An amateur choir founded by Co Down woman Sheila Smyth has been going from strength to strength but is all the more remarkable because of the back-stories of its members. Sheila told Gail Bell the tale behind Voice of Recovery IT HAS been a particularly hectic but appropriately harmonious few weeks for Co Down musical therapist Sheila Smyth who has just waved goodbye to a lively group of Greek musicians on their second cross-cultural musical 'exchange' visit to Northern Ireland. The fact that a number of the group had taken up temporary residence in her Lisburn home is neither here nor there for the magnanimous musical director who, when we meet, is more concerned with ensuring schedule details are as finely tuned as voices and instruments. With a civic reception awaiting, followed by a performance in the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, and a 'Greek' night in Downpatrick, there is more than just Irish hospitality hinging on this trip. Public performances are another chance to showcase the breakthrough talents of Sheila's home-grown Voice of Recovery choir - or "singing circle" as she prefers to call them - alongside the Peloponnese professionals. Comprised entirely of recovering alcoholics from her Singing for Health workshops at Cuan Mhuire rehabilitation centre in Newry, the success to date of this most unique of choirs has taken even their founder - and greatest fan - by surprise. Having performed to high acclaim at a number of awareness-boosting, fundraising 'black tie' events since their formation two years ago, the rehab singers are determined to keep the momentum going and are booked for further performances this spring at the Bronte Centre, Rathfriland, and the Studio Theatre in Lisburn. "The choir proved so successful and its members so determined to carry on singing that just last month we launched the 'Recovery Cafe' in Dromore which is a space for members and friends to meet up and heal in a safe environment," Sheila explains. "The building is actually a converted pub and I had been renting it out for music tuition, so I thought, why not use that? "It is important that people who have turned their backs on alcohol have somewhere to relax, socialise, sing, write poems and put their stories down on paper. "We have choir practice once a week there and a food bank and clothes bank have been established, so it seemed a natural progression to open a cafe - for not just the singers, but for anyone who is hurting. "Just talking to people going through the same experience is effective therapy in itself and singing is the most healing medicine of all." Sheila's words resonate with extra poignancy because she speaks as one who knows. Years before setting up social enterprise The Right Key in 2012 - and the Voice of the Bann community choir five years before that, as well as an Arts Council-funded musical project for adults with dementia - Sheila found her own salvation in song. "I was going through a tough time personally and was thrown, quite unexpectedly, into single parenthood after my marriage broke down," she confides. "Although I was working in the social-work arena, I also played piano and guitar and was a singer, so initially I turned to teaching music as a means of working around my kids while still being able to pay the bills - but also as a kind of personal therapy for my own 'brokenness'. "Music was always part of the tapestry of my life growing up and through my early social work experience I had seen how music can be a healer. "That's why, when I later formed the Voice of the Bann and started doing workshops with the Alzheimer's Society, I knew it would work. I knew because after I turned my garage into a music room, it worked on me." Fast-forward to February, 2015, and Sheila's passion for the job at hand - whether bringing healing to alcoholics or those suffering mental ill-health - is as real and urgent as when she first stepped onto the unknown path of an (award-winning) social entrepreneur. Softly-spoken and engaging, it is easy to see why this attractive 54 year-old mother-of-two and self-styled community pastor with a penchant for pink coats, could convince the most hardened reformed alcoholic to raise the roof with Be Thou My Vision, O Lord of My Heart. Although not a fan of "organised religion" as such, she acknowledges God as "the Great Physician" and rousing hymns of redemption are regularly found among the play lists. She mixes them into a varied repertoire alongside contemporary ballads, popular folk songs from both Scots and Irish traditions and, most importantly, songs she composes and writes exclusively for the group - "I wrap their own words in song and turn them into a personal anthem". "There are about 25 core singers with Voice of Recovery and they are truly the most inspirational, amazing people," she says with genuine warmth. "They are from all backgrounds and ages and they come with heartbreaking stories of how their lives disintegrated through addiction. "What encourages me most, is not just their discipline, dedication and professionalism, but their willingness to stand up and acknowledge where they've come from. "They are former solicitors and doctors who are not pretending it didn't happen. They performed at a nursing conference last year in front of a 400-strong audience and they're not ashamed to have an invisible label pinned on their smart black suits which says, 'I've been there and I've come out the other end'. They are the real heroes; I am so proud of them all." Inter-mixed with the music at such events are equally emotive poetry readings and introductions which further serve to generate respect for this courageous group who, with Sheila's help, have, in all likelihood, penned their victory song just in time. "The reality is that people are still dying and getting that message out there, raising awareness and linking up with other voluntary and statutory groups and agencies is what it is all about," she adds. "There is no doubt that counsellors do tremendous work, but what happens when the counselling ends? "Some of the people I met through the workshops at Cuan Mhuire have since died because of alcohol addiction and the singers on stage know it could easily have been them. "That is the reality of the situation and what brings a sense of gravitas and value to each performance." In addition to work with reformed alcoholics, Sheila has also shared her musical mastery with patients diagnosed with a range of mental health illnesses, creating more choirs and producing more CDs along the way. "I truly believe anyone can sing and that music reaches a part of the brain that talking simply can't," she says. "One elderly man I met through the Alzheimer's Society could barely talk or remember his own name, but when I sat down at the piano with him he was able to sing his favourite hymn the whole way through. "It is little miracles like these which make all the bumps in the restorative journey worthwhile." * INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: Sheila Smyth with professional Greek musicians Nickos Petsakosó and Spyros Marinis who were on a cross-cultural musical exchange visit to Northern Ireland
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