Singer-songwriter Sam Chaplin is one of those people who can’t help by re-invigorate your faith in humanity. A gifted musician, Chaplin gives a lot back, leading song-writing classes for vulnerable adults, children, and young people with disabilities in prison. He also serves as musical director for The Choir With No Name, an inspiring London-based project for people affected by homelessness and other vulnerable members of society. He speaks with genuine passion about his belief in the healing power of music, and his arguments are convincing. Sam was kind enough to spare some time to talk to me about creativity and mental health. We began with some brief biographical information.
Sam Chaplin: I was born in Kingston-upon-Thames and grew up there. It’s a great shopping town with a beautiful old market place. My parents are both musical. I went to the local grammar school which had really great music opportunities. My dad bought me an Amstrad stereo when I was 12 – it had a four-track recording facility and it came with four microphones. It was a really bad quality bit of kit but, with my Casio keyboard, I recorded my first pop song: ‘You are the only one.” I’m still proud of it as a song, but I’m not sure the recording exists anywhere!
I ask Sam what it is about music that appeals to him over other creative art forms?
Sam Chaplin: I love all creative art forms, novels, poetry, fine art. It’s just that I can do music! Whilst people can spend a lifetime studying and honing the art of music, I am also a great believer that everyone can make music and find their own expression, their sound, their song. This is something I love facilitating in workshops in schools, in prisons, in hostels with people with disabilities – there’s always music. And when you find the music, when you release the music, you release joy.
I wonder how Sam became involved with Choir With No Name?
Sam Chaplin: When I started dating my (now) wife, she lived with a woman who was a choir-leader working with community groups. On my first visit to their flat she said she needed an accompanist for a pensioners’ choir rehearsal that week. Wanting to show off and seem really helpful, I said I’d be happy to pop along and play. I was in awe of what this woman could do, and how with a few simple tricks she got this unlikely group singing amazingly and having such a great time. I went on to work with her for two years as an accompanist.
Sam was inspired to build up a group of his own…
Sam Chaplin: I then started up Sing Hammersmith, a community choir with my wife – we had an amazing time and had so many stories of people struggling with all kinds of issues, often metal health related, and they all spoke of how singing had become a lifeline for them. During this time I heard about the Choir With No Name, because they often used jazz/session musicians that I knew as accompanists, and I was intrigued. I had seen the power of singing to create communities and bring so much joy, and I loved the idea of bringing this into a community of people whose lives had been affected by homelessness. So when I heard they were starting a new choir in South London I applied for the job – auditioned (with my tricks and tools!) and got the job starting in November 2012.
What does this work involve day-to-day?
Sam Chaplin: In collaboration with the choir members, we pick the music we sing, I arrange the music for the choir and I lead the rehearsals. I use a series of fun games and exercises that help people find and connect with their voices and slowly work through their inhibitions, so they can really start singing out. It’s a kind of stealth process of teaching singing technique. I always make sure there’s quite a lot of general well-being – stretching and breathing exercises that might be just as at home in a yoga class. Connecting with your breath is a fundamental for singing, but also is a great tool working through anxiety and feeling great. Then we crack on with the task of learning the songs. Sometimes my role is navigating situations where tempers get frayed, but this is rare and the more you get to know people on a one to one basis, and develop friendship and trust, the more these situations tend to disappear.
Sam has seen first-hand the positive effects of his work.
Sam Chaplin: It is so good for mental health. At the start of rehearsals, I often congratulate the choir members for turning up! For some people, just turning up is a battle, but walking through those doors and deciding to be present is such a powerful step in pushing back the darkness of depression. Biologically it has been proven that singing releases oxytocin (the happiness chemical) into the blood system. I encourage choir members to take very short, achievable, solos in our songs, and you can see people change in terms of their own personal confidence. When you have stood up in front of a room or a concert hall and sung solo, suddenly turning up to a job interview doesn’t seem so daunting. We have many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in the choir and many of them have said that recovery is not just about giving up stuff, it’s finding really good things to replace them with – and choir is that for many of them – especially when all other socialising is focussed on the pub or places that threaten to drag them down.
The Choir With No Name is about more than just singing.
Sam Chaplin: When we finish our rehearsal, we enter another room and find long tables ready to greet us with piping hot food. We have partnered with other charities like City Harvest, who drive round London picking up unsold food that would be thrown away and they turn up and deliver food to us. The members leave with bags and pockets full of healthy food for the coming week. All of these activities – drinking tea, singing together, eating together, are community-building and foster great supportive friendships. I have been blown away by the peer support within the choir – people loyally visiting one another in hospital over weeks and often checking in on each other. The choir often acts as a place to signpost people to services that will help them, and our choir managers are experienced in these areas. We are increasing our policy of co-production with our members, where they get an increasingly large role in running the choir and the gigs we do, giving them increasing responsibility and training.
I’m curious as to what sort of people come to the sessions?
Sam Chaplin: We have a whole spectrum of people at very different stages on their journey. We don’t have loads of ‘street homeless,’ mainly because life is so brutal and chaotic at this point in the journey that being a regular member of a choir is often quite unrealistic. But we do have some who are rough sleeping. Others are in hostels, temporary accommodation, or further down the social housing route. Some thought they were just ‘sofa surfing’ for a while and then realised they had to admit they were homeless. We have some people with learning difficulties, some with autism, many with mental health struggles. Some with addiction issues. Those are the ‘problems’ but that’s not really where the focus is – we have so many fun, funny, friendly, raw, honest beautiful people.
I finish by asking Sam about some of the choir’s most memorable performances.
Sam Chaplin: Our Christmas shows have always been the highlight. We gather all our Choir With No Name choirs (at the moment Brighton, Birmingham, London and Liverpool) and find a large stage to perform on. We’ve performed in the Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square, and Brighton Dome and the Royal Festival Hall. I love seeing our choir members singing solo on these stages to sold out crowds – in the same spots where rock stars have stood. There is always plenty of audience participation and sing-along and by the end of the night the whole venue is erupting with joy. I can still see in my mind’s eye a woman who had suffered years of domestic violence and been made to feel so very small, standing tall on stage boldly singing solo, digging so deep, stepping up. One I’ll always remember was when we led a workshop for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in a women’s hostel – the singing was so powerful and heartfelt I could feel it in every fibre of my being – the joy that is singing as if your life depended on it. That’s what my song “Sing It Out” is about.