The Big Choir: Singing for Support and Sanity Through Lockdown and Beyond

Covid has caused particular problems for choirs with its airborne transmission and, for many, the absence of communal singing was a great loss, especially at such a stressful and lonely time.

However, local fundraising choir, The Big Choir found creative ways of tackling the challenge of not being able to meet in person by organising rehearsals and events virtually. Here four members explain how much it meant to them and how, as a result, they have become a truly supportive community.

Jackie Czuprynski
I joined the Big Choir soon after it started, just over five years ago and it’s become an important part of my life.

When lockdown started, I wondered how on earth the choir could carry on. However, I needn’t have worried. The drive and enthusiasm of Sharon Czapnik-Down (the founder of the choir), and her husband Andy got us through in ways I couldn’t have imagined! Our sessions moved over to Zoom, which took a bit of getting used to. Singing on my own in the dining room wasn’t as much fun as being together, even though I could see lots of smiling faces on screen. However, our choir leader, Sophie, was brilliant, and kept us all learning and enjoying new songs.

Fundraising is a key element of the choir. In five years we have raised approximately £150,000 for Cancer Research UK, but it’s something that many organisations have struggled with during lockdown. Not The Big Choir! Among other things, we had Quiz Nights, raffles, produced a cookbook and also put together an Advent Calendar of videos last Christmas and again in the summer, which we sold tickets for. Recording and filming the audios and videos has been a learning curve for us all. Throughout all this, members supported each other through our WhatsApp group; offering advice, reassurance and help – about anything, not just singing.

As lockdown eased, we were able to meet in parks to sing (socially distanced) and now we are back rehearsing at East Barnet School and St Paul’s Church (Winchmore Hill).

As I write all this, I realise what a journey it has been for us all … an amazing, supportive, creative experience that has created a bond far stronger than we could have imagined. We have become The Big Choir Family.

Trudy Palmer
As with everyone, we never thought lockdown would last so long. Having sung in the Big Choir since its very start suddenly my Thursday evenings changed from being in a room with about 50 fellow singers to trying to find the best place in my house to “do Choir” via Zoom. This usually meant my bedroom or the kitchen.

Even though it wasn’t the same, it was fantastic to be able to see faces, practice old songs, learn new songs, benefit from Sophie’s amazing teaching and even meet new people from far flung places. New members linked up because they could! These included someone’s dad from Canada and my sister who lives in Durham.

So, the Big Choir on Zoom became a bridge to connect with people that we couldn’t normally sing with. I know it also was a lifeline for members who live alone. Even though some had a steep learning curve in the use of technology, you could see the joy on their faces just to be interacting with people.

To keep us on our toes Sharon decided to do a video Advent Calendar at Christmas. This involved recording our parts individually and sending them in to be mixed and blended. Initially we were all nervous – suddenly your voice in isolation sounded a little exposed and feeble. But, when you heard the final mixed version, the results were very, very good – it encouraged us to move forward with confidence. The next challenge was to film ourselves at home. This usually involved creative ways to balance a phone on top of household articles to get the correct height. In my case a step ladder with three books and flowerpot! Thereby allowing a head and shoulders shot which include the Big Choir t-shirt to be seen. You had to sing along to the backing track to ensure the timing was in sync and remember all the words. Needless to say, this often involved a lot of takes and actually resulted in enough footage for Sharon to make a “bloopers” video which was hilarious.

The downside to Zoom was that we all had to be muted when we rehearsed so we couldn’t hear each other or any of the other vocal parts. The neighbours of course could hear me loud and clear which was a little embarrassing especially as it could be Christmas songs on a balmy warm September evening!

After over a year of Zoom we did manage to squeeze in some “Covid Safe” outdoor rehearsals in Oak Hill Park and Greenhill Gardens (picking up new members as we sang). Obviously, we were dependent on the weather which ranged from heatwave to torrential rain to very chilly dark evenings.

To be able to meet again indoors is fantastic. To be back with members in the flesh and hearing the wonderful noise that we make is truly a blessing. To be back with such a diverse group of people, all of whom I call friends, feels great.

The Big Choir has shown real resilience in riding this storm. We have continued to learn new songs, continued to grow and most importantly, continued to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

While we can all be proud of what we’ve achieved over the last year it, has only been possible because of the sheer determination of Sharon, Andy and Sophie. The hours they have spent in keeping us motivated and together is truly remarkable.

Vivienne Peters
Being a member of Big Choir London saved, not just my own sanity in the COVID lockdown, but it brought laughs and fun, structure and great companionship from the lovely Choir family during this very difficult time. Singing on Zoom twice weekly and learning new songs, recording videos and audios in our homes for the production of song calendars and other videos, gave us such challenges, but huge laughs too – a great funding raising exercise! Sharon and Andy were amazing in the production of these videos plus they organised many quizzes to keep us all entertained. Incredibly, we continued to raise money for Cancer Research UK (CRUK) throughout these difficult times.

As additional restrictions came into force over the past 18 months, a way was always found to keep us together, singing, laughing, cementing further the BC Family. Money was raised for CRUK, videos were magically produced by Sharon and Andy and friendships blossomed as members engaged to help each other.

It’s wonderful to be back singing together in person. We are raring to go to raise even more money for CRUK, with a widened repertoire of music, friendships stronger and believe it or not, we have recruited new members despite COVID!

Sharon Morgan
I became a member of The Big Choir in 2017. It immediately became an important part of my life and when faced with lockdown, I wondered how, along with the rest of our Big Choir family, I’d manage without a weekly dose of my feel-good session.

We should have known Sharon had a plan! Online Zoom sessions quickly came into play for those members who were able to continue to pay their usual monthly subscription, thus enabling The Big Choir to continue with fundraising for the cause close to all our hearts. There were two weekly online sessions, also accessible via YouTube and we carried on learning new songs, led by our Musical Director, which we planned to perform together at some time in the future.

We could also participate in a weekly online quiz, devised by Sharon’s husband, Andy, by making a further donation to CRUK, again ensuring further fundraising and keeping in touch with our Big Choir community.

It wasn’t quite the same as singing together in person, but it kept our strength and sense of belonging going throughout the pandemic. As soon as we were allowed, we gathered in a local park and it felt so good to be singing together, in person. Now we are back to choir in our usual venues, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see friends in the flesh and to hear the wonderful sound we make together. Indescribable! I am so proud to be a member of this group, The Big Choir.

The Big Choir always welcomes new members and meets weekly at 7.30-9pm on Wednesdays at St Paul’s Church, Winchmore Hill N21 1JA and Thursdays at East Barnet School, Chestnut Grove EN4 8PU. Check Facebook or their website for full details and to help build on the £160,000 they have already raised.


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