Q&A WITH ELEANOR RASTALL, Choir Leader
What inspired you to start a new choir in Crystal Palace?
For starters, I love Crystal Palace. I’ve lived here for nearly two years, it’s such an incredible community-oriented and creative place. So I want to use my musical skills proactively to contribute to the community and creative life here. Choirs are a great way to meet people and have some fun, and Crystal Palace has so many unusual performance spaces and events to get involved in.
I know a lot of people in the area, so having a network to help spread the word and support a new venture at the start is invaluable! I’m continually surprised by how much it feels like a small community on top of a hill, and not like London at all. So hopefully our new choir will add to that feeling of community as we perform and get involved in local life.
How would you encourage someone who has never sung before to give it a try?
I believe that everyone can sing. A lot of people say they can’t, or were told as children not to sing in the choir. Most often the biggest problem is lack of confidence and the physical tension which results from this, which in turn can adversely affect pitch and tone quality. So, to unlock your voice you need good breath flow and to release unnecessary physical tension, and a supportive environment where you feel free to experiment and make noise!
What do you think are the benefits of singing in a choir?
So many I can’t mention them all here! The mental and physical health benefits are fairly well documented now; including increased oxygen uptake, strengthening the immune system, reducing anxiety and lifting your mood. Singing is basically a physical workout with a lot of the same benefits as exercise. Singing in a choir is also a great place to meet people and socialise, aided by having a common goal and creating something greater than the sum of its parts. So it's good for team-building and bonding too!
What’s the secret of running a good choir?
For me, the most important thing is that everyone leaves feeling better than when they arrived. So beyond the obvious musical and leadership skills, my job involves being able to read my group and work out what they need. Sometimes I need to be flexible and change my plan depending on the group dynamic on any given day. And it's also about creating a supportive and friendly atmosphere where energy and commitment to trying something new are encouraged, and mistakes are part of the learning process.
What do you enjoy most about working with people in choirs?
I love the enjoyment that people get out of singing in a group, the huge energy that can be generated by the right song and arrangement. Seeing people leave a rehearsal looking happier and sometimes physically lighter and more open than when they arrived. And I love facilitating that through music.
The most amazing moments are the unexpected ones. Often when the odds are stacked against you in some way, and you suddenly feel the choir – as a single entity – decide to really go for a performance and create something far beyond the level they reached in rehearsal. It’s completely electrifying! And when that happens I know I have done my job well. Because the whole choir felt supported and safe enough to give their all, not hold back or worry about making mistakes but give their full commitment and trust each other.
What fundamental singing techniques do you instil in your choir members?
Everything comes from the breath. If that isn’t flowing easily and consistently, then the rest of your body is constantly compromising – with tension! So, I do a lot to facilitate good breath flow. Sometimes, it's about freeing up posture and releasing tension. And it can be about letting go of the inner critic. Or a combination of all three.
What role does singing play in your life?
I’ve always loved singing and performing but I didn’t try to do it professionally until after completing my science degree. Now it's such an integral part of who I am that I often find myself humming, singing or conducting along to a song in my head as I walk around my flat or down the street. Losing my voice with a cold is mentally debilitating, as I lose a part of myself and one of my most valuable forms of expression. I never expected to be a singer and teacher but now I can’t imagine doing anything else.