What does the word ‘home’ mean to you? Is it the bricks and mortar that you come and go from everyday, or is it the place that you feel most safe and secure? This idea is what the Dublin branch of the High Hopes Community Choir explored recently with their ambitious new project staged as part of This is Pop Baby’s ‘Where We Live’ performance series at the St Patrick’s Festival. High Hopes have a particularly special insight into the word as they are no ordinary choir, being entirely made up by individuals who have experienced the hardship of having nowhere at all to call home.
The choir was founded in 2014 by David Brophy, a former conductor and was the subject of of a moving RTE documentary series. It’s been a life-changing and emotional journey for everyone involved, and after the cameras stopped rolling, one that has brought them as far and wide as Brussels for a performance in front of the European Parliament to the stage at the Electric Picnic festival – twice, but the choir’s most exciting new phase ‘Home’ brought together music, spoken word, drama and visuals in a one-hour special.
Glenn Alexander, the group’s Managing Coordinator, explains how the choir has evolved since the documentary series, and why the project was extra special to them; “I’ve worked with individuals affected by homelessness for 20 years and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t to help get people out of homelessness. With the choir I can really see what an impact it’s had on the people involved. This is the choir’s fourth year, so we’ve started experimenting with different art forms, like drama and spoken word. When the St Patrick’s Festival Committee approached us and told us that the theme of this year’s festival was ‘Home is Where the Heart Is’, we thought it was very interesting because the word ‘home’ has so many connotations, especially to the people here. It doesn’t necessarily mean the roof that you have over you head. For some members, the choir itself is home. It’s a place to be once a week. They have to be here on a particular day at a particular time so it provides structure and a sense of belonging. You can give someone the keys to the property tomorrow but boredom, isolation and lack of social interaction become a problem. The choir helps to build up their self-esteem and self-worth. Every aspect of the project is coming from them. They’re working with their tutors to create the content. Our goal is to create a home once a week, to create a community within that home and within that community find pieces of magic in performance.”
Maria Byrne is someone who has experienced that magic first-hand, having recently celebrated a year being part of the choir. She credits it with bringing her out of her shell; “When I first joined the choir I was so shy, but I’m not anymore. I’m very confident in myself now and absolutely love doing the concerts. You can really see how it affects the quieter people like myself. I’m so happy to be here a year. It’s like having a full family. I love everything about being part of the group.”
Paul Haughan had been in long-term supported housing before going into independent living and was finding it incredibly isolating, everything changed when he discovered the choir; “When I heard about the choir I was quite interested because I had always loved singing from a very young age. I made a phone call and got speaking to Glenn. He told me where and when the choir met every Monday night and I went along to rehearsals. It’s been a very positive experience and I’ve met lots of new friends. When you’re living on your own in an apartment block the isolation is unbelievable. There’s no neighbours anymore. You could go into your apartment and not see anyone for days. I’ve suffered a lot with depression down through the years and being on your own can be very depressing. Face-to-face communication is important to me because I’m a people person. That’s what art, drama and the support of Glenn and Carmel (Whelan, the choir’s Musical Director) has given me. They’re brilliant. If you have any issues at all you can pick up the phone and talk to them, and they’ll never judge you. I have to say it’s been an amazing journey. I’d be lost without them.”
Glenn agrees that this group have become very close over the years and look out for one another; “We’ve been very blessed because you can pull together a bunch of people and not really know how everyone will get on, but with the Dublin choir there was a real sense of camaraderie straight away. They’re like siblings, except that over the 4 years there’s never been a row! They leave their issues at the door. Everyone encourages everyone else along. Eventually some become peer leaders in the group, and are given more responsibility and tasks to carry out. It’s all about their personal development.”
Lisa McEnroe, another member, spent years moving from hostel to hostel before finally getting a place to live, but its the choir that she feels really made a difference to her situation; “2 years ago I got the keys to my own home. As Paul was saying there is a big difference. If it wasn’t for the choir I wouldn’t be here now if I’m being honest. Having that day every week keeps us going.Your confidence gets built up. You wouldn’t have seen me doing something like this 3 or 4 years ago. I had no confidence whatsoever in myself. Even the name High Hopes gives us hope. I mean look at me after being homeless for 3 and a half years! Its given me big hope for the future. We were all connected straight away, because they’ve been through what I’ve been through. You start to realise that there are people out there who are worse off than you.”
Allison Sweeney sang her first solo last month; “I sang Let it Be by The Beatles. When I started in the choir I had just come out of hospital after a breakdown and had no home. I saw a sign about the choir in Focus Ireland coffee shop. I used to sing years ago and was in concerts and musical societies when I was younger. I rang Glenn and started going to rehearsals. It went on from there.”
For Allison the hospital had literally become home. She felt well enough to leave but literally had nowhere to go. By the time she finally left, her confidence was at an all-time low. “Sometimes it’s scarier when you’re better than when you’re unwell. I was very institutionalised. The transformation for me has been unbelievable. In hospital I was like a zombie in a bed and had everyone doing everything for me. I was so anxious that I couldn’t even walk to the end of the road. To look back and see how far I’ve come is amazing. Everyone here has taken big steps from where they’ve been. The choir has done amazing things for us all.”
The choir now have an extremely busy schedule, performing at around 80 events a year all over the country, and beyond. They’re biggest gig so far has been performing alongside The Script at 3Arena.
“My email goes in the middle of the night with requests for them to perform,” says Glenn, “They work hard and are given tough songs to learn. We have high expectations of them because if you keep them low it diminishes what we’re trying to achieve here, which is a great sounding choir.”
“I’d love if people could have seen what went on behind the scenes at the concert in Christchurch, which was the documentary finale. When they finished their performance and stepped off the stage a lot of them broke down. These are people that had been lost in the system for years. They had lost their voice and all their confidence. To stand in a building like Christchurch and to have people applaud their singing was absolutely huge. Whatever they had lost, they had found it again.”
You can find out more about High Hopes Choir here…