AH: Hello, it’s Anita here and welcome to this podcast. In this episode, I’m talking with Sam Chaplin, who is a community choir and music workshop leader, who’s also a singer songwriter, jazz trumpeter, pianist, composer and arranger. Why I thought you’d be particularly interested in Sam is that his music leading has centred around people experiencing challenges in their lives in one way or another. He leads the London branch of the Choir with No Name, which is for homeless or marginalised people. He’s led choirs for women whose children have been taken into care. A choir for people affected by the Grenfell fire and Maggie’s Centre choir for people affected by cancer. He’s also a tutor with the Orpheus Centre leading their songwriting weeks in prisons and with disabled people. So welcome, Sam, and thanks very much. It’s really great to have you here.
SC: Thanks, Anita. It’s great to be here.
AH: And we look forward to hearing more about these wonderful choirs. So to start off with, I usually ask people how and why did you end up where you are today? And in particular, for you working with choirs for people facing these challenges in their lives. What brought you here?
SC: Well, that’s such a good question. I’m thinking about what got me into more community music. I’ve always been involved in community music. Music’s always been a very social part of my life. Growing up I sang in the local church choir. All of the choristers used to hang out together, and they were kind of my mates. And so it was always a very community-based thing for me. Even at school doing music was kind of the place you live. We had a brilliant swing band, jazz band at school, which I absolutely adored being part of. And we used to do gigs, and you know, there’s a great social life attached to being a musician. So it’s always been a community-based thing for me. The real turning point in my life that got me into this work was when I started going out with the woman who’s now my wife, and she had a … it was actually not mainly through her, it was mainly through her flatmate who was really involved in this work already. I think it’s probably the second time I’ve been round to their flat, and her housemate says to me, ‘Oh, I’m running this choir with some pensioners over in Bethnal Green, and I needed an accompanist this week. Any chance you could come along to do it?’. And me wanting to look good in front of my girlfriend said, ‘Yeah, sure, I can do that’. The choir leader is a woman called Isabel Adams, Izzy Adams. I don’t know if you’ve had her on this podcast, but she’s a fantastic community music practitioner, choir leader. And I watched her, and I just thought, ‘This is no ordinary choir leading. You’re getting this group of pensioners singing and coming alive as they sing. And I got hooked. I thought, ‘This is amazing’. And so I did that a little bit. And then she started up a community choir around the Harrow Road area and said, would I come and be the accompanist and I did that for two years. And as I did it, I had a little notebook in my hand, and I was just writing down all the warm ups she was doing and noticing what those warm ups were doing in terms of doing all those things that we know they do. In terms of breaking down inhibitions, opening people up, teaching people basic vocal technique, giving people hooks to be able to understand music without notation, sort of how to feel the stuff going up and down and starting and stopping and all of those things that you need to make music without a musical education. And it just seemed like she had so many brilliant tools. And by the end of two years, I had a book full of really great tools. And during that time, I started to think I really want to do this myself. And I set up a community choir with my wife and we’re both very different musicians. She’s much more from a classical background. She’s a Baroque oboist, and I’m coming from the jazz world as a jazz trumpeter. So we both brought different flavours to the choir. We had to kind of work out how to work together as well. Working out our marriage in front of a 50-piece choir was quite fun and challenging, and amusing for them. [Laughs]
AH: Yeah, I bet. So was that a local choir? Or was it a specific group of people?
SC: Yeah, it was in Hammersmith. We were living around there at the time. And it was sort of based out of the church we went to, St. Paul’s Hammersmith. And they kindly gave us the space. And we did it as a community thing, not specifically, a church choir. So we had people from all around the community coming. During that time, I got a real passion for doing it. And I started doing lots of other kinds of work along those lines. So that’s sort of my story into it really through just watching some really great practitioners. And actually as this one other little element to the jigsaw for me was I took myself off to get some training in it. So I spent a year working with Spitalfields Music and their great training scheme. And there were five or six of us who were doing that that year. They’ve got a trainee music leader scheme, and you get to work alongside great practitioners for a year. I did all kinds of different community things. I worked in a library with the parents and toddlers group, did a songwriting thing with people with special needs, and some primary school projects and things like that, just giving me experience of music making across the community and how that can work. And again, just working alongside really great practitioners. I think, really, that’s what’s been the greatest gift to me over the years, is the people I’ve worked with, and I think this kind of work is caught rather than taught.
