Why did you form a community choir?
I’m glad you asked that.
The community aspect is the most important reason why the choir was formed and a central part of the ethos of what this choir does.
I’ve been around for quite a while in the world of music in Northern Ireland. I was particularly involved in a church environment and in the contemporary worship side of the music world.
At the turn of the Millennium I was asked by the government which was setting up choirs in a series of regional areas, for a service of thanksgiving. There were to be choirs in Edinburgh, Cardiff, London, and Belfast and I was charged with directing Northern Ireland’s choir which was to perform at The Waterfront Hall.
I put out the feelers to every church group, choral society, community groups, to let them know that there was going to be this huge community choir and it would be part of a major performance.
It was a wonderful experience but once it was finished that was it. We had built up this fantastic sense of camaraderie and yet we couldn’t take it any further.
I started to think that perhaps there was a desire for people to be part of a choral community.
Now I wanted to ensure that the standard of singing was very high, the choir set up for the thanksgiving event was open to everyone regardless of their ability to sing, and that was fine for that project but I also wanted to move in the direction of Gospel music and you need good singers to do that.
Why Gospel Music?
I was first introduced to Gospel music in 1969, when I was at school, through Edwin Hawkin’s “Oh Happy Day”. It was sung by a black gospel choir and it was a number one single.
The energy in that music was unbelievable and it inspired me. It touched my soul in a way that no other music did. After hearing that song I would always seek out black gospel choirs to listen to, whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Now in 2008 I thought there was a possibility to set up a new choir. There was a choir show on TV called “Last choir standing” and the choirs were great, the music was wonderful. Watching that got me thinking.
I also felt that there really seemed like there was a change in the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. There was a feeling of hope and a sense that things were getting better. I decided that this was the time to pull together a choir.
How did you go about that?
It is important to stress that the time was right. Northern Ireland was changing and it wasn’t just me. A lot of people thought that.
In June 2009 I organised a campaign in the local papers to find singers. It was titled, “Do you have the Gospel Factor?” and I had about 140 to 150 applicants. We had a rehearsal evening and after the auditions, we selected 67 choir members.
In September 2009, we then went to the Oh Yeah Music Centre and we set up our rehearsals there on the Ground Floor. The Oh Yeah Music Centre was our home for a couple of years.
And what happened then?
It was a real adventure from the very beginning. We had a room full of strangers who were meeting each other for the first time. Very few had been part of a choir before. We had a few people who had been part of a choral singing group but very few people had any choir experience.
Everyone was asking, “Where are we going to go with this?” and, “How is this going to work.”
As the director and arranger, I picked the song “Something inside so strong,” which is a song about apartheid and about struggle against adversity. I set about the arrangement on my computer using GarageBand.
This song seemed to fit with the view of fighting against hardship, and I thought it fitted well with how I was feeling about Belfast at the time.
Gospel choirs are quintessentially a 3 part harmony. And so we went about learning that song.
How do you go about the process of building the choir?
This choir was set up as a performance choir and people who join the choir must be able to sing. In this case it is essential.
Obviously not everyone can sing to the same high standard. There are great singers in the choir and we have some amazing singers in the choir.
A gospel choir also needs to impart enthusiasm and a happy demeanour to the audience. Gospel music has to be invigorating.
It is a multicultural choir, it is an inclusive choir. It isn’t a faith based choir. Whatever your background, this is irrelevant. This is not a church choir.
As long as you are respectful and you want to promote the ideas of love joy and peace and you can sing and you are enthusiastic you can be part of the choir.
Where does it go from there?
Gospel choral singing is a specialised sound. This genre only uses tenors, altos and sopranos. You really do need to be able to sing in the higher registers.
We did audition people for the first 5 or 6 years and they had to sing unaccompanied and we would ensure that they would be able to meet the requirements of the gospel genre.
With regards the arrangements, I pick songs which have inspired me or have made me feel something. I do think you can alter any song to make it fit a gospel format.
I work with a keyboard player and he will work with me on the arrangements. We might do a basic track, rhythm, piano and vocals and then I will add the harmony vocals and we then send that to our members to learn.
We are working at the moment on Coldplay’s “Fix You” and we are applying the gospel process to that song.
There is a certain look and style to your work. How do you go about that process?
With regards the singing, we do have to work a fair bit on pronunciation. We have to find a universal accent that everyone can sing along with.
Because we have so many different voices, accents, cultural backgrounds there is an approach that we all have to agree on, but it does seem to develop organically.
And we work on our presentation because we want to impart, as I have said earlier, a particular feeling to our audiences.
What about rehearsals – that must require a fair bit of organisation?
The members of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir are very committed and so rehearsal attendance isn’t really a problem.
There is also an atmosphere of mutual respect and so our members work well together.
We work hard on the sound and the presentation. I really believe that you have to produce something that people want to listen to.
I make sure that our arrangements are quite unique. We might merge songs, “I can see clearly now the rain has gone,” combined with “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. We work on the transitions, we work on the arrangements. There is a lot of work done prior to the choir meeting for rehearsal.
For example, if you are one of the tenors, you will receive a mix of the song to listen to and it will have the tenor section amplified in the mix so you will be able to work on that section at home. You will get the lyrics, and if you can read music, it isn’t essential by the way, but if you can read music, you will get musical notes to help you.
What about musical accompaniment?
When we play live we would normally use a live band, drums, bass, Hammond organ, trumpet and keyboards.
We have occasionally worked with backing tracks but a live band usually accompanies the choir.
We want to offer the audience, whoever that might be, an experience and using a live band gives us that additional drive for the music.
It seems like a substantial amount of work to produce the end result?
It is but all the hard work is very rewarding when the performance takes place. I’m very proud of our performances which are always high quality and you can see the choir invigorating the audience.
The aim initially was to create a choir that the people of Belfast could be proud of and I think we have achieved that.