At High Five our fifth anniversary concert last year, our programme featured testimonials from some of our performers. One, by Forte member Alex Hall, had to be cut down for the programme but, as it's Mental Health Awareness Week, we're sharing it in its entirety here, as it rather beautifully sums up the Starling Arts journey and how singing and community can have such a positive impact on our mental health and lives.
"I don't actually remember my first Tuesday at Forte. Like many of life's most transformative moments, it seemed small enough at the time to be lost through the door of memory. What I do remember is that that first term of rehearsals was like a therapy I didn't realise I needed. I joined in early 2011, after a 2010 that had seen my life turned upside down, and not in a good way. I'd known Anna, our wonderful MD, for many years, going back to our time together at University and it was she who suggested I should take my mind off things and join Starling Arts, which at the time was still finding its feet.
What struck me most during that first term was the idea of performance without agenda. I've been an actor for 14 years (it's ok, I've never heard of me either) and you get used to a certain level of cynicism right from the get-go; "I'm only doing this show to pay the rent". "Kate had better not tread on my lines tonight, there's an agent watching". It's easy to forget that you are going out there to brighten people's lives, or make them think and, most importantly, that you're making yourself vulnerable for the sake of doing something you really love. And that is where Starling Arts excels.
"Love what you're doing". That is the only agenda of Starling Arts. You are not here to impress anyone (apart from, perhaps, yourself), you are not here to work your way up a ladder, you are here to sing because you love singing. You might be professionally trained, or you might just be able to hold a tune from a lifetime of singing in the shower. The point is that you love it and that you leave everything else at the door and bring only that love with you.
And that joy, that love for what you do is reflected back by those around you. At Starling Arts, I have found a group of people free of pretence, a group that doesn't care about your status, your wealth or your background. Do you enjoy singing? Do you have the willingness to work together and make it sound as good as possible? Brilliant. For two hours, nothing else matters. Take yourself out of your life and let the music fill you up.
What Anna and Emily have created goes beyond a group, or a community. It is a family. A family that looks out for each other, a family that, in five years has seen highs and lows from total elation to genuine tragedy. It's not something that you can manufacture, but something that must be grown, through love, both between people and for the process. On a personal level, I don't recognise the person that walked into that church hall on that Tuesday in 2011, and I'm glad that I have the opportunity to tell everyone, without fear of overstatement, that joining Starling Arts changed my life forever."
Alex's words were also quoted in our TEDx Talk (below) , which talks more on the benefit of group singing and community and their positive impact on mental health and wellbeing.