Caroline Redman Lusher on Founding the World's Largest Contemporary Choir

Caroline Redman Lusher is the Founder & Director of Rock Choir, Britain’s biggest contemporary choir, which she founded in 2005 with the simple intention of encouraging people to sing.   

From its humble beginnings – weekly singing lessons around the piano for students – Rock Choir has become a true phenomenon. It currently boasts 17,000 members in some 200 towns up and down the UK, several entries in the Guinness Book of World Records, and the dedication of 55 Rock Choir leaders, all music graduates, who are trained by Caroline to teach the Rock Choir repertoire in their local communities. 

Through her creativity and inspirational leadership, Caroline has been nominated for a number of awards; in 2009 she was invited to the Women of the Year Lunch; in 2010 she was a finalist in the Orange Business Awards Entrepreneur of the Year and for the Institute of Directors Special Chairman’s Award for excellence in leadership. Last year she was shortlisted for the NatWest Everywoman Awards.

Caroline personally oversees every aspect of her business which includes the musical arranging and choreographing of each song in the Rock Choir repertoire. Choir members are not required to audition nor to read music and they learn to sing Caroline’s arrangements of great pop songs by her favourite singers such as Annie Lennox, Adele, Robbie Williams, Phil Collins, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin.

In 2009, after some high profile television appearances, Rock Choir were snapped up by Universal Music who released ‘Rock Choir Volume 1’ featuring Caroline as solo vocalist with 1,000 Rock Choir members. The album entered the UK mid-week chart at No. 5 and Rock Choir won its first Guinness World Record for The Largest Musical Act to Release an Album (Signed).

In 2011, Caroline and Rock Choir were the subject of a hugely popular ITV documentary series, ‘The Choir That Rocks’ which followed Caroline as she led 8,000 Rock Choir members through their paces and onto a Guinness World Record concert at Wembley Arena.

Caroline is a popular speaker at corporate events, educational workshops and business conferences.  She has designed a way of combining music and song in her team building workshops which she has run for companies such as Virgin Money, Proctor & Gamble and Santander.   

Caroline and Rock Choir have also helped to raise tens of thousands of pounds for various charities. In 2011 alone, over £350,000 was raised by Rock Choir for National and local charities through events, performances and appearances.     

We spoke to Caroline about how Rock Choir began; on the unorthodox request she got from Norweigan politicians; and why she's never had a business plan!

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Rock Choir and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

CRL: I came up with the idea for Rock Choir whilst teaching A-level performing Arts and Music at Farnborough College. I started there in 2001 and found that the students needed to pass their music module but couldn’t read music and were shy about singing on their own. I developed a weekly lunchtime activity where I would break down feel-good pop songs into 3 part harmony and teach the group by rote from the piano. I then introduced basic choreographed routines and developed the group into a confident singing and dancing contemporary choir.

What I hadn’t planned for was the huge increase in confidence and improvement in their grades in other subjects. Even their parents at parents' evening wanted to discuss the social changes in their children because of the choir. 

They were happy and excited and we all looked forward to our weekly singing session. By 2005, the student numbers in the choir had increased to over 170 and we were travelling the country and Europe performing in what I can only describe as a unique glamorous contemporary choir. Finally,  the parents came to me asking for a choir for them! Running the weekly choir was my high each week too – the friendship, fun and bonding was so extreme that the concept of doing it every day was reason enough to quit my job and develop it. Then of course – there was the question that if the 16-18 year old students were gaining so much in terms of well-being – what could I do for adults? So I handed in my notice and created Rock Choir.

I borrowed £1000 from my father and bought the gear I needed and had posters made up for the local coffee shop in Farnham.

In September 2005 I started Rock Choir officially and put out 40 chairs in a local rehearsal room. 70 people arrived; all adults from different walks of life and all with little or no music or singing experience. We had a blast!!!

