Choral leader, author, forest bather and creator of Sofa Singers, James Sills joins us for Podcast 12

  • The paradox of needing to sing together but being prevented by Covid19 and Lockdown
  • Harmony and community and how they counter the sweeping epidemic of loneliness
  • How Sofa Singers began and the crazy explosion of interest
  • James’s own history of making music and the connection to health
  • And James shares the Sofa Singers’ Manifesto, which almost brings us to tears

Below is the transcript of the whole episode – you can listen on your favourite podcast platform via this link or click on this link to go to our own This Is A Voice podcast website: https://thisisavoice.buzzsprout.com

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Enjoy!

This Is A Voice podcast episode 12 LockdownHeroes – James Sills Do Sing Sofa Singers

Announcer 0:14
This Is A Voice, a podcast with Dr. Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher.

Jeremy 0:24
Hello and welcome to podcast 12. And we’re in lockdown right now both in Wales and England is about to go into lockdown. We’re recording this on November the third and Lockdown of course in impacts and influences everyone. Now we have a special guest today.

Gillyanne Kayes 0:40
Yes. Can I just say before I do the intro is that there are, you know, legions of choir leaders and performers and theatre group leaders who have gone into despair because we’ve gone back into lockdown again, and the impact not only on the performing art industry, but on the kind of the people who sing for joy and pleasure.

And the psyche as well, the psyche of the singer

The psychological thing, it’s a huge impact. So it seems to mean that there is nothing better that I can do than to read…

Jeremy 1:17
Do Sing

Gillyanne Kayes 1:18
a little bit of our guest…

Jeremy 1:21
Our special guest, yes, our special guest today is James Sills and he’s the author of Do Sing in 2019. Gillyanne’s just gonna read a little bit out that really struck a chord with us.

Gillyanne Kayes 1:30
Yeah, this is from chapter seven, and it’s Harmonise. “When we sing together, we create harmony, not just musically, but in the broader sense of the word. Harmony comes from the Greek word Harmonia, which means joined, in agreement, concord. And this is what it feels like to sing together. A feeling of connection, unity and fellowship. To sing together is to be part of a community, your voice is heard. It’s powerful. And there’s never been a greater need for this.”

Jeremy 2:09
James, what a great thing to write. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you.

James 2:14
Thank you. It’s lovely to see you both. And hear you both. Of course we’re on audio and video.

Jeremy 2:20
Yes.

Gillyanne Kayes 2:21
Actually reading that yesterday when we were thinking about, you know, how should we lead James in? I nearly cried. Because you wrote that, presumably between 2018 and 2019. And here we are right now, in the situation? Nothing could have been more prophetic in some ways. Did you know it?

James 2:44
Yeah. Well, absolutely. And yeah, like you say, when I wrote that, I was very much aware of the need to come together to build community, or things that I’m sure we’re going to talk about today. And then when when lockdown happened, and we found ourselves in the situation that we are now, you know, there’s this paradox, we need to come together even more, we need to feel that fellowship and community even more, but we can’t. And so it’s a very, very interesting time, isn’t it? And I hadn’t really read that in the context of where we are now. But But absolutely, Gillyanne Yeah. What a lovely place to start.

Gillyanne Kayes 3:22
Well, thank you for writing the book. I think in in the same chapter, you quote someone who’s talking about us living in an age of loneliness, yes.

James 3:32
Absolutely. Yeah.

Gillyanne Kayes 3:34
Connect with each other. Yeah.

James 3:37
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think it was George Monbiot, who kind of coined the phrase, but we know that, you know, there’s, across the particularly the Western world, but you know, it’s, it’s not a particularly a particular demographic or a particular age, age group. There is, you know, this kind of sweeping epidemic of loneliness that really, really, you know, were his main concerns me and you can you can see it almost at every level. within society, you know, that there’s no one, one particular reason, but but strong communities are dissolving, people are becoming more atomized. And, you know, this is completely against our nature as humans, you know, we are social beings, we’ve always been social beings, we’ve always come together in groups. And that’s why, you know, for me that the singing experience is just so important, because not only are we coming together, and we’re in the same physical space, or at least we used to be, and we will be again someday. But you know, there is so much that goes on when people are singing together in terms of bonding, and there’s been so much research that kind of confirms our intuition, that when we sing with other people, we feel really deeply connected to them. And so it’s been a complete revelation for me that, that that same feeling can be replicated when we’re singing together online, which has been the only option you know, for the last seven or eight months.

Jeremy 5:00
I mean, we couldn’t go any further without talking about Sofa Singers. Tell us about Sofa Singers, what happened?

James 5:08
Okay, well, it was the beginning of March, there was a sense that we were going to be going into lockdown very soon. And that, you know, the singing would have to stop. And it did. And actually singing was one of the last things that was kind of relaxed. Anyway, that’s maybe a separate conversation. And so, for me, it was a knee jerk reaction, just thinking, what what can I do, as you know, as a vocal leader, to help bring people together to sing even, you know, when we have to be in our own homes, and we can’t actually be together in the same physical space. And I think it was, it was the weekend that we saw the amazing singing in the streets in Italy, people are singing from their balconies.

