Choir with No Name volunteer, Katy Murray, shares her thoughts on our London choir community and the importance of tolerance and understanding:
What does “community” mean?
Someone stopped me in the street the other day and asked me what I think community means.
It was for a video they were making. The sun was in my eyes and I was all embarrassed about being filmed. The only coherent thing I managed to say was: “Community is about belonging”.
Since then I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Because I knew if I’d had a few minutes to think about it properly I could have said a lot more. I would have thought about this choir I volunteer for – a choir that anyone can join regardless of skill, background, or what life has thrown their way.
Anyone can join regardless of skill, background, or what life has thrown their way.
I’ve volunteered for the Choir with No Name, a charity who run choirs for homeless and marginalised people, for around four years now. It sounds cheesy, but I wanted to be a part of it as soon as I heard about it. It just made sense: you show up, you have a cup of tea, you sing, and then you share a meal together. All of those things sounded like happiness to me. So I signed up as a volunteer at their London choir.
All this time I’ve known this was a special place. But because it’s so rare, it’s taken me a really long time to put my finger on exactly what that special thing is.
That’s partly because as a volunteer, we rush around a lot. Rehearsals are lively. We cook dinner and wash up for the choir every week. I’m in the London choir, and we’re now 70 people strong at our busiest. That’s a whole lot of potatoes to scrub.
We laugh, we chat, we support each other. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s really bloody difficult. Some of us are in the midst of extreme difficulty, and there’s only so much any of the rest of us can do to help. And we don’t all get on all of the time. We upset each other, we make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes are very hard to forgive.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s really bloody difficult.
But the choir itself – the music, the gigs, the fans, us – gives us a reason to work through these difficulties. It gives each of us something bigger that we have to put first. If we want our gigs to go well, if we want to keep on singing, we have to find a way to coexist.
If we want to keep on singing, we have to find a way forward.
I’m realising just how unique that is. In our “cancel culture”, we cut people off as soon as they make the slightest mistake. True, often those figures are people with power and the dynamics are different. But seeing it happen so regularly and so publicly could mean it seeps into our daily lives, our communities. That would be a bad thing.
Because for some of us, a love of singing is one of the only things we have in common. That gives us something tangible to help us reach across difference. In a world of “us” versus “them”, the Choir with No Name gives us a “we”.
That’s a vital thing.
Imagine if we cancelled people – barred them from attending the moment they slipped up. We wouldn’t have a choir left – volunteers and staff included.
So I was right, what I said to the camera man in the street – community is about belonging. But not a belonging of sameness or 100% agreement and conformity at all times. It’s a belonging that allows us to show people our messier sides but still be welcomed back. You know what else community is? It’s family. It’s love – in all its gritty toughness – multiplied.