Inspirational and Visionary!

A team from the Wessex Male Choir was recently fortunate enough to attend a Male Choir Conference in Peterborough. Now you might think that sounds a bit dull, particularly if your view of male choirs is that they are ‘pale, male, and stale’ – a term we heard quite a few times during the day. But it seems that the Wessex Male Choir has very similar aspirations for male choir singing to those of the inspirational choral director, Will Prideaux, who masterminded the conference. I think it’s fair to say we share a vision of male singing reclaiming its rightful position after years of steady decline. The Wessex, under the expert guidance our music director, Rhiannon Williams, is thankfully one of those choirs prepared to ‘up its game’ and play its part in the renaissance of men’s singing.

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Will Prideaux conducting the Peterborough Male Voice Choir during the conference.  (Photo – Peterborough MVC.)

So much for grand designs, but rebuilding and maybe re-branding a somewhat tarnished and neglected genre is going to involve a lot of hard work, commitment, and tough decisions, and maybe not all choristers are prepared to put their shoulders to the task. As Churchill once said “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”.   Perhaps that’s too stark a picture though, because as most of us who sing in choirs know, it’s also a matter of great satisfaction and pride when things go right. It is a rewarding and fun experience being in good choir, but we agree with Will: music, singing and choir development must lie at the heart of what we do if we take our singing seriously.

Of course, there are different types of men’s choirs: some are little more than singing social clubs for elderly gentlemen where, in reality, the priorities are very different. I have to say that I saw a male choir recently in concert that left me cringing and wanting to tell other audience members that ‘not all male choirs are like that!’   In that moment, I would not have owned-up to being in a male choir.   (Perhaps they had misread the sarcasm of my earlier blog (The Art of Coarse Choral Singing) and taken it as actual performance advice?)  Undoubtedly the ‘social singers’ have their place, but the image and standard of singing they present to the public is most likely one of the reasons for the overall decline in the popularity of male choirs, both in terms of recruiting and audience appeal.

To see just how far male choral singing has fallen, we only have to think about the great composers like Elgar, Schubert and Sibelius (to name but a few) who wrote numerous works for male choirs. The number of contemporary composers writing works for male choirs today is pitifully small, especially in the UK, and is a measure of the degree to which male choral music has lost respect.  We can certainly help ourselves in this respect:  for example, the Wessex Male Choir is commissioning the acclaimed British composer Paul Mealor to write a Remembrance piece for male choir.  But male choirs generally have lost the respect of many other singers.  I know many ‘choral society’ and ‘classical’ singers who look down on male choirs with something approaching disdain, and yet, done well, male choral singing can more than hold its own with more classical genres.

As already mentioned, if we are to reclaim our rightful place, we will have to work hard. We need to adopt a much more professional approach to our music-making – and that includes hiring-in professional music staff, ensuring the focus is on the music, singing, and developing the choir’s skills and competence.   Will mentioned in his keynote address the apparent pride with which a elderly chorister of thirty years’ standing had once told him that he didn’t read a single note of music.   It begs the question, that if someone takes their singing seriously, why on earth wouldn’t they make the effort over a thirty-year period singing with the choir, to develop their skills and learn how to read music? It beggars belief, but I suspect that nearly every male choir has choristers like this and some can perhaps be forgiven if they have never been encouraged to learn, but wearing it like a badge of pride is surely wrong-thinking.  You don’t hear people boasting about being unable to read.   Of course, the Choir itself has a duty to provide the help and training required, and there are many great ways of doing this. Katie Jeffries-Harris of Peterborough Sings, highlighted and demonstrated some of the great technology that can help.   We will certainly be looking at how we might use the Music Prodigy app!  Having a chorister development programme and offering to teach potential choristers new skills is one of the things that attract the right calibre of new recruit.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get get what you’ve always got”

The Wessex Male Choir’s founder and former musical director, Robert T Elliott, an experienced and highly respected choral adjudicator, gave a presentation on competition preparation and what adjudicators look for. With commendable clarity, he spelled out what we should already know. Rather like rugby, you need to do the basics well, and that repeating the same old ‘plays’ (or in this case, the same old stale male repertoire favourites) isn’t going to impress or bring success. A later speaker summed it up well when he quoted the words attributed to Henry Ford when he said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  For male choirs who want to develop, and for whom restoring respect for the male choral genre is important, the message is clear: we need to work hard and innovate, not least in our repertoire selection. For competition success, preparation is key. If you prepare well and allow just the right amount of time, you greatly increase your chances of success. Of course, even then, sometimes the TMO can it wrong though!

Recruiting, as always, was a topic of great interest, and the Peterborough MVC approach is certainly worthy of study. (Visit their website to see the sort of things they do). Quite a few of the ideas can also be found in one of my earlier blogs here. Claire Hailey of Peterborough Sings shared her experiences of project-based recruiting and the many good ideas it encompasses.   Whilst incredibly envious of Peterborough’s recruiting budget, I also reflected that Wessex Male Choir’s ‘Project RMS’ (Real Men Sing) from just over a year ago, employed many of the same methods and produced some excellent results at a fraction of the cost.   However, we will certainly be ‘tweaking’ our future campaigns to incorporate some of the ideas picked up at the conference! When you see the average age of Peterborough MVC members, it’s clear the organization is getting it right.

