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Big Interview: Sheila Harrod
THE Kentwood Show Choir’s music has taken Sheila Harrod all over the world.
One day in 1976, for example, revellers celebrating America’s Bicentennial at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, were treated to a programme of old time music hall tunes.
There was another visit to the States in 1982, and choir members have also had their passports stamped in Norway, Spain, Austria, Ireland, Poland and various other countries The trip to Poland was before the break-up of the Soviet Bloc, when Western ways were officially condemned by the puppet government as decadent. One of the choir’s engagements was in a church.
“The Reverend,” recalled Sheila, “said we were not to smile or clap. We started singing ‘I Believe in Music.’” The infectiously cheery song meant obeying the cheerless churchman’s instructions was out of the question.
Sheila, a lifelong devout Christian with no time for joylessness, said: “We all just sang normally. The audience loved it and then at the end the choir went round shaking people by the hand.”
The choir’s motto is ‘Music is a Fair and Glorious Gift from God’, based on a quotation by Martin Luther, although members from all faiths and none are equally welcome.
Another trip behind the Iron Curtain saw Sheila and a couple of members of the choir head for Romania. This was in 1967, before dictator Ceaucescu spiralled into the mania which would eventually see him overthrown, but foreigners were regarded with suspicion.
One night in a club there was a power cut and the lights went out. “I said, ‘Has anybody got a cigarette lighter? Take me to the piano!’ We did an English singalong, and when the lights came back on the management brought us a bottle of champagne.
“The next day a little man with a briefcase came – he wanted us to go on local radio. The mayor offered us a holiday.” In fact, the entire choir was invited to go and perform as guests of the Govern-ment.
During that trip, they were accompanied by a ‘guide’ who carried a gun. One day he put Sheila and Chris into the back of a taxi and got in with them. “He wanted to take us to see his mum...”
Sheila Georgina Snook was born at Kingshill Maternity Home, daughter of Olive, a singer, and George, a Salvation Army bandmaster who was a member of Stars in Battle-dress, a World War Two-era organisation formed to entertain the military. His credits included deputising for the trumpet player in the Glenn Miller Orchestra and accompanying huge stars of the day such as Anna Neagle and Charlie Chester.
Sheila’s earliest musical memory is of playing scales on a violin. She loved singing and playing piano and also tried playing trumpet. As a girl she would line up her dolls and pretend to teach them, and she has taught in one way or another since her late teens. After leaving Headlands Grammar School she worked as a clerk in an office and a bank, but hated it.
Sheila said: “I saw an advertisement in the Adver for a music teacher at Wroughton Secondary School, so I applied at 17 with nothing but my grades for singing and piano. The headmaster was Mr Hobday. He gave me the job. I was teaching A-Level music.”
Sheila’s pupils were only a year or two older than Sheila herself. She stayed until she was 34, when she struck out on her own as a teacher. She had founded Kentwood in 1964.
Sheila also spent several years as a speech therapist at Burderop Hospital. She teaches singing to this day, with a roster of pupils ranging from choristers to stage performers and a member of a death metal band. “He’s a lovely boy.”
Kentwood began with five girls rehearsing in Sheila’s mum’s Cornwall Avenue front room. Three of those are still members. “When I was a singing student,” Sheila said, “I thought it was a lonely life. I just sang and went for exams, so I decided I would form a choir.”
The choir has about 36 members and five trainees. Its repertoire extends from A Perfect Day and Accentuate the Positive to You'll Never Walk Alone and Zing. It has recorded several albums and worked with stars including Dame Cleo Laine and the late Sir John Dankworth and raised more than £1m for local and national charities.
The choir performs throughout the year, but is best known for its Christmas Cracker and its annual spring extravaganza. There is also a junior choir.
Sheila was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1993 and has an entry in the International Who’s Who of Music.
The choir’s website is www.kentwoodshowchoir.org