I think the way it starts is I think I posted about it on Instagram. And I said, you know, can we do this online somehow, and so many people dived in and said, Yes, we must, you know, come on James, you can do this. And so I then felt a slight weight of responsibility, and slightly giddy with excitement at the possibility. And so I then kind of committed us okay, in two days, I’ll send out a zoom link. And we’ll all get together to sing on zoom. And I’d never use zoom at that point. I didn’t really know how this was going to work. I knew that we couldn’t synchronise our voices, because the latency but I thought, you know, I just need to do something. And so yeah, two days later, it was the 17th of March 200 people no 500 people sorry, that the zoom capacity joins me from every corner of the world, goodness knows how everybody found out about it. And we spent an hour and a half singing stand by me, people joining with our families.

Afterwards, people shared songs and stories with a bit of an open mic. And, you know, we close the zoom session and felt elated we felt connected. We, you know, we felt hopeful, I think at a time when when people were feeling hopeless. And then, you know, the next month was quite, quite a roller coaster ride, really, because we were on the BBC News, it was on American TV, I was doing interviews with so many newspapers. But for me, it was just amazing that there was all this interest suddenly in singing, but not singing for the sake of singing, but singing for the sake of building community for connecting ourselves to support our well being. And that very much is the theme of the book, as you know. And that’s always been very much my kind of interest has been bringing that message into more of a mainstream forum, because I think the mainstream narratives around singing, particularly solo singing around competing around technicality about can or can’t. And, of course, that that that has its place. But I feel that there’s there’s more than one narrative. And so too, I guess, you know, it was the kind of the jewel realisation that I was been able to connect people twice a week through zoom, and for me to really enjoy that and to really, you know, enjoy nourishing that community, but at the same time to then have a bit more of a platform to talk about singing in this way. Yeah, has been amazing and continues to be amazing.

Jeremy 8:14
I think reading the reading your, you do a little nine point Biography at the beginning of Do Sing, which is great, which is basically where you where you come from, as in how music has always been part of your life. And of course, you are still, I’m sorry, old enough to have had singing in assembly at school, which has,

James 8:34
oh, yeah,

Jeremy 8:35
disappeared now. So that’s always a basis for people to start with. But because of your background, and your your experience, and the way that you work, community and health have always been really strong, and they’re still really strong and everything that you do. Talk to us about that.

Gillyanne Kayes 8:52
It’s well being, isn’t it? James, I think I want to sort of put health under that wider umbrella. That’s certainly what I picked up from you. Yeah.

James 9:00
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if I, you know, if I think about, you know, the My earliest music, making experiences, I can’t separate them from the communities in which, you know, they were linked to, you know, whether it was singing with my dad and football terraces, or whether it was singing in assembly, or when I was a bit older, playing trombone in the local brass band. Then when I was a bit older, writing songs and trying to sing, like Kurt Cobain doing Nirvana covers with my mates, you know, this full spectrum of music making. For me, the music was almost secondary to the, you know, the role that it kind of facilitated in me being part of those communities. And so I’ve never in my mind had a separation of the two.

It’s never been kind of music over here and kind of community and health and well being over here. It’s been part of the same thing. And I think maybe in the last five to 10 years has been a real kind of upsurge of interest in it and you know, Think, you know, even the word well being, you know, wasn’t in mainstream use probably five or 10 years ago. And and it’s so often it’s only obvious when you look back isn’t it, but I think for me, it’s always been about communal group, communal music making, that’s the thing that’s always made me tick. I, you know, I’ve never been particularly good at spending hours in a room practising on my own, it’s always been the joy of connecting with other people, and just feeling part of that sound. You know, for for a lot of years, I felt like, I didn’t really have a musical home, you know, I played in orchestras and big bands, and, and, you know, all kinds of different musical context. But I think that the common thread was, was making music with other people, and feeling part of that sound, and working with other people to create something beautiful. And I think all of those things have kind of led me to do what I’m doing now.

And I think the thing that’s so wonderful about the voice is that it’s, it’s so democratic, you know, it took me years and years of playing and practising the trombone to get to the point where I could make music in a really kind of profound and meaningful and enjoyable way. And I think, with singing, it can be so much more immediate, and that that was a real revelation for me maybe seven or eight years ago, to kind of realise that, I suppose and, and, you know, there’s so many things about singing as well, you know, the fact that it has words, and that adds another level of power and connection to that in terms of emotional connection. And so it kind of felt for me, you know, yeah, maybe seven or eight years ago, when when singing became such a big part of my practice, that so many of these threads started coming together.

Because all through university had a really strong interest in music therapy, I actually thought that that was going to be my my kind of Route, because as music therapists, you don’t tend to then train until, you know, maybe in your late 20s, or early 30s, when you’ve had a bit of experience. So my loose plan was, was to come back to that. And I do feel very much that the work that I do, does have a strong therapeutic element, not that I would ever put that on a poster or advertise that in my marketing necessarily, I like people to come to that themselves. So but everything you’re saying about health and well being I, yeah, it completely resonates with me. And I think, you know, as I go on with my singing work, they’re the areas that I’m really, really interested in. I mean, for example, last weekend, I was facilitating a workshop at a festival called the good grief festival, festival builders, a festival of love and lost, and I was leading a session there, which was designed for people to feel that, that community of singing together, but also use that as a space to reflect and to agreement and do whatever they needed to do through through the song. And so that that was a real privilege for me, but it’s really interesting. You know, I’m still relatively new into my freelance career, but to find myself in those spaces, which aren’t the kind of strict singing context, but they are, you know, kind of forums for discussing ideas around health and well being and what it what it means to live. Really, I mean, if that doesn’t sound too, grandiose,

