"Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow’

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A potted history of Surrey Music

The ‘mighty oak’ that is Surrey Community Music Society started with the formation of Elmbridge Choir in 2005. Now comprising three thriving choirs boasting almost 300 volunteer members, the society has in addition founded a highly successful community big band, supported and developed a group of young musicians, set up a music group for new parents and babies, organised weekly music sessions for adults with learning disabilities, provided more than £14,000 in grants for music activities and raised more than £200,000 for charitable purposes.

How it all began….planting the seed

Elmbridge Choir was founded by Cobham resident Cliff van Tonder, who wanted to start a local choir in his community. Having placed an advert in the local papers inviting members of the public to come along to the choir’s first ever rehearsal, he was delighted to find that the hall was packed with more than 100 eager prospective choir members!

With such a positive response and so much enthusiasm from everyone who turned up on that first night, it was evident that this was just the beginning of an exciting and successful venture. Many of those who attended that first rehearsal are still members today!

The choir was borne from Cliff's desire to enable people from all walks of life, regardless of musical ability, to enjoy and experience the joy of choral singing. New members were therefore not required to go through an audition process, nor did they need any singing experience. Membership was open to any adult with the desire and passion for singing and the willingness and commitment to uphold and respect the values and principles of the choir - an ethos which firmly remains the foundation of the society today.

Tending and nurturing

From the start Elmbridge Choir has been driven and nurtured by the passion and vision of its founder and musical director. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Cliff has striven to advance the choir and to give members new experiences, from singing a wide variety of music styles to performing at diverse concert locations. One of the choir’s earliest highlights came in 2008 when over 100 members took part in a European choral festival in Prague, receiving an enthusiastic reception as they sang at the Christmas markets in The Old Town Square and at the festival finale where they sang alongside other choral groups from all over Europe.

Full of boundless energy and positivity, Cliff encourages and engages with his society members, inspiring and coaxing out the very best in all.

Taking root

As well as wanting to promote choral singing, Cliff formed Elmbridge Choir with the intention of giving something back to the community by raising money for deserving local charities and worthy causes. Numerous and varied charities have benefited from fundraising through concerts and performances, including (amongst many others) Oasis, Walton Blind Society, the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in Putney, Woking and Sam Beare Hospice, SERV and Shooting Star Chase.

With this philosophy it is hardly surprising that Elmbridge Choir became very popular in a very short space of time, with a steady stream of people wanting to join the choir, and by early 2009 it had reached its membership capacity. The rehearsal premises on a Tuesday evening were bursting at the seams! This of course was great news for the choir, but not so great for those prospective members who were registering to join the choir only to be put on a long waiting list.

Time to grow

And so it was that Elmbridge Ladies Choir was formed in April 2009. Initially made up entirely from ladies from the mixed choir’s waiting list, the ladies choir very rapidly grew in strength and numbers and soon became a sought-after choir in its own right as firm friendships were formed and a strong three-part harmony established. With the choir up and running and performing together well in a relatively short space of time, Cliff was able to hand over the reins to Ramon Davis, who, as a teacher of music, brought with him expertise and experience in musical leadership. When Ramon moved on after a year, it was ladies choir member Dale Thomas who bravely stepped into the musical director’s shoes. Dale led the choir for six successful years, directing and developing the choir, and giving them the confidence to perform without music. Dale returned to her home town of Houston, Texas, in July 2017, and Christine Parker, another singing member of Elmbridge Ladies Choir, was invited to lead the choir.

Elmbridge Choir and Elmbridge Ladies Choir have performed concerts both independently and together, and have taken part in other European choral festivals. In Krakow in 2011 they were delighted to win a bronze diploma for their performance in the competition, and in the Veneto Canta Festival in Italy in 2013 the highlight of the trip was singing together with some 50 other choirs in St Mark’s Square in Venice.In December 2014 the choirs travelled to Bratislava where the ladies choir received a bronze award, while the mixed-voice choir received a silver! In 2016 the choirs enjoyed a non-competitive international choral festival in Croatia, and in November 2017 a party of 195 travelled to take part in the Malta International Choir Festival.

Branching out

Setting up and running two thriving choirs would be more than enough for most of us, but during 2009 Cliff was able to make another of his dreams a reality. While establishing a sponsorship agreement with Savills Estate Agents in Cobham, he was introduced to Georgi Bartlett, a talented lady with a wealth of musical and orchestral experience. This was enough to spur Cliff again into action and in September 2009, Elmbridge Big Band was formed with Georgi as its first conductor and musical director. Incredibly, within just a month, a group of around 40 musicians who had never met before let alone played together was creating a marvellously confident and harmonious sound. 

During its five years with Surrey Music, the ever-popular Elmbridge Big Band performed regularly, sometimes with either of the choirs, sometimes on its own, raising funds for our charity's grants scheme or some other worthwhile cause. Always flexible and enthusuastic, the band happily played at a variety of venues: from Woking Bandstand to a wet and windy marquee,and from Chertsey Rotary Club’s annual musical evening to a performance at the society’s summer social event.   

