They have received the Community Impact Award at this year’s Lanarkshire Business Excellence Awards. If you don’t know them yet, it won’t be difficult to understand, after reading this interview, why they won in this category. What started as a community choir 10 years ago —and has now around 500 members— has grown and evolved to the point of singing alongside artists such as Amy MacDonald and performing in venues of the likes of SSE Hydro in Glasgow. Beside the choirs, SoundSational Community Music delivers music education and mental health workshops and operates a teaching academy.
Tommy Chambers (Musical and Managing Director), and Rachel Smith (Director) take pride in what they do and what SoundSational has achieved in this decade; they have built a successful, inclusive and multi-generational musical project with the members of the community, placing North Lanarkshire in the national and international music scene.
Q. Congratulations on winning the Community Impact Award at the Lanarkshire Business Excellence. What does this award mean for you?
Tommy. Next year we’re going to be 10 years old, and we work with around 500 plus people a week in the community, from P6 to people in their eighties. The award is recognition for all of their hard work and something they helped to build with SoundSational.
We started SoundSational but the community built it, so it’s a great award to show recognition for all the members of SoundSational who’ve participated in almost 10 years.
How does SoundSational serve the community and why is it important in a place like North Lanarkshire?
T. We’re both products of North Lanarkshire’s education system, so it was important for myself when I started in SoundSational to be based in North Lanarkshire.
I came all the way through school, and the music programmes and the groups we had in school, but there was a noticeable absence for people who worked hard all the way through school. SoundSational makes music accessible to people. We have an open-door policy with no additions for anyone. Everyone can take part in SoundSational.
Rachel. I think music is something a lot of people find is such a great outlet in their lives, but equally a lot of people feel that it’s maybe something they just couldn’t quite do, they’re not good enough, they wouldn’t know how to get into it, it’s something that can often feel like quite a close door. I think SoundSational being there allows so many people to discover music, to find what music means for them and their lives, and how it can actually make such a big impact and everything else that we’ve all got going on in times like this.
T.For the community, SoundSational started off as a choir, a community choir. It was accessible to anyone. You don’t have to read music, you don’t have to sing like Beyoncé or Pavarotti; anyone can join. But very quickly we became one of Scotland’s top choirs; so we started winning awards pretty quickly and we went out to do about 40 events per year. For all the members of SoundSational -the senior choir has approximately 120 people in that choir, and the junior choir has about 25ish- those guys perform as I said about 40 times a year, and in the past coming up to 10 years, they’ve been involved in events that helped raise over half a million pounds for charities –a lot of them based mostly on Lanarkshire- but also internationally as well, from street kids in Brazil to a kids’ hospice association in Scotland. That’s got such a wide impact across our community, plus the members of SoundSational get to perform on huge stages. We’ve just finished being part of Hugh Jackman’s tour and performing to 13,000 to 16,000 people per show. So the difference that makes to the individuals’ lives in SoundSational, in terms of achieving huge goals, confidence, self-belief, get them up on a stage with 16,000 people watching, that’s the impact.
Q. What would you say to someone that would like to join SoundSational but is afraid of stepping forward?
R. We always say: “If you can talk, you can sing”. So if you think music is something that you want to be a part of your life, then you just have to take that first step through the door, everyone is welcome in places like this, and no one will ever be turned away.
T. Singing is probably the easiest way to access music. As Rachel said, if you can talk, you can use your voice to sing. But every single person, you know, we all have our own personal soundtracks; from when we were kids, getting our favourite lot of rhymes, to the first time we had a break-up. All of these songs that get through our full life. So music makes you feel things. If you think you want to sing, you just come along to SoundSational. There is no addition, you just come in, say ‘hello’; everyone is really lovely. And then you get to perform and do fantastic gigs.
