What began with 15 students standing round a piano at lunchtime has grown into a national phenomenon. Jane McGowan catches up with Rock Choir founder Caroline Redman Lusher.
Caroline Redman Lusher is the founder of the hugely successful Rock Choir movement. Her belief in the capacity of song to unite and enthuse people has landed her a slot in the Smith & Williamson Power 100, which celebrates those who champion British entrepreneurship.
And as I cast my eyes around Farnham's busy Packhouse in search of this go-getter, I am suddenly overcome by a smiling brunette who thanks me profusely for coming out to meet her, before hugging me like a long-lost friend.
Rock Choir can only be described as a phenomenon. Launched in 2005 in a hall at Farnham College, it has grown into a nationwide business with more than 25,000 people singing in more than 350 choirs.
"Me and my dad were setting chairs out and wondering if anyone would turn up. Then all these people arrived and it was just like a movie moment," recalls Caroline with pride. "I was nervous, they were nervous, but we got through a song in 90 minutes and by the end people were cheering and crying."
Music has always been Caroline's passion. After university she made a living singing and playing piano in some of London's top hotels, including The Dorchester and the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. But years of late nights and smoky lounges began to take their toll and Caroline decided to move out of London to be closer to her parents in Farnham.
"They suggested that I got a job teaching," she explains. "I found a post at Farnborough College, teaching performing arts.
"The students were a mix of actors and dancers, not necessarily musicians, but they had to sing to pass all of the modules. I decided I would get them round the piano, like I used to do in the bars. Then I broke some pop songs down into three basic parts and I sang a line, and they sang it back to me."
Soon Caroline's singalongs were drawing attention from the wider college. What had started as an A Level module became 150 teenagers belting out tunes during the lunch break. Caroline made it clear that they didn't need to be able to read music in order to join. Nor would they be asked to sing solo – principles that would endure as the basis of the Rock Choir model.
"Other teachers started telling me how much more productive students were after they had been singing. And on parents' evening people were saying how much more communicative their child had become since joining the group. Then one of the mums asked: ‘Can't you do one for us?' And there it was – the start of Rock Choir."
Many people would have let the idea roll around in their head for a few weeks and then allow it to fizzle out. Not Caroline. She realised she had hit upon something and decided to act.
"I quit my job and, with the help of my dad – who became known as Captain Rock Choir, as he's an ex-BA pilot – set out on the journey.
"It was a lovely, creative time. So exciting to be starting something new, with no fixed plans but with very clear values: to teach singing and to offer something to the community that could have the same impact as it had made on the students."
Indeed, it is the fact that it's so much of a community endeavour, engendering friendships and self- confidence in a relaxed setting, that really sets Rock Choir apart.
"Even on that very first night people had stories to tell: they were too shy to sing in public; they hadn't sung for 40 years after being told they were rubbish by a choirmaster; they sang in the car but their children told them to be quiet.
"That's why there have always been two aspects to Rock Choir: the music, getting people to immerse themselves in it; and then the platform it creates for social bonding. Lives are changing because of the singing, which is what really unites us."
From that one class, Rock Choir grew initially to a handful throughout Surrey.
Now, some 12 years later, it has a base in over 350 UK towns as far apart as Aberdeen and St Austell, Cornwall. Some areas have multiple sessions, with many forced to keep waiting lists, such is the demand.
Yet unusually for such a brand, Rock Choir is not franchised out. "I just didn't want to," says Caroline. "I didn't want the choirs to feel like they were in competition. I look after the leaders' wellbeing. If they're not okay, how can they look after the members?"
As well as arranging the music, recording the songs and choreographing the dance routines, Caroline picks the choir leaders too. Three times a year they descend on the Premier Inn in Aldershot to learn the new songs for their respective groups.
"It's chaos, and there's a lot of singing, but we've never had a complaint from the hotel yet," she laughs. "I choose people I think the members will love and who have a good work ethic. It's a vocation for us. I am not interested in someone who just wants to clock in and clock out. You're not just teaching them; you're inspiring them.
And despite the accolades, awards, sold-out gigs at Wembley and the O2, and even a prime-time ITV documentary devoted to her achievements, the 42-year- old admits that at times, such huge undertaking commitment can be "exhausting". But she is quick to point out that just one kind word or email from one of the members is enough to remind her why she does what she does.
"I went to one event last year in Bournemouth, and as each member went on stage they either high-fived me or hugged me and told me that they loved me," she says with genuine warmth.
Indeed, one's abiding impression of Caroline is of strength and positivity. "I remember looking round at the O2 with the stage and arena full and thinking: ‘How weird is this?' You get those moments of pride, yet I don't feel responsible. It was just meant to be like this. We're all in it together and we're willing it to get better and better. That's partly why I don't see this as a business. For me it's a way of life."
To find your nearest Rock Choir, or for more information, visit rockchoir.com