in a children’s home) is £131,000– £135,000. With upwards of 68,000 children in care on 31 March 2013, this is a lot of money.) The next project in the pipeline for him is a choir in the Grenfell Tower community.

One of the interesting things to me about this is that some of Sam’s regular singers from the Choir with No Name are coming along and helping him with the new women’s choir. He talks again about the former alcoholic, Lou: “she’s massively supporting me. She’s got two or three other women from this choir coming along and being peer support to the new women, saying ‘we know choir, we love choir, we’re not in charge, but we’re here because we get it and we want you to get it.’ That’s amazing. That’s part of that woman’s story. She’s gone to rehab and now she’s here helping as a volunteer.”

Christmas music is so evocative, and during the rehearsal something in me stirred uncomfortably at the idea of these people – who mostly don’t have anything remotely resembling an idyllic celebration of Christmas awaiting them – singing these songs. Isn’t it rubbing their faces in it? Melancholic lonely film scenes come to mind – the person on the outside looking in. But I come to realise it’s so wonderful that these guys get an opportunity to have the cheesy heartwarming Christmas music experience, and make it their own! And with some of their closest friends! They’re on the inside, here, not the outside.

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Volunteers in the kitchen

After the rehearsal everyone stays for food, prepared by a team of volunteers on a rota; I’d assumed this was in order to provide a free hot meal to those who might not otherwise have one, and of course that is part of the purpose, but far more striking is the community aspect of this, the development of friendships. One person asks me what the football score is. (I’m mocked for not even knowing what football match is on, let alone who’s winning.) Another tells me about her relationship difficulties. One of the singers tells me, “choir is my solid rock every week.” One of the volunteers says, “it’s my favourite night of the week, no question.” Sam tells me that one of the regulars is currently in hospital after a stroke (“in fact we had to do CPR on him once before at the venue before a gig! It was a big fundrasiser at the Guildhall and he collapsed backstage! Our choir manager basically saved his life….”). Several of the other choir members will go and visit him in hospital; they really look out for each other. Once a month the local WI group provides cake, and fortuitously I’ve chosen that week to visit! As it’s passed round we sing happy birthday to everyone whose birthday falls in the next month. Everyone deserves to have happy birthday sung to them.

The volunteer team of half a dozen debrief afterwards; as a matter of course they share the ways in which situations were handled and what could be done better or differently another time (anything from arrangements for food collections at Lidl, to who’s messaging the team WhatsApp group, to how to diffuse the argument between two members of the choir which erupted quite unpleasantly at the start of the rehearsal). Most of these guys sing in the choir too, and I get the sense they lead from within when it comes to the atmosphere in the room. There is such a warm welcome. I was worried that I was a bit late arriving, but several people dribble in after me and no one bats an eyelid; someone gets up to let them in when they buzz at the door; someone else gets them a chair; people make space for them. When there are mistakes in the singing, there’s no judgement and no telling off, just suggestions of ways of approaching it next time. When there are copies to sort out, there’s not the impatience you often get with other choirs. I guess some of these people don’t have pressures on their time – in fact, just being here, warm and companionable, is positive.

The choir was founded by Marie Benton ten years ago, who at the time was working in the homeless sector with St Mungo’s. A gospel singer herself, she could see the potential for music making a positive change in people’s lives, so resigned from her job in order to set up The Choir with No Name. Five years later, the South London choir began, and now there are also choirs in Birmingham and Liverpool.

The choirs have done some extraordinary things. Chris Martin invited the North London choir to be the support act for Coldplay, in huge arenas in Newcastle and Liverpool. The choir featured on ITV’s This Morning, singing for Philip and Fearn (watch the clip here). They do a big Christmas bonanza every year, drawing together all the choirs, and two years ago this was at the Royal Festival Hall. Over supper one of singers tells me how the choir has lined her up with Streetwise Opera and ENO Baylis; it’s been a springboard into all sorts of opportunities.

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The Choir With No Name

The North and South London choirs will be merging into one in the new year, because of funding constraints, so the current task is to find a new rehearsal venue. Sam points out that a lot of trusts give for three years – they like new things. Actually with a choir, if it’s working, it’s keeps going! It occurs to me that for a lot of these people that’s one of the important things: it’s a constant – it’s settled – it’s dependable. They only take two or three weeks off a year, as they’re not off on long school holidays or trips away, so it generates real routine and trust, friendship and camaraderie. “We mostly do the same warm-ups every week. I’m a man who likes going on holiday to the same place, ordering the same pizza. I’m always disappointed if I go off-piste. I think that works well for choirs, and for people who need stability,” laughs Sam. “All the silly things in warm-ups are about getting out of your inhibitions. Instead of being so turned in on yourself, singing is about something coming out of you! All those warm-ups are about slowly uncurling, slowly coming out of yourself. We do a lot of breathing stuff, which is so important…. I was talking to a friend who’s a professional singer. She teaches at a posh boys’ school, and she says the boys often get quite emotional when she does these deep breathing exercises – it’s a sort of release, when so much has been held in emotionally. She says she thinks that’s one of the most powerful things – teaching people to breathe. So really this is a great big old wellbeing package!”

