A spoonful of sugar – singing workshops at The Sanctuary

The Accidentals**If you have any stories or experiences from the Social Prescription workshops, and would be happy to share them, please contact me via the email below**

Ed King / edking2201@gmail.com


Spending Monday afternoon with a group a strangers, singing, is not how I usually begin my week. It’s not how I ever begin my week.

In fact, I couldn’t think of many things more likely to make me crawl back into bed, hide my head beneath the pillow and wait until Tuesday. But today, on this Monday afternoon, singing with strangers is precisely what I’m doing.

Since the beginning of February, AACV have been holding Social Prescription workshops at The Sanctuary community centre on Tangmere Drive, in Castle Vale. The workshops require no previous experience, are free to attend, and teach storytelling, photography and singing. I’ve arranged to join the singing workshop, held every Monday between 1-3pm, and run by professional music tutors Richard Jeffries and Helen Willetts.

I walk up to The Sanctuary playing with my hands. Truthfully, I’m nervous. And when I’m nervous my fingers are the first things to go. Singing. Why singing? I get awkward doing things I’m comfortable with in front of people I know.  The more I think about it the more my thumbs start to go numb.

The big double doors slide back and I see straight into the hall, where about 14 people are sitting on chairs in a semi circle. They look like a group. I feel like an individual. And as I walk through the second set of doors every one of them turns and looks straight in my direction.The Sanctuary - Castle Vale

“PEARL!!!” the group call out, and I notice (for the first time… my observation skills are the second to go) the older woman walking a few steps in front of me. The woman looks up as the group calls out again, “PEARL!!!” followed by individual voices saying “good to see you”, “you made it” and “we missed you last week.” Pearl smiles, a big smile, and walks over to the semi circle where another man in the group helps her into a chair. Pearl is still smiling as I walk in behind her, and I notice most of the group are too. I also notice I’ve stopped playing with my fingers.

I take a seat on the end, trying to be inconspicuous in the big room – empty apart from the semi circle of people and chair. Everyone’s busy chatting and taking off coats. I stay quiet and try to smile honestly.

Almost immediately the group tutors, Richard and Helen, tell us to “…stand up straight, feet shoulder width apart, and create a space between your waist and your ribcage.” They explain the muscles we’ll be using to help us sing. This also helps me focus on something, and as we start some “simple breathing exercises” I can feel the muscles in my belly tighten. It’s a comfortable but odd sensation, I’ve never focused on that part of my body before, but as I breathe out I put my hand on my stomach and begin to feel stronger. Firmer. Even taller.

Richard and Helen lead us through a “quick warm up exercise” where we have to sing out our names whilst clapping in unison. The group starts at the opposite end from where I’m standing, and I feel the wall of nerves rise in me as each group member takes their turn. Everything’s in rhythm. The claps are like drumming. Everybody seems confident. Everybody seems calm. I start to worry. I start to forget how to clap and try to remember to smile. I try to keep time, but I’m losing my focus. It’s nearly my turn to sing and I can’t keep up with the rhythm. It’s my turn. I pause. I miss the beat, eventually spluttering out the longer version of my name – the one I only hear when I’m in trouble. “Ed… ward…” I look up expecting laughter coming back from the group, but it doesn’t. My mistake doesn’t matter.

Next is a similar exercise, but instead of our names we clap and sing out numbers in sequence, “one, two, three, four, five” then clap. I find this much simpler, and my confidence starts to come back. There’s something about trying something new as a group that makes it feel easier, safer.

Then Helen suggests we change the order of the numbers, even missing some out and replacing them with claps. “One, two (clap), four, five,” then backwards, “five, four (clap), three, two, one.” This confuses me at first, so I stand and listen, joining in when I think I’ve got it right in my head. Everyone’s smiling, everyone’s trying, and I’m not as nervous about getting it wrong. The women next to me smiles, and gives me a look to say ‘it’s harder than it looks isn’t it?’ She has a kind face.

We go through a few more rounds, changing the order of the numbers and clapping, and I get better and better. It feels all about rhythm, and relaxing into the beat that your head knows it wants to follow. The more I think about it the more I start to trip up on myself, so I slowly stop thinking. By a couple of rounds I’ve got each new sequence down pat.