Everyone was up on their feet singing their hearts out – it was like a party – but very organised and educational! Word soon spread and I was asked to create Rock Choir for all the local nearby towns. I didn’t market what I was doing at all – the members were all on a high about Rock Choir and wanting everyone they knew to be part of it and get happy! It was a traditional case of word-of-mouth! After 3 years of fun, exhilaration and a steep learning curve in terms of making the logistics work, I was being asked for Rock Choir further afield and across the country so I took on my first Rock Choir Leader, Sam. We spent a year analysing what made Rock Choir so popular with her shadowing my every move. She was the first Rock Choir Leader and now I have 57 in the team all teaching Rock Choir in their local communities. I managed to turn the reality of a brand new concept into a unique National organisation and a few months ago was honoured for my contribution to British Music. There are now thousands of people enjoying the fun and well-being benefits of Rock Choir just like the original students did back in 2001.    

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

CRL: I wanted to create a dream team that protected the original ethos of Rock Choir – which was to do good and look after people. I look for key personality traits along with the high standard of musicianship and education which is a must for the role of the Rock Choir Leader. The successful candidates who apply to be a member of the Rock Choir team have a positive, can-do, nothing-is-too-much-trouble approach. They understand the bigger picture and that Rock Choir is a team effort. They have a caring and sensitive approach to the members and are perceptive and good at communicating.

The Rock Choir members are precious to me and I only want genuine individuals teaching them – I’ve made a few mistakes over the years and have had the painful experiences of letting the odd individual go from the team but it usually becomes very clear if someone comes in who has an agenda or isn’t able to put others before themselves. It’s important everyone works together – shares ideas and techniques and commits to Rock Choir for the good that it’s doing to the general public.

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

CRL: The Rock Choir members are our ‘customers’ however we tend to view them and treat them like they are part of a family rather than see it all as a commercial set up. We attract old and young- mostly with no musical experience and 99% are individuals who have never been in a choir before.

Most of our members are women – we didn’t intend it to be a female choir and although some men do join we do attract mostly women. Our oldest member is 92 and our youngest is 10.

In general though, it’s mostly women aged between 20 and 70. A lot of new members brave the first free taster session of Rock Choir on their own but quickly make friends during the first session. ‘Old’ members are informed of new members and asked to accommodate and take care of anyone looking nervous when they walk in. The social like is hugely important and we are always planning nights out and events. The members tend to meet up outside the rehearsals and make their own social plans. Some members report back that Rock Choir has made them less shy and they don’t feel isolated anymore! Rock Choir has become a multi-layered experience – not just a glamorous choir to sing in each week.   

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

CRL:

I’ve never really had a strategy – or even a business plan which might horrify some business readers. It was never about profit or growth – it was about doing something I love and making people around me happy! 

Rock Choir is unorthodox and has created its own market – it was the first contemporary choir in the country and we have led the way in terms of this type of activity. We have become a recognised brand but known for changing lives at the same time. I believe that the movement Rock Choir has created and the good its doing are the reasons why the media has been so interested and supportive.

I signed a record deal with Universal in 2009 and we released two top-twenty albums in 2010 and 2011. We’ve won three Guinness World Records and these kind of achievements don’t go unnoticed by the media. Rock Choir gained so much attention with the album releases that we were invited to perform on The Paul O’Grady Show, The One Show, BBC Breakfast and various other daytime TV shows. It really caught the imagination of the public and the membership numbers soared.

The members had a ball! Imagine for example, a 48 year old mother of three appearing on the One Show with Will Smith! Who could have imagined that!? 

In 2011, ITV filmed a 3-hour, 3-part documentary called The Choir That Rocks which was aired after Coronation Street over 3 weeks. Our website crashed moments after the first episode began and we had to radically find ways of coping with extreme attention both online and on air with interviews and magazines. In terms of marketing – this was the biggest campaign we have coped with. However – we would have experienced all of these moments for fun anyway – with or without the attention. I feel lucky though – that journalists and broadcasters have been so positive and supportive towards me and Rock Choir. Many of them have joined Rock Choir since! 

TNW: What is next for your company?