Gillyanne Kayes 13:10
totally does. And you know, if we’re not gonna think about that now, yeah. In 2020, when are we ever going to think about it? And I do feel it’s one of the, you know, the positive outcomes of people being forced into lockdown, that they’re stopping and thinking, actually, what is life about? Do I need to work so hard for this success, you know, we’ve been called the more generation, we must have more of this, we must have more of that more clothes, more money, more success. And suddenly, when that’s not in front of us anymore, you know, maybe we’re looking up to the trees or the sky, or we’re looking across the table, to members of our family, and saying, actually, this is more important, and I don’t want to spend my life doing that. And I think it’s a huge lesson for all of us. I mean, we’ve changed the way we were working. As a result of delivering by zoom, the way that we teach has changed quite dramatically, and in a good way. And we’re not going back to teaching the way that we used to teach whether we’re in person or on zoom. Yeah, absolutely. We’ve learned from that experience.

Jeremy 14:18
I think it’s really interesting, because to me, that makes complete sense, what you’ve just been talking about that your route has taken you to voice and grief or voice and emotion. Because you are aware that when we sing there is emotion involved, because if there isn’t, this just doesn’t mean anything. Yeah. And you’re dealing with strong emotions. And you’re actually creating an arena where people can deal with strong emotions in a safe environment. And safe environments thing is so important because we have so few safe environments in the world at the moment.

James 14:54
Well, I’m sorry, yeah, all can say about that. Sorry Gillyanne, was that, I completely agree with you there, Jeremy. And I think the lovely thing about singing is that it is a safe space. But it’s not necessarily where you say to everybody, this is a safe space, let’s pass around the honesty stick. And, you know, because I think there are a lot of people who would be resistant to that, perhaps I would be maybe. But I think there’s so much that you can do in a communal singing environment, if you scaffold it in the right way, if you facilitate it in the right way, if you sort of facilitate it with passion and with love, where you don’t have to tell people what you’re trying to do, but they experience it for themselves. So just as an example, I run a men’s singing group called the Bebington Bitter Men, which is very much inspired by my singing with the Spooky Men’s Chorale.

And, you know, as we know, men are under represented particularly in the kind of community open access singing circles. And so I kind of wanted to create a space for men to come and sing together. And so we sing, you know, a really broad range of music. Of course, you know, we think sea shanties, we sing, you know, Georgian table songs. But we also sing really beautiful, poignant songs as well. We did a virtual choir video in the summer for a song by Graham Nash called simple man, which is you know about about vulnerability. And, you know, that then has created a space for 30 men to come together to sing about that. We’re not necessarily talking about it afterwards, I know that they now are a really great informal support network for each other. But just being in the room together, sharing those words, sharing that sentiment, knowing you know, there’s a common understanding there that we almost don’t need to, to, to say anything about it if we don’t want to. And I think that that’s really, really powerful in itself.

Jeremy 16:56
It’s the expression of human experience

Gillyanne Kayes 16:58
in where I’d sort of, because I, I wanted to interject and mention that in the book, you talk about find your singing tribe, and what we’ve been talking about in terms of community, you know, we are hardwired as humans, to connect with other people. And one of the reasons why people are experiencing stress in their lives, which leads to particularly chronic disease and chronic conditions is because they’re not doing that. And so what you’re talking about really, is that sense of tribal connection, even if it’s, it’s never articulated as such, that’s what people are experiencing, isn’t it?

James 17:40
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, like you say, we know that, that fee, if you’re feeling disconnected and isolated it, you know, there are so many, you know, side effects that will affect your health in a really detrimental way. So we do need to feel connected, but it’s also important, I think, to feel connected to people that share something of your values, or that you see something of yourselves in other people. And I think within the group singing world, you know, the world of kind of choirs, I think there are a lot of perhaps stereotypes that people who may be, you know, don’t know a lot about the singing world, in the choir world, think that choirs might be about, you know, choral societies, so you have to wear formal clothes and read sheet music and sing in a particular way. Or they might think that singing in a group is about what they’ve seen on Glee or Pitch Perfect. And they have to kind of do backflips and sing in a particular way. And of course, those are two, you know, very valid expressions of the singing experience. But there is so much more than that.

And that notion of the singing tribe, I think, I genuinely feel that there is the right singing group out there for everybody. But it might take them some time to find it, you know. So I don’t think that there’s kind of one size fits all for everybody. So a little bit like if I go back to example of the Bebington Bitter Men, I feel like I’ve created the singing group that is attracting men to join, that they might not have joined another group, you know, so, you know, a lot of them attending, I haven’t felt compelled to join a barbershop chorus or haven’t wanted to join a male voice choir, but there’s something about this group that feels right to me. And that’s a space that I’m really interested in as a facilitator is how can we keep creating spaces that are bringing people into singing? You know, where they didn’t feel that they were being served before?