SC: If people who are listening want to get into this kind of work, I would say, see if you can find some great practitioners and if you can work alongside them on a project, offer yourself to [them].
AH: Definitely yeah. I mean, community musicians do, definitely. Their CPD is based around shadowing isn’t it, and learning from other practitioners and sharing practice. Is that how you describe your practice? Do you say it’s community music practice? Are you a member of Sound Sense and that type of thing? Are you part of that network, or is it slightly different for you?
SC: I’m not part of that network. I would call it community music making. Going into different community settings and creating music. Yeah.
AH: Brilliant. And so can you tell me a bit more about the Choir with No Name to start with? And then the incredible women choir, they both sound really interesting. And I know that the Choir with No Name, I thought it was just based in London, but I see it’s now in Brighton, in Birmingham, in Liverpool, and now there’s one in Cardiff.
SC: Yeah, there’s a brand new baby choir in Cardiff. I’d like to check in with them because they literally just started out just before Christmas. Plans for other ones as well, in the future. The Choir with No Name is an organisation that sets up choirs to work specifically with people whose lives have been affected by homelessness. The founder, Marie Benton, started I think it was in 2008. And she was working with St. Mungo’s, which is an organisation that helps people whose lives have been affected by homelessness. Helping them, they run hostels and help people develop skills so that they can turn their lives around, finding work, etc, etc. But she was also part of a fantastic gospel choir. And she sensed the sense of community and wellbeing that being part of the choir brought to her and she thought she would bring that to her work and started to see the impact of that. I think it’s clear that homelessness is just such a complex issue. And the answer is not always just providing people with homes, but providing the support that addresses some of the underlying issues and choirs are such a great space for addressing some of those underlying issues. Primarily just if anybody listening is part of a community choir or any kind of choir you’ll know their sense of community and connection that you find in that choir and bringing that to a space with people who have got this own particular life story is so powerful. A lot of people come with their addiction issues, and finding a fresh family and fresh connection is such an incredible and important way of getting the support you need to stay in recovery and stay on a positive trajectory in your life. And in the choirs we don’t just sing, normally of an evening we would have a cup of tea and a biscuit for half an hour before we sing, then we sing for about an hour and a half. And during that time, we have a group of volunteers cooking and preparing a meal for us. We’re just about to start that for the first time since the pandemic, I think in February, that’s the plan. So that when we finish our choir rehearsal, we come down to a room below where we’ve been singing, and there are long tables full of piping hot food, and we sit down together and eat together and chat and just have fun and sometimes share our own stories together. But week in, week out, it creates that sense of family and stability and being known and connection, that is such a powerful force in creating a positive change in people’s lives.
AH: Yeah, that’s amazing that the whole idea of communal eating, after that experience of being in a choir, that’s just great. And you’re all there, including you as the choir leader of the participants, and everybody around that.
SC: Absolutely. And there’s so many things that are connecting in that, that obviously having a cup of tea and just saying hello, and checking in. And then singing, the actual act of singing is an incredibly connecting thing to do together. We took part in an experiment in a symposium at the Royal College of Music. A group of us from the choir went and stood on stage and started singing together. And we were all wired up with heartbeat monitors. And as we sang, there was a display on a screen above us. And you could see as we sang our heartbeat syncing up together.
AH: Oh, I love it.
SC: Yeah. I don’t quite know what that means, except to say that that is a beautiful biological symbol of the kind of oneness and connection that you can feel when you get together with a group of people and you’re all breathing at the same time, and exhaling, and singing, at the same time making the same kind of music, feeling the same emotions at the same time. It’s a very deeply bonding connecting experience that I’m sure everybody listening to this has experienced. But bringing that into this context, creates a very deep connection, which is, I think, a deeply healing thing to be part of.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. And the healing kind of extends beyond that, doesn’t it, in terms of a lot of these people will have experienced trauma. And so then the nervous systems are often sort of firing off. And you know, it’s difficult for people in sort of crisis situations to have those moments when they’re calm. There’s a lot of research around that, and a lot of people are currently doing research about the impact of music and particularly singing on trauma.