CRL: I am about to put together a board to help support me and the future of Rock Choir. It’s the natural time to do this after 8 years of establishing it.  I now have some very knowledgeable and supportive individuals around me who want to get more involved.

I’d like to take the powers of Rock Choir abroad – as we are being asked by other countries to set up the experience for them. Politicians from Norway, for example, have asked if I will make their “people happy!”.

I’ve never pretended that I’m a business person and I often fight the label that people have given me. I’m a trained musician and a professional singer and I particularly love teaching. – I simply make day to day decisions based on the welfare of the Rock Choir members. They come first and always will do.  However, taking Rock Choir to new territories will need some serious planning and I’m grateful I have experienced people waiting to help me. 

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

CRL: I’m often awake through the night. When we are particularly busy it’s a real issue for me and many a time I’ve worked my way through herbal sleep aids. I mainly worry about the people around me and in the choir.

Trying to look after a team of nearly 80 people and then a choir of 17,000 creates issues and anxieties and I struggle to walk away from any problem big or small. I feel responsible for everyone.

I’ve learnt to delegate as much as possible and I have a very clever CEO now who deals with day to day issues as much as possible. I also have a wonderful PA who is a real gem. However, even 1 letter or email from an unhappy member causes me worry. I suppose it’s because I built Rock Choir and I want everyone to understand what it is – that it’s safe and above-board and that everything I do is for them – the members.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

CRL: I've learnt a huge amount since Rock Choir began in 2005, both personally and in business. I’ve been lucky enough to experience working with a multitude of people and have experienced a giant learning curve in creating a choir of 70 people to one of 17,000 -  The largest contemporary choir in the world. I’ve learnt to delegate. I’ve learnt that ALL people NEED attention, care and LOVE. I’ve learnt that anything can be achieved if I want to achieve it. I’ve learnt that consolidation is sometimes a good period to move into and always keeping my foot on the accelerator realistic. I’ve learnt that people can be jealous and desperate and these negative traits lead to nothing but loss and pain. I’ve learnt to toughen up – and make difficult decisions. I’ve learnt to take time off. I’ve learnt that I am ferociously driven and I need change and to be making plans in order to satisfy my needs.

My outlook on life has changed – I’m wiser now. I’ve learnt that one kind word or gesture makes a massive difference. I’ve learnt that this is what I was meant to do in life and I intend to continue making a difference.

TNW: Do you have any pet projects as an entrepreneur?

CRL: I want to create The Rock Choir Foundation – which will help those unable to afford to pay the Rock Choir membership to take part across the UK and benefit like our members do. In 2012, as a team, Rock Choir helped raised just under £1 million. This supported hundreds of local and national charities. Im hoping we can find a way of introducing the experience we offer to various groups of people to help integrate them successfully into Rock Choir so we can all help each other and make a difference. The knock on effect of Rock Choir has created more productivity in the workplace and more positive relationships at home. I want to try and offer the opportunity to everyone.   

TNW: How has your team building expertise helped you to run your own business?

CRL: Understanding character – the strengths - the weaknesses and how people behave under pressure all add to the knowledge needed to create a successful team. General people behaviour and handling people’s emotions help too. Listening, watching and understanding your team are key attributes to build in yourself as a manager and sometimes only experience can create these.

Sometimes, people just need a chance to shine. I’ve often given someone responsibility when they’ve been flagging – and they’ve risen to the challenge and felt proud and important.

They’ve taken ownership and felt that they are valued. Inspiring my team is important. The office team at Rock Choir HQ is often troubleshooting and dealing with large logistical projects that can become disheartening and it’s important that they need to rebalance and know that what we do IS effective and positive and brilliant. I try and stay with the team as much as possible and be around them to help keep them motivated and cared for. Sometimes they stay til 9pm/10pm at night to make sure a deadline is met which is way beyond their remit. However I often talk to them all about the economic crisis we are in and how important it is that we work harder than ever before to make sure our members are happy as possible and that we are delivering an excellent service.  

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