A safe place to have fun with no judgement: Talibah Rivers tells us what it means to lead a Tuneless Choir

| Maria Passingham

Following my article last month about the nationwide collective of Tuneless Choirs, I caught up with Talibah Rivers who started London’s first Tuneless Choir in Vauxhall and recently moved her efforts to Hackney in East London.

She’s currently leading the only Tuneless Choir in London and balances it with her own professional singing career. We spoke to her to find out what it means to lead a group of people who believe they have no singing ability, and what impact the choir has on their lives.

Talibah can you tell me what a Tuneless Choir is, and what it means to you specifically?

Tuneless Choirs are for people who want to gain the benefits of singing without being told to be quiet. I’m very passionate about sharing my love of singing with people who are not confident and feel they can’t sing. Tuneless Choir is a safe place to have fun with no judgement. Laughing when we get it wrong is just as beneficial as the actual singing. It’s a great community and many friendships are formed. As a professional singer leading Tuneless choirs taught me that the emphasis doesn’t have to be on singing perfectly.

Tell us more about your own singing work! Do you find it frustrating sometimes when you hear things that aren’t ‘right’ in the tuneless choir?

I’m primarily a jazz singer. I have a huge amount of performing experience singing at parties, weddings and festivals, though I haven’t done many gigs this year due to concentrating on the choirs. I’ve also sung in various bands. I have also recorded some original songs I wrote that are as yet unreleased which is more pop/reggae/disco-ish. 

I never ever get frustrated by hearing things that aren’t ‘right’, it’s the spirit and the wonderful energy we create when singing that I focus on. I do encourage people not to strain their voices, tell them how to avoid doing this and remind them to breathe! 

How did you get involved with Tuneless Choirs? 

I got involved by chance when I was introduced to one of the Tuneless founders. When she told me about the choirs, I thought it was such a brilliant idea I asked whether I could start one in London. Almost a year and a half ago I began my first choir in Vauxhall at The Tea House Theatre. It has been a brilliant journey learning lots of new songs along the way. 

I started the Hackney choir in January of this year. A small core group has started to form although it is still a little quiet… the group is as lovely as the Vauxhall members. I am on the look-out for a new venue as the one we are in hasn’t worked out so well, but there are enough people wanting the choir to continue to make it worth carrying on.

My area – central Manchester – doesn’t have a Tuneless Choir. What would your advice be to someone who wants to launch one here?

Get in touch with Tuneless HQ. They are brilliant at getting you started and telling you everything you need to know. Be prepared to work really hard and have loads of fun. Inner city areas take longer to take off so choose your area and venue wisely and be prepared to do lots of publicity.

What do you think is the most common reason that people join?

Most people join because they are extremely self-conscious about singing and have been told that their singing is terrible, but want to do it anyway. They are usually very nervous and check with me in advance whether they are really allowed to come along because they ‘really can’t sing’.

Can you tell me a little about the links between singing and wellbeing? 

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to sing in a group! Research shows that when singing in a group the heartbeats of all the singers synchronise and endorphins (feel good hormones) are released. It’s very difficult not to feel uplifted after a session, and the good news is it doesn’t matter whether you’re in or out of tune to get these.

Have you seen any positive changes in the members of your group since they’ve been singing?

Members can attend as many or as few sessions as they want to, but I have noticed a marked difference in the ones that have attended over a long period of time. Most people mouth the words when they first start, but over a period of time there is always a point when I can suddenly hear their voices very loud and clear, and they get to a point where they are not self-conscious anymore. I have also seen people who are very shy come out of themselves and become more sociable with the other members.

Not only do we create great communities, as choir leaders we become part of a community of wonderful choir leaders who help and support each other. Once year there is an amazing Tuneless weekend where all the choir leaders and their choirs meet up to enjoy workshops, parties and films.

Photos by Talibah Rivers

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