Anna Shields and Emily Garsin of Starling Arts

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Anna: We co-founded Starling Arts six and a half years ago. Our tagline is ‘We get groups singing”.

Emily: We run choirs in businesses and communities, using singing to bring people together, from groups of young people to corporate team-building sessions.

Emily: We have three choirs for non-professional adult singers, from doctors and nurses, to teachers, plumbers and everything in between. At the moment 100 of them are working together as a super choir because we are taking them on tour to Paris, to sing at Disneyland.

We go for songs that makes people feel good, usually pop, rock, jazz and musical theatre. Things that singers and audiences might already be familiar with, and want to tap along to. One of our favourite feel-good anthems is Florence and the Machine’s Shake It Out  and Elbow’s One Day Like This. We also like to choose songs that we can bring to life with an added performance element, like dance. 

There’s a workplace choir, and we do corporate work, like for the rugby world cup in Canterbury we worked on a project for the launch of that singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” which was filmed on a GoPro on a rugby ball, which was cool.

Another event is BYO Baby. It’s karaoke for parents and babies because It’s harder for young parents to commit to coming to choir every week but people still want to sing and do something for themselves, where they can take the baby. It’s not choir exactly but it still gives all the benefits of singing.

Anna: Singing with others is proven to release oxytocin and other endorphins which are the hormones that are released after sport or sex, so they make you feel good. Research shows that singing with other people makes your heartbeats synchronise which has a very calming effect.

Emily: We bring mindfulness and meditation techniques into our singing, particularly if we are doing a one-off group, like going into a hospital or high-pressured workplace. Those can be the most effective sessions, as when you’re forced to step outside what you’re doing and the millions of thoughts flying through your head you slow down and focus on the breath, because that’s at the centre of singing.

Anna; Last year we started an early morning singing group called The Dawn Chorus. The idea was that you sang from 7.30 to 8.30am. It was amazing how everyone would be really buzzing afterwards and we’d have all these cool emails from people saying what brilliantly productive days they’d have after choir.

Emily: We love working with young people as well, so we have a summer school down in Devon. We’re writing an original musical for the kids to do, for our seventh year! It’s different from everything else we do, it’s the whole show; sets, costumes, dancing and singing.

Working with young people has certain requirements. We have a company child protection policy, enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks that have a yearly update, and we always work together with the school or community to identify and support any special needs or circumstances. 

It also requires a constant fountain of energy, always observing and encouraging ideas and positive behaviour. Often giving young people a chance to step outside of what they feel capable of is a blessing. Singing gives them that opportunity to be ‘free’ and throw themselves into something create, constructive and collaborative!

HOW WE STARTED

Emily: We met at drama school as housemates, both studying at Central School of Speech and Drama where we were both doing Masters degrees.

Emily: I grew up in a small village, singing and working on musical community projects, helping out my singing teacher. I knew I’d love to do something like that for my career.

Anna: We’ve both flirted with the idea of being performers, but we prefer group activity to that idea of getting your moment of glory to yourself on stage or any of that kind of ‘me me me’ attitude.

Emily: What we’ve ended up doing is much more creative and no two days are every the same. I’m definitely doing my dream job, whatever that means.

Anna: I also grew up in a small town, I was singing with my siblings and family members and I’d be helping out with the younger ones at the village panto.  Both being from close-knit communities we knew our mission was to try and create that in London – a community.

Anna: Emily came home from Uni one day saying; ‘we’re going to set up a business together’! We were worried that after graduating we wouldn’t be able to get cool jobs and also that we would be in competition for the same things.

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Emily: We brainstormed names for the company and got to birds quite quickly. Tits and thrushes were out! But the more we researched starlings, the more we liked them. I’m from Brighton and I used to watch the starlings fly over the West Pier. I loved the way that they flocked together. I had that as a mental image – the birds working together. To look at they’re not very special, but when they come together they can do something extraordinary.

Anna: I also like the name as it’s got ‘star’ in it and it rhymes with ‘darling’. It means I can call people our Starling darlings.

The first thing we did was set up a website despite not knowing exactly what we would be doing. Then we advertised on Gumtree, among other places – for our first choir. It’s different now, but at the time, Gumtree ads used to go to the top of Google searches so if you were looking for a choir in London, we would be at the top of the page.

25 paying customers turned up to our first rehearsal. Fortuitously, the timing coincided with the release of Glee, on UK TV. We’d wanted our choir to be singing rock and popular music, not classical, so it couldn’t have come along at a better time. We wrote; “Seen Glee? Come along to the real thing!” on our adverts.

Emily: We also went down the ‘do you want to meet people?’ route and that worked well to recruit men – important because there are always a lot of girls at choir. A couple of the guys tuned up thinking ‘I could make a female friend here’ and they did! We’ve already had our first marriage!

The first choir was so oversubscribed we set up a waiting list, then a second choir within two weeks, then within a term we had three. They’re called The Starling Singers, Corvida, which is a women’s choir, and a third one called Forte. Now we have waiting lists for all of them and we never advertise, they are self-sustaining.