At the start of the day, we were treated to a recent recording of a once undeniably great choir singing a well-known song – a staple of the MVC repertoire, particularly in the Land of Song. It was pretty rough and ready, and certainly nowhere near the standard historically achieved by this once proud choir. (Which reminds me – be careful about the performances you permit to be posted online).  Despite a fairly depressing analysis of the state of male choir singing today, speaker after speaker shared ideas and provoked thoughts about how good choirs could raise their game. At the end of the day, Will and the Peterborough Male Voice Choir treated us to a demonstration of some rehearsal techniques and sang some new repertoire by way of example.   The singing was excellent and finished the day on a high note, having given us all more food-for-thought, and some very clear ideas about what sort of choir we wanted to belong to. At the end of day which started with such a dismal ‘report card’ about male choir performance and standards today, I think everyone was enthused, raring to go, eager to start making some of the changes, and committing to the hard but satisfying work needed to reclaim the great tradition of male choral singing. Bring it on!

Many thanks to Will Prideaux, Peterborough Male Voice Choir, members of Peterborough Sings, and the guest speakers for making this conference such a great and inspiring event.

 

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The Art of Coarse Choral Singing

The Art of Coarse Choral Singing

In our latest blog we look at ‘The Art of Coarse Choral Singing’, inspired by Michael Green’s wonderfully insightful 1964 book, The Art of Coarse Acting (or how to wreck an amateur dramatic society). Michael Green describes a coarse actor as:

“…one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts – Messenger, 2nd Clown, an Attendant Lord. His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.”

I’m sure you can come up with your own definition of a ‘coarse chorister’ (I think I might know a few) although I have to say (mainly in case of litigation) that no tenors were harmed in the writing of this blog, and that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Coarse Choral Singing – An Idiot’s Guide

Singing in a choir is an unnatural pastime in which individuality is terribly undervalued and sadly, discouraged. Some musical directors even have the misguided idea that a choir should sound like a ‘single instrument’, in which case, what is the point of having so many singers? The aim of the coarse singer should be to upstage everyone else and provide the audience with a memorable performance, and in particular, aim to be the stand-out chorister that made it so. (Compare with The Art of Coarse Acting where the coarse actor’s aim is to upstage everyone else). As a singer, you may have worked very hard to learn the notes and words, and it would be a real pity if the audience did not appreciate your abundant talent. But f you haven’t learnt the notes or words, don’t despair: you can still be the star of the show.  There’s always hope, even if, in the words of the immortal Eric Morecambe, you know “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”, you can still shine.

Dynamics

It should be remembered that dynamics are purely advisory. (pppfff! Indeed!) Quiet singing is especially dangerous because it bottles up a singer’s natural energy. It is as unhealthy as not going to the toilet. You should only ever sing really quietly if you don’t know the words or tune, and even then, it would probably be better to mime the words or make up your own instead. If you’re uncertain of the lyrics, hold back at the start of phrases until someone else has come in with the words. The pleasing swell of sound as the rest of the choir remembers the words and joins in creates a fabulous effect – a sort of natural crescendo that has a life of its own. If you still can’t remember the words, try singing just vowel sounds. You have roughly a one-in-five chance of getting the right sound (unless of course you’re singing in Welsh).   If you consider yourself an ‘advanced singer’, it is important to ensure that your part is clearly heard, especially when another section has the tune, otherwise the all-important harmonies can go almost unnoticed. Remember, if you can hear your neighbour’s voice, you are almost certainly not singing loud enough, and you risk being put-off by actually having to listen to other choristers. Treat every song like a solo.

Blend

‘Blend’ is another dangerous concept that results in mediocrity: it is an unnatural and unhelpful idea that results in the better singers in the choir (such as yourself) being held back by those less able.   Singing louder than everyone else in your section marks you out as the most talented singer in the section.  If you have a really loud voice, see if you can make nearby choristers wince with pain as their ear-drums rupture. If you are a less able singer however, don’t despair: you can still gain plenty of attention by use of extreme gestures, facial expressions, or clowning around (see also ‘Star Quality’). Often, grinning disconcertingly in very serious passages (or appearing stony-faced during joyful ones) can let the audience know that you have guessed the composer’s true intent and you alone have sensed the deeper meaning of the piece being performed. If you are uncertain about using extreme facial expressions, you can still make your mark on the performance by using a musical technique known as ‘singing into the gaps’, which involves holding notes longer than anyone else at the ends of phrases. This takes a great deal of practice, but is well worth the effort in terms of getting noticed. A variation of this is confidently starting phrases half a beat early, but this is advanced technique that generally requires you to learn the words and so is not recommended.

Algernon

Algernon always wanted to be different….

