Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir
The choir have been missing performing together

With a stethoscope around his neck and a mask dangling from his ear, nurse Graeme Tyler is singing in a room full of rainbows.

He had just finished his shift at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, and against the backdrop of colourful drawings in children’s A&E, Graeme recorded this scene for Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir’s latest video.

Incredibly, the pandemic hasn’t stopped this group of frontline workers from producing its uplifting gospel version of I Can See Clearly Now, which is raising money for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust Charitable Fund and St John Ambulance. Throughout lockdown the choir has been meeting remotely, and members have recorded their videos in consultation rooms and corridors between shifts and during breaks.

Members say keeping the routine of choir has been a welcome distraction and has helped bring a sense of normality. “I really have been grateful to be able to meet up with people online,” said Caroline Smith, a children’s community physiotherapist and the choir’s manager. “It’s that little bit of normality when everything else is a bit different.”

After contributing to several projects remotely during lockdown, including singing for a Zoom wedding and ITV’s NHS tribute programme, the choir decided to pursue a more personal project.

“A lot of what we do is performing, so we’ve really been missing it,” said Caroline. “Trying to keep momentum going when you’re online is hard so it’s good to have a project. We thought it would be really nice to do something that would be uplifting with a positive message about keeping going. It seemed to fit.”

One member, Rachael Reader, a musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was temporarily moved from her role to work in the intensive care unit with Covid-19 patients. “I really enjoy singing and it’s a big stress reliever for me,” she said. “Having a way to relieve stress that I can do in a safe way once I come home has been really enjoyable, and it was particularly important at the height of the pandemic.”

Before rehearsals, the group checks in with each other to see how everybody is. Rachael said: “Everyone’s role is different and the chats have really helped with everybody’s stress relief. You become part of a family and you know you can lean on people. It’s been a really great environment to be part of.”

Phil Mitchell, the choir’s musical director, said that once the team had worked out the technicalities of running remote rehearsals, things have gone smoothly. Phil, and assistant musical director Liam Dunachie, chose the song and wrote the arrangements, including music for the West End band that backs the choir. “A band really lifts things, and I wanted the best I could get my hands on,” said Phil.

The song, with its reference to rainbows, is apt for an NHS choir. “We quite like it because it doesn’t say that everything’s fine, it just says, things will be fine,” said Phil. “But there are those lyrics, ‘Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind,’ and ‘I can see all obstacles in my way’. The obstacles are still there – they’re quite relevant to coronavirus – but hopefully there’s a path through it.”

The members all recorded their parts on their phones, and the audio was mastered by Phil’s wife, Lucy. The staff then shot two videos of them singing – one in their uniform, and the other in bright clothes – on a sunny day.

It wasn’t until everyone had recorded their individual parts that their voices were brought together at the same time. Emma Collins, an anaesthetic trainee at Lewisham Hospital, has been working on the coronavirus response, and has found the distraction of choir “really positive”. She said: “Part of the joy of choir is hearing yourself with all the other voices, so it was so rewarding when I heard it all come together. It’s like being back together again even though we’re not physically back together.”

The song and video has already had positive feedback. “The whole purpose of the song was to try and give people the opportunity to feel a bit more positive about things,” said Graeme. “That’s really the essence and the message we want to send out. It’s saying, we know it’s not over, but let’s try and be as positive as we possibly can.”

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.

LAURA DAY is a freelance journalist specialising in health and wellbeing. She is based in Hither Green.

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