SINGING is more than just a hobby to Karen Hughes - and she is not alone.

After the break-up of her marriage and being diagnosed with ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Karen was at her lowest ebb.

But a chance notice in a shop window was to give her the courage to find something which would open up new friendships for herself, and eventually she took the idea further, to help others who might have found themselves in a similar situation.

More and more singing groups are cropping up across the country but Karen explains hers, Sing Out Loud, was among the first to encourage singers who might not necessarily have had the confidence to sing in public.

She runs the groups on a voluntary basis and everyone between 20 and up to their 80s is welcome at the classes she runs in both Chelmsford, set up almost a decade ago, and more recently Colchester.

Karen explains she is living proof of the health benefits, both physically and psychologically of singing.

Now retired, Karen says she first began to display symptoms of having ME back in the 1980s when sufferers were struggling to get health professionals to recognise it.

“I think looking back I had it even when I was in my early 20s.

“I did my university degree and then moved to London where I began a law course because I was going to be a solicitor. That was the plan.

“But I was constantly getting colds, flu and stomach flu and feeling very tired and unwell. and I missed so much of the course, that though I did take the exams, I had not been there enough to pass. And I was just not in a fit state to re-sit them,” she says.

Even once she had begun work full-time, within the financial industry, Karen would sleep most of the weekend in order to have the energy to begin the working week again on a Monday morning.

“Sometimes I would sleep all day really, get up about 5pm and have dinner and then have to go back to bed again for the rest of the day.

“I did that pretty much both days of the weekend and then got back up to go to work at 9am on a Monday morning,” she says.

Doctors were sympathetic but not prepared to accept even Karen’s research which had led her to think she was suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and it was only after she had been living with it for a number of years that it was officially diagnosed.

By this time she was married, to David who was a musician, and mum to Taylor and Ruby, now aged 26 and 25.

“We had a role reversal and I worked full-time while he looked after the children. We had a huge amount of support from David’s parents who would come and look after the children on a regular basis and when he went on a tour with his band,” says Karen.

But she was becoming more and more poorly.

“I reached the point where although I would not have ended my life, I felt like I had nothing else to give.

“I was broken, empty. I would describe it as having a physical breakdown.

“There was a body walking around but there was none of me left inside,” she says.

Sadly it was also at this point Karen’s marriage broke down.

“I moved to Cambridge for a while and it was there one day, In Ely, I noticed a sign for a group looking for singers.

“I just thought, I could do that, and I got up the courage to go along.

“I hadn’t sung since I was a child, not since school but I knew I loved it and so I went along.

“There weren’t many people there but I made some lovely new friends. We all liked it so much we pushed the lady who ran it to put it on twice a week instead of just once.

“Singing releases endorphins which make you feel happy and I definitely felt that,” she says.

But having found herself returning to Essex, and eventually, to Maldon, where she still lives, suddenly she was dismayed to find there were no similar groups local to her at that time.

“I couldn’t really join a choir as I don’t read music and so I needed a group like the one in Cambridge.

“And I felt so strongly about it I thought maybe I would set up my own.

“I was really shy at the time but I wanted to go to a group so much that I made myself get as much publicity as possible which meant going on BBC Essex and then on Saint FM which was in Burnham at the time.

“We also put articles in the papers and hoped people would come along. I needed about two dozen to make it viable.”

Sing Out Loud was born – and it did indeed attract a significant number of amateur singers to its launch at Christ Church in Chelmsford.

“They gave us the actual church, which was amazing, but our voices got a bit lost in there at first,” she laughs.

The group eventually settled at the church in the city’s Grove Road where it has remained for most of its nine years.

Three years ago a second group was successfully opened at the Quaker Meeting House in Colchester - each has around 24 keen singers on the register but Karen would like to encourage more along.

“It does not mean you will always get 24 singers attending every week so 36 would be a better number.

“I do it because I love it and want the groups to keep going.

“There is not much money in it, but, wherever possible, we try to give something back to the singers, such as occasionally recording a CD, because that isn’t the sort of thing that most people would experience in their every-day life.

“The ethos really is for it to be a community group.

“I have seen such lovely friendships forged - for many it is a lifeline,” she says.

This includes Grace Perkins, 87, whose one night out a week is to attend the Colchester Sing Out Loud group.

She says: “I love it and look forward to going, all week.

“Everyone is lovely and friendly. It makes me feel uplifted and alive and I’ve made some new friends.”

Chris Brown, 64, who goes to the Chelmsford group, adds: “I’m learning to play the piano and singing along as you’re playing helps.

“You do feel good after attending Sing Out Loud. Afterwards, I get in my car and find I’m belting out the songs all of the way home.”

While the groups are predominantly made up of women, there are male singers and they are keen to attract more.

“I would absolutely love to create even more groups in the area because I do feel there is a need,” adds Karen who works with tutors, playing musical instruments, to run the classes.

“We are starting to work with sheet music now and modern pop music we are also adding in show tunes now too.”

They regularly perform at fundraising events and festivals and this year alone appeared at the Willingale Village Fayre near Chelmsford, Galleywood Festival and the Spirit of the Corn Festival at the Museum of Power in Langford near Maldon.

This Autumn they will take part in the Chelmsford Library Fun Palace Festival on Saturday October 7, as part of the lunchtime concerts at the Cramphorn Theatre on October 11 at 1pm and at a Showcase Day in Waterloo, London on October 21.

The groups meet for 10 weeks during term time at The Quaker Meeting House, Colchester, CO1 1NF, on Mondays at 7pm for 7.15 pm, and at Grove Road Evangelical Church, Chelmsford on Thursdays at 7.15pm for 7.30pm.

n For details, phone 07853 132 633 or email or visit their website