Star Quality (or ‘The Ego Has Landed’)

You will have noticed that many pop stars wave at their adoring fans.   It would be heartless to ignore loyal supporters (especially if they are your family), so ensure that when entering or leaving the stage, or even between numbers, you wave graciously at them. The epitome of good taste is the ‘Royal Wave’, which also helps to establish your superiority among other choristers. It is surprising how even in some supposedly ‘top notch’ professional choirs, the singers are too stuffy to acknowledge their fans. To make matters worse, some choirs have a uniform which makes it even harder for individuals to stand out.   There are a number of ways to circumvent this stupidity to ensure that your adoring public can easily recognize you.   Wearing additions to your surplice or uniform is a great way of doing this – a different coloured scarf or handkerchief, some ostentatious ‘bling’ (generally only if you’re a soprano or top tenor though). Badges, funny hats, red socks, rotating bow-ties, Dame Edna Everage glasses, visible Union Jack underwear, outrageous make-up, massive ear-rings, fluorescent hair or large wigs are all effective means of identifying yourself as the star act. If you have to wear a tie, wear it differently to everyone else. Remember, people haven’t come to see a choir…they have come to see YOU and you owe it to them to stand out!

Expert Singers

Expert singers are noticeable by their superior singing skills.   Such singers never need to look at the Musical Director (or conductor). In fact most good coarse singers learn early on that watching the buffoon at the front waving their arms around can be terribly distracting. Remember too, that singing is a form of theatre, and you can never over-exaggerate your ‘singing pose’. Even in a choir, the use of extravagant hand gestures should be your aim as it helps convey the full meaning of the piece to the audience. This is especially true for sacred music which often has dreary, archaic, or foreign words and really benefits from some lively gesturing. On the topic of foreign words, you should avoid trying to sound like a foreigner. Be proud of your heritage! If you’re a Yorkshireman, then bloody well sing that silly foreign nonsense in an honest, good, old-fashioned Yorkshire accent. Why should you change the way you sing? It’s your country after all. Sing the song in your local accent and your audience will love you for it. Expert singers should also demonstrate their superior knowledge by frequently interrupting the Musical Director in rehearsals to seek points of clarification. For example “Excuse me maestro, but do you want us to hold that semibreve for the full value? It’s just that you brought us off us off early….” (Incidentally, using the word maestro (or maestra for a female MD), clearly demonstrates to the rest of the plebs in the choir that you are a sophisticated and well-educated person, deserving of respect and admiration.) If you don’t feel confident enough to make musical points, then you can still establish your credentials by exploring pronunciation, especially in foreign language pieces. For example… “Do you want us to pronounce excelsis using the mediaeval or contemporary pronunciation? (Don’t worry, you don’t have to know what the mediaeval or contemporary pronunciation is, but everyone, including the Musical Director, will assume that you are a choral music or linguistic Ninja and will be reluctant to mess with you.) As an expert singer, you also owe it to your less fortunate neighbours to explain to them the finer points of musicianship in a piece, although sometimes, annoyingly, you will have to raise your voice in order to be heard above the musical director’s incessant chatter.   Expert singers may also demonstrate their prowess and sense of humour by loudly humming their own (or someone else’s) part while another section is being rehearsed. It confuses the heck out of the MD who wonders where the stray notes are coming from and causes the MD to rehearse the section again in order to be sure they are singing the right notes! For choral concerts ‘with copies’, budding soloists should demonstrate their superiority by eschewing the use of copies altogether, even if this results in forgetting some passages.   Early superiority in such matters can be quickly established at rehearsal when the musical director insists on referring to bar numbers. The soloist should remind everyone that they are ‘not using a copy’ and demand that the musical director explains in full, what bar number is being referred to. In choirs that perform without music (a dreadful idea which encourages singers to watch the musical director) always stand in the back row if you are uncertain of your words.   This way, you can demonstrate your professionalism by pinning a copy of the words to the back of the chorister in front of you and you need never worry about forgetting your words.   This will always impress your fellow choristers who have stupidly spent hours of their time learning the song.

Marking Up

There are few more impressive sights than a well marked-up vocal score: it shows that you have bothered looking at the music outside of rehearsals and that you really care about what you are singing. Colouring books for adults are all the rage, so don’t hold back when it comes to inventive colour schemes. This is the mark of a true pro. Generally, Day-Glo colours such as lime green or pink work best of all and should be used extensively to highlight your part. Any performance directions should be written boldly in ink so that they are easily read.   Librarians and other petty bureaucrats can get excited about marking copies in this way, saying that the music may not be issued to you next time the piece is used, or that performance directions might be changed.   Whilst they may have a point, they are overlooking your importance as a performer. It is you that has to sing this rubbish, so you have every right to do ‘painting by numbers’ on your copy if you wish.

Choreography and Movement

Choreography (or choralography as it is sometimes called when done intentionally or accidentally in time with the singing), provides boundless opportunities for demonstrating your individuality. Artistic interpretation is always more important than simply ‘looking like everyone else’, so strenuous efforts should be made to develop the choreographer’s ‘intent’ into something altogether more interesting. The most effective moves are often those done when the rest of the choir is standing still (even better if this involves clapping). Don’t be shy about using such opportunities: it is how most real ‘stars’ get their big break. Another sure-fire winner is ‘swaying in the opposite direction’. Never underestimate the skill required in swaying in the opposite direction to everyone else, but rest assured the effect is spectacular and well worth the effort. Be that stand-out performer you’ve always dreamt of being. However, if you are going ‘off-piste’ with movement, I advise steering clear of anything involving bodily functions. You’d be surprised how obvious a bit of surreptitious nose-picking can be. Being the choir’s ‘bogeyman’ is not the sort of accolade you really want.