Sam concludes, “Within the choir I’m always trying to think ‘what’s your next step’. For some people it’s just managing to come to choir at all, for some people it’s coming regularly, for some it’s managing to sit through a whole rehearsal without kicking off. For some people it’s singing, for some it’s singing in tune, for some it’s singing in harmony. For some it’s singing a solo in a rehearsal, for some it’s singing a solo in a gig. I’m always trying to see those things and applaud those things, and I’m trying to pull people on. I just love it and have a great time! It’s become a massive part of my life.”

Solving the homelessness crisis in the UK is a huge undertaking; it’s going to require big changes at everything from government level to societal attitudes. But The Choir With No Name doesn’t aim to resolve this; it aims to have an impact on individual people’s lives, where music and friendship and confidence and achievement make daily life better than it would otherwise have been. I’m sold.

All stories are told with the individuals’ permission.

To read more about the Choir With No Name, see their website, YouTube channel, Facebook page, or Twitter feed.

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Lambeth to Cambridge: opening the road

At the end of a slightly frustrating day in the middle of a rather non-descript week, I trudged down to Kennington to carry out an interview for my new blog, wondering why I’d prioritised my time on this project when I had so many other things I needed to get done.

Whilst I want this blog to be a wide and representative mix of the different brilliant things that are going on in the musical world, it’s inevitable that – for now at least – they begin with personal connections, and so it was an old school friend who met me at Oval tube. Jeremy Martin was a part of our music ‘gaggle’ at school, and now works for the Bank of England, living in Kennington. Quietly spoken, and warm, absolutely nothing passes him by: he is known amongst my friends in equal measure for his loyalty and for his infuriating habit of never ever forgetting any passing comment or misdemeanor that might later come back to haunt you. Jez was meeting me to introduce me to the boys’ choir at St John the Divine Kennington, a project which he was instrumental in founding.

One of the things that fascinates and saddens me about London is the way that rich and poor live side by side, and crossing from one street to another can feel like a different world. Walking from the tube to the church hall reminds me that Lambeth is both walking distance to work for the suited and booted of the City, with their fancy flats, and also home to estates packed with people of diverse ethnicities, limited opportunities, and uncomfortably low income. St John the Divine is one of the poorest parishes in the UK, its congregation including people of over fifty nationalities, especially from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the church hall I’m introduced to the vicar, Fr Mark Williams, to Ben Clark, who will take the rehearsal, and to his assistant Rob. I make myself comfortable in the corner and Jez confides that this is actually the first time he’s sat in on one of these rehearsals. What follows is honestly one of the most inspiring hours of music-making and music education that I have ever sat through. (And I say that as someone whose entire living is earned in music.) It was inspiring both in its ordinariness – a weekly local choir preparing music for church – and its extraordinariness.

Here were a dozen boys of primary school age, living in the area, wearing uniforms from three or four different schools; 75% were black, and most of them were pretty cheeky. (In a good way, of course.) I’m told the numbers increase as the year goes on and recruitment kicks in. Ben started with some warm up games, partly to introduce the two or three new boys – name games, clapping games, moving games. There was camaraderie, and a lot of laughter, but also a lot of concentration. People got out for getting the game wrong but also for laughing too much, for not being enthusiastic enough…. There were indignant cries of “You’re making up the rules as you go along!” but it was all in good humour.

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Ben leads the children’s choirs in rehearsal

I was a little nervous that Ben would never take back control of this group after the hysteria but I needn’t have worried – he and they were clear about the boundaries. They got on with some singing – a round from last week which the new ones pick up by osmosis (always something I’ve loved about the way groups of choristers learn). It was high octane. It was demanding. Some were asked to sing on their own. And then they’re straight into sight-reading a Psalm – there was no time for nonsense. “If you’ve never seen a Psalm before, this is an exciting moment of your life,” says Ben. “You learn some incredible words” – asking them to bring ‘Tush!’ back into every-day life.