And so this is why, you know, I like to gently you know, kind of challenge a lot of the established perceptions about group singing because I don’t know if you think about cookery programmes on TV, right? bandwidth bear with me on this. Yeah, okay. Well, they go you watch all of them because there’s a huge spectrum, right? There’s a huge spectrum of approaches of chefs of perspectives, you know, and so you probably align yourself with a particular approach or a particular for a particular philosophy. I feel that in the singing world, there’s a real lack of diversity, and a real lack of kind of approaches, you know, and so that people don’t really see the full relative of what’s going on out there. And I think that’s partly perhaps because of TV, you know, because they’re very keen to go with Jeopardy and competition, because that’s what makes great TV.

Jeremy 20:32
Yes.

James 20:35
But, you know, for me, it’s, it’s always been about the process. It’s been about the process of listening and learning and growing and collaborating. And maybe that’s not as easy to, to transmit on TV, maybe, you know, it’s not going to take the viewing ratings. But I feel if there was a greater diversity in the media, particularly television in the way that there is with with cooking and approaches to that, I think maybe people could find their singing try, maybe a little bit quicker. And, and that’s the thing, really, I just feel that there is so much to gain from singing with other people in terms of health and well being and community, that it’s a real disservice if people don’t find a forum in which they feel safe to sing. You know, I’ve had so many people, you know, I’ve run predominantly adult, kind of, you know, workshops, working with adults now. And I’ve had so many people who who might join who were in their later years who say, I wish I’d have found this quiet, or whichever found a quiet that resonates with me, you know, 30 or 40 years ago,

Jeremy 21:38
yeah, I want to pick up on the word tribe, because tribe, for some people has negative connotations in that you almost look the same. And the tribe that you’re talking about is it’s almost like a bigger overview, which is people who are of like mind, people who have similar values, people who are looking for the same thing, so they

Gillyanne Kayes 21:57
could come from completely different backgrounds.

James 21:59
Yeah, not Yes, it’s

Jeremy 22:01
not. And this is, again, this is a much bigger version of family, in that you don’t have to be related. Family is this family that you have in this family that you choose? Gosh, yes. And you are looking at the tribe that you’re talking about is the family that you choose?

James 22:17
That’s Yeah, absolutely. And, and that word family, if I think about the singing communities that that I’m involved with, either as a performer or as a facilitator, you know, we we very much talk about the Sofa Singers, family, and people who are part of that talk about that. I talk about this man corral, you know, which is a collective of singers based in the UK and Australia, I’ve been singing with him since 2012. We know we talk about each other as our Spooky family, for want of a better term. Likewise, with a group I’ve been writing music with, and performing for 10 years, and there is something about the shared musical experience that bonds you together. But if you also have that shared kind of value system, I think, you know, everything kind of, I guess, you know, reinforces each other, if that makes sense. You know, so you might, you might come together in the first instance, because you have an interest in singing and then because you find that people are like minded to you. And they see the world in the same way as you that then that enhances the musical experience. Or it might be the other way around, you join a group because you recognise something in the people there that you that you align to. And then the singing deepens that and for me, it just creates this kind of virtuous circle.

And I’m just trying to find it on my phone here. Because at the minute we’re just writing I have I have written a Sofa Singers Manifesto, based on on the feedback from the the members, you know, I cast out saying, you know, what, why is it important to you? You know, what should be in the Sofa Singers Manifesto, I’ve just found it, we would love to read it. I think this just comes so the point because the Sofa singers, you know, we reach singers in over 50 countries of every age demographic. You know, it’s a really, really diverse group of things. But we come together around this shared sense of purpose. So this is the best I could come up with.

“We come together to sing to share our songs and our stories, raising voices and lifting spirits. We come together to sing to synchronise our breathing, our heartbeats and our dance moves. We come together to sing to spark joy in human connection. We come together to sing to feel the strength of our global community supporting each other and our planet. We come together to sing creating a space where everyone is valued and everyone is welcome. We come together to sing as if to say we are here. We are human. We are alive.”

Gillyanne Kayes 24:51
That’s beautiful.

Jeremy 24:52
That’s beautiful.

Gillyanne Kayes 24:52
Wow.

Jeremy 24:54
And there was one thing that you’ve said in the book that really jumped out to me which is linked to Which is you talk about solo singing, and you talk about choral singing. And choral singing is very much about becoming a part of something bigger.

James 25:09
Hmm.

Jeremy 25:10
So that you’re still there. You’re still you, you’re still contributing, but it’s a bigger thing that you’re contributing to. And you are small part of it.

James 25:18
Yes. Oh, yeah, absolutely. You know, the, the I dissolves into into the collective into the we. And there’s a, I think I included this in the book, there’s a really lovely quote from Gustavo Dudamel is, you know, a big kind of inspiration for me, you know, he’s an orchestral conductor, but he, he writes really eloquently about that shared musical experience. And he said, what a, what a beautiful model for society, you know, all listening to each other, working together to create something beautiful.

And that’s exactly what I think about when I think about about choral singing. It’s about you know, that the individual being part of this much bigger whole, and of course, being greater than the sum of its parts. And, you know, talking about that, that distinction between solo singing and chorusing. There are so many people who are in my regular community choirs who, you know, we’ll we’ll say something along the lines of, Oh, you know, I’ve got a terrible voice, but actually will sound pretty good together, don’t we? You know, and that’s, that that’s what feels like alchemy, when you’re in a working with a group of people who may not be particularly confident individually, but collectively, there’s that support. Yeah.

