Hackney Singers performing Handel's Messiah Shoreditch Town Hall 4th April 1987

Hackney Singers performing Handel’s Messiah, Shoreditch Town Hall 4th April 1987

The “Hackney Choral Society” was formed as an evening class in singing in 1973 as part of the Hackney Institute Adult Education programme. For some years it attracted mainly female voices and was renamed “The Hackney Singers” in 1979. The choir became independent in 1982 and grew under the leadership of Lilian Wilson and later Bill Lloyd to become a mixed-voice choir of over 100, registering as a charity in 1986. Hackney Singers now has nearly 200 members.

We present at least two concerts a year, working with professional orchestras and soloists, and particularly the Forest Philharmonic.

Along with five other choirs from across London, over 80 members of Hackney Singers participated in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, performing a specially commissioned piece Principia and Britten’s setting of the National Anthem.

Hackney Singers, rehearsing for the paralympic opening ceremony

Hackney Singers, rehearsing for the paralympic opening ceremony

In 2013 the choir celebrated its 40th anniversary, with a 1970s themed party during which we previewed a specially-commissioned short film about the choir. During this year we also debuted in the film business, singing on the soundtrack of a Hackney-produced film The Christmas Candle starring Susan Boyle and Samantha Barks. In late 2014 choir members performed at the inaugural BBC Music Awards at Earls Court, singing “God Only Knows” with Sir Tom Jones and Hackney’s Paloma Faith.

We are based in Hackney, but our members come not only from Hackney, but also surrounding boroughs and even Croydon, Enfield and further afield.

We are different from many other singing groups. We have an open-door policy and do not hold auditions — everybody, regardless of experience, is welcome to join the Thursday night rehearsals.

Our rehearsals are stimulating and illuminating as well as being extremely enjoyable. Andrew Storey assists as an accomplished pianist. Our music director Dan Ludford-Thomas leads our rehearsals. The choir’s appreciation of the high quality of our musical direction has been proved by the excellent and enthusiastic attendance at rehearsals.

We rehearse every Thursday evening during school term time at St Luke’s church, just off Morning Lane. Rehearsals start at 7:30pm. We normally start with a brief warm-up session. We have a short break for tea, coffee and biscuits around 8:30pm and finish at 9:30pm. Some members of the choir have got into the habit of moving on to one of the local pubs – they’re quite a sociable lot.

The Hackney Singers rehearsals are simultaneously entertaining, relaxing and challenging. Andrew and Dan leave us in no doubt that we must continue to work hard and improve ourselves but, more often than not, they manage to do that by making us laugh – lots.

“I would always encourage anyone who wants to join a choir, and is a little apprehensive, to go ahead. I joined Hackney Singers in 1986 and was very nervous as I had never sung in a choir before, except for school. I certainly had never sung anything like Handel’s Messiah, which was my first challenge,but although I didn’t read music well at all my ear took over. I am so glad that I did join and have looked forward every week to rehearsals. In those days we were a much smaller group but look how we have grown and become popular. I am very proud to still belong to Hackney Singers. Singing is definitely good for the soul!”

Natalie Shefer, Soprano

“Although there are quite a lot of non-auditioning choirs, what I think is quite unusual about HS is the ambitious repertoire the music team selects for us. There’s no dumbing down, and the assumption is that anyone can get to grips with good music. I’ve certainly been exposed to a huge range of music I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise – and that includes pieces I didn’t like on first listen, but persevered with and came to enjoy (Mass in Blue for instance). It’s also important to me that the choir does feel properly local. It’s hard to put your finger on but it does have a Hackney vibe. It may not precisely mirror the demographics of the entire borough, but I certainly meet people I wouldn’t come across anywhere else.”

Alice Mead, Soprano

“Something I think is different about Hackney Singers is our performance skills that Mark and the music team has developed; no frilly white shirts and no whining diphthongs (we hope!). We can get to a pitch where we give truly exciting and moving performances.”

