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Sheelagh Greer: How music really is in the blood of this showstopping soprano turned radio presenter

Sheelagh Greer (44), from Ballyclare, was encouraged to play the piano at the age of seven by her grandmother and then, inspired by her dad, discovered a talent for singing. As her new BBC Radio Ulster show starts tomorrow, she tells Stephanie Bell why it's a dream come true

Sheelagh Greer
Sheelagh Greer
Radio Ulster’s Marie-Louise Muir
With her brother Peter

Singer and musician Sheelagh Greer finished 2019 on a high when she was named Mighty Woman in Music at a glittering Belfast awards ceremony.

And now, as 2020 gets under way, the Co Antrim musician is already set to make it another memorable year as she launches her own radio show.

A huge name in chorale circles in Northern Ireland, music is Sheelagh's life and now the chance to present a new series on Radio Ulster is, she happily confesses, a dream come true.

The new half-hour series called Showstoppers starts tomorrow at 6.30pm and is produced by BBC veteran Marie-Louise Muir, who invited Sheelagh to present it.

The first programme will see Sheelagh play tracks from some of the great musicals including The Greatest Showman, Cats and Mary Poppins.

"I'm hugely excited to be playing the best in sing-along songs from Broadway, the West End and Hollywood," the Ballyclare-born singer and musician says.

"Music and, in particular, great singing, is my lifeblood and it doesn't come much better than Showstoppers.

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"For me it's a chance to work in the media, something I have always been interested in, not just musically but also news and how it all works.

"The invitation to do the show came out of the blue and I am really excited. I'm in my 40s now and to have something like this at this stage in my life is fantastic."

Sheelagh (44) is best known as a mezzo soprano and a conductor of several leading choirs.

Surprisingly, she was 16 before she realised she could sing, although she had fallen in love with music many years before when she started playing the piano by ear at the age of seven.

She combines a busy schedule as a singer, freelance musician and private music tutor with directing and conducting a number of local choirs as well as playing the organ in her local church, Ballynure Methodist.

She is recognised for her singing not only throughout the province - it has also brought her engagements in the UK, Italy and India.

Still living in Ballyclare where she grew up, she has a long-term partner, David Hoppner (54), an engineer who plays in a brass band and whom she met through her music.

While music takes up most of her working hours, she and David will often be found either enjoying a meal out together or attending a concert.

Sheelagh grew up with music in her blood.

Her father Hubert, a retired architect, is a lifelong member of the Ballyclare Male Voice Choir, which Sheelagh is now an accompanist for and deputy conductor of.

Her mum Betty is a retired insurance administrator and she has one brother, Peter, an engineer with British Telecom.

Sheelagh says she fell in love with music when her paternal grandmother Betty Greer encouraged her to learn to play the piano at the age of seven.

"I grew up with my dad being in Ballyclare Male Voice Choir and was very influenced by going to concerts and services which I really seemed to take in," she recalls.

"I started to play the piano at the age of seven. My granny got me playing by ear. She bought me wee hymn books and I seemed to be able to instinctively play and then later I got lessons.

"I wasn't very old, about nine or 10, when I started playing in the church at services and I am still playing as the organist today.

"At that age you don't think you are doing anything different to anyone else, but when I look back I realise it came very easily to me and I was making up my own music at a young age. I could listen to music on TV and play it by ear. It wasn't until I went to Ballyclare High School that the singing kicked in when I was 16."

It was her very distinguished music teachers who spotted her talent and encouraged her to sing - John Dallas, a well-known local choral singer and teacher at Ballyclare High, and the late Irene Sandford, who was an eminent soprano.

Sheelagh was thrilled to step into the shoes of her former mentor Dallas in 2018 when he retired as musical director of The Lindsay Chorale.

"I joined what was a very good choir at Ballyclare High School and John and Irene were instrumental in discovering my voice and taking it forward," she says.

"John was in a chamber choir and he was bringing me along and also arranged for me to get extra tuition with Irene.

