Posted By: Craig McLeish

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Frankie Armstrong – The Godmother of the Community Singing Movement

March 31, 2024 - By 

We have loved hearing stories of your choirs, how you came together, what was the spark that ignited the flame right at the beginning, and how things have developed since then. There are almost as many different stories as there are choirs, and this is one of the fascinating things about this recent explosion of Community Choirs in particular.

I was chatting to Gitika Partington, my fellow ChoirCommunity pal, who has been running choirs long before I started in the early 2000s. I asked her where she originally got her spark from and her answer was instantaneous, “Oh that would be Frankie Armstrong – she ran a workshop in the early 90s and she set me on the path.”  So I had to discover more about this amazing woman.

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The Making of ‘Nothing Like Pilchards’

March 25, 2021 - By 
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Despite the latest boom in Sea Shanty interest they have been a regular feature of the folk session that our resident soprano, Laura Featherstone has taken part in for many years.  The annual Sea Shanty festival in Falmouth is also a very popular event every year, so they have always been big business down in Cornwall.  However it’s fair to say that the same favourites are sung often, so Laura thought she would try and create something new!

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Launching a Classical Choral Repertoire for Community Choirs

September 21, 2020 - By 
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Community Choirs come in all sizes and shapes and the diversity across these variations is wonderful. When my own choir started out around 12 years ago we majored on singing quite straightforward songs with repeated verses, things we could grasp fairly quickly yet were very effective and fun to do. Songs from the African continent, Folk songs and Spirituals fitted that category. And we still love singing those sorts of songs, it’s really the core of what we’re about.

The wealth of classical choral repertoire has a reputation for being beyond the reach of most Community Choirs but we have over the years found this not to be the case, and if chosen carefully and taught in the same way we learn all our pieces, there is much pleasure to be had in dipping some toes in the waters of this great rich ocean.

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The story of A Little Bit Of Love

April 24, 2020 - By 
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On my first Sunday at university back in 1982 I attended an evening service at St Michael Le Belfry in York – it was specially for students to welcome them to the town and there was lots of singing.  I noticed some particularly good harmonies emanating from the row behind (I’m not impartial to departing from the tune myself occasionally).  At one point in the service we were encouraged to turn to the person behind or in front and welcome them, so I turned and was surprised to find that the source of these extra tenor lines was in fact the well known hymn writer Graham Kendrick, who was already a household name in contemporary church music circles even back then.

Move this on 38 years.… As part of my musical life I have the privilege of being musical director of Young Voices and I am always looking out for suitable songs for all the children’s choirs each year.  It so happened that two totally unrelated friends wanted to introduce me to Graham and emailed me within days of each other encouraging us to meet, because my friends thought he had a song we should look at.

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Spike Milligan – A Personal Reflection

September 17, 2019 - By 

Even though I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s the Goon show formed an important part of my childhood.  The original shows had long been recorded and were definitely of the previous generation (I was more of a Goodies fan and later Monty Python of course), but they were still played regularly on Radio 4 and we had a Goon Show script book in the library at choir school which my friend David Fisk and I would avidly read through trying all the voices.

One of my very earliest memories is my Dad putting on his 78 record of the Ying Tong Song and singing along syllable perfect, there was also “Bluebottle Blues” and “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas”, played endlessly till the groove was worn out.

I was reading “Silly Verse for Kids” from a very early age, which I loved. Then my uncle gave me the “Book of Milliganimals” for my 7th birthday, and that sealed the deal.  I was officially a lifelong Spike fan, memorising most of the poems and re-reading the Bald Twit Lion more times than I could say.  When something you read makes you laugh out loud when you are on your own until it hurts you remember those times fondly.  The concept of monkeys hanging in the sky waiting years for the trees to reach them resonated with me like nothing else, and it has been wonderful to discover as I grew that many other people feel the same about this unique imagination.  Spike Milligan has been and probably will be the single most influential comic mind of our time and possibly any other, and it would be a brave person who could argue otherwise given the weight of evidence that supports this claim.

They say you should never meet your heroes but I very nearly did.  In the late 80s I was starting out as a professional musician and often sang around London churches building up a list of contacts and deputy lists – one of these places was in Knightsbridge where they often hosted celebrity weddings.  So I found myself as one of the quartet booked to be the choir at the wedding of Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith, complete with TV news cameras and more paparazzi than could fit in the churchyard.  Normally you just turn up at these occasions, sing the hymns and a Rutter anthem, no one says anything and you are ushered out of the vestry door unceremoniously.  This was a little different as apparently they were so taken by the “singing” of the choir that we were invited to the reception at the Grosvenor House Hotel Park Lane. Well we weren’t going to turn an offer like that down and found ourselves in a melee of celebrity.  Literally everyone you ever heard of was there, and we had to explain ourselves quite a lot.  I was sat next to Jimmy Perry and David Croft (writers of Dad’s Army) and across the table from Jeff Banks the fashion designer, who was very friendly as I recall.

