The story of the Neath-based ladies’ choir which has grown into a 200-plus ensemble
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
A choir started by a Neath mother who was feeling down after her son’s second open-heart operation has blossomed into a 200-plus ensemble of women aged 21 to 80 from all different backgrounds.
Valley Rock Voices will unleash its modern repertoire in support of entertainer Max Boyce and tenor Wynne Evans at Swansea Arena next March – so no pressure then.
Founder and musical director Cerys Llewellyn-Bevan has created a collective which is about more than just singing – spin-off walking and swimming groups have formed, social and fund-raising activities arranged, and firm friendships forged.
In fact Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan said the best thing about Valley Rock Voices was the community created for mothers, grandmothers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, widows, cancer survivors, accountants, divorcees, dinner ladies, nurses, teachers, shop workers, bankers, housewives, students and carers. Members come from Swansea and further west as well as the Neath area.
“We are a huge melting pot of every kind of woman,” said Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan.
She started the choir with 12 friends in 2016 as what she described as an antidote to her son Sam’s second major operation. Fortunately, Sam, now 26 and with a master’s degree in film and television production under his belt, has recovered well.
“When you become a mum your life becomes all about your children growing up, and I think a lot of women lose the ability to go out and make friends,” said Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan.
“I needed to get out and find some joy again, and going back to my music-making seemed to be the obvious path as it had brought me much joy previously.”
The 53-year-old, of Cadoxton, has a classical music background and had stints as head of music at Coedcae School, Llanelli, Pontarddulais Comprehensive School, Pontarddulais, and Ffynone House School, Uplands. She was also a member of the National Youth Theatre of Wales, which explains her focus on the performing experience.
“We spend a lot of time planning the lighting, and the whole ambience is really important to me,” she said.
The choir’s repertoire includes the Bee Gees, The Killers, Katy Perry, Primal Scream – even a bit of rapper Stormzy.
Day-long “boot camps” are held on top of regular rehearsals at Neath Town Hall and St Peter’s Church, Newton, which conjures up images of exhausted recruits wading through rivers and doing press-ups.
“It’s much harder than that!” said Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan. “It’s 200 women for six hours a day.”
Valley Rock Voices has performed at venues including Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall, and has a Christmas single with Swansea songwriter Mal Pope in support of Swansea East MP Carolyn Harris’s Everyone Deserves a Christmas charity appeal.
The choristers fell silent when the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020. “For nine months we didn’t meet,” said Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan. “I honestly thought I would never put the choir back together again.
“In November 2020, restrictions started to be eased slightly so I decided to venture out and see if I had anyone who fancied a challenge.
“I spoke to Neath Rugby Club’s owners and investigated whether they’d allow me to rehearse my choir outdoors, in the rugby stands, socially distanced and groups of 15 at a time. Neath RFC were brilliant!
“On Saturday mornings we would meet – rain or shine – in groups of 15 singers and carry on rehearsing in 30-minute sessions.
“One group would leave, we’d disinfect the seats, and the next group of 15 would take their seats. It took me hours every Saturday to get through everyone, but importantly, this activity brought us all back together; we kept singing and learning a new repertoire.”
Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan said the choir was mixed at the very outset, but that getting men to join was “nigh on impossible”.
She added: “The sound balance was all wrong – lots of women and a couple of basses growling at the back!”
She paid tribute to the choir’s pianist accompanist, Phil Orrin, and bassist Col Bevan – her husband – and drummer, sound and media man, Sam, her son.
Joining the choir has been of major benefit for its youngest member, Imogen Fish, of Neath, who is a regular along her mother. Now 21, Imogen has gone through her GCSEs, A levels and university degree while with Valley Rock Voices.
“When I first started I was so shy,” she said. “I wouldn’t speak to anybody or look at anybody. I was going through a tricky time at school. Now I’m a totally different person.”
Imogen said her singing and performing confidence has grown, and that graduating from university in front of a big audience wasn’t as daunting as it would have been without the choir experience. Imogen is now training to become a teacher.
Joan Powell – the choir’s oldest member at 80 – knew Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan from a swimming group and joined on the choir’s first day.
“When you get older you don’t make lifelong friends so easily, but I have,” she said. “I have formed some beautiful friendships. Everybody takes care of each other. We watch each other’s backs.”
Mrs Powell, of Cadoxton, said some members went swimming together at Aberavon beach, with hardier ones taking out-of-season dips in lakes up near Resolven.
“It’s part of my social life – so many groups have spread out of it,” she said.
Bethan Comerford, of Neath, knew Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan from school and found about the choir on Facebook.
She said: “Up from the sofa I got – my husband said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to join a choir.’ It was just what I needed. It’s the best thing I have ever done.”
Tragedy hit Mrs Comerford and her two sons, now aged 21 and 14, when her husband died two years ago. The choir was a huge support.
“It was the middle of Covid, and every night there would be food parcels delivered by people here,” said the 54-year-old. “They were fantastic, and they still are. They’re such a great bunch of women.”
Judith Aubrey, also of Neath, said she was a little nervous when she joined as Valley Rock Voices was already 100-strong at that point. But she needn’t have been.
“It is like a huge family – everybody is fantastic,” she said.
Mrs Aubrey, 57, sang in a church choir many years ago and had always wanted to get more involved, particular as her daughter is a trained vocalist.
Speaking ahead of rehearsals at Neath Town Hall, she said: “Every Thursday when you leave here, you go out smiling – you’re floating.”
Her first concert was at the Brangwyn Hall, with renowned male voice choir Only Men Aloud. “It was a really great experience being on stage,” she said. “You get that adrenalin. It was fantastic.”
Anna Parton, of Newton, said she joined to do something for herself after running amateur dramatic group Ostreme Theatre Players for 12 years.
She said: “I was working for the NHS, I worked through the pandemic – life is hard and stressful for people.”
Mrs Parton found out about Valley Rock Voices from accompanist Mr Orrin, who is the musical director of another choir she belongs to – Mumbles A Cappella.
She said: “As soon as I walked through the door of St Peter’s Church I just thought, ‘This is such a laugh.’ The women are lovely, they come with incredible back stories, and I really like the age range.
“It doesn’t matter how hard a day I’ve had, I never regret it. For those two hours you switch off and sing your heart out.
“Singing is soul food, it’s life-affirming, stress-relieving. It should be prescribed on the NHS.
“It’s also really good for your memory. You’ve got to learn 30 songs – that’s a lot of lyrics.”
“I love the variety of it – we’ve sung Abba, Fleetwood Mac, a Joni Mitchell song. I’m 60 next year, and I’m singing Stormzy!”
Mrs Parton described Mrs Llewellyn-Bevan as a force of nature. “She gives every ounce of herself when she’s on stage,” she said.
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