Q. What other activities and partnership work do you do?
T. SoundSational is a community arts organisation specialising in music. We started as a choir, and very quickly grew arms and legs, and the choir became so big that it had to become a full time organisation. And with that choir there is tones of additional support, you know? We are open on seven days per week, and we close one week a year, between Christmas and New Year. So people that come along and sing in a choir, they get signposted to tones of other support, for whatever they need in their life. Within SoundSational, we also have an educational delivery team, so during the day we’re working in schools in West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, delivering a music and mental health and wellbeing programme to P6 and P7 pupils. We also have our teaching academy in here, where we do one-to-one support, from beginners to university students, whatever level you are at. As well as SoundSational, we also work with Unchained Productions, which is a production company affiliated with SoundSational. Last year we had a musical written for mental health and wellbeing, for part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, and we are also based in the Foundry Music Lab. So we have affiliations with the three companies in North Lanarkshire, serving people across North Lanarkshire. At the Foundry Music Lab you can come and do your HNC, HND and sound production course in the recording studio behind us here.
Q. Who can benefit from the opportunities that SoundSational offers?
R. One of the things that people enjoy most when coming to our choir is that people come from all walks of life. It’s multi-generational, we come from all over Scotland –we get people from up in Falkirk, we’ve got people from Edinburgh, all travelling into North Lanarkshire to come to this choir. We’ve got nurses, we’ve got teachers, we’ve got bankers, we’ve got unemployed, we’ve got young moms, older moms, we’ve got everyone you can possibly imagine, and everyone comes together to bond over that love of music and how it changes their lives. I think that would be why everyone can benefit and find their place in this organisation.
T. It’s open to everyone. If you love singing, you’re going to get a great time at SoundSational. There is a very small set of rules at the choir group, which is all about respect and having fun.
And in terms of Lanarkshire, we perform over in Europe, we perform in Portugal once or twice a year so we fly the flag for Lanarkshire overseas as well. People get to have adventures when overseas, going south, all over the place.
Q. How does the vision of North Lanarkshire as ‘the place to Live, Learn, Work, Invest and Visit’ fit with the work SoundSational does?
R. In terms of learning, I think the music education delivery programme that we offer at Soundsational is second to none across Scotland.
T. We are a product of North Lanarkshire’s school system. When I grew up there was a fantastic music programme, fantastic educators, fantastic teachers that inspired me to go on and have a life career in music. Based in North Lanarkshire, we’ve spent two months working with the States, working with Philadelphia, with Washington. We regularly perform with the BBC, you’ve mentioned a few performances you’ve watched online. That’s all based from North Lanarkshire. In this studio, we walk up the corridor and someone is phoning from the States to make a record here, in North Lanarkshire, in Craigneuk. North Lanarkshire has always had a tremendous amount of musical ability and musical and creative talent, so it’s great seeing that being publicised more and advertised more.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add about the work you do?
T. I am the managing director, but it’s always been important that the board has a voice for the whole community. Where you 15 or 16 when you came into the board?
T. Fifteen when you came onto the board as a director, and that’s important because I don’t have the eyes of a 15 year-old. Also I don’t have the eyes of a 60 year-old either. But we’ve got older members in the board, younger members in the board and a great representation from the community.
R. I think it’s the family feel we’ve got at SoundSational is really inclusive to everyone, so going back almost ten years myself and other young people we started in the junior choir and we feel like growing up through this organisation and now we are leading the way for more young people coming through and kind of building their lives around the ethos that we have in this company.
T. When we started SoundSational 10 years ago, one of the main things I was thinking about at the time it was, you know, if you’re going to open the door and have a community choir, it has to be sustainable. I don’t want to start doing a service for 2 weeks, they have a great experience and then there is nothing. So it had to be sustainable. We’ve got a junior choir, we’ve got a senior choir and our board, the delivery team, the vast majority of people came through those choirs. So that means that when I get older and it’s time for retire everything is still getting push, it’s all getting driven, and it’s getting driver by new generations as well.
Q. You rehearse in Coatbridge on Wednesdays, right?
T. Every Wednesday, they come and… It’s not just singing, you know, we do dance routines, warm-up, stretching, physical exercises, breathing, etc. before we get to sing any note. And then when you sing in a group, your brain produces chemicals and makes you feel like a unit, you know, endorphins, serotonins, make you feel good about life.
Q. What kind of music does SoundSational’s repertoire include?
T. People have their own soundtrack; we are multi-generational. So the deal is we can pick a song for our older members or a song as current as being in the charts last week, and everyone in the choir sings those songs. So young people may have been singing ‘Moon River’ at some point, and our older people would be doing dance routines to ‘The Greatest Show’ or Bruno Marz.