This could have been a masterclass in how to teach children Psalms – in fact, in how to teach full-stop. It’s all focused, it’s all encouragement, and it’s never gushing. “That’s good mate” or “well done, that’s really good” is well earned. They play a round of ‘Favourite Verses’, picking a verse and singing it solo. They play ‘Psalm Bingo’ – Ben shouts out a verse and they have to sing it, quickly. They sing unaccompanied. They sing it out of order. They choose as a group whether or not to breathe at a particular comma. They sing it more dramatically. “Make ‘wickedness’ sound wicked!” “Sit well.” “Yes that’s hard to say isn’t it?” “Head up!”. When they say “I can’t sing that, it’s too high” he ploughs on, “yes you can mate, don’t worry about it, let your voice do the work for you, here we go, 1, 2…..”. Half-way through one of the small new boys says nervously “I don’t understand anything!”, and Ben answers “don’t worry, none of us do, we’re all just pretending!” Clearly the boy knew this not to be true, but his worry is diffused.

As they work through the rest of the music they’re preparing for their next evensong, Ben gets the boys to help with drawing a graph on the board of how they’re getting on with each piece; they invent categories – ‘outstanding’, ‘alright’, ‘ok’, ‘dodgy’, ‘terrible’ – and mark their progress. After some discussion they decide they’ve got the Psalm as far as ‘ok’. One of the older boys, evidently one of the stronger musicians in the room, is pretty damming about their progress. “It’s definitely still dodgy.” (Ben tells me later that he wants to encourage the sense that there’s always room for improvement. “In primary schools there’s so much ‘oh well done, you tried, have a sticker’. We don’t want them to be down on themselves – we want them to feel pride in what they’re doing – but it’s healthy to keep aiming to do it better! Not to be complacent. There’s always more to do.”)

Like every good teacher, Ben is constantly changing pace and style – there’s no time to get bored. He’s not afraid to be strict when it’s needed: one boy was threatened with having to leave the room if he was disruptive again. But it’s all great fun and I’m hugely struck by the camaraderie in the room – between Ben and the boys, and also amongst the boys. It feels like a safe room. They’re supportive when others are singing solos. And when you ask for a volunteer, most of them put their hand up. They want to be involved. There are clearly lots of kids with lots of spirit – and there are moments where they have to be asked to be quiet – but they’re so on side and so engaged. I’m struck by the high expectations here in every way, not least in their concentration.

I’d wondered whether sitting through an hour and a quarter might be tedious. I could not have been more wrong. This was entertainment of the highest value! I was beaming by the end – and so were these kids, off back to their homes to do their homework or help with their siblings or kick a football around. I have students, and children of friends, who sing in a range of different types of choir, and the best ones – in any genre – share the same thing (yes, Pop Chorus of Solihull, I’m looking at you – your awesome concert in Birmingham Town Hall last year could have taught many a classical choir a thing or two): they are committed, they are focused, they want to communicate, they want to learn skills, and they are happy to be there.

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Over drinks afterwards, Mark, Ben and Jez filled me in a bit. Fr Mark has been at the church for 8 years, and Jez a little longer (he now has the dubious honour of being churchwarden). When Mark arrived the church had an established adult choir; like many places there hadn’t been children singing for about forty years. “Given our interest in schools and education, and with lots of children in the congregation, it didn’t seem right that we weren’t sharing a high standard of adult music-making with the kids. There’s a real problem for children from modest backgrounds, in state schools, getting access to music. So we thought about that, and also about what youth work we were doing as a parish, and came to conclusion that this could be our work with young people – rather than opening a youth club, and having a dozen kids playing table tennis. This would be focused, rewarding for them, it would teach them skills, it would give them aspirations.” And so, from a field of about 25 applicants, Ben was appointed as Director of the Children’s Choirs in January 2013. Mark explains, “There was something special in the way Ben related to the kids, and getting something off the ground is a different skill compared to working in an established routine – you have to get people on side, you’re starting from scratch. One of the children in the dummy choir for the audition process voted for Mr Clark, saying ‘he doesn’t just like the music, he loves it’.” It was clear that they couldn’t just go into schools and ask who would like to join a choir; the children didn’t know what that meant or what it was or how it felt or what the experience would be about. So Ben went into the schools, led workshops, got them excited about singing, and then invited them to audition. The auditioning was a fairly light touch – not many were turned away, but it gives the children a sense of having earned it. And so by Easter, the choirs were singing!