SC: Absolutely. And one of the key elements of the warm ups that we do. People sometimes think of warm ups as something to do, as a quick warm up, and then we’ll get on with the real business. I actually think that the warm up part of the evening is some of the most important business to get done. That’s where you can really engage with some of these things and we do quite a lot of breathing exercises, which I think is very powerful in engaging with emotions and a sense of calmness and wellbeing.
AH: And you mentioned some other things that are addressed through singing together. Because you wrote a blog about it, didn’t you recently? You started off by talking about connection. You talked about confidence, which we’re sort of all aware of through singing, but actually, it’s sort of very deeply powerful in this situation. You talked about congratulations. And then you talked about catharsis. Can you tell me a little bit more about those things?
SC: Yeah. So those are my four C’s that are quite useful to remember. So, first of all, we’ve talked about connection quite a lot already. But that sense of confidence that comes from performing – it’s just interesting to think that the feedback loop is very quick when you’re a musician. You sing, you perform, and you get immediate applause from people. And that is, I think that’s something very deep to your psyche, that sense of that big ‘Well done’, that you receive immediately. As soon as you’ve done something, even when you’re playing jazz, you get that within the piece of music. And people don’t wait for the end. As soon as you finish your solo. Whilst the other musicians are still playing, you get the applause or even some whoops, even as you’re playing, hopefully. And then a lot of the people in the choirs that I do, a sense of, perhaps they’ve never had the words ‘Well done’, said to them ever in their life, and suddenly they’ve got an opportunity to sing. And when you sing you very much make yourself vulnerable. You’re bringing something that is deep inside of you out into the open. Your voice. I remember in London we initially started up a South London choir, which has since then joined with the North London choir. And when I started up the South London choir, I had one choir member who came in and would just sit on the outside, not even sit in the choir circle, and just sit and watch. And it took a few weeks for him to come and actually join us and start singing with us. And even then, he was very withdrawn. Fast forward a couple of years, and we were performing at the V&A, which did a Bowie retrospective, and we were invited to sing some Bowie hits. And this guy actually has got a voice that sounds very much like David Bowie. And he sang solo on stage at the V&A museum to Heroes and as he sang, during the piece, he put so much passion in it and people, he got a standing ovation. And what that does to you, deep down inside of you, when you’ve got a couple of 100 people standing up applauding you giving you a standing ovation that lacking confidence can be such, well, it can stop people leaving their front doors, let alone when you walk into a job interview. But if you’ve had a couple of 100, a couple of 1000 people on their feet, applauding you, you’ve suddenly got a load more confidence when you walk into that job interview next week.
AH: Yeah, and there’s something in there about joy as well isn’t there that connects to confidence and self-esteem?
SC: Absolutely, yeah. So in fact, I’ve just rolled my confidence and congratulations into one. So I think they very much run together, as people get that self-esteem and absolutely, a joyful expression of themselves. And the last ‘C’, so we’ve got connection, confidence, congratulations. And catharsis was the other one. I found in Choir with No Name, that there’s just never timid singing, and often in a choir or in a space, and you have to really get people to sing. And you can say, ‘Come on everyone, sing out’. And there’s various tools you can do to get that, but I’ve never had to do that with the Choir with No Name. I’ve always found that the singers have always been so passionate. And I came to the conclusion that what was going on was that people were coming in with all the stresses and pains and addictions of the week, and just singing and singing and singing so hard. And then at the end of the evening leaving with a kind of lightness and a happiness and jokiness almost as if they’ve had weights lifted from shoulders, and certainly that’s my experience as well. I come with the same stuff. And I think there’s catharsis going on as we sing, as we make music. And that has often been the case particularly people turning to music like heavy metal or Bruckner.
AH: I’m a member of a community choir and we’ve done, for Christmas, we did White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. It was the most cathartic song I think we’d all … because it’s quite aggressive. And we all kind of thought, ‘Oh, this is unusual’, you know when the choir leader introduced it, but actually, it was great for that catharsis. But I think any song you sing brings that out, doesn’t it? Yeah, so definitely heavy metal and rock, but you’ve written a song about it actually, haven’t you?
