Interview: Caroline Redman Lusher

The Choir That Rocks founder on making music her business and the Olympic dream

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Caroline Redman Lusher does not believe in “small is beautiful”, judging from the size of the choir she started in 2005. In six years, her Rock Choir has swollen from 70 members in Farnham, Surrey, to an incredible 8,000 singers – from Glasgow to Godalming – making it the largest amateur choir in the UK, possibly the world. If the founder has her way, it’s going to get bigger still.

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The rising popularity of choirs

The joy of singing is experiencing a tremendous resurgence in this country and choirs, in particular, appear to be on the rise. When times are tough, choirs provide a great sense of connection and support, and singing in harmony is a terrific stress-busting activity – a sort of aerobics of the soul – releasing all those feel-good endorphins.

I have first-hand experience of the benefits, since I sing, whenever possible, in three choirs a week: the South London Choir, the West London Choir and the Brighton City Singers. All are non-auditioning, community choirs, where you don’t have to read music, rather like the Rock Choir, albeit on a more modest scale (and, in our case, including Mozart as well as Kaiser Chiefs). Also, like Lusher, I am something of an evangelist for choral singing, particularly when there are so many choirs around, making the activity accessible and relatively affordable, offering a fulfilling experience that is both challenging and comforting.

The success of Gareth Malone, the beguilingly boyish choirmaster and broadcaster, and television shows such as the popular American import Glee, as well as Last Choir Standing and the Songs of Praise Choir of the Year competition (which has seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of entries, which some have put down to the Glee effect), have all helped to raise the public’s awareness.

Now there is another TV series to spread the word, The Choir That Rocks, charting Lusher’s journey to increase her Rock Choir empire by another 2,000-odd members, so she can fill Wembley Stadium with her singers, give them the night of their lives, as well as notch up a Guinness World Record.

Lusher’s road to success

Lusher’s personal journey has also been remarkable. She was a musical child who went on to study music at Salford University and then hit London at 21, determined to land a record deal. With no fewer than six agents (clearly, she has never been one to do things by halves), Lusher spent her evenings playing the piano and singing in ritzy hotels in Mayfair, and her days feeling isolated and lonely in the Isle of Dogs, with her flatmates out at work in the City.

After four years of this life of “cigar smoke, late nights and nastiness, being the female vocalist in the corner of a bar – some nights they’d clap, some nights they wouldn’t – I was thinking, ‘How many years must I keep on singing at three in the morning, and being on my own all day?’”, when her worried father, to whom she is very close, came and rescued her.

A disillusioned 25-year-old, Lusher went to live with her parents in Farnham where, once again, she didn’t know anyone. Eventually, she got a job at Farnborough Sixth Form college, teaching performing arts to students with no musical background, and came up with strategies to build the pupils’ confidence and musical abilities.

Every Wednesday lunchtime, she would get the students around the piano and rearrange the songs she used to sing in London – soon, her “unmusical” pupils were vocalising in three-part harmony. Word spread and, by the time she left, five years on, she had 170 students clamouring to sing with her. What is more, their parents – particularly the mothers – also wanted a piece of the action.

In 2005, she decided to quit her full-time teaching post and devote herself to Rock Choir’s embryonic concept. On the first night, 70 singers turned up to rehearse – mainly parents and friends of Lusher’s pupils and graduates. It was quite a leap in the dark to give up her job for something unknown, wasn’t it? “I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it – I haven’t got kids, I’m not married – I’m just going to have to take a chance,’” she says. “I enjoyed teaching, but it wasn’t where I was meant to end up. I was meant to get a record deal and work in the music industry, and what I was doing didn’t quite fit.”

The dream becomes a business

Well, the picture clearly fits a lot better now. Last year, Lusher (now aged 37) signed a four-album contract with Universal for her Rock Choir worth an estimated £1 million, finally securing her teenage dream of landing a record deal. The first, self-titled, album, released last summer and recorded with about 1,000 members from several of the 150 or so Rock Choirs, made the official top 20.

I’m intrigued by how a relative newcomer to business runs such a sprawling organisation. At first glance, if you do the sums – 8,000 members, paying around £300 a year – well, it seems like a very nice little earner for Lusher. Add to that the record deal and one could be forgiven for thinking she is raking it in. And were that the case, why not? After all, as she says: “Alan Sugar is allowed to be domineering and gruff and he’s respected for it. But if you take a woman who is bright enough to start her own business and do something fantastic, it’s, ‘Oh no, women are supposed to be gentle and lovely’. Well, we can be gentle and lovely, it’s just that we came up with a bloody great idea and we put it into action.”

She doesn’t like to talk about the business side, leaving the number-crunching to her father, Dave, a retired chief pilot with British Airways. Her husband, Stuart, also a pilot, helps out with the website. Behind the scenes there are around 50 people who work on the Rock Choir project – from half a dozen choir members who man the office, to 36 agents, as Lusher calls her choir directors, who each sign an agency agreement. “We won’t do a franchise, because I would be losing control, and the way that it works is that it’s incentivised – so if you want to throw yourself into Rock Choir and run ten rehearsals a week, you will obviously earn more than someone doing three nights a week,” she says.

Like most amateur choir leaders, Lusher has found it difficult to attract men to the cause. This is such a shame because, in my opinion, to achieve that lush, textured choral sound, you really need the additional blend of deep and high male voices. Men are also losing out because, when they have the balls to walk through the door for the first time, they invariably get a real kick out of it. “It’s a cultural thing,” Lusher thinks. “If you’re a man and you live in Wales, it’s OK to be in a choir, but if you live in England, it isn’t. Maybe guys just think it’s uncool; if so, it’s a question of breaking that conditioning. If you look at the benefits people get from singing, everyone should be doing it.”

In Norway, for instance, the government subsidises public involvement in choirs because it recognises the health benefits. Lusher has been invited to introduce her concept to the Norwegians. America also beckons. “Well, we’ve often talked about it – Glee came here, we’ll take Rock Choir there. But I’ve still got work to do in the UK in terms of establishing Rock Choir in other towns.”

From TV to the Olympics

Television is a tricky medium and, in the first episode of the series, Lusher comes across as a slightly self-serving bossy boots. But, there’s no doubting her enthusiasm and dynamism and, as with all good choir directors, her singers plainly adore her.

In conversation, she is far more appealing than she appears on screen. She comes across as funny and self-deprecating, and rather less of the businesswoman that she clearly is, however much she chooses to downplay it. Her ambition benefits her, obviously, but it’s also a win-win situation in a wider sense since it boosts not only her sprawling empire of singers, but also all of us who love to sing in our own choirs.

She has been very open about her pitch to get the Rock Choir to perform at the opening of the Olympics, and consequently – as she, endearingly, confesses – got her knuckles rapped when she presented herself to the Olympics committee: “They said, ‘Could you please stop claiming that you’re doing the Olympics,’ and I said, ‘All I’ve said is that I’d like to do it, what’s the problem?’ And they said that they’d been inundated with emails from the classical community saying how upset they’d be if contemporary music was invited into the Olympics.” Oh dear – choir wars, indeed.

The production company behind the series has apparently got ideas involving Lusher and entertainment shows in the US. So, will she be doing one of those TV judging panels? “I don’t see myself as a TV personality at all.” So she wouldn’t do it if she was offered it? “Well, I don’t know…”

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We’ll just have to wait and see whether Lusher goes global. Her Rock Choir may be the brand leader but she hopes that The Choir That Rocks “will also highlight choirs generally and allow people to go down to their community choir and start feeling the benefits. The country would be greater if everyone was singing.” And, if it has that effect, I couldn’t agree more.