Helen Willetts - Sutton Social SingersNext we start to sing, actual songs; Richard and Helen hand out A4 paper with four short songs on them. I recognise ‘Frère Jacques’ from primary school, but we sing a two verse song called ‘My Bonnie’ – having to sit down and stand back up again on every word beginning with ‘b’.

It’s easier than the numbers song, but after a couple of ‘Bring back my Bonnie to me. Bring back, bring back. Bring back my Bonnie to me’ I feel like staying sitting down. I make a joke to the women with a kind face, that she’ll “have to catch me if I to fall over” and she laughs. I think everyone finds this song funny, and by the end of it most of us are laughing – including Richard and Helen.

We sing a couple more short songs, including one in a language I don’t know (I listen to the people next to me and join in when I can) before taking a short break for some tea and coffee. I ask Richard and Helen if they teach many singing groups like this.

“We started a group up in Sutton Coldfield,” explains Helen, “called the Sutton Social Singers. It began with only a handful of people but now has over 100 members.” Today’s singing group has about 14 people in it, and I try to imagine what it would be like with a hundred. “You should come up and sing with us one day,” invites Helen. “You’d be more than welcome.”

Both Richard and Helen make the group feel comfortable, even when we were getting things wrong or making jokes with each other. But they also know when to pull us back in and focus on the singing. After all, we’re here to learn something new – I ask if they work with more established singing groups or choirs?

“Between us we run around seven choirs,” tells Richard, “from community based groups, in schools and local centres, to those with a more professional focus. Some of which have had national and international success, such the Four Oaks Cluster Choir.Richard Jeffries - Foar Oaks Cluster Choir

But if people in Castle Vale wanted a place to start singing, there’s the Generations Choir at the Astral Centre on Farnborough Road – which members from this group would be welcome to join when the Social Prescription programme is over.” For the first time today, I’m reminded why the singing group was organised.

Along with the storytelling and photography workshops, the singing group was formed to help people increase their well being, general health and happiness. All the sessions are designed to teach new skills, build confidence and create a weekly activity to interact with and meet new people. I look over at the group, casually drinking tea and talking, some of whom had never met before they started singing together. It doesn’t feel like a room full of strangers. Or at least, not the strangers I have in my head when I think of the word.

When I was low, I couldn’t go into a shop or get on a bus without having to fight, to really fight, to keep myself together. It was incredibly lonely. And I hated my inability to break the bubble I felt trapped in. I wasn’t alive in the way everyone else was alive and I knew it from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell back to sleep. Luckily I had a caring family, or at least part of a caring family, who listened to me and helped me get back to the world. I still carry those demons, somewhere, I guess part of me always will; but I’ve learnt not to let them drown me out, and to find the strength I need just to be human. Some days are harder than others and I need to be both firm and kind with myself. Challenges help, like coming here today, and as corny as it may sound so does love, friendship and ultimately support.

For the last hour of the session we sing songs, proper songs; some I know, some I don’t, and some I learn how to sing better. We sing in small groups, we sing in one big group; we explore the tempo, rhythms and scales.

The Sanctuary - directions mapPearl, the woman who was cheered as she arrived in front of me, requested ‘When I Fall in Love’ by Nat King Cole. After a couple of times through the melody starts to make more sense, and I remember the delicate changes from one line to the next – Richard and Helen breaking down the song and explaining it step by step.

The voice is like an instrument, and I’m better at singing than I thought I would be. Plus, and I’ve heard this in school assemblies and at football matches, when we all sing together a strong group voice takes over the room; like some big friendly giant is singing just outside the window.

I’m better at the songs I know, but Richard and Helen say we can take the printed lyrics home if we want to. I make a silent promise to practice ‘When I Fall in Love’ before the next workshop; not that how good I am would matter to anyone in the group, but because it makes me think of my Grandma.

And as I say “goodbye” and “see you next week” to everyone, I neatly fold the song sheet up and put it in my back pocket. I confidently feel each one of my fingers, and much happier than I was about two hours ago.

The Sanctuary will be hosting workshops on singing (Mon 1-3pm), photography (Mon 3-5pm) and Storytelling (Weds 12-1:45pm) every week until the end of April, as part of the CVAA Social Prescription programme.

All are free to attend, with no experience necessary.

For more information phone The Sanctuary on (0121) 748 8111

**If you have any stories or experiences from the Social Prescription workshops, and would be happy to share them, please contact me via the email below**

Ed King / edking2201@gmail.com 

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