From humble beginnings around a living room sofa, the Portsmouth Military Wives’ Choir has grown into something beautiful.
The group, now entering its fourth year, has more than 70 singers and has performed everywhere from football clubs to grand concert halls.
Assistant musical director Kim Martin, 30, says the choir is far more than the sum of its parts.
‘There’s a buzz that you get as soon as the choir breaks into harmony and you can hear all of these individual voices working as one,’ she says.
‘There’s nothing quite like it.’
But the choir is not all about singing for its members, who often endure long stretches apart from their armed forces partners when they are sent on deployment abroad.
For these women the choir means friendship and fun, a sympathetic ear and an occasional shoulder to cry on.
Kim says: ‘To have a bunch of other people who know exactly what you’re going through is really handy.’
The first Military Wives’ Choir was started in 2010 at Catterick garrison in Yorkshire. Choirmaster Gareth Malone threw his support behind the idea, starting groups at two MoD bases in Devon and featuring the singers on his BBC show, The Choir.
The choir’s single, Wherever You Are, debuted at No 1 on the charts and raised more than £500,000 for SSAFA and the Royal British Legion.
This success inspired Kim, who has sung in choirs since the age of 12, to start a Portsmouth chapter the following year.
She says: ‘Knowing the sparseness of the military patches in this area, I thought this was just the sort of thing that we needed to bring us all together.
‘We used to rehearse at my house in Hill Head and then it got so popular that we had to find somewhere else.’
The choir now rehearses weekly at HMS Collingwood in Fareham.
Kim says she is thrilled with how much the choir has grown.
‘To see the group go from my front room over a little keyboard to playing at the Albert Hall is really special,’ she says.
‘It has been almost like seeing your little baby grow up.’
Choir member Lynne Vinton, 40, says joining the group was ‘the best thing I’ve ever done’.
Lynne moved to Gosport three years ago from Northern Ireland with her husband, Alan, who is a weapons engineer in HMS Diamond.
‘In my case I moved here from a different landmass and knew nobody,’ she says.
‘I didn’t know where I was going to fit in.
‘I joined the choir after I saw it advertised in The News and I had never been made to feel more welcome in my life. To have people around you who are in the same boat is a wonderful feeling, and it just feels good to sing – it releases the endorphins.’
Lynne says the choir performed at the D-Day 70 commemorations at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June last year.
‘To share the same stage as Katherine Jenkins, Sir Patrick Stewart and others was amazing,’ she says.
Lynne says there are about 75 choirs across the country and the Portsmouth group is one of the largest.
She says that if a military wife relocates with her husband to a place where there is no choir, a charity called the Military Wives’ Choirs Foundation can help them start one.
Lynne says the Portsmouth group is looking for a new musical director, which is one of the few paid roles in the choir.
The choir’s first show of the year will be a joint concert with the Royal Marines Association Concert Band at the Worthing Assembly Hall on February 1.
At a glance
PORTSMOUTH MILITARY WIVES’ CHOIR
WHERE: The choir rehearses at HMS Collingwood in Fareham.
WHEN: Rehearsals take place Tuesdays from 7.45pm to 9.45pm.
CONTACT: Anyone interested in joining can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or find the group on-line at facebook.com/PortsmouthMilitaryWivesChoir
NEXT PERFORMANCE: The choir’s first performance of 2015 will be in Worthing on February 1, visit worthingtheatres.co.uk to book.
It’s become like family
When she joined the Military Wives’ Choir, 41-year-old Vanessa Bray couldn’t have imagined that she would one day be sharing the stage with a huge mechanical horse.
But that’s exactly what she got after successfully auditioning, along with Kim Martin, to join the cast of War Horse at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.
The performance was broadcast on BBC2 TV in December.
Vanessa said the atmosphere on stage was ‘electric’.
‘We had all auditioned to be there and the war horse from the West End show was there performing as well,’ she says.
Vanessa has served in the Royal Air Force for more than 20 years, and currently works as an air traffic controller at NATS in Swanwick.
She became part of the choir two years ago after relocating to Hill Head from Boscombe Down base in Wiltshire.
Vanessa says: ‘My husband was concerned that I didn’t know any ladies on the married patch where we lived.
‘So I got in touch with Sarah Kiff who was in the choir and she encouraged me come down to join so I could meet more women and have a bit of a social life.
‘I’ve made some really good friends . We go around to each others’ houses for wine and nibbles.
‘It’s become like a family.’
Singing our hearts out
Although she joined the choir just last September, Sam Mundell has already had experiences that have touched her heart.
Sam, 44, speaks fondly of the group’s performance at a Remembrance Day service at the memorial next to the Portsmouth Guildhall.
‘It was so special singing in front of all the veterans and the forces personnel.
‘The looks on their faces was just incredible.’
Sam was in the Women’s Royal Naval Service for seven years, and her husband, Andy, is an former navy petty officer.
While in the Wrens Sam worked as a radio operator in Portsmouth and London.
Now living in Gosport, she’s busy raising four children and treasures the opportunity to sing with the choir.
She says: ‘I wanted to get out of the house and meet some new friends and that I’ve done.
‘It’s really lovely being together with the other women, singing our hearts out.’
Sam says her favourite choir song is the remembrance hymn For The Fallen.
‘That’s a really lovely one to sing.’
A break from ‘life in a blue suit’
The benefit Julie Thain-Smith gets from the choir is somewhat different to most of the other members.
As a Royal Navy captain, Julie says the group helps her stay grounded when she is away on assignment.
Julie spent 10 months last year stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, working as a medical advisor for the International Security Assistance Force.
She says regular contact with her friends from the choir helped keep her sane during the mission.
‘All I did there was work, eat, sleep, repeat, 14 hours a day, seven days a week,’ she says. ‘I was living in a parallel universe.
‘The ladies kept in touch with me and sent me parcels and kept me up to date with everything that was going on – all the gossip and the funny things.
‘Keeping that link back to my life was really important to me.’
Julie says even though most British troops withdrew from Afghanistan last year, the mission there would continue for years to come.
‘Because all the combat troops have left people assume that the UK is out of Afghanistan, but we’re not,’ she says.
‘There are still 500 people up in Kabul doing training, advising and assisting.’
Julie’s husband, Darren, is also in the navy and when not on deployment they live in Lee-on-the-Solent.
As they are both in the armed forces they are no strangers to separation, which is why Julie joined the choir.
‘I wanted to do something that was not work and mix with other kindred spirits who understood where I was coming from,’ she says.
‘Our whole married life either I’ve been away or he’s been away.
‘That’s life in a blue suit, as they say.’
Choir gives Michelle ‘a burst of joy’
Though she hasn’t sung in a choir since her school days, 27-year-old Michelle Pickering says joining the Military Wives’ Choir was an easy step to take.
‘I’ve always loved singing and music so I thought what could be better than joining a choir?,’ she says.
‘I get a burst of joy from being with the other ladies and being able to contribute to the group.’
Michelle’s husband, Jason, is in the navy, and she joined the choir a year ago.
She says: ‘I wanted to meet up with other women in a similar situation.’
Michelle says she enjoys the variety of songs the choir performs.
‘We sing everything from Annie’s Song to special songs like For the Fallen, which was written especially for remembrance.
‘And then we also sing modern days songs by artists like P!nk, or Pharrell’s Happy, so we’ve got a wide repertoire.’