Altnagelvin Hospital Choir is celebrating its 25th anniversary at the Guildhall with a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria, and The Sparrows’ Anthem, a specially commissioned piece by composer Anselm McDonnell and poet Sam Burnside. Linda Stewart talks to three choir members about their passion for music
‘I’d never had any formal training to be a choral tenor’
Assistant director (medical) for Altnagelvin Hospital, Dr Neil Black (45), is chair of the Altnagelvin Hospital Choir. Originally from Belfast, he is married to Sinead and has three children.
“I suppose, particularly on my father’s side, my grandmother and her brothers were very musical – they played the piano and I had an uncle who played the accordion. I joined the choir and it went from there. I Joined the choir in church, played the violin briefly in primary school and the flute in secondary school.
“When I went to Queen’s I joined the Chamber Choir, which rehearsed just across from where I was having lectures on Fridays.
“I was able to stay for one season and then lectures took me away and I couldn’t commit any more because the pressures were much greater and I didn’t feel I could keep it up.
“I didn’t return to any choirs until I was a postgraduate in speciality training. I’d been qualified for four or five years at that stage and a consultant with whom my wife was working in cardiology said they needed tenors for The Messiah. I was roped into St George’s Choir, which performed out of St George’s Church in the High Street.
“I realised I was only one of three tenors in the entire thing, which was quite an experience – I’d never had any formal choral training. My wife was in the audience and was heavily pregnant at the time and she remembers the baby jumping at some of the louder bits!
“I remember performing the beautiful St John’s Passion by Bach, as well as the immense St Matthew’s Passion. They were huge events, but because I was on call and because of family commitments, I had to stop attending the choir.
“The last performance was Mozart’s Requiem, which we performed at St John’s Church to fundraise for victims of the  tsunami.
“It was a very powerful moment when you heard what we were singing and the significance of what we were raising money for.
“I regretted it, but when I finished registrar training a few years later we both got consultant posts in Altnagelvin and at that stage a colleague of mine was the chair of the hospital choir, so I got roped in.
“I joined in January 2009. It’s a mixed choir, founded by healthcare workers, and that includes anyone from management to all sorts of professionals. It’s open to anyone, really – if you can sing and read music and you have worked for the Western Trust, you’re virtually an automatic member.
“There are some really experienced singers capable of singing solos and then there are the vast majority of us who are trainable! Last year we opened our 25th anniversary year with The Messiah, which I hadn’t done in full since I was a registrar, and it was a real pleasure to have that experience again.
“Within your voice group, whether you’re tenor or soprano, people get to know each other. I’ve got to know people who work in other parts of the trust who I would otherwise never have known or met. We have a two-hour rehearsal, then we break for buns and tea, and hen rehearse until 10pm.
“What I’ve often felt about singing, and I’ve said it a few times when I wanted to get across to people what it means to me, is a quote that is attributed to a jazz musician: ‘The music washes the everyday dust off your feet.’ After a rehearsal, no matter how stressful it was, if you felt tired, you feel less tired.
“You need something outside your job, whether it’s running or singing – something with humanity and something that clears your mind again. Singing together is special and there are a lot of personal and social benefits that come from it; it does bring me some relief.
“The choir got charitable status in 2016 and we’ve been raising money ever since we started 25 years ago. Last year we were able to donate £3,000 to Air Ambulance NI.
“So, the choir is about providing an outlet for staff members, providing a service to the community and sharing music with and giving an opportunity for people to take part.
“We sing at the trust’s intensive care memorial service once a year; it’s a beautiful event with a number of reflections. We also sing carols around the wards at Christmas each year, and Still The Night in the intensive care unit is quite a special moment.”
‘It gives you a great sense of achievement’
Retired ward sister Elaine Grant (61), from Limavady, joined the choir for a couple of years but had to stop because of her working hours. She returned to the choir following retirement. Elaine is married to John and they have two children, Andrew and Jane, and three grandchildren.
“From whenever I can remember I’ve always been singing. I was always musical, singing in church choirs and so on. And I was a soloist and went to voice training, I would have done solos at church. In school I would have taken the leading part in singing things as well.
“I knew about the choir through working in Altnagelvin, but I only did it for a few years as nurses work a 12-hour shift. So, I was only in it for a couple of years because I couldn’t make the practices. Sometimes the music can be quite challenging, so you need to be there. When you work 12-hour shifts you’re tired as well. Singing is quite physical, so to do your best you must be in prime condition. It was with a heavy heart that I had to give up.
“But I always said that when I retired, if they would have me, I would go back to the choir. I retired in August 2017 and I was back in the choir in September.
