'Survivor'- the story of how the Choir with No Name Liverpool wrote an original song

Our Liverpool choir director, Meike Holzmann (second from left above), writes about her experiences of writing a song with the Choir with No Name Liverpool's members...

I had been thinking about writing a song together with the choir for a while, because I regard songwriting as one of the most powerful tools for growth - speaking from my own personal experience as well as from witnessing other people’s journeys.

During the process of songwriting we take our thoughts and put them into order: for me personally, that’s the most important and satisfying aspect. I find calm and pleasure in an order that makes sense lyrically, an order that contains rhythm, melody, variation and repetition and an order that is held together by music – a universal language that can translate messages where words fail. Writing a song, I satisfy my need to express myself and make my inner voice be heard - while bringing things to the point.

Performing and sharing your own creation is also highly rewarding: singing your own words, singing in harmony with others and transmitting your own message through word and music, individually or as a group, creates a strong sense of pride.

Of course not only the creators and performers benefit. A public performance of an original song engages with an audience; people are moved and inspired by a powerful message, while focussing their attention on and feeding back their energies to the people performing.

Created from ‘nothing but thin air’, a song can last forever…

So - would it be possible to combine stories, emotions and energies of all our choir members, and then turn it into a working song - to make our true voices be heard?

The idea was to create something we have ownership of as a group, to make room for self-expression and inspiration and to give people an opportunity to experience the art and craft of songwriting hands on. It was also a little social experiment, to see if creative writing would strengthen the team spirit within the choir sections (soprano, alto, tenor and bass).

SESSION ONE

As a warm up for the first creative session, we played some free association games to make us aware of the vastness of our imagination and our language as a readily accessible source to prepare us for brainstorming lyrics.

I knew we had to create certain guidelines in respect of theme, content, number of lines and beats, tempo and so on and suggested various options. Quickly it was agreed that we would write an up-beat song, with verses lyrically drawn from negative life experiences and emotions but resolving in a chorus with a strong, positive message.

After individual brainstorms with pencil and paper, the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses got together in their groups to filter out the best ideas and words for a collaborative verse with four 8 beat lines, ideally words that can be sung easily (open vowels, alliterations etc) and possibly rhyme.

While working on the verses all sections were asked to look out for potential chorus material, too. A strong, clear message, powerful phrase or catchy lines of any sort can appear even if you’re “just” working on your verses.

At the end of the first session we had gathered a lot of great material, with a potential chorus already lined up and choir members’ spirits were reportedly uplifted, not a single one didn’t enjoy the progress, although the majority of people had never even thought about being able to write a song. All members were actively collaborating, contributing and engaged and I clearly felt a heightened sense of team spirit within the groups.

"I felt tentative at first but really enjoyed it soon enough!" – a choir member

SESSION TWO

In the second session we refined and shared the sections’ verses and unanimously agreed to use choir member Emma’s words for the chorus: “I am a survivor, I am not a victim anymore. And I intend to stay that way.”

Simplicity and repetition makes a song memorable so we decided to repeat the first line after the second and adapt the last line to “Stay that way – evermore”, to make it super-catchy.

The next challenge was putting the chorus lyrics to music. Luckily we had the very talented Mr Alex Douglas around, who offered to play the keys for us and quickly found a groovy turnaround, with a beautiful gospel touch and people were singing their hearts out like never before, starting to harmonise without being prompted and just immersing themselves into their own creation. It was a very moving moment; having ownership of the song seemed to make quite a difference.

"It felt great seeing the choir work together on this." – a choir member

SESSION THREE

Before the third session I put in some extra time at home (time I thoroughly enjoyed and that was well worth spending!), shuffling verses around and making some very slight adjustments to the lyrics to make sense of it all. Since most of the choir members don’t have any musical training I prepared a chord progression for the verses with melody ideas in mind – just to speed up the process, to have something to suggest to the choir and a basis we could collaboratively work on.

When I presented the ‘new order’ of all our creative in and output in the third session, the choir was instantly hooked and started joining in singing straight away. We discussed numerous melody and arrangement variations and made quite a few changes, democratically as a group, with sometimes surprising input from our members.

One verse had a few more words than the others and we found it hard to make it all fit in, but then Kenny volunteered to take on the complete verse as a soloist, and made it sound absolutely beautiful. We were all rather overwhelmed.

Ste also amazed me by going for the other solo verse and the support from the whole group was very moving. They all did a fantastic job and we can proudly say – we wrote a song, together as a choir.

"The thing I enjoyed most was watching members' ideas come to fruition." – a choir member

SESSION FOUR

For the fourth session I prepared the lead sheet with added vocal harmonies, which were, again, just suggestions, we then had substantial input from the sections when we tried out various options and eventually it all fell into place and started to sound really full.

Ellie on the keys did a fantastic job and very kindly offered to volunteer with her band to play for us – they’re very professional musicians indeed!

The next week’s rehearsal went down a storm. We had a good turnout and the choir sounded amazing. The band really added another big energy boost and made it sound absolutely beautiful.

My partner Egle volunteered to come in and record the tune with her high quality digital stereo recorder, so feel free to have a listen to the recording and let us know what you think! Here it is (drum roll....):

On 4th September 2014, we held the ‘world premiere’ of our smashing tune together with the fabulous band at the Homeless Games in Liverpool, whoop whoop! And we’re looking forward to performing it at more gigs in the coming months.

The Liverpool choir had such a great time doing this that we decided to roll it out. The plan is for each Choir with No Name to write their own original 'choir song' over the coming months. For updates, and more stories like this, sign up to our e-newsletter (we promise not to bombard you!).

A FEW MORE QUOTES FROM CHOIR MEMBERS:

"The creative process definitively had an impact on the the choir as a whole – excitement, sense of pride, great team work and support for each other."

"This was a self confidence and self-esteem boost."

"Feeling successful at something is a feel good factor."

"Satisfaction."

"It was brilliant to see everyone express themselves."

"It really bonded us as a choir."

"I feel so proud to have helped writing such a good song!"

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