Our songs in the key of life

Sheffield City Hall Lunchtime Singing
Sheffield City Hall Lunchtime Singing
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Working through your lunch break yet again? Try singing through it instead. Never mind a dawn chorus, a midday one will make you happier and healthier, say organisers of a new mass monthly sing-a-long at the City Hall...

‘Sing like nobody’s listening...’ I read it on a T-shirt one time. It was one of those annoying ‘positive life statements’, a piece of psycho babble probably invented by some Californian dreamer, which served not to inspire me, but depress me. If only I could.

Sparkling performance: Domestic manager Sharon Torrens

Sparkling performance: Domestic manager Sharon Torrens

I adore singing. But I can only sing solo. And by that, I mean in the bath or the car. Because a corncrake sounds like Bonnie Tyler compared to me.

I cannot hold a tune or hit a note. And the fact is, there IS always someone listening... judging... undoubtedly wishing the corncrake murdering ‘It’s A Heartbreak’ would just croak it.

Those who have that special gift, a singing voice and the confidence to stand up and use it, have my admiration. Be they in the church choir, the pub kareoke or a wannabe on the X-Factor stage, I watch in awe and the certain knowledge that it could never, ever be me.

Then came Military Wives, the TV programme which watched singing master Gareth Malone turn a barrack of off-key banshees into hit record-makers and suddenly the dream no longer seemed quite so impossible.

A host of community choirs sprang up and ordinary people started to find voices hidden under years of self-doubt and cigarette damage and began raving about how joyous it felt to sing on-mass.

I wanted to join up, but then found another excuse; as well as a voice, how would I find the time?

And then someone goes and invents lunchtime singing; a 40-minute session which promises to nourish the soul and refresh the parts not even half a lager can.

What’s more, the setting could not be more inspirational; Sheffield City Hall’s main stage.

In its 80th year, the venue is celebrating its musical heritage by throwing open its doors to novices and corncrakes.

It honestly doesn’t matter what you sound like, assure community singing group Sing For A Change, the organisers. It’s all about discovering the joy of singing: “Come along and boost your spirits during your lunchbreak.”

So here I am, a bag of nerves, one of 30 assembled on the stage upon which I have watched countless idols perform over the years; everyone from Spandeau Ballet in the Through The Barricade Years to Glen Campbell in his Alzheimer Years.

Funnily enough, when you’re up here, looking out, it’s not as big or as scary as you imagine. But then, no one has paid to listen to us.

We start by clapping the Sheffield Wednesday rap. Easy peasy, but nevertheless I’m worrying about getting it wrong in front of everyone else.

Sing For A Change’s Val Regan, community musician and Andrea Small, a singing group leader, blithely push on, all smiles, jokes and enthusiasm. They get us into groups, each clapping at different tempos. When we get back together we realise we’re clapping a symphony. We’re making music.

Next, it’s mass yawning, which is daunting; it demands I open my mouth and let a noise out.

Usually what comes out is the sound a five-year-old beginner makes with their violin. But everyone else is doing it; breathing in gobs of air and, arms aloft, starting a high-pitched noise that ends deep and low as your arms hit your sides and your lungs are empty.

I’m not going to look any dafter than them, so I do it. And I feel silly in a good way. Val and Andrea are chipping away at the fear that freezes vocal chords. Very few people are actually tone-deaf; all of us can sing, they assure.

Why do so many of us think we can’t? Many of us have suffered an off-putting experience which effectively froze our voices. “Often it happens in childhood; at school someone tells says you sound awful, or an adult laughs at you,” explains Andrea.

“When that happens, a developing voice is put on hold. As adults, they still sing with tiny, child-like voices. At our singing groups, they first have to get used to the sound their adult singing voice makes. After that, the more they sing the better their voice gets because the muscles of the throat are being exercised.”

I try to recall at what point my innocent enthusiasm for belting out Morning Has Broken in school assembly shattered.

We’ve got words to sing now, but don’t worry, says Andrea, there’s nothing complex to remember. It’s just three words - one reassuring line: That’s all right. She sings it in four different notes, holding her hands at the level of each and urges us to copy the sound. Those hands become our vocal guides as we take “That’s all right” up and down the scales.

Thankfully, no budding wannabe breaks grinds into an additional “... now mama, any way you choo-oose.”

By the end of our 40 minute session, we had formed vocal harmonies with our That’s All Right song (I’m sure it’ll catch on) and also with a few words from an African rhyme. We’d had a hysterically bad attempt at a Trinidadian children’s clapping song too - and I had realised that when you sing in a group, no one can actually hear you.

I rushed back to work wanting to dance like no one was watching.