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By David Lennon 

How holistic is choral singing? 

It demands physical and emotional energy. It engages the soul and the mind. It blends individual with group achievement.   

Choral singing is an activity where you strive to produce your best, not just for your own gratification, but also for your fellow singers and your audience. You strive to create one voice from all the individual singers, whether your choir has 10 or 100 members. 

This was clearly demonstrated at the Grand Final of the Choir of the Year competition organised by BBC Radio 3 and held at London’s Royal Festival Hall in December before a wildly enthusiastic and totally partisan crowd of supporters. 

“The camaraderie between a group of fun-loving guys who get a massive kick out of coming together and singing”, is how conductor Tim Rhys-Evans describes the essence of his choir Only Men Aloud. 

Choral singing is the UK’s most popular participatory leisure activity. According to the competition organisers there are 25,000 choirs with 500,000 singers across the UK reaching an audience of 3 million. 

“Regular group singing has proven health benefits, from improved breathing capacity and better posture to increased self-confidence and the feel-good factor that comes from singing your heart out with a group of friends,” they say. 

More than 5,000 singers from communities all around the UK and Northern Ireland took part in the competition that encompasses a vast array of musical styles and types of singing from gospel to pop, world music to barbershop and folk to jazz.  

The seven of the 200 competing choirs who made it to the Festival Hall ranged in size from eight members to 85.  The youngest singers were under 10, the oldest over 70. The emotions palpable on the night ran from tension to elation, apprehension to relief and finally an outburst of joy. 

My favourites were The Cottontown Chorus, a Barbershop choir of mature men from working-class Bolton, whose polished delivery of South Rampart Street Parade, including a Mexican-wave, had the audience stomping with delight. 

I also loved the winners, the polka-dot-waistcoat wearing Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir. This fabulously well drilled choir of 85 schoolchildren aged 9 to19 performed a series of linked musical pieces accompanied by mimed narrative.  

The hard work of the choir’s 25-year veteran musical director Sue Hollingsworth paid off as the simple movements clearly helped relax the choral voices which together with the use of minimal props charmed the audience and judges alike. 

The radiant faces of the joyously jumping young winners demonstrated more than anything that music can take you over completely and is indeed the food of love for body and soul. 

Congratulating the youngsters from Scunthorpe, BBC Proms Director Roger Wright said: “These groups show the potential singing can release in us all, the confidence it provides and the sheer enjoyment it brings to all ages.”   
 

** The Grand Final was held at the Royal Festival Hall, on London South Bank on Sunday December 7, 2008 and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday December 8. The television broadcast was on BBC FOUR on Friday December 12.