How this Teacher-Turned-Volunteer is Getting People Singing Again
We catch up with community-minded Jill Brown to find out more about leaving her role as a teacher to work as a volunteer and get people singing again
When she worked as a schoolteacher she didn’t simply teach music and have responsibility for a form class, she was also a Deputy Head, SENCO and took many a group of school children to compete in music festivals and Young Choir of the Year competitions. And when it comes to charity work, she doesn’t just volunteer her time at Valley Park, she chairs the whole group and as for Voices in Tune… I’m getting ahead of myself, but you get the picture: Jill Brown works hard to serve her community. So, let’s find out more about Jill, her second act and what exactly led her to it.
When we meet, I ask Jill to tell me about herself and she gives me a verbal whistle stop tour of her life: born in 1972 in Newcastle, attended Bedlington High School, achieved a B. Ed. (Hons) in Primary Education and Music at Leeds Metropolitan University, a first teaching post at Carville First School in Wallsend, then on to Newcastle Church High Junior School where she eventually became Deputy Head and was Acting Head, when the school merged with Central to become Newcastle High School for Girls. At NHSG Junior School she was Senior Deputy Head with responsibility for a form class and all junior music in addition to coordinating Special Educational Needs, assessment and many other things.
Ultimately, Jill was no longer enjoying working at NHSG and so she left. ‘I handed my notice in with no job to go to,’ she recalls. Now, this is the point at which I sit up straight in my chair and look at Jill, a little wide-eyed if I’m honest. I cannot help but be impressed by her strength of character. To know so deeply and unequivocally that something is not right for you and to have the courage and fortitude to walk away. To know that it is time to make a change. To put your happiness and wellbeing first. I’m fascinated that a woman who is so softly spoken, so obviously kind and caring and invested in all she does, has such a core of steel – whether she would acknowledge it as such or not!
She didn’t, however, get to rest on her laurels for long, as she was immediately snapped up by Newcastle Preparatory School to do a two-term maternity cover and then stayed there for seven years. And it was only after those seven years, working full time at NPS, that Jill stepped out and into her second act – and what a second act!
‘As part of the music training that I’ve done over time, I’ve attended conducting summer schools with an organisation called Sing for Pleasure,’ she explains. ‘They teach conducting technique: how to teach songs and how to lead a choir. I’d attended a number of these summer schools over the years, and had always come away thinking, “right, I’m going to start a community choir. I’m going to do it!” But the reality of a life as a teacher, with its numerous roles and responsibilities, meant it just didn’t happen.’
However, in November 2021 she saw a Facebook post on one of the Cramlington groups, saying “please, please can anyone help us find a new singing teacher? The lady who took our group has now left and we can’t find anyone to take over. We would love to start singing again after the horrendous 16 months of Covid”. For all the post caught Jill’s eye, she didn’t initially act on it, but it niggled away at her.
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Jill makes me laugh out loud as she explains that when she did eventually decide to get in touch, ‘I asked what they were looking for. Do you just want someone to just come and wave their arms about or do you want someone to take over everything?’
It turns out they did indeed need someone to take over everything, which Jill knew she just didn’t have the time for and yet. ‘It niggled away a bit more and I thought, oh gosh, it’s really sad there are people who want to sing and can’t.’ So, she decided she would do it – just until Christmas. Christmas came and went and in January, still very much enjoying herself, Jill decided to recruit more singers. Thanks to a simple Facebook post, the choir grew from 30 to 50 to 80 singers and continues to grow, with members ranging from their 20s to their 80s.
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It was at this point she had to make a decision. ‘I thought, I turn 50 this year; I can either stay at NPS and enjoy teaching for another 10 years before I retire, or I can make a go of this. So, I came home and said to my husband, “I think I want to leave the classroom and start choirs” and he just said “Yes, go for it!”’ Once again I am sitting up in my chair – that total belief, that core of steel, that boldness and also, what a great husband!
Jill took some advice from a friend who had experience of setting up a community interest company and a charity as she was adamant that she didn’t want the choir to be a for-profit organisation. ‘I wanted the choir to be a place where people could make friends, sing and enjoy themselves without any pressure,’ she says. ‘I am quite passionate about the fact that people pay a small fee (£5) when they come, but there is no charge for missed weeks, there’s no membership fee. I supply everyone with a folder and music. It’s very much a social enterprise.’
You may have spotted that when Jill told her husband she wanted to leave work she said she wanted to start choirs… plural! As that is exactly what she has done. ‘In addition to Cramlington Community Choir, I decided I would start another two, so Gosforth Singers rehearse on a Tuesday afternoon in Trinity Church and Bedlington Singers on a Monday night, in Bedlington Community Centre.’
Since setting up her choirs, Jill and her members have given Christmas concerts and performed in care homes, where the residents have clutched their sheet music and sung along with huge smiles and great gusto.
‘Being a part of a choir is extremely beneficial in terms of wellbeing and mental health,’ Jill explains. ‘The feedback from the people in my choirs is that it’s been life changing for some of them. It’s a real community spirit, more than I ever hoped it would be to be honest.’
By the time Jill has finished talking to me about all that she does, I find myself fighting back the tears, good tears, that one woman can make such a huge difference to so many lives, by being bold and brave and kind and caring.
I ask her one final question to better understand the thought process behind the leap into her second act. ‘It wasn’t exactly a leap as I knew it would work because I tested it before I decided to make the move,’ she says. ‘I knew there was a thirst, especially after lockdown, people wanted to be out and doing things, and singing just makes you feel good.
‘Do you know what?’ she continues, ‘I should have done it a long time ago. But this time, everything has just slotted into place quite naturally in a really weird way. I thought, “if I don’t do it now, I’ll have run out of time and I’ll never know if I could have made a success of it or not”.’
So, to any woman of a certain age/stage/rage reading this, please know it is never too late for your second act. What is it that you have always wanted to do? What is it that niggles away at you? Maybe, just maybe, the time is right, right now. Maybe, just maybe, if you make the first move things might start weirdly slotting into place.