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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‘Tis (nearly) the season to be jolly!

Everyone loves Christmas and the Wessex Male Choir is no exception. Christmas trees, lights, presents, old films, presents, chocolates, presents, ugly Christmas jumpers, presents and of course, carols.

Most of us have grown up with fond memories of participating in school nativity plays and singing carols. Now, whilst we no longer get the chance to wear tea towels on our heads or pretend to be donkeys, cows and assorted animals in the manger, we can still sing carols – and occasionally wear silly hats….

Holyrood 2015 (17 of 20)

Let’s be honest, whilst presents are very important, nothing touches the soul like singing. Its ability to move you, to enchant, to captivate and to inspire is a gift like no other. Carols especially evoke the deepest, fondest memories, and if I hear Silent Night sung on Christmas Eve, I still surreptitiously steal a glance at the sky in case I can see Santa’s sleigh.

Christmas is a busy time for us and we eagerly look forward to preparing new concert material – usually beginning in late September. We are a fairly youthful choir, which has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, we are proud to have a blend and tone which is the envy of many of other choirs, allied with an appetite for taking on challenging new arrangements. However, as a young choir, many of us still work and have young families, which means that we are unable to fulfil each of the many requests we receive to perform at Christmas concerts. Our Christmas concerts are therefore relatively exclusive and this year, we are participating in just three events: with the Brize Norton Military Wives Choir at Carterton on the 15 December in aid of SSAFA: our own annual Wessex Christmas concert at the Multi Entertainment Cultural Arena (MECA) in Swindon on Thursday 21st December, and performing a set or two at the Swindon Wildcats game at the Link on the 9th December.

WMC Christmas 2017

Our festive repertoire for this year embraces sacred, traditional, and even Jewish pieces, so there is something for everyone! We have a blend of new pieces, and some old favourites, so if you want to listen to some beautiful new music and sing along with us too, our Christmas concerts are the place to be. Our course, there will be the opportunity to sing along to some of your favourite carols too.

Our concert programme includes:

The Gloucestershire Wassail (also known as the Cricklade Wassail), which has been specially arranged for the Choir by one of our choristers – Guy Edwards: Guy’s arrangement celebrates the traditional & cheerful Wassail whilst bringing a contemporary element, which will thrill all.

The vivacious “Hanukkah holiday” – a guaranteed crowd pleaser, accompanied by some lively “choralography:” Don’t forget your dreidels!

A rarely heard version of The First Noel which combines the traditional carol tune with the baroque favourite, Pachelbel’s Canon in D. This clever arrangement by Michael Clawson intertwines these two timeless works beautifully. It has been pronounced “a first-rate choral masterpiece, which has rapidly become a classic.” It features a three-hand piano accompaniment, but unless we can find a mutant accompanist; two hands will have to suffice.

We Three Kings was originally written by John Hopkins in 1857. Given its enduring its place in the canon of great tunes, I expect John was Welsh! We though, are singing an arrangement by Andy Beck, which has been described as..: “A dramatic choral introduction precedes a sizzling jazz waltz arranged with fresh contemporary chords, driving rhythmic intensity, and original, school-appropriate lyrics. Enjoy the new “star of wonder” melody, paired with an awesome descending chromatic line, and rejoice in the easy-on-the-voice, impressive-on-the-ears jazzy twists!” Beautiful. And that’s just the description!

And Can it Be is a Christian hymn originally written by Charles Wesley in the early 18th century to celebrate his conversion. The original tune was written in a traditional Methodist style similar to those written by his elder brother John Wesley. Dan Forrest has arranged a stunning contemporary interpretation of the tune containing subtle quotes from the original.

The Wessex Camerata (our chamber group) will be performing the beautiful Es Ist Ein Rose Entsprungen, a beautiful old German carol, traditionally associated with the start of Christmas and evoking the wonder and hope of Christ’s birth as prophesied by Isaiah.

PUK Christmas 2015 (13 of 16)

The Wessex Camerata will also be singing an arrangement by Ruth Schram of Personent Hodie,  a much-loved Christmas carol originally published in 1582 in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones.

As Dylan Thomas wrote in from his poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales:

‘One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.’

If Christmas holds fond memories for you too, come and celebrate them with us.

-DL.

You can order tickets online now from www.ticketsource.co.uk/wessex-male-choir

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.

New term, new challenges!

The Wessex Male Choir is just starting a new exciting season and is looking for good singers!

Well, we’re off to a great start for our 2017/2018 Season, lots of exciting new repertoire, some new members, a new chairman, and a new principal accompanist!  At our first rehearsal we managed a complete sing-through in four-parts of the wonderful ‘And Can It be?’ arranged by Dan Forrest.   What a fabulous piece of music it is.

We’re always keen to hear from men who are interested in singing with the Wessex, and of course we run a number of recruiting events every year.  We kicked off this year with a small group of choristers singing in some of the pubs in Royal Wootton Bassett.  We sang about half a dozen songs in the Five Bells, The Cross Keys, The Crown, and the Angel, before finally heading off to the Ganges Restaurant for a good curry.   We received lots of wonderful feedback from the audiences, and hopefully, some of the men who heard us will try to get along to our rehearsal venue at the Church of Christ the Servant, Abbey Meads, Swindon (SN25 4YX).  We meet every Tuesday evening from 7.30pm-9.30pm and we would be delighted to welcome any chap who wants to find out more about the Choir.   There’s no obligation to join, just come along and listen. chat to us, and join in if you feel like it!  We’re a very sociable bunch, so you can always join us for a beer and chat afterwards in the pub next door if you prefer!

1.jpgSome of the chaps enjoying a song in the Angel, Royal Wootton Bassett, on 2 September, as part of the recruiting drive.

We’re going to be busy in September preparing for our first concert of the season which is at the Methodist Church in Cirencester on Saturday 7th October.   The concert is a fundraiser for the Royal British Legion.  We suffered a bit of a set-back this week because the Welsh Male Voice Choir that should have been coming to take part in the concert has pulled out, but we’ll still have a great programme featuring both the Wessex Male Choir main choir and our very accomplished Chamber Group.  A week after that we’ll be in Lechlade, singing in a concert in aid of the Village Hall Appeal.   Details of both concerts and how to get tickets are available on our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk 

21432770_1152848664848434_4167066721726621310_n.jpgNow is a great time to join the Choir:  we’re learning new songs, so everyone is in the same boat!

We’re very pleased to welcome on board Tom Graff who has started as our new principal accompanist.  We also have a new Chairman, Simon Warren, who has taken over from Guy Edwards (who remains as part of the choir’s management group, but fancied a change of portfolio!).  We’re all looking forward to the new season immensely and know that our brilliant musical director, Rhiannon Williams-Hale, will be working us hard.  Over the summer, we also welcomed renowned British composer and TV & Radio Presenter, Howard Goodall, as our second patron alongside Aled Jones.

If you sing already in a community choir or other singing group, but you’re ready to step up to something more exciting, then please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!