Emily: I had a full time job at the ENO while we were doing it, which I needed money-wise. Anna was teaching private singing lessons and working on events and we ran Starling Arts in our free time to build it up to the point where we could afford to only do the business. We both took the leap to go full time three years ago.

GROWING THE BUSINESS

Anna: Sometimes it’s hard only having two of us. One of the best things is that we get to do a bit of everything so it’s nice and varied. We might be doing accounts, emails, choreography, writing a new song and running a choir, all in one day. But sometimes not having a bigger team, for example an IT department; that would be handy. Someone should start that as a business! We’ve got to a stage where we could do with an administrator as well.

Emily: As we grow, we want to keep the community ethos going that we had in mind when we started. We want to grow the business but we don’t want to sell out our principles. We never want to franchise it out so it’s not run by us. So I guess the next challenge for us would be to recruit people who are as passionate as us about community music.

Our primary driver of new business is word of mouth. Because it’s quite hard to describe what we do, it doesn’t necessarily come across on paper. People who have experienced it tend to recommend us. So people might be looking for an activity, they don’t know what, for example a team-building session with a difference and then someone who knows us will say – what about a choir?

Facebook is the platform for people who we already have a relationship with, like our choirs singers, to keep them up to date. Twitter is much more about the wider industry, like other singers, musical people and the world of the Arts. We sometimes use Instagram and we played around with Periscope and things like that to broadcast from our rehearsals. Now Facebook is going to do live broadcasts as well so we’ll use that soon.

Anna: We actually did a TEDX talk about it and got the whole audience singing. People think it’s really scary and then pretty soon they are doing a three-part harmony and its all working out really well.

Anna: We know that singing bonds people because when we shared a house we would just sit in my room with my little keyboard and sing together.

Emily: It’s been really easy being business partners with Anna. Our tip would be to find someone who you really trust. Partner with someone who has the skills and the personality you really need and then keep talking to them.

Anna: We always say that my strengths are Emily’s weaknesses and vice versa.

Emily: We tend to do almost everything between the two of us, we rarely commission freelancers. Anna designs our concert posters and arranges all the songs, I choreograph the dances.

We’ve always had a loose business plan although we are quite open to change. We are happy to try something and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work we’ll drop it and focus on what is working. If an opportunity comes up we wouldn’t say, ‘oh lets not do that, it’s not in our plan.’ It’s important when you are doing so many quite different things to be able to keep focused.

Anna; Expanding our corporate work was one goal. Originally we weren’t doing any, and it made the difference between doing Starling Arts alongside our jobs and doing it full-time. Plus, in order to do the corporate things, we needed to be available during the day. So it was self-fulfilling.

Additionally, parents and babies had been in our plan for quite a while but the current format; BYOB – took a while to come along. It’s great to have ideas and keep your eyes open for the opportunity to put them into practice, but in the right way. I think if we had tried to do it two years ago we might not have been able to get enough people together but it feels like the right time for it now.

Pricing our services is a hard one! It’s a combination of what others are charging, time spent on preparation and the type of client and what they can pay. A nursing home or state school in a deprived area for example will have a completely different rate to a large bank, and we’ll sing for free at places like hospitals and community centres.

The financial/negotiating side of things can be tricky – we keep a tight grasp on what should be coming in and going out and follow up quickly if things go unpaid. Payments to freelancers and small businesses seem to frequently ‘get lost in the machine’. Our advice is; be clear about your expectations, payment dates and don’t be afraid to be assertive when following up unpaid invoices.  

Anna: The ultimate goal would be to have our own community arts space, called ‘The Nest’. If we had millions, it would be a theatre with rehearsal rooms and a café and be a real hub. In reality, maybe it would be just one space. If we could even get a temporary one going, because at the moment we hire out church halls for rehearsals. If we had our own building we could easily come up with enough activities to keep it going all day. We could have Dawn Chorus in the morning, then parents and babies at 11 then a lunchtime singing group, after-school clubs in the afternoon then evening choirs.

Emily: An average day for us is pretty full-on. We both work from our homes, on opposite sides of London, trying to be at the computer by 10. We do admin in the times when we’re not running a group. We have rehearsals in the evenings so we often don’t finish till 10 or 11 and then we’re too hyped for bed, you need to wind down afterwards. Good thing we love our work, because we do a lot of it.

Because teaching people to sing together is about being positive, it rubs off on us. Even if one of us hasn’t had a good day, when you are there in front of people getting them to sing, you can’t be a downer, you have to be ‘on’.

Ann: Its funny because sometimes the last thing you feel like doing is being cheery but we have to be the energy in the room. We’ve both had to do rehearsal sessions with things like migraines, tonsilitus, or horrific period pains but you just get on with it. You can’t phone in sick. But doing the session does actually make you feel better. One of our singers is a doctor and she says ‘singing should be available on prescription’ And we agree.

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