Singing is a Social Activity

Never forget that the main point of singing in a choir is not the music but the social and self-promotional opportunities it presents.   In mixed choirs (or indeed, in Gay Men’s Choirs etc.) there is plenty of opportunity for flirting. Singing in a choir provides the ideal environment to stand at the back of the choir and look admiringly at other choristers’ bottoms.   This is particularly true of SATB choirs where women generally outnumber men, and men stand at the back.   This is exactly why the choir is traditionally arranged in this way and a good reason for ignoring any attempts to get you to stand in a different, less advantageous position. Although some musical directors discourage it, chatting to your neighbour between songs is part and parcel of belonging to a choir.   When on stage, it conveys to the audience how relaxed you are and how friendly the choir is. It is a real favourite with audiences who appreciate the informal atmosphere it creates. And talking of ‘atmosphere’, in men’s choirs in particular, there are few things that create bonhomie as well as an anonymous, stinky fart. It provides endless minutes of entertaining banter, facial contortions, accusations and denials.   Really good ones have been known to disrupt rehearsals and even halt performances. LePetomaneThis is always a favourite with fellow choristers despite their protestations to the contrary. Like a professional athlete who prepares for a major event, a truly spectacular stink bomb takes careful planning, usually involving curry and beer, the latter of which, has also been scientifically proven to enhance your opinion of your own singing. You can even develop your skill into a new genre, like the famous French flatulist, Joseph Pujol (aka Le Petomane – pictured mid-performance) who could play tunes, imitate canon-fire, and blow out candles from several yards away. The scope is endless.

Breathing

Oh my goodness, what a lot of nonsense is talked about ‘breathing’.   Most of us have made this far in life by breathing so it really can’t be as difficult as some people make out. Don’t let get confused between ‘breathing’, ‘support’ and ‘phrasing’. They are all the same thing. Some musical directors and choirmasters get very upset when you breathe in the middle of a word, but especially at the end of a phrase, it is often essential to breathe in the middle of a word if you are going to be able to give it the big finish it deserves. Breathing in the middle of words is a perfectly acceptable singing technique: watch shows like ‘the X Factor’ and you’ll see most of the singers do it and audiences go wild with appreciation. The audience will also be hugely impressed by long phrases if they can hear you drawing breath like an asthmatic vacuum cleaner just before you start to sing.   It tells them there’s something really special coming and they will stop eating their crisps and pay attention. For really impressive deep breaths, raise and tense the shoulders and try to get the veins on your neck to stand out.   This adds immeasurably to the drama of the performance and will impress your MD.

Coarse Act

Advanced Coarse Singing and How To Avoid Blame

It is entirely possible to progress to an advanced level of coarse singing without ever having to become a competent singer.   Indeed there are many who do. The techniques of advanced coarse singing require a little more practice and include undirected tempo changes (usually slowing down in the quiet bits and speeding up in the loud bits), and blame-shifting.   The latter is only to be used sparingly when you have a made an obvious mistake. A quick ‘filthy look’ in the direction of a neighbouring chorister will usually deflect the blame and leave your reputation intact.  If you are struggling with words and you have attracted the MD’s attention, then a quick coughing-fit will usually suffice to throw him or her off the trail. Undirected tempo changes can be great fun, especially if done competitively between sections (e.g. sopranos vs altos, or tenors vs basses) making it much harder or the MD to regain control. See which section can get to the end first. The audience love this one and can sometimes join in the excitement created by clapping along.

Happy Coarse Singing!


Well that’s all for now. They say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but it is, nevertheless, still classed as wit. We hope you have enjoyed this tongue-in-check guide to the Art of Coarse Choral Singing – a sort of tribute to Michael Green.   Of course, no-one in the real world behaves like this….or do they?

GE

 

One Chorister’s Story

This week’s blog is written by one of the Wessex Male Choir choristers, Andy Hamer, who tells of how he rediscovered the joy of singing in a Choir.


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Wessex choristers Jeff, Andy Hamer, Carl and Garry unwinding on tour in Ireland.

This is my story of returning to group singing after 15 years in the wilderness.

Many of us sing, we may feel we are good at it or don’t even care if we are or not – it makes us feel good to sing, hum a tune, or sing along to our favourite songs.

Some of us will have grown up in the time-honoured tradition of church music as choristers on Sundays singing religious music, hymns and anthems under the direction of an organist /choirmaster trying their best to get four parts to work with ever diminishing numbers.   This was me back in the late 1970s when I first auditioned for my local church choir aged nine.  I spent over 10 years as boy chorister and then as a tenor with a six-month gap bell-ringing while my voice broke and settled. It was as a young boy soprano that I first was drawn to the joy of choral singing and four-part harmony (sometime six parts). We had a passionate Welsh choirmaster who was keen on opera and attempted some very fine pieces over the years such a Fauré’s Requiem and the Bell Anthem: not bad for a small village church choir. He taught us the basics of breathing, good diction, and the correct use of vowels, and was a truly inspirational figure to whom I owe a lot. I remember singing in Lichfield Cathedral with over 20 other choirs, standing in awe listening to the sound reverberating through the majestic cathedral – a real buzz at the tender age of 11.