“Probably the highlight for me was when we sang The Messiah in the Guildhall in May for the 25th anniversary – it was fantastic. It gives you a great sense of achievement. I’ve never sung The Messiah right through before, just the excerpts, and I wondered would we ever be able to do this, but it was great. It was worth all the hard work.
“Singing is great for physical and mental health, it helps with relaxation. I was reading recently that it’s great for stimulating the brain and it’s also very good for your breathing. After being off for the summer recess I felt my breathing wasn’t what it was in May, but now it’s back to normal.
“Singing is good for your physical and mental wellbeing and at the end of the practice you feel you have achieved something.
“It gives you a good feeling about yourself and you look forward to going back the next week – so it’s doing something!
“I suppose I have an indirect link now with Altnagelvin Hospital with being in the choir and keeping in touch. I love all the banter.
“There aren’t many nurses in the choir and I think it’s because of the all the unsocial hours. But there are a lot of medical staff in the choir who are former colleagues and they are a very friendly bunch.”
‘I haven’t met anyone in Derry who can’t sing’
Physiotherapist and services manager Teresa Sweidan (54), a mum-of-four who is originally from Tyrone, joined the choir in January last year.
“I would have sung at school from an early age. I sang in my school choir and I did a diploma in music and piano. I joined the Western Area Youth Orchestra where I played the violin and then the viola. I’ve always been involved in music,
“When I went to live in London I worked at King’s College Hospital and that gave me the chance to join the King’s College Hospital Choir.
“I have asthma, which only developed when I lived in London, and I blame the pollution for that. It’s not as bad now that I’m back in Northern Ireland, it’s just something that is affected by cold air or stress.
“When I came back to Northern Ireland and when the children were grown up a little bit more, I was told that there was a choir set up here in the trust for people with respiratory conditions called the Warbling Wheezers. I was part of the first cohort of that and we sang at the Millennium Forum.
“While I only have mild asthma, some of the people had their oxygen equipment with them and were struggling to breathe. It was very humbling to sing in a choir like that and there was a real sense of achievement.
“Then I had the option to join the Altnagelvin Hospital Choir so I joined in January last year. I’m a relatively new member, but I’m really enjoying it.
“We did Handel’s Messiah in May, which was quite an ambitious piece of work, and we’re doing Vivaldi’s Gloria at Christmas. Last week we did a Christmas carol concert with traditional carols which the audience could participate in and some Christmas pieces they wouldn’t really have known.
“I knew a lot of people in the choir already through working in the trust, so when I walked in that first day it wasn’t as if I didn’t know anybody. There was even one person who was in the youth orchestra with me when I was 12 or 13.
“Derry is a very musical city and I haven’t met anybody here who can’t sing – there are some fantastic voices in the choir. The musical director, Derek Collins, has a great sense of humour and he keeps us working hard and strives for perfection, but he does it in such a way that it’s enjoyable.
“With the asthma, I suppose when I had that break with the children and then came back, I didn’t have the lung volume I would have had before.
“But singing is great exercise and it has really helped my lungs, I can feel the health benefits. Everyone knows that singing is great for reducing stress and there is such great camaraderie as well.
“We’ll be singing around the wards in Altnagelvin Hospital at Christmas, which is really lovely, and we always finish up in the baby unit with the newborn babies: as far as I can remember, we always sing Away In A Manger!
“It’s a nice thing to do when there are so many people ill in hospital who can’t get out for Christmas and we hope it brings a little bit of cheer to them.”
Altnagelvin Hospital Choir has been established as a charity for the benefit of workers and the community of Altnagelvin Area Hospital.
This choir, which is both cross-community and cross-border, combines a love of choral music with fundraising for a range of healthcare charities, and in 25 years the choir has raised upwards of £25,000 for local charities benefiting the community.
Ensemble combines love of music with fundraising effort
Altnagelvin Hospital Choir will conclude its 25th anniversary year on December 14 at Londonderry’s Guildhall with a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria and an inaugural performance of The Sparrows’ Anthem, a specially commissioned piece by Ulster composer Anselm McDonnell.
The music is set to words by Ulster poet Sam Burnside and the title of the piece represents a translation from the original Irish place name of Alt na nGealbhan – ‘Hill of the Sparrows’ – on which Altnagelvin Area Hospital is situated in Derry.
The Sparrows’ Anthem has been specially commissioned by Mrs Stella Burnside, a founding member of the choir 25 years ago.
This event will raise funds for Zest, a local charity dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health promotion work.
- Tickets are available online now at www.trybooking.co.uk/MAN