Suddenly there was a commotion and everyone looked over to where the fuss was – Spike had arrived bringing with him his wedding present for Bill – a zimmer frame.  Of course it brought the house down in the same way that his infamous outburst about Prince Charles at the award ceremony would in later years.  All this time later I’m not sure why I hadn’t plucked up courage to say hello.  I think I started offering peanuts around awkwardly and Kim Wilde took one, but that was as close as I got.

In 1998 “On The Ning Nang Nong” was voted the Uk’s most popular comic poem of all time.  There are musical versions, including one for an Australian kids TV show, but recently I thought this really deserves a proper choral treatment, so here it is; along with settings of “There Are Holes In The Sky” and “I’ve Never Felt Finer”, both among my personal favourites.  We are so very honoured that Spike’s family have agreed to an exclusive publishing deal with us here at ChoirCommunity so this is the only place you will find these settings.  They have also never been performed as a set so you have the chance to present a World Premiere if you act fast!  Click here to preview the arrangements.

…and if they go down well you might be getting news of possible additions to the set – as the great man once said – “And there’s more my friends where that came from!”

Craig McLeish – September 16th 2019


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Singing Can Change The World!

April 5, 2019 - By 

A bold claim, I hear you cry, and you would be right. But my boldness is based on experience and some tangible facts. We have heard many positive things recently about the individual health benefits from singing in a choir. Lung capacity increases, endorphins and feel-good chemicals flood the bloodstream. The shared experience and fellowship derived from choir membership has incalculable power to fight loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression. The list goes on. but I’m certain that many of you have been surprised at how much we can raise for charities, both local and abroad, simply by doing what we love and asking a tiny bit from those who hear us?

Milton Keynes Community Choir are a wonderful bunch of people. In 2008 they didn’t know each other at all. Since then they have raised money on a regular basis through raffles and concerts, and pop up “Sing” events, either in the Shopping Centre or wherever they will have us! There are many local charities who have benefitted from us simply performing what we were going to do anyway, and at a concert they get the proceeds from the raffle, the programme and refreshment sales, which often amounts to around £1000 a time.

Often disastrous world events take hold of the media and you can’t avoid the feeling that we are very lucky to live where we are, so the focus is on the relief aid that is going on and the little we can do to put something towards that massive need. In our city there are a number of places that let you turn up and shake a bucket or two but you need to ask first, and if they know you already it’s a bit easier.  Last week the devastation of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique Malawi and Zimbabwe dominated the airwaves and we felt we had to get out there and do something. We had an hour and a half at the station from 5.30 to 7pm – when a lot of commuter trains come in, and some people (not all!) react very positively towards others who have gone out of their way to ‘brighten’ the end of their journey! The station has the added bonus for us of having a rather good acoustic, even in the corridor where we were hustled!

Then what to sing? Something related to the area we are collecting for would seem to be a place to start. During our time as a Community Choir we have learnt versions of one or two simpler African songs where the parts repeat fairly often and new verses can be created with only a few word changes and sometimes a translation.  Bambalela, Mambo Sawa Sawa, Homeless, Freedom is Coming, A Keelie Makolay, Ipharadisi, Maliswe are all good examples of this type of song and can all be found on our ChoirCommunity site.  When we were singing the words “Strong winds destroy our homes – many dead tonight it could be you” from ‘Homeless’ there was certainly a real intensity about the moment!

There are other songs which aren’t African but are just as easy to pick up – Down In The River, Bring Me Little Water Sylvie, I’m Gonna Lift My Brother Up etc.

The following day after our little sing, our amazing chairperson who had taken all the cash home and counted it revealed it amounted to £850! One of our basses couldn’t make it but was clever enough to start a JustGiving page for others like himself that couldn’t be there in person – this too raised another £800 in a few days. A drop in the ocean compared to how much need there is out there, but a wonderful way to spend the early evening and some useful practice into the bargain! It struck me that if every choir in the country sang at their local centre or station once a week – how much could be raised? Write to us with your fund raising stories and if you want to be part of a BIG SING fundraiser one day let us know!

By the way, if you want to see a video of the MKCC giving it their all last week, find the Facebook ‘ChoirCommunity Supporters Group’ (Search for us on Facebook) and join our growing group!


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Christmas with a Community Choir

December 15, 2017 - By 

There’s something very special about a community choir Christmas concert.

There’s always a wealth of material to use with carols old and new, loads of great Christmas pop songs, some classical gems that have a christmassy feel, and our normal repertoire.

On Saturday 2 December, I led the Milton Keynes Community Choir in their Christmas concert, and fantastic fun it was too.

We always have local guest musicians to fill out the programme and provide variety. Plus there’s the annual raffle with some big hampers as prizes and the prospect of raising a decent amount for a local charity.

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