I ask about the other choirs – I know the boys’ choir is only one of the children’s choirs. They and the girls’ choir rehearse in a similar way on different days, and sing separately – each typically sings a service once a month. “We had lots of conversations about having a mixed choir or having boys and girls separately,” says Mark. “We were quite clear that it should be liturgical and choral – no dumbing down – that’s what we do here, that’s our culture here, and it’s good to be consistent with that. But there was anecdotal evidence that – particularly in areas where there isn’t an existing culture of choral singing – mixed choirs will quickly become girls’ choirs. Boys needed space to do something that isn’t a typically boy thing to do in their culture. So we decided they will sing separately – though occasionally come together for particular things.” Here, as at other times in our discussion, Mark chooses his words carefully, around a thorny and potentially controversial subject. I suspect this wisdom and level-headedness has a part to play in the success of the project.

As the children have grown older there’s been demand for a teenagers’ choir – they travel further to various different schools and can’t make 4pm, but the team doesn’t want to lose them. So the teenage choir evolved: they re-audition, so they’ve earned it, and here they have a contract to set out their obligations to the group and to one another. Ben points out that this is the tough age range to crack in any educational situation. Secondary school can be a hard new world. “We’re trying to work on that, provide them with an environment where they feel safe.”

One of the distinctive aspects of the SJDK choirs that I’m fascinated by is the annual residential at St John’s College Cambridge – not an obvious trip, sadly, for a group of Lambeth kids. This, I’m told, has become a real lynchpin of the choirs. The children go to Cambridge for a week; they stay in the dorms in the choir school boarding house, they eat their meals in the refectory, they enjoy the swimming pool and the green space. They have a structured day, with morning prayers, breakfast, a full morning of singing, lunch, recreation time (crafts, football, swimming), another singing session, entertainment, dinner, and then compline (the traditional monastic close to the day – here singing the Salve Regina in Latin in their pyjamas), before bed. Then hopefully sleep – “they’ve got better at that” – “last year they were complaining about the staff making too much noise…!”. They get to sing in St John’s College Chapel – an awe-inspiring building by any standards – and have a great ally in Edward Picton-Turbervill, who tutors and plays for them (former organ scholar at St John’s Cambridge, and before that a pupil of mine – I feel a certain pride!).

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The children’s choirs at St John’s College Cambridge

Jez points out that the Cambridge trip has been really important in widening the children’s horizons. “Last year we had a panel discussion while we were there, where they could ask questions to recent graduates. There are kids asking and considering ‘what do I have to do to get into Cambridge?’ – it’s broadening their educational horizons hugely.” Mark adds, “when we take secondary school kids up to Cambridge, in about year 10, they say ‘this is not for me, I don’t see people here who look like me’ – we have to do a lot of work to persuade them. For these kids, Cambridge is already their place – they’ve been every year! It gives them a different attitude to the whole thing.” Since my visit to Kennington, there has been yet another splash over the press about the racial imbalance at Oxbridge, and it has reminded me again what incredible wider work this choir is doing.

Musically these children are getting great opportunities. They sang live on Radio 2, singing jingles for the Chris Evans show. Ben told me, “we had a girl who’d been in a lot of trouble at school, and we’d had difficulties with her, she was so loud-mouthed – but this was perfect – she was at the front speaking these jingles! It’s about harnessing and using their personalities rather than repressing them and trying to make them all the same. You can’t do that at school – with 30 kids in a class they have to do the same thing. Here, they can do solos and be themselves in their own weird way!”

The choir recently sang with the renowned professional choir Tenebrae; in being invited to take part in this sort of project they’re knocking at the door of the established choral setups of schools like Cardinal Vaughan School or Tiffin – state schools, sure, but not mostly kids from the backstreets of Brixton and Camberwell. Ben points out they have to be wary that some more pushy parents are really good at getting the most out of free opportunities like this – “we really want to target the children whose parents aren’t doing the pushing for them. I’ve been to knock on estate doors on a Sunday morning – I know the kids want to come, the parents maybe just haven’t got up, or they’ve got lots of things on – it’s not that they can’t be bothered, it’s just an entirely different mindset, so we have to be quite persistent. In many ways we’re following on from the Anglo-Catholic vision – they built these churches in the areas where they were needed. It’s all community work.”

Listening back to our conversation, the soundscape is one of laughter and of clinking ice cubes in heavy cocktail glasses. I get the impression that they sit here quite a bit with drinks, dreaming ‘we should do this’ or ‘we should do that’ – but here, unusually, the ideas actually seem to take off. Ben chips in, “this is how the residential came about – after 3 weeks of rehearsals! I barely knew the kids’ names! We just said ‘we should do a residential!’ – right in the first year. Jez was here. And we talked about it. And then we were in Cambridge having coffee outside St John’s. And then three months later we were there singing Noble in B minor in the chapel!”

