When people come together to sing something special happens

For those of you who feel that you want a change of career and have a deep desire to follow your dream, Susan McManamon is someone who did just that. Susan worked in the corporate sector for many years, including working as a director of operations in India for a year. She then left her job and returned to India for another year as part of her Masters degree in Ethnomusicology at University College Cork, attaining first class honours. Since then she has worked fulltime in music and has never been happier. However Susan is too humble to admit how inspirational she is.

SM: “West Cork is an inspiring place to be and there are some fantastic people around. It has been a big change and no two days are the same. There is huge variety in it and it’s an adventure too! On a day-to-day basis, I teach piano lessons, and I work quite a lot with choirs. I’m working at the moment with Bantry Community Choir and Drimoleague Parish Choir as Choir Director.”

WCP: “What does that involve?”

SM: “That involves working with the singers—whether it’s warm-up or technique—and then to teach them the music, and finally to perform with them. So whether you’re playing for one or two, or conducting, keeping them all together.”

WCP: “Do you sing with them too?”

SM: “I do, not that you should really as a conductor. I mime a lot at them! [laughs] You’re a little bit like the conductor of an orchestra. You’re bringing in different parts and giving them a nod when they need to come in. If I’m honest, I’m not a great singer myself! I’m okay – I can hit a note. There’s something very special when people come together to sing! There’s a real energy and connection in it. When you’re in a choir it feels like a safe place.”

WCP: “Can you explain that?”

SM: “If people are nervous—a lot of people say, ‘I can’t sing’, or maybe that they’re not good singers. But you can be in a choir and still feel it. Some of it is the resonance and being in a group, all singing the same part. It’s been proven that singing is good for you, and you can’t sing and worry at the same time.” 

WCP: “You can only hold one emotion at a time.”

SM: “There you go! Singing too can allow you to express something that might be too difficult to put into words. There’s something very powerful in it, in terms of wellbeing and focussing on one thing at a time. Also, you’re in your body when you’re singing, not in your head.”

WCP: “What about when you get someone who can’t sing, who can’t hit a note, or hold it?”

SM: “I think it’s a really, really small percentage of people who might actually have that challenge! There’s an awful lot of people who think they can’t sing. But I think there is something that happens with the choir—if you can develop your listening and your ear—that you actually automatically tune in to other people around you. And if you get lost, you can always go back to the melody, that’s okay too. And the other thing is, if people have hearing difficulties it’s down to the ethos of the choir – is it an inclusive choir?”

WCP: “Do you find that there is a lack of men singing in choirs?”

SM: “Yeah, it’s a challenge! There are some men’s choirs, but it’s a challenge getting men to join mixed choirs. If men have never sang in a choir before they are 15 or 16, then they actually cannot compute what it would be like to, later in life. So because there is less singing in schools and churches, there are less men in choirs before they hit that age.”

WCP: “Are men only needed for the bass and tenor?

SM: “No, it depends on the choir. A lot of singing nowadays is not even split out by tenor and bass anymore. If you sing an octave higher it adds to it. I think that male and female voices are very different anyway. A good deal of what I do now is soprano and alto men. Choirs are always thrilled to have men!”

WCP: “So what if someone wants to join your choirs? They can just search online for example Bantry Community Choir and find out when you play?”

SM: “Absolutely! They’re open to anyone. In Bantry we sing on a Thursday evening in the Maritime Hotel. In Drimoleague we’re in the Community Hall on a Wednesday. There’s a huge number of choirs in set Cork! And it’s fantastic – there’s something for everyone—so you have the West Cork Choral Singers who sing form the classical repertoire, you have some choirs who use music, some who don’t. And they’re all over West Cork. Between Bantry, Glengarriff and Durrus I think there are eight or nine choirs!”

WCP:: “What other work do you do?”

SM: “MusicAlive was founded about a decade ago and the aim is to provide experience in the arts and mental health. And since then we have 49 North Street in Skibbereen. It is an innovative community-based hub for creativity, recovery and wellness. There are all sorts of projects running out of there – the Happiness Ensemble, Gamelan Spréacha Geala, the Claddagh Rogues, Open Door, and many others. It’s open to everyone.”

For more details on the various projects that Susan is involved with see:
(with a new season of events to be announced in September); www.DrimoleagueSingingFestival.ie (September 26-29)

My gigs of the month are: Graham Pike Quartet in Scannel’s and O’Donovan’s, both in Clonakilty on September 8. Also, the Clonakilty International Guitar Festival from September 16-22 – too many great gigs to mention!

Gary Hannon

Gary Hannon is a DJ and Jazz musician based in West Cork.

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