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Community Spirit is a B:Music funded project in partnership with our Associate Artists, Black Voices. The project offers local community choirs the opportunity to share repertoire and perform as a collective in a large-scale concert in Symphony Hall. 2022 marked their 10th anniversary with over 750 singers performing a brand-new commission for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Following this incredible success, the highly acclaimed concert returns this year at Symphony Hall with the theme ‘Celebrating Songs of the Earth’, including an exciting, commissioned performance by Birmingham Poet Laureate Jasmine Gardosi.

B:Music had the opportunity to speak to Anna Tabbush, the composer of Harbour, one of the songs to be performed in the concert and Jude Moreland, who will be leading the performance alongside her community choir, In Sound Company and the massed Community Spirit choirs.

I come from quite a musical family,” says Anna, recalling having grown up in a family of folk musicians. “My mom was a professional singer and I started singing and playing from a very young age. It became quite a sort of obsession. [I wondered:] how can I use music to communicate the way I feel? I studied music and did a degree and then got into community choirs. I've been doing that for the last 22 years or so.”

Jude was introduced to music and massed singing at an early age as well. “I was lucky to have really good music teachers both in primary and secondary school. I got involved in quite a lot of massed singing events back in the 60s and 70s when there was a real thing for pop cantatas like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. And then I went to high school and that love of singing continued, really. After music college, I trained to become a secondary school music teacher, but my first teaching job was in a special school for children with physical disabilities. It sort of gave me my first taste, I suppose, of thinking about how to be inclusive and how to draw everybody in.”

The idea of music transcending language is echoed by both Anna and Jude. “I think music and especially singing is a very basic form of communication,” says Anna. “I think we communicate all through the intonation of our voices. In a lot of ways music transcends language.” Anna becomes animated here as she says, “You can communicate with people all over the world without having to have a common language—because music is a common language. The way that we feel the human voice in our bodies is so powerful. Music and group singing is used all over the world and in every single culture in history as a way of celebrating together or healing together or grieving together. Science has proven that when we sing together, our hearts synchronise with each other.”

“It's such a powerful, powerful thing. The bug bit me when I was a child and has never left,” Anna reminisces fondly. “I grew up seeing classical choirs and a lot of choirs where you had to audition. They were very high standard choirs. When I became an adult, I realised that there were so many people who wanted to sing who didn't have the opportunity. I met a lot of adults who had been scarred as children from being thrown out of their choirs,” Anna says sounding exasperated. “Nobody should be told that they shouldn't use their voice. I wanted to provide singing spaces where you can make a glorious sound, but it could be for anybody. I started my first choirs in about 2000 and have been doing that ever since. It's a real passion of mine.”

“It's about being with other people and it's about the power that lots of voices together creates. That's more than just one voice,” says Jude.

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There's some magic that happens and I can't quantify that, but there is some magic that happens when you get a lot of people in one room, and you work on something and then you sing it together.

Jude Moreland, Musical Director of In Sound Company

“It's very hard to say what that is. The people who come to my choir practices, quite often they'll come from work, or they'll come after a long day. They come in and they're like this,” Jude’s joyful expression melts into one of exhaustion. “But by the end of the session they're always lifted in a way that's quite hard to quantify—there’s a magic that happens when voices sing together.”

Composed by Anna Tabbush and led by Jude Moreland with the massed choirs, Harbour is a song of refuge. “I wrote it at the beginning of 2020 before the pandemic kicked off,” says Anna. “There was a lot in the media about people trying to reach the country by boat fleeing from Syria. The Tabbush family are from Aleppo originally—not that that has any sort of real bearing because refugees are coming from all over the world. There's so much conflict in the world and I felt that the language being used to describe them was so dehumanising. I felt that there seemed to be this unified voice in the media and the government against people who are just trying to get to safety. There didn't seem to be a unified voice in support.”

“I found Harbour on a website called Choir Community,” says Jude. “I suggested it as a massed song for Community Spirit because of the message that it brings. It's a song of compassion and welcome, which—” at this Jude refers to her notes, quoting. “Anna initially wrote in response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and it continues to resonate today with the ever-worsening plight of refugees and the appalling treatment they receive if they manage to reach the countries they're fleeing to.”

“It also speaks to me personally because my great grandparents came to the UK from Eastern Europe to escape religious persecution. Anna wants her song to help all those fleeing warzones and trying to reach a place of safety. She asks that any group who performs Harbour considers donating to the Refugee Council or other refugee charity of their choice. In Sound Company sang this at a concert in the spring and we donated as a choir to a project my husband runs, which is for a refugee choir.”

“Whenever I move to a new place, I set up a community choir, partly to meet people,” says Anna. “I think community choirs are a really valuable thing. People from all different backgrounds can get together regardless of their previous musical experience. And it can be a really unifying thing and every community should have an accessible choir for people to join.”

