Co-founder Tony Earnshaw writes about the breathtaking impact of adding community choirs to Damn Cheek’s performances.

In September and October 2023 Passion for the Planet, our community project in Surrey’s Mole Valley, will become a reality with school workshops and a run of performances in the historic Friends Meeting House in the centre of Dorking. As we prepare for this, it’s instructive to look back at what we’ve learnt from previous years.

As you might expect, there’s quite a lot of this. Ideas which have worked, plans which have not materialised, parts of the projects which have exceeded expectations.

In 2022, one of the highlights of our summer Gateshead project The Causeway was the participation of a range of community choirs in the final production. This was an element we hadn’t embedded in our projects before. It certainly added a wonderfully warm and uplifting element to the performance.

The premise was simple. On an agreed cue, a number of apparently random audience members would start to sing and reveal themselves as a flash choir. Other audience members would find themselves immersed in the sound world created by the singers and the whole audience experience would be enhanced.

And it worked. I remember very clearly, in the first performance, the moment when Swingbridge Singers started, one by one, to enumerate specific dates and lead into singing how they ‘didn’t know much about history’.

It was one of those special moments when the combination of the unexpectedness of the music and the beauty of the a capella singing took everyone’s breath away. Even those of us who knew it was going to happen felt the impact. The cast loved it. For the audience members the effect was clearly even greater.

Over the rest of the run we had the benefit of a range of community choirs surprising and delighting the audiences – the Human Choir, the more traditional Gregorian Choir, and the specially formed Jumachord who combined singers from 3 community choirs for the occasion. Each ensemble brought their individual character and approach to surprise and delight our audiences – and the Damn Cheek team into the bargain.

Our performance date of August wasn’t an easy time to get a community choir together as most choirs have a break over the summer. But the 4 dedicated musical directors managed it, producing some lovely music – and we really appreciated their hard work and the results of their labours.

We will certainly be looking to work with community choirs again and we are now in the midst of preparing for a community project in the Mole Valley, an area with a strong choral tradition which we’re starting to tap into. And next summer we’ll be back in Gateshead where we now have some strong choral contacts.

Every one of these projects is a journey into the unknown as the community involvement develops over the months and delivers pleasant surprises. We’re looking forward to what the future will bring – musically and otherwise.