As I got older the attraction of singing sacred choral music dwindled and other areas of life became more interesting, fueled by raging hormones: – wine, women,  etc. This was the time of Garage Rock and my first rock band. In a band aptly named “Above a Garage” (simply because we practiced above the drummer’s garage. Okay, not very original, but it was honest.) I was still singing, but now playing bass guitar (badly) and we were attempting our own compositions. Luckily for the world, none of our music ever got published or produced onto vinyl. It was fun while it lasted and at least I can say we sold out our only gig!  This short-lived excursion into rock and roll ended with my university years where, for a very short period of time, I returned to the church choir, regaining and rediscovering the joy of singing choral music especially around Christmas time.

There then followed the career and ambition years, driven by the need for position and sacrificing personal time for promotions and reward. A brief stint with a country folk band called “Still, Novak and Good” (say it quickly and you will get the drift!) saw some fun around children in need fundraising  – it was the first and only time I had a pair of ladies’ knickers thrown at me when performing – Tom Jones eat your heart out! We were paid in beer which is interesting when you get to the last song of the evening and cannot stand up let alone see the words!  However this period of 15 years is where I feel I missed out on the joy I have found singing with Wessex Male Choir.

Singing is a fantastic opportunity to de-stress the body naturally – endorphins are produced in the body when we sing that helps us relax: the blood pressure drops naturally and you forget the trials and tribulations of daily life. It’s got to be good for you hasn’t it?

When I set up my own company six years ago, I have to thank my wife Jo who said “you need something to escape into or you will work yourself into an early grave sitting at a PC  for 14 hours a day!”   So she found a contact number for Nick, the Choir’s secretary, and off I went to a rehearsal. The guys, and the MD at the time (Rob Elliott), made me feel very welcome and encouraged me to bring back all I had learnt many years ago and just to have a go. Three weeks later I was a full member having passed what can be described as a tricky audition process with the MD singing a completely different music line in my face just to see if I could hold my own line – it showed the standards that he and the rest of the Choir expected. I can say the audition process now is much less intimidating!

Wembley 30 Oct 16

The Wessex Male Choir singing at Wembley in 2016 in front of 85,000.

From that moment on I can simply say it has been fantastic: music festivals, competitions, Christmas concerts, tours to Ireland and to Italy, and many cherished memories I will never forget with what can only be described as an extended family. Singing a wide variety of music ranging from sacred pieces, West End musicals, 16th century folk songs, Italian opera and modern contemporary pieces.

They say you get out of something what you put in and never is this more true than when you sing with a male voice choir. So for all you would-be singers singing in the shower at home, or all those former choirboys who would like to re-live those bygone years, come along and try us out. You will never regret it, and don’t be like me who lived in the musical wilderness for 15 years and wishes he had found the Wessex family so many years before!

AH

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The Wessex Male Choir is based in Swindon and currently has vacancies.  If you are interested in finding out more, or coming along to a rehearsal to find out what it’s like, then please visit our website for further information.  We meet on Tuesday evenings from 7.30pm-9.30pm.   See www.wessexmalechoir.uk

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Best Kept Secret….

Why singing in a good choir should be your New Year resolution!

Even if you’re reading this after 1st January, it’s still not too late to make 2018 the year you unlock your potential as a singer and have more fun than going to the gym or giving up beer, chips, or chocolate!

Singing in a choir is one of life’s best-kept secrets.  Here are seven reasons why you should give it a try:

No.1.   It’s Fun!

Like anything that is worth doing, it does require some effort, but the undeniable truth about singing is that it is fun.   Lots of people sing when they are happy, but guess what? It works the other way round too: singing makes you happy!  There’s some science behind it too, because studies have shown that singing in a group releases endorphins (which are the body’s natural ‘highs’).   There’s also plenty of evidence from those who regularly sing in a choir.  During rehearsal they concentrate on singing and, at least for a while, all the troubles and pressures of everyday life are left behind.   Many choristers leave rehearsals feeling happy and satisfied.  And quite a few go directly to the pub for a drink with fellow choristers afterwards!

No.2.   It’s really good for your health.

Singing improves circulation and is great for your heart, lungs, and brain function: it improves your memory and strengthens your mental health too.  It can also benefit your posture and may help you get a better night’s sleep: in some people, it has also helped to reduce snoring.  You might think these are pretty outrageous claims, but there is an ever-growing body of evidence which proves them to be true.  For example a Frankfurt University Study found that “Choir singing positively influences both emotional affect and immune competence.”  But don’t take my word for it: there are links to a number of great articles at the bottom of the page, which should give you all the evidence you need!

