She Will Rock You!

20th September 2019

Lisa Botwright accepts an invitation from singer/songwriter Lauren Field, to swap the 9-5 for a more melodic morning…

I’m always singing. I sing while I cook, while I do housework, while I drive to work. Not that I’m any good. I remember the day I realised I was never going to be the next Madonna, when I recorded myself singing along to Material Girl circa 1985. I was devastated by the weak and wobbly voice that sounded nothing like my heroine.

I even had a couple of singing lessons a few years ago. I was working in education at the time, and wanted to learn how to project my voice. My teacher kindly confirmed that I could sing in tune (one of the best things anyone has ever said to me), but in my heart I knew that singing in tune isn’t the same as ‘singing tunefully’.

Nonetheless, while lack of talent might have stopped me from taking up my childhood dream of a career on the stage, it’s never held me back from treating my family and friends to my enthusiastic vocal attempts… which is why I was intrigued and delighted to receive an invitation from singer/songwriter Lauren Field, introducing herself as the founder and Musical Director of Rock Chorus and asking if I’d like to sample one of her sessions. Hmm. A Monday morning making music, or mulling over paperwork? For someone who spent an entire childhood belting ballads into a hairbrush, this is potentially the most fun I could have during my usual 9-5.

Rock Chorus is a community of like-minded individuals, led by Lauren, who meet weekly in various venues across the local area, to practise Lauren’s original arrangements of contemporary rock and pop songs. We plan for me to come along to the next Pinner session to join in with the group.

The first question I’m asked when I arrive is ‘where would I like to sit?’. Singers are grouped according to the range of their voice – soprano, alto, tenor – or in laymen’s terms: high, medium or low. Having never had any classical musical training, I’m pretty nonplussed – I’ve never analysed my pitch in this way. In the end, I simply plonk myself down next to the group of women I’m chatting to as the session begins. Lauren takes to the stage and starts us off with some warm up exercises, both vocal and physical. It’s fun to move around a little, shaking our hips and pumping our arms.

I’ve said a quick ‘hello’ to our Musical Director, but haven’t yet met her properly. She’s a natural with the group; calling out instructions, making jokes, keeping a firm hand on how things move forward. She has everything pre-teen-me yearned for back in 1985. Not only can she sing and move, she has that elusive ‘it’, and commands the room effortlessly. I have the beginnings of a mild, new girl-crush, which I’m sure I share with the rest of the group.

When we start to sing, I realise the point of the seating choices. The songs are divided mainly into three parts (this can vary depending on the song, and the number of people in that choir) and each group are given their own section to learn, which might mean harmonising the melody, at times, rather than vocalising the lyrics. It’s fun, but hard work too. I’ve come along right at the end of term, so most people are familiar with the pieces, while I’m just getting to grips with it all. Plus, I find that I’m not a natural soprano and should probably have sat with the altos – I stay where I am for now, as I’m only here for the one session, but there’s a very relaxed vibe; I could easily move across if I wanted to. Rock Chorus attracts a lovely, friendly mix of people.

We practise our parts separately, and then combine the harmonies as one, which is joyfully uplifting when it all comes together. At the end of the hour, I feel like I’ve had a complete physical and mental workout. It’s like coming out of a great yoga class, in terms of feeling relaxed and revitalised, but it’s possibly even more cathartic. With yoga, my mind always wanders at some point. With this, with the intense cerebral effort of concentrating on my part of the arrangement, I found I’d had even more moments of reaching that magical ‘flow’ – where you forget everything else and surrender to the here and now.

I’m positively gushing when I finally meet up with Lauren, and she agrees that she gets enormous satisfaction from running the groups. “It’s the thing I’m most proud of, the thing I’ve enjoyed most in my career.” She says that people come along from all walks of life. “I have teachers, lawyers and cleaners in the groups; people who’ve lost partners and tell me that Rock Chorus gives them a reason to get out of bed,” she shares.

Her career has seen plenty of highlights. After graduating from drama school, Lauren started out in musical theatre, and went on to record with lots of big names in the 80s, including Elkie Brooks, Bonnie Tyler and Elvis Costello. TV credits included Top of the Pops, Pebble Mill and The Tube.

Reluctant to be known as just a session singer, she formed her own band, singing classic and original blues numbers, and became well-known on the 90s London jazz scene. In her late 30s, she had a self-confessed “massive midlife crisis” and “wrote lots of songs that fitted that time of angst”. The result was an album entitled Modern Women and a contract with a German record label that let to “a lot of touring around Europe”. By the mid-00s, she had “sold a few thousand albums, had some success, fulfilled that need to perform,” but then she started thinking about “what next?” She could either make another album and go back out on the road – or use her skills elsewhere.

In the end, her hand was dealt in the most ill-fated way, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. “He was just starting his flirtation with illness, and it became a financial necessity for me to go out to work.”

She was invited to be part of a prestigious jazz festival in Europe and discovered a flair for directing choirs. “I’m good at arranging,” she says. “I feel I have an ear for building a song.”

After working with professional singers, and teaching in schools and colleges, she had the idea of forming a choir “with people who just like to sing, who don’t get much opportunity to sing.” Her choir would be open to everyone, without the need for a formal audition or any experience.

She hired a hall, offered free tasters, “hoped that enough people would come [and] took it from there”. From an initial group of around 30, she now has 300 members across five choirs in Pinner, Dunstable, Berkhamsted, Milton Keynes and Northwood Hills (which, conveniently for the 9-5ers among us, rehearses during the evening). This month, Rock Chorus celebrates its tenth birthday.

“I don’t give my singers an easy ride; I hope I make it entertaining, but I do crack the whip as well… I want them to improve. I don’t want them to just sing the tunes and go home, I want to create something that sounds good,” she says with mock severity, “I’m not going to allow them to languish in mediocrity.”

On top of the regular weekly term-time meetings, there are opportunities to sing in public, which Lauren believes bring “shape and purpose” to the rehearsals (although there’s no obligation to do so – Lauren estimates around half are performance-regulars, with others dipping in and out).

Reassuringly, she tells me it’s “very rare” for someone to be unable to sing; plus you’re bound to get better with practice and guidance. “I have good singers and mediocre singers – some people do find it hard to hold a tune, but collectively you can’t hear mistakes anyway. No one is put on the spot.”

She’s passionate about the health benefits of singing. “It gets your brain going, it releases endorphins, it builds lung capacity, and is good for your mental health.”

I couldn’t agree more. Lauren’s not the only one to sing the praises of this all-round healthy and challenging – not to mention fabulously fun – pursuit.

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