It is as much about baring your soul as it is about anything else – The Monthly interviews Kirsty Orr of Lisburn Harmony Ladies Choir

Why did you set up a community choir?

I moved to Lisburn about 8 years ago and I had always sung in choirs but there was no choir for me to join when I moved here.

I thought, I’ll set up my own choir and I got the Ulster Star involved and I was hoping for 25 people and on the first night we had 43 and then 57 the second night. Now the choir has grown to around 70 members.

And the members are women?

I can’t really tell you why I decided to organise a ladies choir, I don’t have an explanation for that but we now have the choir and it is in its eighth year. I do feel very strongly now that a lot of ladies, especially mums, neglect themselves in running a family home, and I stress to them how important it is to make time to do something they love, to do something just for themselves. The choir is a support community. I describe them as the next best thing to family members.

What are the key elements of setting up a choir? Do people need to be able to sing or read music?

I am a natural voice practitioner so it is an interesting question whether or not everyone can sing. I think that everyone has their own natural voice and can learn to sing, it’s like anything else, you can learn how to do things to greater and lesser degrees of success but in order to sing in a choir you need to be able to blend with other people and that is a skill that you need to either have or you need to acquire.

In all the years of working with the choir there really has only been perhaps one person who would have struggled to have the capacity to work in the choir. I would have struggled to know what to say to her the following week had she returned, but she didn’t. Part of me was disappointed, as I would have liked to see her journey.

So you don’t need to be a great singer but you need to be able to blend your voice with others? What other attributes are required?

You don’t need to be able to read music as we essentially learn everything by ear. We do have people who can read music. Being able to read music can be both positive and a negative. If people rely on music they tend not to listen so well, so we work hard on blending and balancing parts by listening to one another.

We do have to work out who sings what parts, so we work on who will sing soprano and who will sing alto. It is solely dependent on a singers’ range.  But as the musical director, I’m always aiming to expand members range and their abilities.

How often do you need to rehearse?

We rehearse every week and we always rehearse with a purpose, so we work towards events or performances. We have a high level of commitment and we almost always have a very good turn-out at our rehearsals and that high level of commitment extends to everyone who joins the choir.

What is the distinction between a choir and a community choir?

Community Choirs tend to be a much more relaxed affair. There are no auditions for a community choir. You don’t audition in front of people, you don’t have to film yourself or get videoed to see if you look good on camera. None of that. You come along, you get involved and you sing along and you develop as we go. There is also an emphasis on the fact that reading music isn’t necessary for a community choir.

It’s one of the huge draws of a community choir as it makes joining accessible to anyone. We have a very wide age range as well, from 20 years old through to a member in their 80’s.

We also do a wide range of material, from classical, to gospel, to pop, so we are not genre specific.

How do you decide on material?

With regards the material that the choir performs, I decide on the songs we will learn following many hours of research. I find arrangements online or contact composers or arrangers directly. We work together on those until they are ready for performance.

Last year the choir learnt 14 songs; that included one in German and 2 particularly difficult pieces for performance. We always learn songs from memory to allow us to connect more deeply with the music and our audience.

How do you know when the choir is ready to perform a piece?

We work hard. That can mean working section by section, ensuring that everyone knows what their part is.  Sometimes that can mean some members of the choir waiting around while another section works on their part, but by and large we get the work done. We also produce rehearsal CDs and make recordings which we circulate on email or whats app. When you have a choir with the majority learning from listening, being able to rehearse between practices is vital, and I’m very lucky that my choir members will put the work in at home themselves too.

How do you go about positioning the members for performance?

We sometimes work strategically in terms how we position our more experienced or more confident singers along with singers who are still developing. You have to be quite forthright about that. Mostly it is pretty straightforward.

Do you get any support or funding?

No. The choir is funded by the members. Members pay £75 a year and that covers everything, from purchase of the sheet music, the hire of halls, payment of salaries, insurance and transport to and from events and performances.

Do you feel that there has been an upsurge in the popularity of choirs?

It certainly seems that is the case. I know workplace choirs have come about. There are a couple of choirs in Lisburn now.

Gareth Malone and his shows on TV, the Military Wives choir, popularised singing in choirs, especially community choirs. Choirs were once thought of as elitist or church oriented. That is most certainly not the case now.

Does the choir ever produce original material?

Yes we do on occasion work on our own material and Sky Arts has just approached us to work with a composer to produce a piece of original work to be performed at the Barbican in London.

Is there anything else about Community Choirs that you want to highlight?

One aspect of singing in a choir is the link between singing and mental health.

Many of the members say that working in the choir apart from the euphoric elements which you get from singing with big groups of other people ( scientific research shows the decrease of cortisol, the stress hormone, and the increase of oxytocin, the pleasure hormone), and the physical elements of working hard while you sing, it has a cleansing effect mentally. It can raise self-esteem and confidence, and make people feel they can do things they never thought possible.

Members will say that singing in the choir makes a huge difference to how they feel about their lives and that is why it matters as much as any other reason for doing this.

When you sing you bare a part of your soul, singing makes you vulnerable, but it is also a thing of beauty, and because it is from within, its impact can be far reaching.

Information about the Lisburn Harmony ladies Choir can be found at the following link –

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.