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Graphic courtesy of Uplift Connect (see their article on the Neuroscience of Singing)

No.3.   It improves your social life. Singing in a good choir is a great way of making new friends.  In a choir like the Wessex Male Choir, there are choristers of all ages and backgrounds.  The Wessex also prides itself on being a very friendly and supportive choir who sing to a high standard yet still enjoy a drink or two and some informal singing in the pub after rehearsals or concerts!  The guys are a fun bunch of folk who take their singing seriously, but themselves less so.   In any choir, you become part of a large family – in fact several former rugby players have described belonging to the choir as being a bit like belonging to a rugby club but without the rugby and the injuries!

No. 4.   It helps you to develop new skills.

If you haven’t sung before, then before you know it, you’ll be developing new skills as well as new friends.   Even if you don’t read music, very soon, at least some of it will make more sense.  The Wessex Male Choir has a chorister development programme and a ‘buddy’ system that helps you to develop your singing skills.   The Wessex also has a range of excellent online learning aids available for members for all of the songs we sing. The more you sing, the more you begin to appreciate good choral music and good singers.   You become more knowledgeable about singing in general!

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Members of the Wessex Male Choir enjoying a recent rehearsal.

No.5.   It improves your confidence.

Joining a choir, and eventually going on to perform as part of the group in front of a live audience, really helps build self-confidence.   You don’t have to do solos if you don’t want to, and you will only be put on stage when you’re ready, so there’s no chance of making a fool of yourself.

No.6.   It is a great way of supporting charities.

Every year, choirs like the Wessex perform at concerts in support of great national and local causes.  In October alone, we raised over £3000 for charitable causes.   Some choristers are even participating in the London Half Marathon in March (fast walking and stopping to sing to the crowds on the way around) whilst at the same time raising money for Parkinson’s UK.

No.7.   It gives you a real sense of achievement.

Once you’ve learnt the songs and sung in a concert, you get the most amazing sense of achievement.   It’s no accident that after most concerts, members of the Wessex Male Choir (like many other choirs)  have something called an ‘Afterglow’ – an often impromptu party in a local hostelry where there’s yet more singing and sampling of ale!  You really do get a wonderful feeling of satisfaction after a good concert.  And when you get to the end of 2018 and look back at what you have achieved, I can guarantee that if you joined a choir during the year, then singing will be one of the highlights of the year…every year from now on!

How to Get Involved

For men, the Wessex Male Choir has got an open-rehearsal on Tuesday 16th January from 7.30pm-9.30pm at our rehearsal venue at the Church of Christ the Servant, Abbey Meads, Swindon, SN25 4YX (Map).  The repertoire is very varied: everything from rock and pop anthems to music theatre, opera choruses, traditional songs and well-known choral pieces.  There’s plenty of free parking outside, and if you fancy a pint afterwards, the pub is right next door!  You will be assured of a very warm welcome whatever your age or experience, so why not come along and see what it’s like?  There’s no obligation, and the evening is free!

The Wessex Male Choir is also planning a day-long singing workshop on Saturday 28thApril from 9.30am-4.30pm, also at Abbey Meads, with the inspirational choral director, Mark Burstow.  Again there’s no charge for the day, and as places are limited, e-mail the Choir early at Wessexmalechoir@gmail.com to reserve a place!

The Wessex standard of singing is high (we are one of the UK’s premier male choirs!) so if that isn’t for you, then there are plenty of community singing groups and other choirs in Swindon.   And if you already sing in a community singing group, you can always join the Wessex as well for a bit of variety (quite a few of our choristers sing with other groups as well – the two are not mutually exclusive!)

Articles about the benefits of singing in a choir.

Does Singing Make You Happy? https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/singing-happy.htm

Singing Changes Your Brain (Group singing has been scientifically proven to lower stress, relieve anxiety, and elevate endorphins) http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain/

Community Singing ‘improves mental health and helps recovery’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42431430

Can Singing in a Choir Make Me Healthier?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zcc7tyc

The Effects of Choir Singing… on Immunoglobulin A, Cortisol, and Emotional State. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15669447

11 Surprising Health Benefits of Singing https://takelessons.com/blog/health-benefits-of-singing

The Neuroscience of Singing (The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. It fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified.) http://upliftconnect.com/neuroscience-of-singing/

GE

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Ladies: Send us your men!

In common with most male choirs, the Wessex Male Choir is always looking for new recruits. One of the ‘nice problems’ we have is that the average age in the Wessex Male Choir is quite a bit lower than most male choirs. We have a lot of younger men and, every year, because of work or family commitments, some of our singers reluctantly have to leave the Choir.  So recruiting is a never-ending challenge. The crazy thing is, it should be easy.   Ask any of the guys in who sing in the Wessex (or indeed, any other choir) and they will tell what a great experience it is.   So why aren’t more men queuing up to get in on the fun?

WMC Rehearsal - 10 Oct 17 copy.JPGGreg, Andy, Andy, Andy, and Mark share a joke with principal accompanist Tom during a rehearsal.   (Please note, due to the high number of ‘Andys’ in the Choir, any more wishing to join may have to change their name by deed poll.)

