Main Stage: SUNDAY 11
The reality of working life at a hospital and the glamorous, glitzy world of the music industry make for some contrast. Step forward the Lewisham and Greenwich Healthcare NHS Choir who by day diligently work at one of London’s busiest hospitals, helping to ensure that patients receive the best care, while by night are chart-topping singers.
Back in 2012, members of Lewisham and Greenwich Healthcare NHS Trust in London auditioned to become a choir on Gareth Malone’s television programme Sing While You Work. They may not have won the competition, being narrowly beaten by the Severn Trent Water choir, but it was the start of a musical journey that would take them to the top of the charts with a Christmas No1, and a record deal with Decca Records, part of major label Universal.
Up against multimillion-selling Justin Bieber in the race for the 2015 Christmas No1, their emotive “A Bridge Over You” – an amalgamation of Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Coldplay’s “Fix You” – ended up with 31,000 more sales and downloads than the superstar’s 127,000. The No1 led to a flurry of high-profile activity, far removed form their day jobs tending to sick patients in hospital. They appeared on the Chris Evans Radio 2 show, and had a wonderful surprise when Bieber, who is now a label mate on Universal, came to meet and congratulate them.
But the choir were not just a gimmick to create a hit single; they are here to stay, as proven by the debut album, Something Inside So Strong, that they spent a month recording and was released on Decca on 27 May.
Choir organiser and alto Caroline Smith, a children’s physiotherapist who has worked in the Lewisham community for 13 years, says. “We really put time and effort and everyone takes it really seriously. It’s not just a gimmicky choir. We have worked really hard for four years we do put a lot of effort into it. When we’re all doing our day jobs as well shows the fact that we’re all really committed to it. We love singing – it’s amazing, and that’s why we carried on.”
Of the 31 members of the choir, around half are original members. Despite their busy day jobs and the night shifts that are part of many of their roles, they rehearse once a week for one and a half hours. The Lessof Auditorium at Lewisham Hospital is where the magic happens.
The choir brings together all members that are the heart of the NHS across the spectrum including surgeons and consultants, physiotherapists, midwives, nurses, IT systems manager, speech and language therapist, hospital chaplain, administrators, and the porter. With roles stretching from domestic to nurses, from junior doctors to top consultants and surgeons, there is no work place in which hierarchy is so apparent as a hospital. For soprano Zoë Davies, a junior doctor registrar specialising in diabetes, endocrinology and general internal medicine, and her fellow singers, the choir has been an opportunity to forge relationships with people at work that she’d possibly have never connected with otherwise. “Medicine is very hierarchical, with consultants and senior doctors; it’s very much us and them and very professional and stern”, says Zoë. “And when I joined the choir it was all about working together as a team. It’s really changed the way that I am able to interact with people at work and revolutionised the way that I feel about going to work.”
Being a member of the choir also allows soprano Ozioma Obi, a neonatologist consultant in newborn intensive care at Lewisham Hospital, to relax a little and leave behind her persona as a top doctor in the hospital. “I know that when I get through those doors and it’s a practise I can be myself. When you’re in charge and you’re a consultant you’ve got to be really professional, but once I come here nobody cares who I am. You can completely be yourself.”
Only recently have we seen news stories extolling the benefits of being in a choir; one recent study showed that singing improves immunity towards cancer. But it is also beneficial for wellbeing and reducing stress and anxiety. One member, Caroline Harbord, who runs a community pulmonary rehabilitation programme for people with respiratory disease and has worked in London as an NHS physiotherapist for 26 years, first took up singing in a choir when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She joined her local choir as a form of therapy. “I needed to do things that would be positive and would help me”, she recalls. “I needed something that was a total distraction and was joyous, and physically the act of singing was so cathartic for me. It did really help and I enjoyed it.” She joined the NHS choir as an alto when it originally started, and sings a solo in “Weeping”.
In charge of the choir’s social media, one thing Caroline focuses on when posting on Facebook and Twitter is the many health benefits of singing – “for people with strokes, Alzheimer’s, depression – there are so many benefits of singing”, she says. “We do little concerts for patients on the wards at Christmas time. It means a lot to me as my mother had dementia at a young age and was in a nursing home and one of the few things that connected with her was music, in particular carols.” For Caroline Smith, the choir was a helpful and cathartic distraction from daily life. “Personally I’ve had a lot going on, family things, so the choir’s been a good distraction. If I hadn’t had the choir over the last few years… I think it kept me going. It’s been a real focus for me.”
Arranged by musical director Phil Mitchell, the uplifting songs on the album, such as “Lean On Me”, “Something Inside So Strong” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend”, couldn’t be more appropriate to the roles of hospital staff. “A Bridge Over You” captured exactly what they do and is the most resonant song for all the choir members, says Caroline Smith. “I think all of us felt it summed up our jobs and we’re really proud of our jobs. We felt it really summed up how we want to help people and do the best job we can and singing it together felt really important and special.”
When they originally sang “A Bridge Over You” a few years ago, Lewisham Hospital’s A&E and maternity departments were at threat of closure. “Singing it felt really special”, recalls Caroline. “There was the ‘save Lewisham Hospital’ campaign and the local support was fantastic for the hospital. We need to be reminded of the good things the NHS does and why it started in the first place: to give everyone access to health care regardless of background. It’s very uplifting. It reminded people of how special the NHS is.”
“We all get quite emotional when we’re singing it”, says Zoe Davies, who’s been a soprano in the choir since it first started and sings solos in both this song and the choir’s version of “Love Shine A Light”. “It means so much to us and everything the choir’s been through together.”
The choice of songs such as “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” also create an uplifting spirit when performed, providing a welcome break from stressful jobs in the medical profession, and spreading that positivity for whoever hears the music. Children’s doctor and alto Frances Denniss says: “Some of them make you really happy and accentuate the positive. We have quite depressing and stressful jobs at times and it’s nice to do something really different and give you a lift. And also for everyone who has to use the hospital, it’s a positive message that there are people who care and can help you see the positive. Accentuating the positive is something we do as a whole.”
Ozioma Obi also enjoys singing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” for its inspiring message, which is integral to her daily job tending to the sickest babies. “It’s a way to approach illness if you’re not well – to try and be positive about your condition.” It’s clear that being a part of the choir is a joyous addition to daily life; listening to the songs and performing them helps create that positivity. “The
album we’ve been recording makes you feel so happy that automatically you’re smiling while you’re singing. It’s just amazing. And when you hear all the different harmonies, it’s almost like the NHS with different parts to it and different pieces of the jigsaw coming together. It’s just beautiful.”
“When I first joined I really enjoyed being able to sing all this really fun, upbeat music”, Frances recalls. “You’d come out of rehearsals with a real buzz. One of the things I like best is when we stand in a circle and look up and see people’s grinning faces. There’s some sort of magic you can feel; you’re all making something amazing together and putting all that energy in and people feed off that.” That joy transfers to those that hear the music; the choir brings some much-needed joy and positivity. “We’re bringing a bit of positivity and we’re trying to get across compassion and caring for people”, says Zoe. “I think that just resonated with people, especially in difficult times for the NHS.”
With their new album, it’s clear that the Lewisham and Greenwich Healthcare NHS Choir will bring joy to people and touch even more lives than their day jobs already have.