Gillyanne Kayes 26:29
That’s kind of where I wanted to go next. Because I’d sort of was thinking about out of the Sofa Singers, you know, we all know the term sing like nobody’s listening. Yeah. Well, of course, that would have been the case with these. Okay, song zoom. Yeah. Out of the Sofa Singers, how many people do you think started to sing who’d never sung before? Do you think that setting up the Sofa Singers has gave some people permission to sing? Tell us about that.

James 26:59
Yes, well, I think using that term, permission to sing is so important. And I feel that so much of my work, and the work of so many people who work in the singing world is about giving people permission to use their voice in that way, giving people permission to sing. And anecdotally, you know, I have lots of feedback from people who have said, I’m singing around the house small, I’m singing with my family, I’m feeling more confident. I’ve had a few messages saying, I think I was a grumbly Bass when I started, but now I feel like, you know, a more polished tenor or something like that. And, and of course, like that isn’t the the objective for me isn’t necessarily to set people off on these, you know, their own singing trajectories that might end up with them.

You know, having singing lessons, or joining a choir, like my my primary objective is to create a shared moment, where we can all use our voices, and have that sense that we’re doing something together, even though we can only see each other, we can’t hear each other. But it will be very interesting. And I’ve kind of had it on my to do list for a while to send some kind of questionnaire survey out to our members and, and people who’ve engaged with us, you know, we have about 300 subscribers, who, who pay a monthly subscription. And we have a very active Facebook group. And that’s where, you know, people share a lot about their experience, but we have about 8000 people on our mailing list that I send the newsletter out to. And so it will be really interesting for me to ask these questions about you know, what has the effect of surfacing has been has it simply been something to look forward to doing each week, which is of course really valid in itself or has it had a knock on effect in terms of your, your kind of personal singing journey now, I believe we’re all in on singing journeys, a lot of people put them on hold or, you know, abort them completely. And that would be really interesting for me.

And one thing that that I do want to do, whether it will be next year or the year after or the after that is actually to take the Sofa Singers kind of model and to actually take it on the road as a live show as a live experience. And hopefully to connect with the people that I’ve been singing with on zoom, but also maybe to bring people into that space. And that would be a really interesting thing that whether to see if people make that connection between singing on their sofa at home on zoom. And then making that leap of faith to actually doing it, you know, in person in real life.

Gillyanne Kayes 29:31
thing, I think that’s fabulous.

Jeremy 29:33
You’ve actually you’ve led us very nicely into Yes, how do you take answering a need, which is what you started with, to some form of business model with integrity

Gillyanne Kayes 29:45
because clearly, it suddenly became a lot of work when it took off. And it’s very hard for us as creatives answering needs to then, you know, take that step to well actually you need to learn something I need to answer this is taking things out of me. Um, at what point if you don’t mind saying Did you take that step? And how did you manage that transition?

James 30:09
So shall I answer this with in relation to the soap opera singers in particular? Yeah, I think this is

Gillyanne Kayes 30:14
Yeah, because then we can talk more generally.

James 30:18
Yeah. Because Because like you say, you know, as much as this is our calling, all of us who are working in the arts, we all have to make a living as well. And so it’s, it’s negating that. So I mean, there was there were many things that started at the beginning of lockdown web, it was just a knee jerk reaction where people just wanted to cast out and help people. You know, whether it was Joe Wicks, you know, doing his exercise classes, or I love Sophie Ellis Baxter’s you know, disco, Friday night discos in her kitchen and, and all those kinds of things and Sofa Singers was was definitely part of that kind of first wave of let’s just do what we can and, and make it make it fun. And you know, we’re all in this together. But like you say, it suddenly becomes a lot of work. And so from the very beginning of services, we had a coffee donation system that I think a lot of people started to employ.

In lockdown, it felt important for me that people could access it for free. But then they then had an option of making a financial contribution. And what I saw, particularly those first few months was, you know, people would give where they could, and sometimes it was one coffee at three pounds, sometimes it was 10, sometimes it was more. And for the first few months, you know that that worked really, really well. And then there came a point as the UK was starting to unlock. And we were all thinking, well, well, what what’s the future going to be for this, and I was aware that there’s a lot of people who are engaging and continue to engage. So for singers who weren’t using it as kind of a quiet substitute, or, you know, as a substitute for something they have, it was actually very much valid in itself. And a lot of people saying, Well, look, I can’t get out of the house anyway. You know, maybe, like maybe a young parent, and it’s hard to get out in the evenings when the kids are in bed, or you know, that maybe they have health issues, which prevent them from getting out has a whole host of people that I realised I hadn’t really been serving up until a lockdown happens, you know, I can kind of kicking myself now thinking, you know, if my thing is about open access, singing, creating spaces, why didn’t I think of taking it into people’s houses, you know, through zoom before.

And so I felt very strongly that we had to continue to continue to, at the very least serve those people. And also that it just felt too good for it to stop, you know, we had so many people around the world, we have these amazingly dynamic open mics, where people might be sharing traditional dance from Addis Ababa, or, you know, recipes from, you know, Ecuador, you know, it’s just amazing. This happens twice a week. It’s thrilling. But like you say, we have to earn a living, you know, I’m dedicating at least two to two and a half days of my time now to Sofa Singers. And so it was a case of we had, we had to lean in and say, Okay, well, if this is going to happen, we need to have a kind of a baseline of people who are contributing, not contributing here who are paying for this, I think it’s important to, you know, say that rather than, you know, we’re not a charity.