We ran an article recently in the Swindon Advertizer in which one of our singers, Paul Gahan, told us about how he came to join the Choir – and it’s interesting because he hits on some of the things that had put him off joining.  Paul says:

“There’s no denying it can be an intimidating thing joining a choir with a reputation like the Wessex, especially so for anyone who isn’t particularly musical. My wife spent six years trying to persuade me to join, but I kept insisting the standard was too high for me. Eventually a chance encounter with a Wessex chorister, on a windswept touchline at a rugby festival, persuaded me to turn up for a rehearsal and give it a go.

Having the courage to take that first step is the hardest part, but at the Wessex Male Choir, we make that as easy as possible. Men can pop-in to any choir rehearsal to see what it’s all about and to gain a sense of the Choir’s camaraderie and teamwork (we meet on Tuesday nights at Abbey Meads from 7.30-9.30pm) and they will be sure of the warmest of welcomes.   Bringing a friend along can also reduce any anxiety. Men who come along don’t have to sing (unless they want to join in); they can stay for as long or as little as they like; they can join other singers in the pub afterwards for a chat; and there’s no obligation if they decide it’s not for them. As Paul says:

I nearly walked out of my first rehearsal I was so terrified: I‘d never heard the piece I was supposed to be singing and I didn’t have a clue if I was singing the right notes or not, but with encouragement from the other singers, I stuck it out, eventually passed my audition and made it to concert standard. It was hard work, there’s no use pretending it was easy, but the support structure and learning aids at the Wessex are superb and you never have to cope alone.”

Although the male choir tradition is steeped in machismo (think of male choirs rooted in tough, mining communities), the repertoire of the male choir has moved on considerably. We still sing the occasional Welsh hymn tune, but these days, we do so much more than that! Our current repertoire includes rock anthems, songs from music theatre, pop arrangements, beautiful choral pieces and even the occasional rousing opera chorus or drinking song! And although male choir repertoire may have changed over the years, the sound of a male choir at full throttle has lost none of the powerful, virile sound which makes male choirs so popular with audiences.

Current Rep SelectionA selection of the Wessex Male Choir’s current very varied repertoire.

Our singers come from every walk of life and are all bound together by the love of singing.   Some can read music, but many cannot.   It’s not a barrier because the way the Choir learns music is designed to make sure everyone can enjoy their singing.   It does take some commitment of course: choristers need to spend a bit of time between rehearsals practicing the songs, although with the Choir’s online learning aids, it’s really easy to download rehearsal recordings or choral parts onto a smartphone (or burn a disc) so you can sing along in the car or in the shower!   As well as those with little or no singing experience, we also welcome more experienced singers.   We find that men who have sung with community choirs or rock choirs and who are looking to step up a gear, find the four-part singing and overall performance standard of the Wessex is exactly what they need to take their singing to the next level. We also have a chorister development programme which helps everyone improve their singing.   And right now is a really great time to join the Choir as we are starting to learn our Christmas music (so everyone will be in the same boat!).

I’ll leave the last word with Paul.

I’ve been a Wessex chorister for over four years and I can’t imagine life without the Choir. I’ve sung at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people, I’ve sung in cathedrals, concert halls and churches all over the country and abroad, I’ve won major choral competitions, made the most amazing friends and yes, I wish I’d joined ten years earlier.”

For more information on the Wessex Male Choir, including how to join us or come along to a rehearsal, please visit our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk

GE

Great Venue, Lovely Singing!

Well, the first concert of our new season seemed to go pretty well. Wessex put on a good show in aid of the Royal British Legion in the Baptist Church in Cirencester last Saturday.   This was also Tom Graff’s debut with us as our new principal accompanist and he played a fiendishly tricky solo piece to mark the occasion.

Cirencester Gig

Performing at Cirencester on 7th October 2017.   Photo by Shellon Islip.

This was our first concert in Cirencester Baptist Church and we have to say, it’s very impressive, seating over 500 when full. The £3.7m building was only completed in December 2016 and boasts a superb range of facilities. The acoustic is a bit dry for unamplified singing (lots of carpet, sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, and comfy fabric-covered seating which is a far cry from some of the bum-numbing pews we’ve encountered in other places) but nevertheless, the sound of singing certainly filled the space.

As the concert was marking the launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal locally, there were several Remembrance Songs in the programme. The first of these was Blades of Grass & Pure White Stones – always a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by so many, and this was followed by the Wessex Male Choir’s chamber group, the Wessex Camerata, performing Only Remembered, in a lovely arrangement made popular by the folk trio, Coope, Boyes & Simpson. During the song, images from World War 1 were projected above the singers, and as the final notes died away like fading memories, the last picture dissolved into a scene of sunlit poppies. The first half concluded with Giorgio Susana’s hauntingly beautiful Io Resto Qui, Addio!, a song that conveys the dying thoughts of an Italian soldier on the Russian Front in World War 2. The Italians fought against a numerically and technically superior Russian force and also suffered terrible loses as a result of the harsh Russian winter. The words of farewell, from a dying soldier, far from his beloved homeland, were also accompanied by black and white images of the Russian Front. The last song of Remembrance, the highly emotional Tell My Father, was performed by Guy Edwards, one of the Choir’s soloists, accompanied on piano by the Choir’s Musical Director, Rhiannon Williams-Hale.   It’s fair to say that quite a few hankies were needed after that.

