It started with a homemade poster and 40 chairs in a village hall. Now, 14 years later, Rock Choir has 30,000 members, three albums, and three Guinness World Records.
It’s performed on The One Show, Songs of Praise and at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena (below). Last year, 10,000 members opened Proms in the Park in Hyde Park with a flash mob to David Bowie’s “Dancing in the Street”. It’s even recorded in the Abbey Road Studios.
Rock Choir was set up by former music teacher Caroline Redman Lusher in 2005 and is the world’s largest contemporary choir. There are now more than 350 rock choirs across the UK, run by leaders personally selected by the founder.
Members don’t need to be able to read music, learning instead by rote, a memorisation technique. Nor do they have to audition. In fact, new members audition the choir itself by way of a free taster session.
The choir is about much more than performing, though. For many of its members it has become a way of life. A number of “Rockies”, as they call themselves, join their local group as a way of distracting themselves from difficult personal lives. Among the singers are stories of abuse, depression, divorce, and bereavement. But when they line up together, only one thing matters: belting out those tunes.
The chemicals released by singing as a group are called endocannabinoids and are similar to those found in cannabis. The feel-good chemicals produce a natural high and have been linked to reducing anxiety and stress.
“We’ve had members who we’ve lost and they’ve been buried in their Rock Choir uniforms”
Redman Lusher says she is often approached by women who thank her for changing their lives. She is always insistent: it was them, not her. “I get queues of them crying in my arms,” she says. “And I say: ‘You came to me. I can create the platform but you got out the door and you came to us without knowing anyone. You walked into that room and you joined and that was the turning point.’”
The 44-year-old, who studied popular music and recording at university, has an infectious enthusiasm. She originally aspired to be a recording artist and worked as a lounge singer in London.
Eventually, anonymous nights behind a hotel piano took their toll and she decided to move home, to Surrey, to retrain as a music teacher. The idea for Rock Choir came about when parents of her A-level students reported a positive change in their children after they sang in her school choir. In 2005, she handed in her notice and, with a £1,000 loan from her father, set about making her idea a reality.
The choir turns 15 next year and have big (secret) plans for a celebration. Another concert, perhaps? More albums? Redman Lusher keeps schtum.
There is something almost religious about the choir, albeit not in its repertoire, which is primarily rock and pop hits – next term, the choir will be learning “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. But the way in which Redman Lusher has spread her gospel of goodwill and good tunes across the UK feels, in its essence, spiritual. It helps, of course, that Redman Lusher herself fits perfectly into the role of messiah.
Standing at the front in a head mic and strikingly bright lipstick, she leads the members in song, cracking jokes and sharing stories with her flock, who observe her in an almost reverent manner. It’s not hard to imagine the queues of people who line up at the end to thank her.
There are many other ways in which people show their devotion to Rock Choir. Some are imaginative, such as the chap who had the choir’s logo tattooed on his arm, while others are poignant. “We’ve had members who we’ve lost and they’ve been buried in their Rock Choir uniforms”.
The benefits of group singing are so evident that, according to its founder, GPs are now starting to recommend the choir to their patients. “I have something here that is changing lives for the better with no drugs involved, just songs and brilliant music,” she says. “If everybody had access to it, imagine what the knock-on effect would be.”