Room for further growth

2009 certainly proved to be an extraordinarily busy year and a year of many changes for the group. It was during this period that the committee of Elmbridge Choir proposed that with the addition of the ladies choir and the big band, it was time to incorporate the two choirs and the band under one ‘umbrella organisation’, giving potential for further growth whilst still firmly sticking to its original community-minded ethos and concept of ‘enabling music for all’.  And so it was that ‘Elmbridge Community Music Society' was established, at the same time obtaining charitable status, with a structure that would allow the society to grow even further in the coming months and years to respond to the growing musical demands of residents in Elmbridge.

New shoots

With the ladies choir settled and with their first concert under their belts, the big band formed and successfully up and running, Cliff became aware of a recently formed local youth band, enticingly called Elmbridge Young Musicians. EYM's principles of providing a musical opportunity for young people in Elmbridge to play together was entirely in harmony with those of the society and so, after discussion with EYM's founders and leaders, Lewis McGuiness and John Starling (both members of Elmbridge Big Band), it was agreed to integrate Elmbridge Young Musicians into Elmbridge Community Society, much to the delight of the choir and big band members.

The addition of EYM meant that Elmbridge Community Music Society was truly diverse and representative. Christmas 2009 saw the first performance of the four groups of the Society on the same stage at a sell-out concert in Leatherhead Theatre. An immensely proud and uplifting experience for all involved. The four sections of the society also recorded a CD together, performed joint concerts at Christmas, and presented a spectacular concert, ‘Sing It! Swing It!’,  in Woking’s New Victoria Theatre:

Regenerating and re-establishing

In 2011 the Executive Committee of Elmbridge Music proposed that the society should be focussing its fundraising efforts on achieving the objectives and aims of the charity, namely to nurture and promote music in Elmbridge and the surrounding boroughs.  With this in mind, ‘Elmbridge Music Grants Scheme’ was set up to provide financial and mentoring assistance for music related activities, and since 2011 all proceeds from performances and concerts have been put into the grants scheme. Re-named in 2012 to the much more dynamic ‘Get Music Going!’, the grants scheme has provided grants of more than £14,000, funding numerous and diverse musical projects, from piano lessons for a 7 year old to drum lessons for a 70 year old, and from woodwind tuition for a youth marching band to electric guitar lessons for an up and coming rock guitarist! One of the many grants applications received resulted in the setting up of Surrey Music Thula Mama, a weekly music group run by leader Ali Graves, which enabled new parents to come together to learn to sing, harmonise support each other and make new friends.

During that same year, when Surrey Music was asked by Surrey County Council to help with a pilot project at Cobham Day Centre to establish music activity sessions for adults with learning disabilities, there was no shortage of volunteers from within the Society. A group of our members, ably led by Freda Collins and organised by Sue Scott, soon had their weekly visitors engaged in fun and enjoyable musical activities, calling themselves 'Elmbridge Music AllStars'! 

.After a while it became apparent that society members and the grants applications were coming from an area much wider than Elmbridge, and in some ways the name ‘Elmbridge Music Society’ was self-limiting. It was therefore unanimously agreed that the name be changed to reflect the far-reaching interests of the society, thus the charity’s proud renaming in 2012 to ‘Surrey Community Music Society’ - or 'Surrey Music' as it is more colloquially known,



Blossoming and Maturing

When the society celebrated its 10th anniversary year in 2015, its focus returned to its roots - choral singing. Now that the original youngsters from Elmbridge Young Musicians have grown up and moved on, the youth band has dissolved but hopes to re-establish itself in the future with some new recruits. The society is proud and delighted that Elmbridge Big Band has now been launched very successfully into independence, with a new name but many of the original band members still in place. The structure of the society has changed over the years and continues to evolve, however it is evident to anyone who has seen a Surrey Music performance that the society is built on a strong foundation of pride, friendship and a sense of community.

It was this very same sense of community that led to Surrey Music's involvement in, and appearance at, the first ever Pride in Surrey event in August 2019, and the subsequent launch of Surrey's first ever LGBTQ+ choir, Surrey Rainbow Choir in October 2019. Founded by Cliff and led by Musical Director, Christopher Wray, Surrey Rainbow Choir amazingly received more than 100 registrations for membership before the launch, and performed for the first time in public with its two sister choirs at Surrey Music's Christmas concert  just 7 weeks later! Another astounding success for the society.

And under the extraordinary leadership of Cliff van Tonder, who has already brought the group so far, Surrey Music continues to go from strength to strength. With Cliff's vision and inspiration, the enthusiasm and commitment of its members, and the loyalty of the society’s supporters, there is little doubt that Surrey Music will continue to thrive and flourish for years to come, bringing the joy of music to all.


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