Inspiration at Ten

2 July 2019

Inspiration Leeds member Sheena Hastings salutes the first 10 years with a very personal reflection on what this very special choir has done for her.

Pudsey in a puddle is the downbeat way I could remember that first night. I prefer to think of my initiation into the world of Inspiration as a damascene moment - or a night of revelation.

The rain was downright biblical as I approached St Andrew’s Church, rising out of the darkness of the Monday night monsoon. A friend had told me about a huge new community choir that had recently been launched in Leeds. It had attracted a queue that went right around the block when a taster session/sign-up session was held a few weeks previously.

Being a feature writer at the Yorkshire Post, I proposed a piece about this enormous singing group and its attractions. Choirs were springing up all over the place at the time, so what was special about this one - so special that the faithful risked if not hell then certainly high water to get there?

Within moments of taking a pew and lending an ear, the answer was obvious. It was there, shining through the faces of every one of the 300-odd members whose rapt attention was focused on Gary. It was there in the way a simple, harmonious warm-up swooped to the rafters, reverberated and gently swirled downwards. It was joyous. It was there in the way people listened to each other, and in the way the songs were taught using an inclusive method of ‘we’ll note-bash the hard bits, then you imitate the CD at home/in the car/on your MP3 in the park’.

Inspiration was clearly for everyone. I later learned that the choir embraced many people who could not read a note of music as well as folk who’d been stalwarts of church choirs, as well as amateur operatic regulars and those who’d been in other music/singing groups and none. Somehow Gary’s wisecracking and double meanings smoothed everyone through a few sticky patches, lifting the mood just when needed.

The choir was in its fifth week in Leeds (Inspiration Newcastle was already on the go), and its rendition of Bridge Over Trouble Water for the forthcoming concert Songs of Power was already sounding glorious. Sitting on the sidelines beside the sopranos and observing was rapidly becoming incredibly frustrating. I really wanted a slice of the all-enveloping wall of sound that was being created.

The urge to jump up was overwhelming and I didn’t resist. A friendly neighbour shared her music with me, and oh, the release that came with sailing on by with that ‘silver bird’ actually opened the dam on a wave of emotion that took me completely by surprise. Who knew that there had been an untapped well of something inside that could have stayed that way had I not waded thought the night to St Andrew’s a decade ago?

I later interviewed Gary and various members of the choir for the feature. Gary’s mission for everyone to come and enjoy the beauty of making music together through accessible songs well taught and performed to a high standard was admirable, and clearly worked. He said singing did not have to be po-faced to be seriously good. He, and we, have proved it year after year.

Taking the music to the other end of the country in Southampton illustrates how the Inspiration blueprint has something special about it - maybe that certain loyalty to the choir, to Gary and each other? Maybe no other choir offers the same variety of songs - across time we’ve done classical, devotional, West End and Broadway, many languages and styles.

Gary seems to believe Inspiration can do pretty much anything - and he finds ingenious ways of arranging music that always excites and stretches but doesn’t strain. We enjoy reaching for new heights, with his belief in us the engine behind each achievement.

Gary saw what happened to me - the objective reporter so emotionally struck by lightning that she had to take part - and invited me to join, if I thought I could make up the lost weeks. I said something along the lines of “Not half.” It was the second best proposal I’ve ever had…

Since then there have been 30 concerts, trips abroad and at home, charity performances, Inspiration as rugby warm-up act, and many, many good times. I’ve made good friends for life, and hope they feel the same way. I’ve seen lovely Inspiration members pass on with a song in their heart. Babies have been born and singers have been welcomed back after the worst of the teething. We’ve been there for each other through illness and surgery.

I’ve met a foster mother of many for whom the choir was a crucial part of her rationed ‘me time’; then there was Raymond, who joined the choir at 86 to get out more and make new friends. I’ve met people for whom Inspiration was the tentative first step towards restarting their life after bereavement or divorce. For one dad and teenage daughter it was the special thing they did together.

So it opens up infinite social possibilities with new friends who share the love of music. But once you’ve walked in, made those friends, dropped those shoulders and relaxed, it’s about the songs. Did we really just make that sound?

Inspiration has seen me through a few dark times in the last 10 years. Many sad losses among family and friends have at times come at an unimaginable rate, leaving me absolutely shredded. But having Monday nights to cling on to at times made the difference between a real possibility of drowning in a pool of sadness and finding the strength to get up and go on. At one concert, a couple of particular songs stirred up so much that it was clinging to my neighbour altos’ hands got me through the concert. You know who you are and thanks again.

A lot has been written about the physical and mental health benefits of singing. We’ve all got the t-shirt because we know it’s completely true. How could the creation of so much joy be anything other than life-enhancing, soul-enriching and completely addictive. It’s an addiction that won’t be requiring rehab - but rather a repeat prescription.

Here’s to the next ten years.

PS It turned out that the young soprano had matured into a proud first alto.

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