Choir singing on the edge of the world

Once a week a minister, a handyman and an actress join around 30 other Whitby residents who come together to sing their hearts out.

Whitby Community Choir gathers at Flowergate’s United Reformed Church each Wednesday, simply for the love of singing.

Whitby Community Choir''w134709a

Whitby Community Choir''w134709a

The group was formed in 2004 by a small group of people who shared a love of music.

There was no leader, no auditions and no intention of performing.

Yet now, the choir is earning a rapidly-growing reputation and has represented the community by performing at festivals in Gateshead, Manchester and Brighton.

Group member Jan Johnson said: “The only thing that joins us together is that we all love singing. Some people can read music, some people play instruments, but we are all from diverse backgrounds and I wouldn’t have met any of these people in the normal course of life.”

Musical Director Rebecca Gross

Musical Director Rebecca Gross

An alto singer, Jan joined the group in May after moving to Staithes from Berkshire, where she had lived much of her life.

With a lifelong but unfulfilled passion for music, it was a neighbour who pointed Jan in the direction of the choir.

She explained: “I love singing but there has never been a suitable choir that I could join.

“The community choir doesn’t demand an audition or that you read music and there was absolutely nothing like it down south.”

The community choir at Robin Hood's Bay Victorian Weekend

The community choir at Robin Hood's Bay Victorian Weekend

With an age range of 17 to 70, the choir welcomes people of all musical abilities and backgrounds. From absolute beginners to trained professionals, the only requirement is that members live in Whitby or the surrounding villages.

As if to highlight this relaxed and “organic” approach to music making, there is no uniform for choir members to wear when they perform.

“We have two rules - no jeans and no beige,” said Jan. She explained: “If you step on stage wearing a formal uniform people have expectations of what we are going to sound like. We go on to stage looking like a rag-tag bunch and then we start singing and everybody says ‘Oh my Lord that was so wonderful’.”

Having never performed in public before, Jan said her first time was “nerve-wracking beyond belief”, but the support of the other choir members carried her through. She added: “When you have never done it before, you’re not confident that you are going to remember your bits. But soon you realise there’s nothing to be frightened of and you’re not a lone voice. It’s a comfort and it helps you to be better, knowing that the spotlight isn’t on you in particular.”

The choir performing on stage

The choir performing on stage

This teamwork does not just help when performing and the choir provides a sense of community for the members, who can help each other through difficult personal times.

For Jan, the choir helped her through a difficult period this summer when she lost her mother to cancer.

“I had been feeling pretty down,” she said. “But the singing is therapeutic and the sense of community is incredible. It’s really good for the soul.

“You can go to choir practice feeling like you would rather be in bed and come out feeling like you are on top of the world.”

A permanent part of the choir’s repertoire is a 12 song cycle that takes members from the top of the world to the edge of it.

Standing on the Edge of the World is a series of 12 connected songs reflecting the spirit and atmosphere of Whitby.

A lunch break while recording at the Mortuary Chapel at Egton

A lunch break while recording at the Mortuary Chapel at Egton

It was written by the choir’s musical director Rebecca Gross after a successful application for funding from the BBC Performing Arts Community Fund.

The song cycle takes just under half an hour to perform, with no pauses between the songs, and Jan said the success of the choir owes a lot to the talent of its leader.

She said: “Rebecca’s an absolute dynamo. She’s so passionate about music and its therapeutic effects that her energy is unbelievable. I’m full of admiration for her.”

A freelance music teacher, Rebecca leads three other choirs and is a huge advocate of the therapeutic effects of music.

She devises many of the song arrangements for the choir and the first performance of the song cycle took place at Sleights Village Hall in July.

It has since been repeatedly performed, culminating in the opening of Whitby’s Musicport festival.

To be successful in the application for funding the music had to be about the local area and performed for and within the community.

With the approach of the festive period, the choir will now shift its focus to Christmas songs. Rebecca has been busy researching and arranging new pieces.

The first of the Christmas offerings will be the launch of the Whitby Christmas Market on Thursday. Other highlights are a performance at Robin Hood’s Bay Victorian Weekend on Saturday December 7, Botton School Advent Fair on Sunday December 8 and its Christmas Wassail takes place at Sneaton Priory Chapel on Wednesday December 11 at 7.15pm.