Choir singing has a rich history in the UK. It dates back to medieval times when choral music was mostly performed in churches and cathedrals. But, over time, choral singing has evolved and, today, it’s a popular form of musical expression for people of all ages and backgrounds.
In fact, The Big Choral Census, revealed that 2.14 million of us sang regularly in over 40,000 singing groups nationwide.
Many who enjoy singing would agree that there’s something special about singing together and being part of a vibrant community. Plus, choirs are generally fun, friendly, and inclusive places that are free from judgement. So everyone can get involved, no matter what they consider their singing ability to be.
Whether you’ve considered joining a choir or singing group before but haven’t been sure where to look, or are completely new to the idea and want to find out more – we’ve pulled together a quick guide to help you get started.
What is a choir group?
Choirs are groups of singers who come together to sing in harmony. They typically perform under the direction of a choir conductor, who leads the group through rehearsals and performances.
During rehearsals, the choir will typically practise the songs they will perform in upcoming concerts or events. This may involve learning new pieces of music, perfecting existing pieces, and working on vocal techniques such as breathing, tone, and pronunciation.
As well as the conductor, many choirs may also have an accompanist, such as a pianist, organist, or another musician who plays an instrument that complements the choir’s singing.
Choirs can be of different sizes and types, ranging from large community choirs to small chamber ones. They also perform in various different settings, such as in churches and concert halls, or at community events – and may have a specific purpose or focus, such as religious music, cultural music, or social and community outreach.
What are the benefits of singing in a choir?
Humans have been singing together for thousands of years in cultures all around the world. And research suggests that it helps us to build social connections with others much faster than other group classes like crafts or creative writing.
Plus, most of us will also be aware that the act of singing – whether in the shower, car, or as part of a group – can relieve stress and boost mood. In fact, research suggests that singing along to cheerful music for just five minutes a day is enough to have a profound effect on our mental health.
One way that singing gives us a natural high is by boosting the brain’s production of endocannabinoids. These are natural, feel-good chemicals, which have a positive effect on mood in high amounts. For example, this study, which measured the endocannabinoid levels of mature female choir members after 30 minutes of activities (dance, reading, singing or cycling), found that singing boosted levels by 42%.
With such wide-ranging benefits of singing for mental and physical health, one GP even suggested that doctors prescribe it as an alternative to conventional medicine.
How easy is it to join a choir?
There are choirs aimed at every level of singer and most choirs don’t expect you to be able to read music or have any singing experience – nor do they require an audition to join.
You can also sing in a choir in person or online (where you can even mute the mic to sing your heart out if you’re a bit shy).
Once you decide you want to join a choir, the next step is considering what sort of choir would be best for you. For example, if you’re looking to meet new people and sing for fun, a community choir is a good option, or a choral society might appeal if you already have some singing experience and really want to hone your technique.
Different choirs also focus on different music genres including musicals, classical, gaelic, eclectic, pop, gospel, jazz, folk, and religious.
We’ll explore the different types of choirs in more detail below.
What kind of choirs are there?
Above: an example of community choir singing from Rock Choir
Community choirs are the most common kind of choir, which anyone can join. You can just turn up and sing with everyone.
Community choirs tend to perform popular music and gospel. They typically rehearse regularly, usually weekly, and prepare for performances throughout the year. Performances may include concerts in local venues such as churches, schools, and community centres, as well as participation in community events and festivals.
There’s a strong social aspect to community choirs and they’re designed to be fun, uplifting, and energising. They’re also supportive and inclusive, and focus on the enjoyment of singing together, rather than on technique.
Some community choirs are set up for a special purpose, for example Sing with Us choirs, are for anyone affected by cancer. And Vicky McClure’s inspiring Our Dementia Choir was established to support people living with dementia.
Most community choirs require a small monthly subscription, while others are pay as you go and some are free.
Community choirs can be found all over the UK and include…
- Rock Choir – an award-winning contemporary choir run by professional musicians which rehearses in over 400 towns across the UK, with the chance to perform at high-profile national concerts.
- Pop Vox – a fun, friendly adult choir which strives to be the most professional amateur pop choir in the UK, and has branches in the northwest of England.
- The Big Sing – uses singing to unite people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures in Essex, London, Kent, and Warwickshire. They sing pop, soul, gospel, RnB, motown and inspirational songs.
- Some Voices – calls itself a ‘choir without the boring bits’ and has been referred to as the UK’s most exciting non-audition pop choir, as it performs original arrangements. It meets across London and in Brighton, Cambridge, Newcastle, St Albans, Stroud, Wimborne, and York.
- UK Soul Choirs – a network of choirs run by professional musicians, singing classic soul to pop and performing across London and the Southeast.
- Sing in the City – a network of community choirs based in Edinburgh, Fife, and Dundee. They have over 1,500 members and perform a wide range of music styles, including pop, rock, and soul.
- Love Music Community Choir – a network of choirs based in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with over 600 members. They have a diverse repertoire, including world music, gospel, and pop.
- Sing With Us – a network of community choirs across Wales, organised by the charity Tenovus Cancer Care. They have over 1,000 members and perform a range of music styles, including pop, rock, and gospel.
- Belfast Community Gospel Choir – This is a mixed-voice gospel choir based in Belfast with over 100 members. They perform a range of gospel music styles and have toured internationally.
Above: an example of virtual choir singing from The Collective Virtual Choir
Many people also find it convenient to join a choir online. These are run on platforms such as Zoom or YouTube so you can join from the comfort of your own home. They tend to cover all genres of singing, in fun and inclusive live rehearsals, where you’ll learn by ear.
Most times, there’s also no pressure to perform – and you can even press the mute button and sing your heart out if you are a bit shy!
Virtual choirs typically support members to improve their technical and performance skills. They offer similar community benefits to attending sessions in person and can suit those with disabilities, mobility issues, or illness.
Some online choirs are free, while others are subscription-based. If you’d like to have a taste of a free virtual choir, why not try a weekly singing workshop with Rest Less Events?
Or, perhaps the most famous online choir is The Collective Virtual Choir, which was started by Simon Lubkowski, a music teacher from Leicester during lockdown in March 2020. This acapella choir became a sensation, attracting 4,000 members from 50 countries to sing together, and it’s still going strong.
The Stay at Home Choir – a global community of singers which offers members the opportunity to learn classic and new choral music – was also born during lockdown and is worth a look.
Choral societies or chamber choirs
Above: an example of choral society singing from the Royal Choral Society
Choral societies or chamber choirs tend to take a more traditional approach to singing, and typically feature mixed voices. They can be semi-professional and amateur, and may perform in concert halls or other venues.
The type of songs performed can include modern choral, classical, traditional, religious, or chamber music, and singing is usually accompanied by a piano, organ, or orchestra.
Some singing experience is an advantage for these choirs. The ability to read music is a plus, although it’s usually enough to be able to follow a score, and some choral societies or chamber choirs will require an audition.
In choral societies or chamber choirs, you’re expected to learn your own part well – and to ask for help if you need it. So, joining does require a certain level of commitment.
There may also be a subscription fee to join and a dress code for concerts. However, these choirs provide a good structured environment to learn to sing. And, preparing for concerts gives you something to work towards, and an incentive to improve your voice.
The National Association of Choirs has around 700 member choirs all over the UK, and can help you to find a local choir.
Above: An example of Barbershop singing posted by the British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS)
Barbershop choirs specialise in acapella-style singing, which means they just use voices, and are unaccompanied by music. Their singing arrangements tend to consist of four voice parts.
Barbershop choirs typically consist of 20 to 100 or more singers, of any gender, who rehearse and perform together regularly. The larger size of the choir allows for more complex harmonies and arrangements, creating a rich, full sound.
Unlike community choirs, many barbershop choirs audition members before they join, while others may ask you to come along to a few rehearsals to see if your voice is a good fit. Auditions typically involve singing a prepared piece or singing with the group to see how your voice blends with the other members.
If you haven’t sung with a group before, joining a barbershop choir may seem a little daunting. But as their ethos is about learning, you’ll be taught how to follow a musical score, and offered coaching sessions if you need them.
In a barbershop choir, everyone memorises their own part of each song (which is easier than you might think) and you’ll sing the parts together during rehearsals. And, excitingly, you’ll get to perform in national barbershop singing competitions!
Joining a barbershop choir does require a bit of commitment and hard work before competitions. And they can be a bit pricey, with a weekly subscription plus a membership fee to the organisation. You’ll also need to contribute to your costume and pay travel and accommodation costs to attend competitions.
But, on the plus side, they organise social events, and you’ll get to sing fabulous harmonies and learn new techniques to improve your voice.
If you’re interested in joining a barbershop choir, then some of the most popular ones include…
- British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) is the largest organisation of barbershop singers outside of America, with over 60 choirs and 100 barbershop quartets nationwide, including male voice and mixed voice ensembles.
- Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) is the only organisation in the UK for female barbershop singers, with around 60 clubs nationwide.
- An international organisation for female barbershop singers, Sweet Adelines has more than 500 choirs and 900 quartets worldwide, and you can search for one near you.
Joining a choir – how to get started and what to expect during a first session
If you’re interested in one of the choir-types above and are wondering about the next step, most choirs have a website with information on what they offer – or you can search for your nearest choir on the Big Big Sing website.
Many also have videos on YouTube and Facebook, which give you an idea of the experience, and many also have free taster sessions.
As briefly mentioned, it’s also worth checking out the weekly singing workshops offered by Rest Less Events. These are free and held online, so you can get involved with singing from the comfort of your own home.
At your first choir session, you can expect to meet the conductor or choir director and other choir members. The session may begin with some warm-up exercises to prepare your voice, followed by learning and rehearsing songs.
The conductor may provide sheet music or lyrics to follow along with, and you’ll sing in your designated voice part. The session may also include breaks for rest and socialising.
Singing is something that’s connected communities for thousands of years. It makes us feel happy and uplifted, and gives us a sense of belonging.
If you’d like to join a choir, but have been wondering how to go about it, we hope that this gives you the information and inspiration to take the next step.
And whether you’re into chamber music, acapella, or The Beatles singalongs, joining a choir is a fun way to improve your health, well-being, and social life. So why not contact one and give it a try?