And so I set up the member’s club, the beginning of July, and I was really explicit, saying, if, if you’re really keen for this, to carry on, we need a commitment from you financially. You know, we’ve got a team of three, three of the people now who work with me on the sessions. And we’re now at the stage where we do have over 300 people who are using that that subscription model, which gives us a, you know, a real, an amazing platform of certainty. And then we still have people who, who joined for free, and then donate through Eventbrite if they can. And so it feels, it still feels important for it to be free at the point of access.

But what I now say to people is, if you’re joining us regularly, Eventbrite, please do consider joining them at the membership club, because actually, then that enhances your experience because you can connect with people through the Facebook group, you can watch the sessions, again, in the Facebook group have we have a you know, we have one off sessions just for the members and so that that sense of community is deepened. So I kind of see that as a win win. And you know, you could say I was taking maybe a bit of a risk doing that in July cuz I made it really explicit saying, I want us to carry on I think you want us to carry on but we know we’re going to need for it to have a baseline of financial support.

And what I’m actually seeing now as we’re going back into lockdown numbers are going up again in the members club. I think there will be a sense that that might be in the might be direct relationship to the you know, that kind of status of of our freedoms. But I also think long term there will be a core of people who Want to be part of it still and I will be no be there to, to facilitate that. I want to pick up on something that you said, which you may not have realised that you said, which is about certainty.

Jeremy 35:12
Because certainty is is essential for the participants for the people who were singing, you know, they need to know that they can be there every week, this will be happening all the time. But what’s often left out of the equation is certainty for the Creator. Hmm,

James 35:28
that’s true. Yeah, exactly. It’s a two, it’s a two way two way deal, isn’t it, you know, if I’m going to be committing time to, you know, working up a rank musical arrangements, doing, you know, writing the newsletter doing, you know, all the all the admin, which I’m really happy to do, you know, that’s very much part of being a freelancer, you know, as you know, you have to turn your hand to so many things we certainly do. But But, but yet that, you know, there needs to be an element of certainty from, from both sides, you know, so, you know, I’m now able to commit to that amount of time in my diary, and for me to perhaps turn down other work or to not take on other projects, because I know that there’s that degree of, of investment from from the members, which then allow me to do that.

And like I said, I like to think it’s a win win. And we do have bursary memberships as well, you know, because I realised that times are very tough for people financially. And so I think about 10% of our membership are on bursary places. So you know, that there’s a sense that it kind of funding itself in a way as well. And when people sign up for the membership, they know that part of what they’re paying for is to enable other people to have that experience and that that’s really important to me. And And again, that’s, that’s something that I’m really interested in, perhaps from a business point of view, is that idea of value. And what we are able to give as practitioners in terms of value, but also how, you know how, in a way how strange it is to put a particular fixed amount of money on that when money means different things to different people, because people in different perspectives.

Jeremy 37:10
Yes, I learned the whole the whole coffee contribution thing just as a concept, because it’s like I can afford a coffee today or I can afford two coffees today. That’s really nice.

James 37:23
Yeah. And if I think about the way I’ve now approached, because I’m still running my, my two big community choirs on zoom. And so for this time, the kind of pricing structure has been a lot more kind of varied. So there’s a there’s a standard, the standard terms fee, and then there’s kind of a benefactor rates, whereas if you’re able to pay more, then if you do you’re then able to help subsidise people who are who can’t afford the full rate.

And I think actually, that’s a really healthy model for us to think about, you know, everything, you know, supporting your local cafes, or spending two pounds more on a book because you can support, you know, an independent bookshop rather than, you know, Amazon or whatever. And I think that that’s interesting to me as well, that that notion of value. And, and how can we, how can we, you know, navigate that in a way that works for everybody. Firstly, earning a living and developing our businesses but also in a way that works for for people, you know, who have very different financial situations. Yeah,

Gillyanne Kayes 38:31
that is very interesting. Um,

Jeremy 38:33
I want to take you somewhere completely different.

James 38:37
Okay, a beach in the Caribbean, we’re not far off.

Jeremy 38:41
Talk to us about forest bathing.

Gillyanne Kayes 38:43
Oh, okay.

James 38:46
Okay, just just straight in. Yeah.

Yep. Okay, so forest bathing is a wellness practice. It’s about nature connection, using your senses to slow down and to connect with your surroundings, particularly forest and woodland settings and experience, the raft of kind of health and well being benefits that come with it. Which includes many, many things such as boosting immunity, reducing stress levels, I can go go on and go on.

And so

Gillyanne Kayes 39:23
you’ve been training and Isn’t it? Isn’t it? James? I’ve been seeing what you’ve been up to. It’s not actually as Wu as it sounds, is it because trees communicate with each other then they they have this whole kind of little sort of nervous system?

James 39:39
Yes. That’s right.

Gillyanne Kayes 39:41
And I know we discovered that during lockdown we’d start with started walking somewhere close to us at Croft castle. And there’s a forest three will then we come out and go. Oh God, we feel so much better. Why? Suddenly I saw your post about forest bathing and I thought, Oh, it’s a thing.

Jeremy 39:59
Again, give You’re given the background that you’re talking about. And also your focus. This makes complete sense to me that it’s a well being thing. And it’s a group well being thing.

