They Will Rock You: The rise of Rock Choir
With 7,500 members, Rock Choir has filled Wembley, signed a record deal, and is now the subject of an ITV show. Alice-Azania Jarvis meets the woman behind it
Monday 27 June 2011
Nicholas Williamson had never done anything like it. “I’ve always liked music, but I’d never taken any opportunities,” explains the 20-year-old student. “I wasn’t very confident.” But when his mother joined a local choir, and his girlfriend expressed interest in doing the same, he decided to give it a go. Before long, the pair had signed up as members of Rock Choir, Glasgow City Centre. “I wanted to be part of something big – and now I am.”
Rock Choir is, by all accounts, “something big” with seven-and-a-half-thousand members nationwide. Its members sing feel-good hits – anything ranging from the Motown classic “Dancing In The Street” to Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s arrangement of “Valerie”.
Since 2009, the choir has held a three album record deal with Decca Records, part of Universal Music. And in May, it filled out Wembley Arena to give a special performance to 3500 spectators, the organisation of which has been the subject of a three-part documentary on ITV.
The whole thing is the brainchild of Caroline Redman Lusher, a classically trained musician who, in her teens, nurtured ambitions of pop stardom. A professional singer from the age of 15, she studied contemporary music at Salford university before spending four years as a session musician, entertaining guests at the Dorchester. “I was lucky to make a living for so long,” she reflects. Eventually, though, she packed it in, returning to her native Surrey to take up a post as a teacher.
It was while she was teaching performing arts and music that the Rock Choir model began to take shape. “I had all these students who wanted to sing but hadn’t necessarily had any training; it was about bridging the gap between amateur and professional.” What began as a small gathering of 20-odd quickly swelled to a far more formidable 170. “Before long, I had the mums and dads begging for their own version – that’s when I realised that there was a market amongst the general public.”
And so it was that, in 2005, Lusher quit her job, borrowed £1,000 from her family (“for equipment,” she explains) and pinned a poster up in her local coffee shop. “I was hoping for 20 attendees,” she says of her first choir practice. “My dad and I laid out 40 chairs. In the end, 70 people turned up.” They were people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities; crucial to Rock Choir’s appeal is the fact that there is no audition process, meaning that even the least confident, most inexperienced of singers can relax and enjoy themselves.
For the following three years, Lusher remained the sole teacher at Rock Choir; her time was spent driving around Surrey, racing from one rehearsal to another. Eventually, demand for her unique brand of feel good became too much. “I started searching for musicians to train up as instructors.” Doing so was a risk – looking at footage of Lusher in command of a group, it’s quite clear that her charisma accounts for much of the brand’s success. She is ceaselessly energetic, enthusiastic and imaginative, pounding away on the keyboard, chanting instructions into her microphone headset. Her teaching style combines professionalism with accessibility: she teaches by rote, but her background ensured the choir has “a backbone of structured music.” Imitating it is no mean feat.
Catherine Jones signed up to become a Rock Choir instructor after spending a year as a member of the Dorking troupe. “I had been teaching singing for years and joined Rock Choir for fun,” she explains. “I just found this wonderful family of people at my local church hall.” Following in Lusher’s footsteps meant spending two or three days a week training. “There were a lot of sessions – having been a member helped, too.” Now she teaches Rock Choir full time in Wilmslow, near Manchester, while running a summer school in musical theatre during the summer holidays.
Teaching isn’t, however, limited to the experienced. Unlike Jones, Stef Conner had never heard of Rock Choir until she applied for a role opening up a new group in Yorkshire. “I was studying for a PhD in classical composition and I needed a job that I could fit around that.” Without any grounding in (and limited knowledge of) pop music, embracing the new style was a challenge – but one that has paid off. “I spend a lot of time in isolation, composing, and classical music can be quite fringe. Rock Choir has opened up a whole new world to me: a new style of music, but also a place where I can go and be an extrovert, have fun.” Williamson feels the same way: “You’re part of a team having fun,” he reflects. “I’ve become so much more confident.”
It’s precisely this sort of experience – both among teachers and pupils – that accounts for the choir’s runaway success. When Dixon Stainer, head of Decca records, saw Lusher and co on BBC breakfast, he called her immediately, insisting that “whatever you’ve got, we want to bottle it.” May’s appearance at Wembley was typical of Rock Choir: over the years, it’s pulled off a host of stunts – from flash mobs to Guinness World Records. The next project will be even bigger and better, says Lusher. “One day I’d love to perform at the Royal Variety Show,” she says. “And there’s been some talk of the Olympics, too. Ultimately, it’s about what the members can say they’ve done. The sky’s the limit.”
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