The concert wasn’t all focused on Remembrance though. There were many upbeat numbers too, such as the lively arrangement of El Fusilado (complete with maracas and shaker), and the inspirational What Would I Do Without My Music?  The Choir also showed off some of it choreographed moves in the ever-popular Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

Originally, the evening had been planned as a joint concert with a Welsh choir, but unfortunately they had to pull-out. So as not to disappoint the audience though, the evening had a strong Welsh flavour. Despite the Wessex Male Choir being based firmly in England, we sang two pieces in Welsh, and a fair number of the arrangements were by notable Welshmen such as Alwyn Humphries, Haydn James and Mansel Thomas (and a few less notable ones: Grahame Jones and Guy Edwards – who also happen to be members of the Choir!).

With hardly time to draw breath, we’re now preparing for our next concert in Lechlade on Saturday 14th October at St Lawrence’s Church.  The concert is in aid of the Village Hall fund, which is needed to replace the old village hall that was burnt down by an arsonist.

For more information about the award-winning Wessex Male Choir – including how to join us – please visit www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk.

Memory and Banter!

It seems like ages ago now, but back in June 2016, we organized a short recording session at Commonweal School and recorded two tracks; Memory from Cats, and Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. The intention was always to film them and put them on YouTube or something similar. Unfortunately, when we got to the editing stage, we felt that the recording quality wasn’t great and at the time, we never completed the edits. However, over a year later, we’ve managed to tweak the recordings and although the end-product is far from perfect, the first of the two recordings, Memory, is now online for people to watch. The second track, O Magnum Mysterium, will take a little longer to complete, but we hope that we can post that online too at some point.

WMC.jpg

Recording ‘Memory’ at Commonweal – June 2016 under the direction of Katrine Reimers.

Over the years, there have been a number of smaller singing groups within the Choir, such as Presto and After Eight (the latter is now an independent group and no longer part of the Wessex Male Choir) and more recently we have had the Wessex Male Choir Chamber Group. It’s a bit of a mouthful, so we thought it was about time to give the Chamber Group a name. There were lots of suggestions from members of the Chamber Group – such as ‘Crotchety’ (because some choristers can be a bit grumpy) and ‘Quavers’ (because we’re a bit cheesy?). In the end, we opted for something a bit more stylish, and will be known henceforth as the Wessex Camerata, indicating that we are firmly part of the Wessex Male Choir but a chamber group. And before you tell me, yes I know the abbreviation is W.C.

You may already know that a male choir is usually split into four sections: the guys with the highest voices (top tenors); those with high voices (second tenors); the lower voices (baritones); and the ‘lowest of the low’ (the basses). There’s a great deal of banter and competition between sections, but at the end of the day, we all sing together in perfect harmony.  Even if you don’t know what voice type you are when you join the Choir, you’re quickly sorted into the best section for you and helped to settle-in by an appointed ‘buddy’. Amidst the bustle of the new term, we’re always delighted to welcome new choristers, and so far this term, we’re pleased to say hello to three prospective choristers, Andrew, Dan, and Jason.

21230987_1149283728538261_4494549357249564324_n.jpg

The Choir has lots of characters…the cartoon is not meant to represent actual choristers!

Potential singers can easily be put off joining, thinking that they could never do what we do, but most of us started out feeling that way. It’s a bit like the first time you get on a bike: you’ve seen other people do it, but it takes a bit of practice until you get it right! By sheer chance, one of our choristers wrote a little piece about joining the choir, which is reproduced below. And in case you were wondering, the author is a baritone!

‘Recruitment is an ongoing challenge for male choirs, and one of the recurring reasons we hear for not joining is “I can’t read music.” In fact neither can around 75% of the Choir, but this hasn’t stopped us from being one of the best male choirs in the UK. Since most of us don’t read music, you don’t need to either. All that is required is a love of singing, the willingness to attend rehearsals and the need to put effort into learning the songs.

Another thing we often hear when we talk to guys about joining us is “I can’t sing.” Almost everyone can sing, and there are lots of ways our chorister development programme can help you. It’s a misconception that singing excellence is a prerequisite for joining. We don’t expect you to sing like Pavarotti: we just want people who can sing in tune with a bunch of others, learn some words and do what the Music Director asks them to do – for example “don’t sing too loudly.”

In fact, even if you can’t sing well, you can join our 2nd Tenors. (NB this is a joke and illustrates the eternal banter between sections!) Having made that clear…..

Q. If you threw a pianist and a second tenor off a cliff, which one would hit the ground first?
A. The pianist. The second tenor would have to stop halfway down to ask directions.

Q. Why must you never leave second tenors out on their own?
A. They can never find the key and they always come in late.

So if, like us you take your singing seriously, but yourself less so, and
want to sing with like-minded individuals in one of the most successful male choirs in the UK and have a riot whilst doing so, why not give us a call? After all, what’s the worst that could happen (apart from joining the second tenors!)’

Continue reading “Memory and Banter!”