The following article appeared in 'The Cumberland News' on 20th July 2007, and is reproduced with kind permission.

The woman in 38 men's lives

Since Hilary Hodgson began directing Dalston Male Voice choir 200 performances and 22 years ago, numbers of singers have more than doubled.

She describes the joy of creating near-perfect harmony.

by Roger Lytollis

From the piano notes which drift through the house to the Chopin sheet music propped open on the piano, there’s little doubt where Hilary Hodgson’s passion lies.

Facts and figures jostle to confirm the impression: 22 years and counting as conductor and musical director of Dalston Male Voice Choir, and a decade in the same roles with Dalston Ladies’ Choir. Hilary sang with the Abbey Singers for 30 years and with the Wordsworth Singers for 10 years. She has been music co-ordinator of Carlisle Music Festival for longer than she cares to remember.

Dalston Male Voice Choir recently completed its 200th performance, all of them under Hilary’s direction, but she doesn’t know, or particularly care, when this milestone was reached.

“I’m not one for numbers,” she says. “I think it’s more men who like to work in figures.”

What matters to Hilary is the enjoyment of the men in the choir and their audience; the satisfaction of striving for perfection and sometimes achieving it; and most of all the sweet, sweet sound of music.

It’s an uplifting tale, particularly as harmony is not always apparent when male voices are directed by a woman. The first female director of one of the leading Welsh male voice choirs has just made headlines after claiming that she was hounded out because of her gender.

Sian Pearce was the first woman conductor in the 70-year history of the Swansea-based Morriston Orpheus choir. She has resigned after three years, claiming that a minority of members had a problem with a woman running the choir.

No such discord exists in Dalston. Hilary was invited to lead the men when they decided to form a choir in 1985. She was leading St Michael’s Church choir in the village and had an impressive background in teaching and performing music.

For 22 years Hilary has guided baritones and basses: cajoling, teasing, laughing; transforming her charges from men who sang in unison with enthusiasm but little flair to an accomplished group who have mastered four-part harmonies.

Hilary has introduced them to African, French, Gaelic and Russian folk music, Welsh hymns, ballads, spirituals, jazz, songs from the shows, operatic choruses – and Westlife.

“I think Westlife are excellent,” she declares. “You Raise Me Up is a great tune. While I very much like the traditional voice music, you can’t have a programme consisting entirely of old songs. There’s so much good new music. If it’s a good tune we’ll consider it.

“The choir have done Bohemian Rhapsody but it was not one of their favourites. I wouldn’t force any choir to sing anything. Music has to be fun. If you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point?”

While there’s no doubt that the choir’s members – currently numbering 38 – love what they do, Hilary is concerned at the lack of new blood. The youngest are in their late 50s and the eldest, Eddie Green, is 93.

At least things are looking bright at the other end of the age range. As music co-ordinator at Carlisle Music Festival, Hilary spends every spring watching the next generation of musical talent blooming. She is encouraged by the number and quality of entrants, and thrilled by the transforming power of music.

“The first time some of them come they are slightly nervous. They get better and better and more confident. Singing in choirs perhaps gives less confident children more confidence.

photo © Cumbrian Newspapers Ltd

“It’s been proved that singing in a choir and working as a team is very good for you health wise. It’s a good way to relax. When the choir started a lot of the men were still working. They’d come to rehearsals feeling tired and stressed and at the end they always felt so much better.”

It’s a power that Hilary has known for most of her 70 years. She has been an accomplished singer and pianist since her childhood in Lancashire and first conducted a choir at music college. The youthful enthusiasm which gripped her then is still apparent.

“I so much enjoyed conducting from the first time I did it. I just thought ‘Yes!’ I know what I want it to sound like. The joy is if I’m able to get exactly what I want. All the different harmonies and loud-softs from the choir. Trying to make what’s on the piece of paper and in your head, draw it out of the choir. You’ve got to use your hands and facial expressions. A lot of it is body language between the conductor and the choristers.”

The choir are now among her best friends. There have been sad losses as some members have died, among them Hilary’s husband Geoff who passed away five years ago.

“When my husband died I was back conducting the choir three weeks later. They were just wonderful. It was the choir that helped me get over it really, not that you ever really get over it. They were really super.”

She and Geoff moved to Cumbria in the 1970s and had two sons, Martyn and Christopher, who are now both married. While bringing them up Hilary taught music from home then part-time in schools, before deciding that she wanted to spend more time doing rather than teaching.

Two years after joining Dalston Male Voice Choir she founded the village’s ladies’ choir and stayed for a decade. Then there were her commitments to the Abbey Singers and the Wordsworth Singers.

These days her performances are with Cantrix – a recorder, piano and vocal group – and singing with St Michael’s Church choir.

Hilary has thought about stepping down from her role with Dalston’s men but now she says this will be the last thing she gives up. “I have tried to retire three times. The problem is getting somebody else who can do it. But I don’t want to retire now. I’ll be here until they throw me out. It started with 16 men. We have worked up to 40 who can sing well in four parts. I feel quite proud of that really.

“They have got really good voices that they didn’t know they had. It’s very enjoyable to see what they can achieve. None of them are trained singers.”

The choir has raised thousands of pounds for charity and often appears with guest artistes, including acclaimed violinist Emma Hancock. Their next performance is at Dalston Festival in August. In December at St Michael’s they will première an original piece by renowned composer Gwyn Arch. Hilary commissioned the work with a bequest which a former member, the late Joe Watson, left the choir in his will.

Music has been the soundtrack to Hilary Hodgson’s life; the medium which continues to inspire her and those who hear her work. “It’s been the biggest part of my life,” she says. “To sing with other people and to achieve something, it’s a wonderful feeling.”