Judy Spours, tenors

“Hackney Singers started off in 1973 as an Evening Class and perhaps that is the key to its ethos. Anyone who wanted sing could sign up without the worry of an audition.
Our Music Team continually select an ambitious repertoire for us and although occasionally some members don’t take to pieces on first listening, by the time the concert comes around they have grown to enjoy it.
Mark Shanahan who has been our Musical Director for 15 years has developed the choir’s performance skills all without ceremony, due to the challenge of the music, the dedication or our Music Team and the enthusiasm and staying power of our members.
The choir is committed to rehearsing and performing in Hackney. In addition to concerts this has led us to representing the borough in the Paralympics and this year working with a Hackney based film company on a feature production. Our annual Christmas concert raises funds for the Hackney Night Shelters. “

Gill Brown, soprano

Forty Years On, by John Ayto

When I walked into my first Hackney Singers rehearsal in 1987, in a not very large schoolroom in Laura Place, just off Clapton Road, I found I was joining a decidedly chamber-sized group of singers. There can’t have been more than thirty, and disconcertingly few of them were men. But there was also, resoundingly and reassuringly, Lilian Wilson, the choir’s conductor and driving force in those early years.

I say ‘early years’, but in fact the Hackney Singers can trace its origins back into the mists of 1973 (whence this year’s anniversary celebrations). It began life as an evening class in singing, as part of the Hackney Institute adult-education programme. In those days it was called the Hackney Choral Society, but evidently something a little punchier was thought to be called for, and in 1979 it became the Hackney Singers.

Lil Wilson took it over in 1982 (it performed Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and some Vaughan Williams folk song settings in that year), and under her enthusiastic leadership it grew rapidly in size and ambition. It outgrew its rehearsal premises in Laura Place and moved to Chelmer Road School, and began to programme larger-scale (and orchestrally accompanied) choral works such as Messiah, Haydn’s Creation and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

By the time Lil moved on in 1992, it had grown into a mixed-voice choir over a hundred strong. Her place at the helm was taken by our long-time accompanist Bill Lloyd, who expanded our repertoire in challenging new directions, including Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Brahms’s German Requiem and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. His place at the keyboard was taken by the indefatigable (the word could have been invented for him) and ever optimistic (a Blackpool supporter) Andrew Storey, who continues to this day to impersonate the orchestra at our rehearsals and drum the notes into our sluggish brains when our maestros are otherwise engaged. (Those rehearsals now take place in St Luke’s church, just off Morning Lane, to which we moved in the mid-1990s, having finally severed all formal connection with the educational authorities.)

In 1997 Bill Lloyd left to become a BBC music producer, and an unexpected decampment by his successor left us embarrassingly conductorless in the runup to a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Into the breach stepped Mark Shanahan, the conductor of our accompanying band, the Forest Philharmonic, and those who have been in the choir ever since then know the extraordinary advances in technique and musicianship we have been able to make under his direction. A lucky choir indeed.

A bigger choir, too. We now have nearly two hundred members, and we’ve long outgrown our usual concert venue of the late 1980s, St John of Jerusalem church. The wider spaces of St John at Hackney are where we generally perform our main concerts today, which in the twentyfirst century have included the Verdi Requiem, Tippett’s Child of Our Time, Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, Poulenc’s Gloria and Stabat Mater, Beethoven’s  Mass in C and Mozart’s Requiem. We do our best, though, to use other performance spaces in and around Hackney, such as the Hackney Empire, Shoreditch Town Hall and the People’s Palace in the Mile End Road, and more recently we’ve been spreading the Hackney Singers word more widely – performing on stage in the London Coliseum, for example, in a BBC nationwide choral event. 2012 saw two of the most notable engagements in our forty years’ history: a performance of Messiah, jointly with the Lewisham Choral Society, at the Royal Festival Hall, triumphantly conducted by Dan Ludford-Thomas, our associate conductor; and in August, eighty of us took part in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games, performing a specially commissioned piece by London composer Errollyn Wallen.

Quite a journey from a small adult-education singing class. But always there are new challenges to meet, always unfamiliar music to tackle (Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast certainly comes into that category), so we have every reason to hope that the next forty years will take us as far as the last forty have.