3 of the best choirs in Essex
PUBLISHED: 10:48 06 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:48 06 June 2016
© 2014 Amfo Connolly
Gospel Essence, The Wallace Singers, Men2Sing. It is fair to say that the image and popularity of choirs has come a long way in recent years. Nick Dines meets three thriving Essex groups each singing the praises of this positive pastime
Gospel Essence (Est. 2010, Romford)
With every television series he’s fronted, Gareth Malone’s engaging methods over the past decade have helped the nation fall in love again with singing, with the revered choirmaster changing the public’s dated perception of choirs.
Viewers gripped by Gareth’s a cappella BBC series, The Naked Choir, will recall Romford’s endearing Gospel Essence representing our county admirably. Led by their skilled musical director Rebecca Amissah and fuelled on a fresh gospel sound central to their performances, audiences gained an insight into Gospel Essence’s inventive style, which has seen them enhance many a public occasion and wedding day since their conception in 2010.
Gospel Essence showcased an array of innovative renditions throughout the series, from En Vogue’s My Lovin, to Queen’s classic I Want To Break Free. Even when pushed outside their comfort zone, a polished unexpected performance of the challenging theme from S’Express entertained both judges and audiences.
While many may attribute the commercial explosion in a cappella to popular American imports such as Glee and Pitch Perfect, Rebecca feels there is more to it than that. ‘A cappella is so natural and it’s how most people have been introduced to music in their life,’ says Rebecca. ‘It’s been taken to such a sophisticated and respected level, which is what the a cappella scene in America is doing with the likes of the Pentatonix. It’s really nice to see that emerging in the UK now.’
While victory wasn’t to be on the series, it proved an experience to rank up there with performing at Trafalgar Square and singing the national anthem in the Copperbox. Gospel Essence departed the rollercoaster ride better for it, honing their stage choreography throughout the show, to add to their repertoire alongside Rebecca’s accomplished arrangements and their moving harmonies.
‘Having someone like Gareth spot you out of 300 initial choirs, it’s nice to have that recognition,’ Rebecca recalls. ‘From the first episode he thought of us as real contenders. We learnt a lot from this amazing experience, improving and becoming stronger. Gareth loves music, so even when cameras weren’t rolling, he gave us feedback, advising us what to try and what might work.’
The group received lots of support from proud family, friends and an avid fan base on social media. Rebecca, who resides in Collier Row, adds: ‘We still have locals pop by the studio admitting, “we wanted to hear you sing more”. It’s humbling to know so many people were rooting for us. It’s that reassurance to continue.’
When she’s not juggling Gospel Essence with running AmisStar Vocal Studios, her own thriving Romford-based business, passionate Rebecca also commendably has hands-on involvement with four burgeoning community choirs.
She helps spread joy with Romford Voices Community Choir, as well as three hospital choirs at Goodmayes, King George and Queen’s, the latter having turned to Rebecca for help after seeing the show, after initially facing difficulties in getting a choir off the ground.
‘What’s great is that those choirs are made up of different departments,’ says Rebecca. ‘People find themselves mixing with the high tops, making friends in the process and creating their own group of like-minded singers. As far as they know, they are just another alto. Once people experience choral singing, they soon realise how much fun it is.
‘Then there are those that may have had a really bad day at work, but actually felt better having come along. I love that feedback, discovering what it means to them. For instance, one particular member looks after her husband, so choir becomes her time to come and be a part of something. Music has that power.’
With plans afoot for their first full-scale show in the region later in the year, Gospel Essence are blessed with an evident jovial rapport, cast long before they appeared on the BBC series. This reflection of the joy that singing together has brought them is something member Paulina Amissah has recognised: ‘It’s a release. There’s music to suit every mood that you’re in, so I guess it’s like therapy.’
Nodding in agreement, a reflective Lawal Muhammad adds: ‘It’s more important to me than I originally realised. I tend to recognise that when I haven’t sung for a while, I’ll then sing and remember, “wait a minute, I love this”. There’s also something very special about singing live. It’s of the moment and if I sing with the group, there’s nothing else quite like that.’
The Wallace Singers (Est. 1980, Brentwood)
Formally The Howard Wallace Chorale, The Wallace Singers have many treasured memories woven into their 36-year history. Having performed everywhere from Brentwood Cathedral to the Royal Albert Hall, long-serving original member Jenny Wallace explains what’s made them a staple part of the county’s choir scene.
‘People thought choirs were just to do with churches or choral societies,’ says Jenny. ‘There wasn’t so much in-between, such as that big choral sound singing ordinary songs. That’s the appeal of our group.
‘The Wallace Singers have a tradition of singing a wide range of music from folk and opera, to musical show selections and modern songs, with Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera among our favourites. With a reputation for bringing a wall of sound, our speciality is that we often sing in full eight-part harmony, bringing a choral sound to even simple songs.
‘There is something fabulous about the glorious sound of a really big choir. You can also afford to carry people who may not be the best singers, but desperately want to be in it. That’s important to us, as we try to be an inclusive choir.
‘To join a choir, look around at the vast range of groups and experience their concerts until you find one you think you’ll enjoy. We are actively looking for more members. Our youngest is in their early twenties and our oldest is in their eighties, so we have a very wide age range and most that come, end up staying.
‘It’s a chance for meeting new friends and experiencing the joy and uplifting of the spirit that music can bring. The supportive friendships we encourage and nurture have been essential in the lives of so many of our members. New memories are always being created.’
Men2Sing (Est. 1979, South Woodham Ferrers)
Renowned for a wide repertoire including Michael Bublé and The Beach Boys, as well as Miss Saigon and Ave Maria, Men2Sing embrace a variety of musical genres. Always receptive to new members, their experienced musical director, John Trent Wallace, champions the plus points of belonging to a choir.
‘Choirs are now not seen as elitist,’ says John. ‘Gareth (Malone) helped people realise you don’t need to sing Handel or Mozart to perform in a choir. A great song is a great song, therefore it should be sung with as much passion and enjoyment as the next one.
‘Yes, we take the music very seriously, but it’s the sense of friendship and fun which bonds us through music. The guys look like they are enjoying every song, because they genuinely are. We therefore find the best recruitment is performing a concert.
‘You don’t need to feel intimidated, everyone is so encouraging. From seasoned performer through to the first-timer, everyone feels included in the experience. Give it a try. You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain. It is a second family.
‘Provided you enjoy music, you don’t need to have sung before. There’s no reason why you can’t come along and experience it from the inside. New arrivals can’t believe they hadn’t done so years ago. Those that haven’t sung before just need guidance to get the most out of their vocal performance.
‘Working together to put on a good performance, resulting in that magical connection with an audience, gives the guys a massive sense of pride and fulfillment. When the harmony hits and you’re in the middle of it, the whole place is buzzing and you want to relive it.’