James 40:08
Yes. And I’m glad that you say that, that it makes sense Jeremy, because I’m really enjoying my training, I’m really looking forward to developing my practice. But at the same time, it feels like quite a left field turn in some ways, at a time, you know, where I’ve, you know, people know me, you know, a little bit of my book more so for so for singers, you know, James has a singing guy, why is he taking people off into forests, but so much of forest bathing and that nature connection, there are so many parallels with with, with my singing work in terms of your well being. But in terms of connecting to the present moment, which we haven’t really talked about a huge amount, I don’t think which is such a big part of the group singing experience is, you know, letting the endless chattering of the mind quieten, and just being in the present moment, you know, whether that’s being as part of a choir, or whether that’s being really still in a beautiful, natural setting, and just, you know, because all we ever have is a present moment, right.

And, you know, we need to find ways, in the 21st century to facilitate that, and whether that’s yoga or, or meditation, you know, we’re all drawn to different things, and in a way, they all draw from the same, the same source, but there’s something about that the forest bathing experience that really, really resonates with me, and takes me into a space that I want to be in, and I come out of, you know, spending time in the woods and in nature, maybe in a similar kind of mind, mindset, that I might finish a choral singing session where I feel just more grounded, more centred, you know, more connected to my body, you know, you know, singing, as you know, connects us with, with every part of ourselves, you know, particularly our breathing. And that’s very much part of the forest bathing experience as well, that you kind of coming out of your head and into your body and, and using all of your senses to to explore.

And also coming back to a thing where we started a conversation, which is about this, you know, about being human, you know, again, this sounds quite grandiose, but, but you know, singing connects us with a very important part of our humaneness or humanity that we are estranged from, or a lot of us are. And, you know, we, as the human species, we live 99% of our lives, very closely connected to nature in a natural environment. And it’s only very, very recently that, you know, we’ve become an you know, I think it’s it, we are now a predominantly urban species, I think that balance has tipped now in terms of the statistics.

And so just as we’re becoming, we are estranged from singing community restrained from the natural world. And actually, you know, spending time and slowing down in nature, and not seeing nature as something that we need to conquer or move through quickly, or, you know, tick off. You know, it’s not about hiking, it’s not about naming plants. It’s not about you know, conquering something, it’s about just being and maybe it goes back to the thing I was saying about about singing, I’m really interested in the process rather than the, you know, I’m more interested in the process than the end result. You know, so the thing with forest bathing, it’s experiential, it’s about the the the process rather than, you know, a traditional kind of ramble

Gillyanne Kayes 43:36
It’s about being. You’re talking about being

Jeremy 43:37
It’s also about awareness

James 43:39
yeah. Yeah, it is. Yeah, exactly. And so it’s gonna be interesting for me to see how maybe I can bring the two different worlds together. I mean, I think at the minute I’m very much developing my practices, forest bathing is one thing and then I’ll look to see how I can bring my my singing work into it. But But one thing I’m I’m already planning for next year, are retreats where people can come and we can, you know, spend a weekend doing some singing, doing spending some time in nature, maybe exploring creativity. And you know, it’s not under the banner of singing or forest bathing, but it’s just under the banner of well to be decided, maybe you can help me out with my marketing. But you know, it’s this sense of, I think it’s you know, it’s connection really isn’t it is what we’re talking about, you know, connection to the voice to the self to each other to nature, which, which I just see is really just so important, like really important anyway, but particularly after everything we’ve been through this year,

Jeremy 44:37
it stopped doing and start being Hmm, we’re not Yes, exactly. Human doings.

James 44:46
Yeah.

Gillyanne Kayes 44:48
I just wanted to pick up because I know before, you know, we had all these issues in 2020. You had been running courses for choral leaders, you know, invited People who, who were musicians or singers, to come on courses and to train with you in singing leadership, is that something you’re going to continue? Because I think it’s incredibly important.

James 45:13
Thank you for mentioning that. Gillyanne. Yeah, I actually only managed to run one iteration of the course before a lockdown happened. And I felt and I still feel that that very much is part of my kind of next step. Yes, it’s very much. It’s about, I guess, that kind of next, the next stage maybe for, for people who have come into the singing world, and, you know, maybe are singing regularly in a choir, or maybe I don’t know, sing regularly in a folk session, or are at a school where they’re expected to lead singing, and what I’m interested in is taking people to their next step. So so the course is called from singer to song leader. Yes. And it’s specific.

And I always try to be quite careful about the language that I use around singing, you know, I haven’t called it from singer to choir Master, or, or from from singer to conductor. Because there are so many contexts, this goes back to your singing tribe, but there’s so many contexts where group singing happens. And not all of them, you know, require, you know, the kind of formal training of they have a conductor, the classical conductor of a vocal animateur, whatever you want to call it. And so yeah, so the first, the first time I ran the course, it was absolutely fascinating, the range of people that we had, you know, it sold out very, very quickly. So it told me that there’s obviously some kind of a need for for this type of training. But there are people there from primary schools, from churches, just really enthusiastic and experienced community choir singers who wanted to maybe run groups in their own home. And for me, this feels like a really natural next step, you know, having, you know, empowering people to then go and lead singing in their communities in their own way, you know, because I think so much of what we do and what you do, it’s about kind of, you know, passing the baton really isn’t, it’s saying, look, you know, I’ve got this experience and knowledge, like, please, like, take it forward.