SC: Thank you, yeah. Amidst all this community music work, I’ve also been writing songs over the years and performing them and I love to work as a singer-songwriter. And also doing that gives me, helps me feel what my choir members feel. You know, that kind of vulnerability. That if I’m asking them to be vulnerable, to do stuff that scares them to stand up on stage and perform, it really helps if I’m doing it myself, and I’ve got my own avenue of performing. So I’ve been doing that performing with band and just this last couple of years as I’ve been studio recording an album called ‘Back into Life’ with the idea that I was just released it in November last year hoping that that sort of signal, the back into life after the pandemic, so it seems to be taking a little bit longer. But it’s also got a sense, it’s a sort of look back into my life. But also it’s got some very strong positive messages, calling us to take hold of the stuff we find important in life and to run full tilt into life. And there’s a song in it called ‘Sing it Out’ and it is based on this idea of catharsis, that every choir leader, every pop star sort of says to their audience, ‘C’mon everybody, sing it out’. But actually, this idea of ‘sing it out’, the chorus goes, ‘sing it out of your system, sing it out of your memory, sing it out of your body, sing it out of your history, sing it out of your bloodstream, sing it out of your yesterday, sing it out when you can’t sing, sing it out, sing it anyway, just sing it out’.
AH: Oh, lovely. Very expressive, yeah.
SC: Oh, thank you. It is all about that sense of coming together and just singing for your life. It’s my reflections of being part of the choir that the verse opens with this sort of quite sparse, Billie Jean kind of groove, as its talks about somebody walking into a choir rehearsal for the first time and how they might feel, and me kind of thinking, ‘Well, what brought them here this evening’. And then the pre-chorus, we go into this sort of wonderland, I don’t know if you know Rufus Wainwright at all and his music?
AH: I do.
SC: He always has this, it sort of transports me into this really sort of beautiful wonderland of music. And so that was kind of the idea behind that pre-chorus, is that it takes us suddenly onto a stage in the lights, then we’re in this wonderland. And then you’ve got – I’ve given you the words to the choruses – so it’s got this sort of work song, repetitive, stompy theme, ‘Just sing it out’ [Sings]. So that’s that song.
AH: I bet the choir were proud? Are they on it at all?
SC: They loved it, they loved it. They’re not on it, I have got a desire to record a music video involving them singing bits of it as well.
SC: When I was promoting that single, I did get them to do a version of the chorus for me. They loved it. It was really fun. And I got a load of them along to my album launch gig and they just totally went for it, that chorus, they loved it.
AH: Maybe that could be a song used by other choirs across the country. Get in touch.
SC: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
AH: And then the incredible women choir, are you still with them? That sounds really interesting and addressing something that’s sort of often a group of people who aren’t really supported very much.
SC: Yeah, I finished working with them. Just literally, I had decided to stop working with them, handed somebody else just before the pandemic started. And I’d been with them for about two and a half years.
SC: But I had moved, it was pretty much a whole day travelling for the rehearsal. So I decided to let that run its course for me. But we had an amazing time. And it was set up in conjunction with a charity called Pause, which works with women who have had children taken into care. And it’s helped them press ‘pause’ on various cycles in their life that weren’t very positive. And yes, they wanted to see what it’d be like to run a choir, to do all the things that we’ve talked about, a support place for them. And it was an amazing experience. And for the last year or so we ran it out of the amazing women’s hub in Peckham, which is an incredible resource and I was the only man allowed in the women’s hub. I felt very honoured, an honorary woman for the day. It was amazing really just to see what those women were going through. And again, real cathartic singing. We loved singing, ‘I Will Survive’ every week, which I always thought was like a cheesy disco hit, that kind of dancing around handbags type thing, but then you actually, if you read those words, they’re all about escaping an abusive relationship and running on to the future with a sense that there is hope and that you can survive. And suddenly that kind of cheesy disco hit was like, oh my goodness, this is about a woman setting up new boundaries in her life and making really positive decisions for her future. And it became a bit of an anthem for us, as well as ‘Lean On Me‘ and things like that. And people again left the singing sessions, just sort of dancing, and we put on a concert at the end of our first year. There were tears, and it was just one of the most joyous times in my life. I think I say that after every project.
