Inspirational choir leader Roxane Smith has been a champion of community singing for 30 years and is co-founder of Sing for Water, a national annual mass choir event at London’s Thames Festival (pictured here by Brendan Foster Photography ©). Interview by Frankie Rickford.
If you can breathe you can sing, and share the joy of singing in harmony with other people. That’s the philosophy behind the natural voice movement, which for the past thirty years has been trying convince us all that whatever our teacher or bossy friend told us, we all have a singing voice, and every right to enjoy using it.
Community choirs, as opposed to church choirs or chamber choirs or choral societies, don’t expect you to read music or understand any music theory. There are no auditions, and no tetchy conductors to tell you off if you go wrong. Everyone is welcome, and even if you haven’t sung in front of another person for decades you will soon be amazed to find your voice joining others’ in glorious harmony.
Roxane Smith has been a champion of community singing for nearly 30 years. She moved to Shrewsbury from mid Wales ten years ago and before the pandemic was leading nine choirs, including one for Shire Hall staff and one at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. Currently she leads two community choirs in Shrewsbury, plus one in Oswestry and one in Welshpool, and also organises day and weekend singing workshops.
“Every human culture sings, and singing is usually linked to spirituality in some way. It also makes you feel good, it’s a social activity, it’s good for your lungs and it’s good for your brain - there’s plenty of evidence for that.
“Singing in a choir can also break down isolation, and we know now that loneliness is a killer. In a choir you are making something special together - this sound that you can’t create on your own. It’s a way of building a community based on friendship and kindness. And a nice way of being with each other without having to talk all the time!
“Although I know It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, it makes a huge difference to many. I have people saying how much singing helped them through a bereavement, through mental health problems, through illness. Nobody leaves choir without feeling better than when they arrived!”
The songs Roxane teaches are not just any old songs. “I think it’s important what we choose to sing about. Things that bring us together and things you can believe in. Kindness, nature, respect.”
Pictured: Roxane leads the singing to welcome Afghan refugees outside the Community Hub in Shrewsbury
Before Christmas Roxane took about fifty members of her choirs to Shropshire Supports Refugees' Community Hub in the Riverside Centre to sing to the refugees there. “We wish you joy, we wish you peace” was their harmonious message.
During the first year of the pandemic singing together was outlawed, but Roxane, whose choirs are her living, found ways to get singers together out of doors as soon as it was allowed.
“I put out a request to people asking if they could think of somewhere outside we could sing. We sang in a field of cows behind Cine World, we sang under the trees between the two rowing clubs which we called the Green Cathedral Choir, and then we were invited by the owner of Powell Island, the island in the Severn below the weir, to sing there. It all reminded me how I love to sing outdoors”.
In the summer of 2020 a choir member out walking in Wales spotted a campsite with a large open-sided barn, and Roxane went to investigate. Camp Plas at Dolanog, near Welshpool, turned out to be the perfect spot for a monthly sing when it was still unsafe to meet indoors.
“The farmer is called Barney, and Barney’s barn gatherings became a regular event from September 2020. It’s a beautiful site with a little kitchen, and a river you can swim in!” Roxane still hosts singing and camping weekends at Camp Plas throughout the year, most recently a winter solstice camp the weekend before Christmas.
As well as her local choirs and workshops, Roxane directs Sing for Water, a national annual mass choir event at London’s Thames Festival (pictured top). It was started in 2002 by composer and choir leader Helen Chadwick as a fundraiser for the charity Water Aid, and has raised £1.2 million. Roxane has co-directed it since 2006. Every year, she chooses the songs and sends out recordings to about 40 choir leaders around the country who in turn teach them to their choirs. Then everyone comes together for the big event, with one one rehearsal before performing at on London’s South Bank.
Roxane in action leading massed community choirs outside Shrewsbury's Community Hub in December 2022
Local Sing for Water events have also sprung up around the country, including in Shrewsbury where Mary Keith, director of the long-established Mere Singers, and Hanna Lawrence, who leads the Radbrook Harmony choir, have brought singers together year after year and raised more than £10,000 for Water Aid.
Roxane says, “I think singers took to Sing for Water because in the early days community choirs sang a lot of songs from African countries. People felt we owed a huge debt of thanks for those harmony traditions and wanted to find a way to express their gratitude. We have used our voices to raise money to provide villages with access to clean water, and had a great time ourselves into the bargain.”
Shrewsbury is very lucky to have three excellent community choir leaders.
- Mary Keith’s Mere Singers meet in the centre of town on a Monday evening. Contact her for details email@example.com
- Hanna Lawrence runs a friendly choir at Radbrook Community Centre on Friday afternoons. Find out more from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Roxane Smith runs the Lion Choir on Tuesday evenings at the Quaker Meeting House, and Castlefields Community Choir on alternate Monday mornings at the Buddhist centre in Queen Street. Check her website harmonyjunky.co.uk for dates and more details of these and other singing events.