In full voice

Jenny Savory, director of the choir, gives it all she's got
Jenny Savory, director of the choir, gives it all she's got

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The ladies of the Spinnaker Chorus have just sung at a national contest - and they did themselves proud. RACHEL JONES reports.

Resplendent in sparkling aquatic shades, teenagers and pensioners alike tune up for the choral contest of the year.

Looking like joyful mermaids, the Spinnaker Chorus prepare to harmonise barbershop-style and impress the judges gathered at Birmingham Symphony Hall.

As the Horndean-based group get ready for the national contest between members of Sweet Adelines (an international singing society), they look as far from the traditional barbershop image as is possible.

No straw boaters, stripy waistcoats and big moustaches here – and of course strictly no men. The Spinnaker Chorus are a 65-strong group of glammed-up women who sing a cappella style music in four-part harmony. Whereas traditional barbershop groups are often a quartet, the chorus are split into sections which collectively take on the singing parts. And while they perform traditional numbers, they also sing anything that can be arranged for barbershop-style.

In the recent Sweet Adelines competition in Birmingham – the most important event in Spinnaker’s calendar – they sang a Broadway medley and a rendition of Etta James’ At Last, which has also been covered by Beyoncé.

‘It’s very exciting and an absolute privilege to sing at Birmingham Symphony Hall,’ says Spinnaker Chorus musical director Jenny Savory (pictured on the front of Weekend).

‘It’s purpose-built for acoustics. It has this huge wooden stage and the sound echoes around. The back row of the audience could hear a pin drop on stage without microphones.’

In 36-year-old Jenny’s first year as director the chorus came seventh out of 24 high-quality groups, so she’s absolutely delighted with the performance.

They’d worked hard for the achievement. In addition to the weekly practices at Blendworth Church Hall, near Horndean, there have been workshop weekends with visiting coaches and plenty of practice by each member at home.

‘We have fun but we’re really focused,’ says Jenny.

‘By the time we get to a competition we’ve worked extremely hard on learning the words and the interpretation of the song – the dynamics, like how loud and soft we are going to sing, how we are going to phrase it.

‘That means when we are going to breathe. And there is also choreography because we move too. When there are more than 60 people singing together it’s quite a big job. It takes practice.’

And then there were those marvellous blue outfits to plan. The chorus’s costume team designed the posh frocks and then sent each woman’s measurements to a dressmaking company in Canada.

The sequined outfits were made across the Atlantic and then shipped over.

‘It’s a good chance to be a bit more glamorous. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t do your gardening in those,’ laughs Jenny.

‘We don’t always dress like that for performances though. Sometimes we’re in black and white. But it’s nice to be a bit more colourful and sparkly under the lights.’

And of course it’s always good fun when 60-odd women’s dresses arrive from across the Pond.

‘Yes it’s great when we get them and can try them on. Nobody is allowed to put on or lose weight though, and no one is allowed to get pregnant.’

Busy throughout the year, the chorus can be booked by organisations and perform at concerts and charity events. They can also sing as smaller groups, visiting all kinds of places including rest homes and function venues.

The women come from all walks of life and range in age between 18 and 80.

The quality of Spinnaker Chorus is such that some of its members travel all the way from Brighton and Bournemouth to practice each week.

‘It’s a great leveller. When you come to practice you leave your differences and troubles behind,’ says Jenny.

‘The aim is to sing as a unit. Musically speaking, it’s four-part harmony but we try to unify and sing as one over-all sound. One voice shouldn’t stand out too much, so it’s very much about working as team.’

The women sing without accompaniment so as a unit they must sound fantastic, but individuals have the comfort of their fellow performers around them.

‘We ask for people who have a bit of the diva inside them,’ laughs Jenny.

‘And by that I don’t mean being precious, but happy to get up there and be in the limelight a bit. But having said that it’s perfect for people who couldn’t do that kind of thing on their own. Because they have everyone around them.’

There is also a social side to being a Spinnaker Chorus member. The women might be dedicated but they know how to have fun.

‘We like to crack open the wine bottles when we go to competitions.’ admits Jenny, emphasising that this tends to happen after the performance and not before.

The women stayed in a hotel for the weekend for the Birmingham contest and Jenny says there were a lot of impromptu singing sessions. ‘We discovered the reception area had great acoustics. So we thought we’d entertain the guests for a while. People seemed to like it.’

The women were nervous before they went on stage.

‘You always worry about breathing because you want people to sing a lovely long phrase and that’s hard with nerves’ says Jenny.

But seventh is their best placing yet, so the chorus are triumphant for another year.