You know, I’m not trying to have a monopoly on running all the choirs, you know, I think, you know, that there’s enough people out there who want to sing for that to be more people out there in the field, leading groups, but I think it can be very, very daunting to make that step. And, you know, and it was for me, and this was, you know, I’ve got, you know, my music degree and a master’s and, you know, PGC, and I still felt inhibited to lead singing groups for the same time, maybe because I came from an instrumental background, a whole host of reasons. And so part of the singer songwriter training was that, again, that thing of permission, and just seeing across the day, that the kind of the confidence that people, you know, the people really grew in confidence through that day. And it’s something I’m really keen to repeat.

Again, I’m not sure if it would work as well on zoom. But maybe I need to put the, you know, put the feelers out there. But certainly, once we’re able to come together to sing, it’s something I’m really, really interested in doing. And I don’t feel like I’m really stepping on other people’s toes here, because there’s very well established choral training routes through ABCD. I think we can and sing for pleasure. And I’m sure there’s many, many more, but almost all those are based around much longer course, in sight reading, and, you know, more and more kind of formal trappings that aren’t, you know, if you just want to leave a few songs in your pub, at the local folk tonight, or, you know, or whatever, you don’t necessarily need all of that. That might be a natural next step from what I’m offering. But I, it feels like quite an interesting and exciting space.

Gillyanne Kayes 49:02
Yeah, I just remember you quoting the late Sir Ken Robinson are big fans as well. Oh, yeah. And I think you did this quote, which is about the role of a creative leader, not to have all the ideas is to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued. And I know, that’s what we aim to do. When we work with singing teachers and what you’re talking about, you just said, I don’t need all the work. I don’t need to hold all that. What I want is to facilitate others to find where they can shine and which which group so that they kind of find their niche. And I have to say, thinking about the forest bathing, I can see a link between those two processes. And I’m sure you will be going there in due course.

James 49:52
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m very, very much the start of my journey for the forest bathing, but I think I think you’re right is that sense of giving People enough for them to go out and, and, you know, do it for themselves and to find that, you know, how it resonates for them and what direction they want to take it. And you know, so part of the forest buy thing is just to help people with their nature connection that, you know, you’re kind of forcing them, you know, they’re going to be with you for three hours in the forest. Yeah, you know, they turn their phone off, they’re not going anywhere. But then it may well be that that experience then sets them off on their own path, whatever that might be. Not necessarily to lead forest bathing, but they then they have had that experience, and they have the tools to then go and explore that further for themselves. And, and I know for myself that, you know, I’m still doing the training now that my nature connection is much deeper, and I know what I need to do to kind of facilitate that for myself. And that’s just through me engaging with that training.

Jeremy 50:54
We are almost up to an hour. So we are we think we need to wrap up.

Gillyanne Kayes 50:59
Should we ask James? I mean, are there any things you would like to flag? I mean, what would you like our listeners to know about?

James 51:07
Um, well, I guess, for the for the time being, that the Sofa Singers. We sing together twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays. I can’t promise you know when it works for you in your timezone. But we do it in two different time slots. So we do have people in pretty much every time zone. TheSofaSingers.com is where you can register and find out about the members group. We’ll be delighted if you joined us, and we’ll put

Jeremy 51:32
any of these links will go in the show notes.

James 51:34
Thank you very much. Of course, the book. Thank you very much, Gillyanne, that’s available in physical form. It’s very beautifully designed just like your This Is A Voice book. I think design’s very important, but it’s also available as an audiobook. It’s actually on on Spotify, you can listen to Spotify

Gillyanne Kayes 51:51
We’ll put it in the show notes James

James 51:54
Thank you, everything. Yeah, yeah. And then just the other thing. If you’re interested in the forest bathing or any of the trainings, I’ve been talking about all the residentials everything, go through my monthly newsletter, which you can sign up for at my website, which is JamesSillsMusic.co.uk. And so that’s probably the best place. And I’m also on social media as well, which is where we often check in with each other and see what each of those lovely

Jeremy 52:20
We’ll put all the social media stuff in the show notes

James 52:22
OK, thank you.

Gillyanne Kayes 52:23
If you have any hashtags you want us to use just let us know. Yep.

James 52:26
Okay, I will do.

Jeremy 52:28
And just a thank you to This Is A Voice which is actually James just mentioned it. This Is A Voice is sponsoring our podcast today is most appropriate, doesn’t it? Yeah. 99 exercise to train and harness your voice and the power of it. And in fact, This Is A Voice if you haven’t come across it has chapters on classical singing contemporary singing, gospel rock, jazz, blues,

Gillyanne Kayes 52:51
and speaking voice, healthy speaking voice

Jeremy 52:53
Healthy speaking voice, ventriloquism, mimicry and beatboxing. Just huge fun to write that. So and in fact, if you’re looking on on YouTube, it is the teal book behind us. Yes.

Wonderful colours

And we are done. So thank you, James, that has been brilliant.

Gillyanne Kayes 53:09
That has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.

James 53:12
Likewise, thank you so much Jeremy. Thank you so much, Gillyanne,

Jeremy 53:15
and we’ll see you for the next podcast.

Announcer 53:29
This is a voice a podcast with Dr. Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher.