The choir that rocks: How Rock Choir Merseyside’s bringing the Wirral together in a sweet harmony
We’re not sure if we’re in the right place. We’re definitely underdressed.
We’re at the rear of Saint Andrew’s Church in West Kirby, by the Church Hall, looking for Rock Choir supremo Anthony Seaman. There are a lot of ladies around in fascinators and hats dressed as if they’re set for a day at the races, while we’re dressed like Chaplin’s tramp.
Fascinators? It’s a one-off; the ladies are prepping for a party for Her Majesty’s birthday, and have combined morning rehearsals with the day’s activities. We finally find Anthony, busy setting up his instruments and sound system, and ask if they’re going to pump out any Nirvana (preferably Lithium).
It is a rock choir after all, but Kurt’s classics aren’t part of the sheet music. “The rock choir sometimes gets slightly misunderstood, we’re not heavy rock. Songs are varied, we go from ’60s and ’70s soul such as I Say a Little Prayer, we’ve done ELO and prog rock; recently we’ve done a lot of ’80s stuff like We Built This City and Mary’s Prayer.
“The general theme is to be uplifting and let go. We do a bit of gospel but aren’t as such a gospel or religious choir.
“We’re anything that can be considered pop-rock from the last 40 years. The bulk of our repertoire is ’80s and ’90s. Lately we’ve learnt more modern songs like Jess Glynne’s Hold My Hand, George Ezra’s Budapest, and have some of Beyoncé’s songs lined up for next term.”
35-year-old Anthony’s a busy man. As well as hosting regular morning and evening Rock Choir practices here, he also has a number of other choirs throughout Merseyside. “Six of them are mine. I run the Merseyside branches; two are on the Wirral (the other being Birkenhead) whilst I also run Ormskirk, two in Southport and one in Liverpool.”
Anthony was born to do this. He’s a classically-trained singer, plays a number of instruments and – most importantly – is friendly and approachable. He has performed in the past with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir; it’s so easy to make a glaringly obvious comparison and ask if he’s the next Gareth Malone.
“A lot of people make that comparison when they come for their first session. I take it as a compliment really, he’s been very successful and is inspirational.
“He’s done us a lot of favours in terms of choir recruitment, every time he has a big television show on people start thinking about joining a choir. They look us up and usually end up here to try it out.
“What rock choir is about is getting people together who like singing. The way we operate is it’s a ‘no-audition’ choir. Anyone can join and you don’t need to be able to read music.
“The way we teach songs is learning by rote, so I’ll sing a line and the choir sings it back, we piece it all together into three, four and five-part harmonies and that’ll be, for many in the group, the first time they’ve ever sung as a harmony.”
Rock of ages
We stay for an hour to hear the warm up and a few songs, and it’s amazing to hear the harmonies Anthony’s managed to get out of the locals. The choir starts with John Farnham’s You’re the Voice. The group’s clearly mastered Anthony’s ‘uplifting’ requirement.
“The morning choir is largely retirees or stay at home mums who like to socialise. It’s varied; the demographic of the evening choirs is a bit different and includes people coming after work to wind down.
“They all sound really good together. The goal is to spread singing around the area. The West Kirby choir in itself is around 50 members now.
“When I took over the choir a few years ago there were about 12 or 13 members. We’ve grown and that’s reflected across the other choirs, too. The other choirs had, in total, about 90 members and we have over 500 now.”
Getting large groups singing so well together across the North West is an enormous achievement that Anthony deserves a lot of credit for. He’s not too fussed; he’s already looking forward to a much bigger challenge next month.
“We’re doing a huge show on 2 July in the auditorium of the Echo Arena complex. We’ve got 360 singing on stage that night. We don’t come together into such a large amount that often. Most rehearsals in the morning are approximately 40-50 while evening choirs can be up to 100 people.
“Managing that’s a little bit easier. What we do is learn the same repertoire all together at the same time and speed. Any time we want to do a big show like at the Echo Arena, everyone will come together and will heave rehearsed in those smaller groups. It’s just a case of bringing it all together on a larger scale, then.
“I’m looking forward to hearing how we do at the Echo Arena. We come together every term usually for a big sing together. The most I’ve had come together is about 230. We’re going to smash that for the big show, and I can’t wait to see what 300-odd people singing together sounds like.”
God loves a choir
The Rock Choir isn’t just about carrying a tune. Throughout the rehearsal Anthony brings the benefit of his professional experience to the group, carrying out breathing routines and ice-breaking exercises, choreography and more.
Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong is a favourite, Anthony tells us – especially with audiences – because of its raw, powerful arrangement, with Rather Be by Clean Bandit also a popular number. “Some of it’s straightforward and some of the arrangements can be quite challenging, like when we learned ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky. It adds a layer of complexity to things.
“The main thing to say is it’s different things for all people. Some people love just coming to rehearsals while some like the big shows. What you get out of being a rock choir member is there’s never any pressure to perform. People can access it at any level they want to.
Rather than a franchise, Rock Choir is more a national group, started over a decade ago by Caroline Redman Lusher in Surrey, with its easy accessibility an instant hit with the public.
“They were queuing round the block and she had around 70 people for her first rehearsal. It grew in numbers and over time she’s taken on more choir leaders and it’s now nationwide. We’re pretty much from Aberdeen down to Cornwall now.
“There are around 20,000 members across the country. We do events sometimes where we come together as a whole rock choir.
“We had our tenth birthday last year and took over the NEC in Birmingham for the weekend and had something like 8,000 people singing on the Saturday and Sunday. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, it was incredible.
“I think as a nation we’ve lost a little bit of the community singing we used to do as habit. Largely it was done in church and I think sections of the UK have lost that a bit.
“I think that’s why Rock Choir has been a success nationwide, it reconnects people with singing which is such a powerful thing. It’s more than singing; it’s being together as a community, it’s a powerful experience.”