Military Wives Choir member Claire Balneaves on what the choir has meant to her.
It was November, when the letterbox rattled. My 5 month old son was napping, husband was at work.
The leaflet stated that production company twentytwenty were looking to film a documentary with the Bafta award winning Gareth Malone, who would start up a choir to ‘show the world that the wives and girlfriends of Royal Marines Barracks Chivenor have the talent, character and community spirit to produce a truly fantastic choir; whilst their husbands and partners are serving on Operations in Afghanistan that we can all be proud of.’
My initial reaction was, “ A documentary here in sleepy North Devon? Wow but no thank you!”
Invasion of cameras in my family life was not for me, or so I thought. I slept on it and my longing to be able to sing started to take over. I had always been told I was tone deaf by my older brother, yet it was my dream to be able to sing. I had never sung in front of anyone, my audience was normally the shower head, bubbles in the bath or the car windscreen turning up the stereo to ensure my voice was drowned out even thought I was singing at the top of my voice. Could I do it? Would I ever get an opportunity to learn to sing like this ever again?
My husband is a Royal Navy Medical Assistant. This would be his second tour in Afghanistan. The first was very worrying and scary, but I had work to take my mind of it and thankfully apart from a very close shave with a bullet, he came home with only a small scar. Now, he was gearing up to go back out on Op Herrick 14. An uneasy silence descended on our house, the endless waiting for deployment day loomed, the inevitable delays and changes to dates happened. Then as quick as it was long, he was gone, off to work with random strangers, to have their lives in his hands and equally his in theirs.
When he left our son was 8 months old, had just started crawling, he wouldn’t know what was happening but I would. I would see his developments and curse this deployment, wondering if my husband knew what he was missing back home.
And then it started; rehearsals for the choir. I nervously went along to the first one with the view that I wouldn’t like it or I would be found to be tone deaf and sent home. It never happened, I loved it. Every week, twice a week I dutifully went along and had a good old sing song. It was hard work and quite often monotonous, but what was happening within the Choir far outweighed the negatives, and we actually sounded good!
Suddenly Chivenor was alight with new friendships being made, practices around each other’s houses, the occasional bottle of wine being shared, helping each other out when someone was in a pickle, a good old fashioned community had emerged.
The tour was still hard for those of us left behind. The constant worry, the wondering if he will manage to phone, the avoidance of the news in dreaded fear of hearing that someone was being given the worst news possible, and the guilt when someone was, that it wasn’t you. However, now I had people who were in the same boat as me, who I could ring up and say I’m having a bad day and they would understand, people I could share my highs and lows with on a daily basis and this was all down to the choir.
We had shared experiences that many people would not have understood, the nerves, standing waiting for your turn to go on stage, having a TV camera shoved in your faces when you have tears streaming because of a particular lyric or tune asking you for your thoughts. Time seemed to pass quickly when we were rehearsing and on the occasions when we were on a filming break the weeks dragged by, we started pinning for the normality of choir rehearsals.
Suddenly the Regiments and our loved ones started coming back, mucking up our routines, making the house untidy, taking over the remote control, and who could I tell that would understand? My other family, my choir ladies of course.
Who would have imagined 8 months ago that I would have been part of a choir who have sung at Sandhurst Officer Training Academy, or performed at the Festival of Remembrance in the Royal Albert Hall in front of the Queen and Royal Family. Not only that, as I sit here and write this The Choir are releasing a single, which has a very good chance of reaching Christmas number 1, with a song composed especially for us.
More importantly for me, this choir has given me that ‘old fashioned’ sense of community. It’s brought me together with other women I can rely on, and who I can honestly say, will be friends for life, whether they want to or not. It has also given us the platform at last to stand up and declare to the whole world that ‘We are Military families and we are proud to support our loved ones, wherever they are,’ something that we don’t often get the chance to do.