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The choirs rehearse in Cambridge with Ed Picton-Turbervill

I ask the obvious but necessary question – what impact do you think singing in this choir has on the children? Mark reels off a list: it increases their confidence, their team working, and obviously their musical skills. And then they can apply their classical training to all sorts of things afterwards, if they want to go into jazz or other music. One of their kids was on The Voice. Ben adds, “I really notice so much more focus – which you don’t often get in primary school kids – but these ones are really engaged and motivated. And we try to foster this caring spirit, the older ones are helping the younger ones, even though really they haven’t been doing this for long themselves.” Mark continues, “it’s been a huge part of the church’s mission. Some of the children were in the church before – maybe 5 or 6 – but that means 90% were not. And their families come, and sometimes then on the Sundays when their children aren’t singing. Some are lapsed Christians and now they’re coming to church again. We’ve prepared a number of children for baptism or confirmation through this.” Ben gives another angle: “A number of them have gone on to win music scholarships: the state secondaries give them a music scholarship, which means they’re in the choir, and they get subsidised music lessons – which are expensive, so that’s really valuable. And they get a badge to wear on their blazer, they identify as being to do with music, and they’re proud of it. And some of the schools specifically have places reserved for music, so the kids have got into the school they wouldn’t otherwise have got into, off the back of that.”

We talk about a child who arrived speaking in a very quiet monotone, and singing in the same way. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t pitch,” Ben explains, “but it was something about his personality – he was worried or…. We don’t know what had happened in his life. Anyway it took him a year and then he got there! Now he’s doing really well. He’s so driven. I knew he could pitch it – you just have to access the right bits of your voice and for some people that takes a while. But if you get rejected now….” He trails off. I’d been talking only a few days earlier to my aunt who is convinced as an adult that she can’t sing, because she was told so at the age of six. My mum remembers being sorted into “squeakers and growlers” at the same point. We agree you have to train the muscle – if you’ve never rowed before you can’t just sit down and do it! You have to learn to connect what you hear with how you make the sound, and that can take time. Giving them a chance is so critical.

Jez sits pretty quietly through much of the conversation, but it’s clear that he is absolutely pivotal to this whole project. He was a chorister and an undergraduate at St John’s Cambridge, and has established the connection there. St John’s have now made it a formal partnership and have committed to supporting St John the Divine Kennington financially. Clearly this man makes things happen. Jez says, “there’s nothing so frustrating as a PCC meeting where nothing happens, or it takes ages.” Mark sheepishly says, “yes Jez chases us all about our action points….” And Ben concurs, “yes, Mark phoned me the day before the last PCC meeting – ‘quick, we need to chat about this before Jez gets to me!’.” And that’s how things get done.

In addition to the good fortune of having a musical vicar, this project seems to have the full backing of the church. Jez tells me, “On the PCC it’s seen as one of the most important things we do; it’s central to our youth work, which we see as a key part of our mission. Now some of the parents of the choir are on the PCC too so that’s really becoming embedded – they’re getting involved in helping us think how we develop this. There was a discussion in the summer about whether we should get some assistance for Ben. The PCC was clear that this was important and they should definitely back it – people felt it should be a priority. Normally there are rather more questions asked on a PCC before spending money!”

The projects don’t stop here. They’re planning a trip to Walsingham (less nerve-wracking than a cathedral residency, for now, but with lots of opportunities). They’re working on a project to replace the church organ, which is ‘falling apart’, and are having exciting discussions with possible builders. “There’s a pretty serious plan to fund all of this,” Jez assures me; they’re planning to reorganise some land adjoining the church to generate some of the funds, as well as engaging with trusts and fundraising in the local community. They want the children to engage with the new instrument and to be able to play it when it arrives, so they’re developing a scheme, costing £10,000 a year, to fund organ lessons (plus exam entry, sheet music, going on courses etc) for five children from the parish. St John’s Cambridge have given £3000 a year for three years to kick-start it, and just the day before we meet they’ve heard that the Hymns Ancient & Modern charity have given the remaining £7000 they need to make the first year happen.

Organ Student - Owen Olanpejo

Organ student Owen Olanpejo at St John the Divine Kennington

As we’re sitting there they start mulling over how they could rent or borrow an electric organ for the rehearsal room so the kids can practise. Getting into schools or churches after hours is such a headache, we want them to be able to progress, and they feel at home here already… I suspect the new ideas aren’t going to dry up any time soon.

I leave with a smile on my face. These people are inspiring and they are impressive. They are not complacent. And my goodness they are making a difference. For my first interview on ‘The Good of Music’, I feel like I’ve struck gold.

To read more about the children’s choirs at St John the Divine Kennington, see the church website, the St John’s College Cambridge partnership page, or the SJDK children’s choir Twitter feed.