The birth of a new over 50s singing group in Sheffield

Robin Grey, founding member of the Community Music Co-operative talks about his recent experience setting up a new singing project in Firth Park, north Sheffield.

Last year I was approached about the possibility of running a singing club for over 50s by the local ‘Friends of Firth Park‘ user group in collaboration with Drink Wise, Age Well, a national campaign that helps people make healthier choices about their drinking as they age.

I’d already done some community music work with the Friends group at a couple of their seasonal events and was keen to explore this opportunity, having never run a weekly group outside of educational settings.

We began with a pilot session in Firth Park’s bowling pavilion back in early December 2018 which was attended by 19 people. This was a really solid start and gave Drink Wise, Age Well the confidence to commit to a term of 12 two hour sessions every Friday morning starting in the new year.

End of summer term photo with Duncan’s fancy dress box hats

The format was established of my leading a sing-a-long on guitar or ukulele, with everyone sat in a circle. I intentionally didn’t do any sort of warm ups (which confused a few people used to choirs and other singing groups).

My thinking here was wanting to keep the sessions as informal and inclusive as possible, closer to a camp-fire sing-a-long than any sort of educational music experience. So many people have had some sort of negative experience of formal music education at school, and I wanted to avoid triggering any memories something as simple as a warm up exercise might bring.

I made up large print songbooks, so everyone had the words, with the initial repertoire of fourteen songs:

  • Always On My Mind
  • Amazing Grace
  • Bring Me Sunshine
  • Danny Boy
  • Dream A Little Dream Of Me
  • I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles
  • I Wanna Be Like You
  • King Of The Road
  • Que Sera Sera
  • Somewhere Over The Rainbow
  • The Lion Sleeps Tonight
  • We’ll Meet Again
  • What A Wonderful World
  • Wonderful World (Don’t Know Much)

We spent some time brainstorming other songs that people might like to sing in the future. Space was also made for everyone to introduce themselves and of course a break for drinking warm caffeinated beverages.

Group photo from an early session

When we kicked off our first term in January, I introduced 2-3 new songs each week, picking ones that I knew best from previous suggestions. Over the term, attendance ranged from 16 to 24 singers with an average of 19, which was a really good solid group to work with. We continued to make space each week for everyone to introduce themselves and I also provided a question as a prompt for us to all get to know each other a little better. Questions included everything from what was the first song you bought, to where were you born, and what is your favourite cheese!

The sessions were hosted by members from the Friends group, who opened the hall, set up the room and made refreshments during the break. I do not believe the group would have been successful if it hadn’t been for the support of local volunteers taking care of the essential non-musical hosting responsibilities.

After six months we now have folders with 75 songs in. I am planning on doing a blog post exploring the repertoire that’s been chosen in the future

Finances

During the first term, Drink Wise, Age Well fully covered the cost of my £100 fee per session. I came to this figure using my Musicians Union workshop leader rate of £196.75 per 5 hour day. Given that each two hour session requires preparation and set up, a half day fee of £100 felt appropriate.

Drink Wise, Age Well were only ever expecting to fund the initial 12 weeks. I discussed their supporting succession through paying me a half fee of £50 for the next twelve week term, and my giving singers the opportunity of making a suggested weekly donation of £1 to £5 to make up the rest. This was agreed and had worked out well with an average weekly donation of £38 taking my weekly earnings to £88 from the group.

It may seem strange for me to be talking so openly about money but I feel that this is really important. Many community musicians get hourly rates of pay that are insulting far below union rates despite working for charities and organisations which have properly paid administrative staff (and often directors on significant salaries).

I am looking forward to this co-op directly challenging some of these charities, who will remain nameless here for now. It makes me sad that people do not recognise the amount of time that goes into being a professional musician and our rates necessarily include time for practice, rehearsing, professional development, networking and all the administration that comes with being self employed.

‘Deps’

Over the course of the two terms, I’ve invited along a couple of other guest musicians to be part of the session and one of them, my co-op colleague Ella ably covered for me on a week I was unable to make the session.

The Future

We are planning on starting again on Friday 20th September after a summer break. An Awards for All grant application has been submitted which we hope will cover fees for a full year of 36 sessions plus four additional seasonal community ‘Big Sing’ events.