Jude describes her journey with Stourbridge-based community choir, In Sound Company. “[In Sound Company] began as an adult group run by the local authority back in the day when there was money for the performing arts. We ran an adult choir and I directed. In 2011, the funding got cut and the decision was made to shut that choir down. But there was a core of people within that group who wanted to keep it going.”

“We literally sat in the pub one night and said right, what are we going to do? I was asked would I carry on. I said yes, I will. We had to make it a subscription-type of group because we had to pay for premises and so on. We had 19 people to start with and many of those nineteen people are still in the choir now, 10 years later. The first gig we ever did as In Sound Company in 2012 was here in Birmingham as part of the Olympic Torch relay celebration events. Singing in that was quite a good way to start! We're based in Stourbridge, but we welcome people from all over the region. We're a non-audition inclusive choir. Anyone can join. We do have people who have come along and never sung in a group. They're quite intimidated and quite shy and you know we hope to be able to bring them on, as it were. And we hope that the atmosphere we create is friendly and inclusive.”

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I think to start with there was a determination to prove the local authority wrong. That sort of bloody mindedness, if you like. We felt there was a need to have an inclusive adult choir group in our area. We've grown in size over the years. We started with 19 members. We've got about 80 now. It's amazing that people are still joining.

When asked what her motivation has been to keep going for this long, Jude smiles.

“Sharing the joy of singing, seeing people develop, seeing them grow in their musicality, and watching friendships flourish within the group and making new friends myself. It's a sense of community. Quite often when I start the rehearsal off I can't stop people talking,” Jude’s teaching days shine through here as she recounts these stories with fond exasperation. “They're sitting down and they're chatting, which is great. But at some point, I have to say: Can we just stop the talking now and sing? But I've always found that people who like to sing like to talk!”

Then 2020 happened. “The social side was particularly important during COVID because we couldn't meet together—singing was banned. I kept something going on Zoom which was less than ideal because—can you imagine trying to sing together when everyone's muted?” Jude can laugh at this now, but one can imagine the struggle during that year. “But it did keep something going and we only had about 20, 25 people at any one time. The group was slightly different each time. But it meant that when we came back, when we were allowed to start again those people came back and then all the people who hadn't Zoomed came back as well, and we’ve even got some new members.”

It looks like it’s onwards and upwards from here for Jude and In Sound Company. “We've done some fantastic gigs over the years. We've collaborated with other local groups which has enabled us to do bigger projects. We've had visiting choirs come to join with us to do singing days. We've raised money for local charities through events that we've run. We've done singing weekends, Workshop days with visiting tutors. We even did a mini tour to Bruges in 2016. And we sang at the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games last year through our involvement with Community Spirit. That was life affirming.”

When asked what Anna would say to those thinking about joining a choir but is afraid to start, she says: “It is a scary thing,” she says. “Your feelings are completely validated. I always think that revealing your voice for the first time is like telling your doctor something personal—it's quite a scary thing. But there are so many spaces to do that in and it gets less scary the more you do it. It's such a cathartic thing. It's just so good for your soul to be able to express yourself in that way.” Anna adds: “There's a network called the Natural Voice Network where you can find a network of choirs that are specifically set up for anybody to join. They're super inclusive. Everything's taught by ear and they're all over the country. So, if you're looking for a place to start, you can search for your town or your area and you can find the right choir for you. But whatever you're into, just have a go and have a sing and you will probably come out feeling happier.”

Community Spirit returns to Symphony Hall on Sun 23 July at 3pm with the theme ‘Celebrating Songs of the Earth’ and Anna will be in the audience. “I love Birmingham,” she says. “I've never been to Birmingham Symphony Hall, so I'm really excited. I've heard it’s a very beautiful space. To hear so many people singing my song, I think it's going to be overwhelmingly emotional for me. I'm delighted that you guys have chosen Harbour and that there are so many people who share my perspective on this, on making the country a more welcoming place for refugees. I wish everyone involved the best of luck. I can't wait.”

“We're excited to hear other performances,” Jude says when asked about what In Sound Company are looking forward to. “And to hear the breadth of the styles of music that everybody brings. We're looking forward to singing our own song as In Sound Company. We're singing Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas to fit in with the theme of the Earth. We're very much looking forward to performing Jasmine Gardosi's piece ‘The Song is in Yourself’ which will be something very different for us; using body percussion, vocal sounds, chanting, singing repetitive phrases to help create the atmosphere.”

Don’t miss Community Spirit on Sun 23 July at Symphony Hall with the theme ‘Celebrating songs of the Earth', with special performances by Birmingham poet Laureate Jasmine Gardosi, the massed choirs singing Harbour led by Jude Moreland, B:Music Associate Artists Black Voices and more.

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