AH: Yeah, yeah. But it’s amazing work isn’t it, and very rewarding I can imagine. I’m always interested in the kind of, from a communications and marketing angle or more from a relationships angle, I suppose is, you know, did it take long to build the choir, particularly with those women who may be feeling mistrustful with agencies and things like that?
SC: Yeah, that is such a good question. And yes, it was those first few weeks, even months were very slow and quite difficult. I tell you what was really, really helpful, I had three women from the Choir with No Name who understood ‘choir’. They got it, they came in as peer mentors. And they came and helped me and I approached them and said, ‘Would you come? I’ve been asked to be involved with this choir and wondering whether you would come and help me?’, and they were brilliant. Because they came in, they were used to just singing it out, you know, coming and doing their thing with no inhibitions. And so they came and set the bar. And that was so helpful. And I was so grateful to them for that.
AH: And that’s a really good idea, I guess, is to bring in people who’ve been in the choir as participants and have maybe experienced similar challenges, parallel challenges, whatever. But it’s quite difficult I imagine as a choir leader sort of going in, for example, to a Women’s Refuge and saying, ‘Come along, join the choir’.
AH: Because you know, different background, different accent, different gender and everything.
SC: Absolutely, different everything.
AH: Yeah, that peer mentoring idea is really nice. So did they stay throughout the choir?
SC: They did, yeah, absolutely.
AH: Oh, amazing, brilliant. So I wanted to sort of go on to a bit of a big question, I guess. So a lot of the listeners are people like you who are passionate about music, and its value in all our lives, particularly for people who may not have opportunities to make music or may not have other opportunities in their lives. And so I guess we all know the importance of music to people, society, and the world, and it feels to all of us like there’s always potential for music to be supported so much more. And I guess that means being helped by people like national policymakers, people in local authorities, even in things like workplaces and other environments. So the big question is, the very open question is, if you could do one thing to make music a more central part of our lives, and our society, what would it be? And where would you start? And as I’m saying that I’m thinking one thing seems a bit unfair. So take that wherever you want to take that.
SC: I have got primary school aged children. And I have been involved in projects in primary schools for 15-20 years. And I just want to know where all the music’s gone? I’m just, I mean, there are some schools that I’ve gone into which are just brilliant, and they’ve got amazing teachers, they’re heads of music, specific music teachers and facilities and doing incredible jobs. But so many had one person say, ‘Oh, we’re doing music this term and history next term’. It’s like, ‘What? What?’, you mean you’re going to have a whole term without music. And certainly when I was growing up, it was just there all the time, music was part of the syllabus. And so I would go for just a really basic thing that I would love to see in primary schools, all schools really secondary as well, is a choir. Something that is so accessible, but just regular singing, whether it’s a choir, or even in assembly, that there’ll be singing, singing, singing, and maybe have a specific singing assembly. Many, many schools do this, but it feels like it’s dropping out of quite a few schools that I’ve been involved in. The best way to learn anything in any subject is to sing it to find a catch to a song. And then singing is like glue for the memory, as all advertisers know. So just harness the power of it and learning, and just for the wellbeing and exposure to music, that will be the main thing.
AH: That’s great, really powerful, really simple suggestion. And there’s been a campaign for a choir in every care home, and as you were saying that I was thinking a choir in every primary school would be a good campaign to get people around, wouldn’t it?
SC: Yes, I love the idea of choirs and care homes as well
AH: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Sam, it’s been really great to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. And I hope we can do this again. And I can hear more about how the album’s gone and how everything else is going with the choirs you run. So if you want to read more about Sam and hear his first album, ‘Back into Life’, which has just been released, when was it Sam, was it last month? November.
SC: In November.
AH: November, and it includes a song about the Choir with No Name. I’ll share the links as usual in the show notes. And thanks very much again, Sam.
SC: Thank you very much for having me Anita. Thanks for listening, everybody.