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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Singalong Social via Faye Bollard Photography
# choir blimey
'Singing along without inhibitions': How pop-up choirs became cool (by making people happy)
We meet the people leading the way.

OVER THE PAST few summers, one of the big festival draws in Ireland has been Sing Along Social. The premise is simple: a ‘zero-commitment choir’ where people come together to sing along to their favourite bangers.

On stage, founder Aoife McElwain serves as a conductor of sorts, waving signs and encouraging everyone to sing at the top of their lungs.

The events allow people to express themselves musically without feeling self-conscious about their singing ability or lack thereof.

“You don’t have to practice and you don’t need to know the words,” says McElwain. “It’s more of a group karaoke session where extroverts and introverts alike can share the limelight.”

Being able to sing is not a requirement with awards often given to the “best worst singer”.

“Good singers come along too, and they’re very welcome – we’ve had real choir members come along and drop some mean harmonies – but the focus is more about gathering a diverse group of friends and strangers and encourage them to caterwaul along to their favourite songs as one big happy collective,” says McElwain.

It’s silly, it’s cathartic and it’s ridiculously fun. No wonder it has become a phenomenon.

The success of Sing Along Social reflects an increased interest in and demand for pop-up choirs of late.

Roisin Savage is the founder of The Line Up Choir, a community choir based in Harold’s Cross. She set up the choir at the behest of her sisters who wanted to join a choir with a pop-rock repertoire.

“I had spent time as a member of a gospel choir whilst I was in college and loved that – like traditional Irish music, this was an aural tradition where music was taught by ear and sheet music wasn’t used,” she says.

“There was an emphasis on performance and connecting with the audience. I realised that there are so many gifted singers who can’t read music who maybe don’t have the opportunity to sing, so I thought I could adopt this approach when teaching songs in my own choir.”

The choir quickly took off and she soon began to field enquiries from prospective members.

“As my choir started to grow, so did the waiting list for people wanting to join,” she says.
Due to space restrictions in the rehearsal venue, she couldn’t cater to everyone and held a series of one-off events to cope with the demand.

“I set-up some pop-up choir events to accommodate those who were on the waiting list as a sort of stop-gap until they could eventually join the choir,” she recalls.

The events were well attended, but sporadic due to Savage’s other commitments. It was when she held auditions for The Line Up Choir this year that she realised she needed a more permanent solution.

“My first auditions had nearly 150 people in attendance which was quite overwhelming for me,” she says. “I knew then that if this amount of people were prepared to audition, I would need to seriously think about creating more singing opportunities for them.”

In August, she took to social media to see if there was sufficient interest in a casual choir. She envisaged it being a fortnightly singing session with “no auditions, no commitment, and no concerts”.

“A singalong of sorts with some harmonies thrown in where the emphasis would be on fun,” she says.

She was swiftly inundated with messages and knew she had to put the idea into action.
“Within a couple weeks I had secured the venue, set up social media pages, put our first session on sale and Casual Choir was born,” she says. “Incredibly we’ve sold over 100 tickets so far which means we’ll have a mega choir for our first session.”

The first edition of Casual Choir is due to take place next Monday evening with the first song set to be a “a real stonker of a tune”. Where it goes remains to be seen. For now, Savage is focused on creating a warm, friendly atmosphere.

“I want this to be a really fun environment where for a couple of hours people can just sing their hearts out,” she says.

Another choir that has been operating for the past few years is The Lalala Choir. Its founder Sam Kavanagh set it up with the intention of trying something new.

“I wanted to test a theory that everyone can learn to sing and that using improvisation would be the best way to do that,” he says.

Like The Line Up Choir, The Lalala Choir quickly took off and soon had a large waiting list. To deal with demand, Kavanagh set up the Lalala Pop Up Choirs, which take place in venues across the city.

The choirs are open to everyone and no two sessions are the same, he says.

“They’re always different. Usually we’ll pick a time and a place and tell everyone who wants to meet us there, by social media, word of mouth or our mailing list.”

“Sometimes we partner with guest artists and learn and perform one of their songs together,” he says, noting that they recently worked with David Kitt.

“Other times it’s music that the weekly Lalala Choirs are working on. Increasingly I try to improvise as much as possible, which means planning very little and relying on the musicality of whoever shows up.”

When it comes to the choir, Kavanagh’s mantra is “music is for everyone”. He disputes the notion that you’re either born with musical talent or you’re not.

“It is possible that musical ability is innate and that there is a predetermined limit for some people, but that hasn’t been my experience,” he says.

More often than not, people who think they can’t sing have been taught to think that. A lot of people that join The Lalala Choir or come to the pop-ups have told me stories about being asked to mime or sit out of their school choir. This is crazy to me. You’d never tell a student who got a maths question wrong to close their book and wait until the end of class.

“The idea behind using improvisation as a way to overcome these sort of blocks is it allows people make their own musical decisions. In theory, even if we didn’t like the results of an improvisation, nobody could say they were wrong.”

“Because improvising means everyone gets to choose their own note, everyone becomes invested in choosing a note they’re happy with, which means listening to the group and adapting. Before you know it the act of learning to sing has become fun.”

Both Kavanagh and Savage believe there are huge benefits to communal singing.

“Communal singing is such a powerful thing,” says Savage. “A group of people from all walks of life and different backgrounds coming together to work towards a shared goal – even if that shared goal is singing out to support your local football team.”

For his part, Kavanagh believes that there’s “definitely something primal” about the act of singing together. It serves as a reminder that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves, he says.

I think it’s worth remembering that you can be the most successful person in history by any measure you can think of, but you’ll never be a choir by yourself.

And there are the post-choir endorphins, of course.

“There have been numerous research studies that show that, as well as being good for your emotional, mental and physical health, being in a choir can regulate your heartbeat and alleviate stress,” says Savage. “Sometimes just focusing on something as simple as singing for a couple of hours can take your mind off other worries in your life – a meditation of sorts.”

That’s precisely why Aoife McElwain often holds her Sing Along Social events on Sunday nights: to help counteract the dreaded Sunday night fear.

People often leave the event feeling lighter and cheered up, and that’s a wonderful part of it. I’ve experienced that myself. Perhaps I’ve been a little down leading up to the event and then I’ll get my heart filled by a bunch of friendly strangers singing along completely without inhibitions. It’s a very joyful thing.

More:How burritos and doughnuts took over Dublin – and what you’ll be eating next>

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