DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Do you have a voice like a rusty hinge? Do little children scream when you try to sing them lullabies? Tuneless choirs are a growing phenomenon in the U.K., designed for people who might have reason to believe they are tone deaf. Reporter Vicki Barber went to Nottingham, England, for their annual convention.
TUNELESS CHOIR: Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: An open-air concert on a chill Nottingham night.
TUNELESS CHOIR: But we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.
BARKER: Above this chorus of some 200 men and women waves the banner of the tuneless choir, its logo a warped musical note.
TUNELESS CHOIR: We’re just trying to be friendly.
BARKER: Any harmony is strictly unintentional.
TUNELESS CHOIR: And we’ve got something to say.
BARKER: Nadine Cooper is co-founder of the Tuneless Choirs.
TUNELESS CHOIR: People say we monkey around.
NADINE COOPER: Someone once said that they hadn’t heard that song sung in 19 different harmonies before, which was pretty incredible because there were only 12 of us in the room at the time.
BARKER: Cooper loved singing as a child until age 12. Her soul was scarred in music class.
COOPER: The music teacher put his hand on my arm and said, please, stop singing. You’re spoiling it for everyone else.
BARKER: But her love of singing would prove stronger than the pleas of loved ones that she please not sing. And Cooper just knew she was not alone. With collaborator Bernie Bracha, a professional choir master, she formed her first Tuneless Choir in 2016. Today, there are more than 30 across Britain.
BARKER: Back at the conference center, five members of the Wootton Bassett Tuneless Choir pose for a group portrait. They cheerfully assess their singing voices as…
On a good day, pretty average, yeah.
Couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. thing.
BARKER: And then what happens when you all get together?
It does. It does.
Enough of us sing the right notes at the right times to make up for the rest of us.
TUNELESS CHOIR: It’s the song I love the melody of, 42nd street.
PETER NICOL: When I first started, I would have told you that I couldn’t sing.
BARKER: Peter Nicol from the Newcastle Tuneless Choir.
NICOL: I actually encouraged myself to take some singing lessons for a couple of years so I could find out what I am, and I find out that I’m a tenor.
BARKER: But experiences like that are rare. Part of the appeal of the tuneless choirs, says Lisa Neale from Maidenhead, west of London, is that they are emphatically not about improvement.
LISA NEALE: You don’t have to practice. You don’t have to do anything. You can just go every week and sing the songs and then, you know, go home.
BARKER: Her friend Helen Cooke says people bring all kinds of backstories.
HELEN COOKE: When you look at our choir, we have people with spinal cord injury. We’ve got people with dementia. We have people with Parkinson’s. We’ve go somebody who comes with Down syndrome. Two of us have had breast cancer. There’s all sorts going on for people. But we all come together and we all sing and we have a lot of fun.
TUNELESS CHOIR: So go and powder your cute little pussy cat nose.
BARKER: Fun is what it boils down to, says Janet Daley of Wootton Bassett.
JANET DALEY: I’ve made friends. I’ve laughed more than I’ve laughed for years. Whatever the mood I’m in, when I arrive, I am lifted.
BERNIE BRACHA: Welcome. Thank you so much.
BARKER: Bernie Bracha is co-founder of Tuneless Choirs.
BRACHA: Because they’ve been told all their lives or they think they can’t sing. When they suddenly realize that you don’t have to be able to sing brilliantly to sing, they just go for it.
TUNELESS CHOIR: Singing any song. The notes are wrong.
BARKER: One Tuneless Choir has already formed in Boston, Mass.
TUNELESS CHOIR: We are, we are tuneless.
BARKER: You have been warned. For NPR News, I’m Vicki Barker in Nottingham, England.
TUNELESS CHOIR: Now you’re in a choir. It’s a tuneless choir.