"From a very early stage I was entering festivals and had opportunities to do concerts - and there were a lot of concerts - and I was establishing myself as a singer.

"I always knew I wanted to do something with music but I wasn't sure what, and the singing just happened organically." As she went on to Queen's University to study for a music degree, her singing career took on a life of its own as the invitations came in from far and wide.

Shortly after graduating she was invited to travel outside Northern Ireland for the first time to perform at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow as a guest of the Caledonian Fiddle Orchestra.

She has since performed in Italy in the role of Carmen at the invitation of her singing teacher at the time, famous Irish opera singer Veronica Dunn.

"That was about 10 years ago and it really changed things for me in the understanding of performance and how to perform and brought different techniques to my voice," she says.

"I also travelled to India with a local doctor who is Indian and works as a surgeon in the Royal Victoria Hospital. We did quite a lot of concerts over a four-week period and it was to a very different type of audience."

She has also released two albums - My Soul Shall Sing and Just You And I - both of which have sold well.

Opportunity has continued to come knocking, despite the fact that Sheelagh has never actively promoted herself.

Modestly, she continues to be surprised by her own success and the many invitations which come her way.

She teaches singing and is now involved with four local choirs which keep her busy for four nights a week.

"It is the type of business when you can have lots of concerts and then nothing. I have mostly relied on being asked and not really promoted myself," she says.

"You always feel you are still the novice and not at the level of everyone else, so I never pushed myself forward. I always waited to be asked and thankfully there has been plenty of asking.

"I've loved every minute, it's been great. My albums did really well. I launched the second one in Belfast on a very cold Saturday in December and busloads of people came. I was so surprised. It was amazing."

Choirs are a big part of her life and it means a lot that she is one of the founding members and musical director of the Clare Chorale, which was set up by a number of former pupils of her old school, Ballyclare High, where it all began for her.

"It was like everything had come full circle when the choir started in 2003," she says. "We had 13 members at first and we now have 60 and it is really going great. The influence of the school choir and what John Dallas taught me has always meant a lot to me."

She combines this with rehearsals with Ballyclare Male Voice Choir, her role as musical director of The Lindsay Chorale in Saintfield and is also a member of the renowned chamber choir Cappella Caeciliana.

Last year she was surprised and delighted to be nominated and to go on to win the Families First Mighty Woman in Music award at a glittering event in the Titanic Centre.

Shortly after the event she got a call from the BBC's Marie-Louise Muir asking if she would be interested in presenting a new radio show. "The Mighty Woman ceremony was fantastic and then to get a call from Marie-Louise was amazing," she smiles.

"She rang me in November to say she had an idea for a new show, with me presenting it. It came completely out of the blue and it has all happened very quickly.

"She brought me in and we worked on a script. The idea behind it is to play hits from musical theatre and we have selected the music together.

"It is a pilot series for eight weeks and I have recorded the first one and wasn't too nervous. I think the nerves will kick in on Sunday when it is due to go out. I loved doing it and at this stage in my life it is great to be asked and I would really love it if it led to something more in radio."

According to Marie-Louise, Sheelagh is a natural and Northern Ireland audiences could well be looking at a new broadcasting talent.

The show is produced by Marie-Louise's own independent production company, Marie-Louise Muir Find Your Voice.

As well as being known as the presenter of The Culture Cafe on BBC Radio Ulster, Marie-Louise is a veteran of the local amateur drama circuit of stage musicals.

She says of the new show: "I've been in everything from Fiddler On The Roof to Carousel and know how audiences connect with these songs and stories.

"I also listen to my children singing along to Hollywood soundtracks from Frozen to La La Land, and know the wealth of great songs, songwriters and performers who are on the scene right now.

"I can't wait for listeners to hear Showstoppers. Sheelagh has songs in her DNA, and is a bright, enthusiastic presenter who will get you singing in the car, the supermarket checkout or the shower!"

Showstoppers with Sheelagh Greer begins tomorrow on BBC Radio Ulster at 6.30pm

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