Men Behaving Strangely!

Men’s singing has an image problem:  half the population perceive male choirs as ‘pale, male, and stale’ and a lot of men (young men in particular) see choral singing as really uncool, slightly questionable, and not at all the sort of thing that they would want to do in public. Men’s singing has an image problem, so any means by which we can dispel some of the myths about male choral singing, must surely be worth looking at.

Arguably, at opposite poles on the male singing spectrum there are male choirs whose focus is mainly social with a bit of singing thrown in for good measure (which sadly can give men’s choirs a poor name due to a lack of focus on the singing), and those choirs for whom championing quality performance and striving to be bloody good at what they do is an all important part of their vision for making men’s singing as good as it can be. However, it doesn’t have to be a binary choice: a choir that performs to a high standard musically can still have a great social side as well, even though achieving high music standards takes time and commitment, regular rehearsals and, sometimes, tough decisions when choristers aren’t meeting the required standard. That’s what we try to achieve in the Wessex Male Choir, and if guys in our choir aren’t prepared to do that, then they are in the wrong choir.  But of course trying to attract, and then retain new choristers into this high-octane mix is far from easy, with many prospective choristers loving what we do but feeling that they are ‘not good enough’ or that they do not have the time to commit properly – and we all know how blokes hate commitment! Like many other choirs, we struggle to get the balance right and look with great interest at other successful men’s singing groups to see how they ‘market’ themselves both to prospective members and potential audiences.  One such group is The Magnificent AK47, whose trademark blend of self-deprecating humour, masculine repertoire, funny hats, highly-entertaining shows and manly bonhomie has earned them many accolades as well as showing that it can be ‘cool’ to be in an all-male singing group. They will be our special guests at the Wessex Male Choir Summer Concert at STEAM in Swindon on Saturday 14th July.

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I first saw ‘The Magnificent AK47’ in action a few years back and instantly liked their style and what they are trying to achieve. The men’s singing group from ‘North, North Wiltshire’ (Ashton Keynes to be precise) is on a mission to get men into singing. The ‘traditional’ male choir model is definitely not for them, and as they say on their website (http://www.themagnificentak47.com)

We sing all sorts of material, mostly a capella, with occasional musical accompaniment from anyone sober enough to beat a drum decently or, for those beyond the drum, squeeze the odd note from a concertina. We create a sound that has been described by several wives as ‘surprisingly good’ and we finish in good time for the bar.

We sing right across, despite and beyond, the musical spectrum, from serious Georgian choral pieces, through the odd Wagnerian operatic piece, to less intellectual stuff employing hats and related costumery. Our performances are entirely suitable for all the family. Having said which, some of our repertoire is sung in Georgian and Old German and we’re not at all sure what the words mean. Any offence given to Georgians or Old Germans is entirely unintentional and the same goes for Swindon girls, of whom most of us are very fond.”

The group meets about every six weeks to sing songs and learn new material by ear under the charismatic leadership of their musical director, Chris Samuel. It’s clear that the enjoyment of singing and comradeship is all important.   They also run an annual event called Blokefest in a Wiltshire field (next to a pub) to which men flock from far and wide (and Wiltshire) – to enjoy a long weekend of manly activities including singing, drinking beer, barbecuing, pub games, and camping. This extract from the from the Blokefest website gives a flavour :

“Over one weekend in June we will be singing like blokes, acting like men and getting to be one of the guys.  BlokeFest is a festival by good Blokes for good Blokes, who like singing or think they might if only they could do it in the right way. Our guiding philosophy is that singing is a truly manly activity as long as you sing the right stuff, in the right way, with the right men: Think Shanties not shandies; Lumberjack not Timberlake; DiY not R’n’B.”

…and they profess to ‘unlock the inner minstrel by lowering the tone’!

Interestingly, although The Magnificent AK47 and the Wessex Male Choir have much in common, (not least our shared desire to get more men into singing for all the social, health, and artistic benefits it brings), we have slightly different visions of how to achieve it, but that’s not to say we don’t appreciate each other’s performances and maybe steal the odd trick or two from each other!

C1380-001 copy 2A few members from both the Wessex Male Choir and The Magnificent AK47 at STEAM recently. 

TMAK47’s philosophy and public image clearly demonstrate one way in which to attract new converts to men’s singing – and it’s one that certainly works for them. The ‘blokeishness’ may not suit everyone’s taste and with meeting only every six weeks, it may be that their guys are missing out on even greater singing and repertoire opportunities. However, it’s fair to say that some of their ideas influenced the design of our highly successful ‘Project RMS’(Real Men Sing) a few years ago. Project RMS offered a series focused events, marketed to appeal to men (activities such as singing on the pitch at Wembley, singing at the Defence Academy and getting close-up and personal with some military hardware, doing a flash-mob, and singing on the radio etc.) Even if, in the end, most of the new guys who came along did so because they knew someone who was already in the Choir, the Project gave them the impetus they needed to take that first cautious step.   Certainly it makes the traditional ‘bring a friend’ or ‘open rehearsal’ nights look a bit tame.

The Wessex Male Choir’s summer concert will be a great opportunity to see both groups in action, and as a special treat, we are combining forces for a few songs as well! The concert is at 7.3.30pm on Saturday 14th July in the Great Western Hall at STEAM in Swindon. Tickets also give access to the museum (and bar) from 6.30pm. Tickets are just £12.50 and are available from www.ticketsource.co.uk/wessex-male-choir

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Musical Direction!

In this week’s blog, Dave Langley, one of the Choir’s founding members, talks about the Choir’s three musical directors and the vitally important role they have each played in making the Wessex Male Choir one of the country’s top amateur male choirs. As well as directing our concerts, the musical director selects our repertoire, teaches us singing technique, rehearses us through every song in minute detail, encourages us to give our best in performance, critiques our singing, and helps us to achieve the Choir’s vision.

Throughout its life, Wessex Male Choir has benefited from the inspirational leadership of exceptional musical directors. Music professionals all, each has brought differing areas of choral expertise to test and develop the Choir. Their patience, humour, commitment and professionalism has motivated, cajoled and ultimately, constructed one of the most accomplished male choirs in the UK.

Whilst each of the Choir’s musical directors has had a unique style, the unifying theme from each has been a constant striving for excellence.  It certainly hasn’t always been easy, but between them, they have constructed a modern choir with an appetite for high standards and a desire to continually improve. The Choir has won over 20 prizes in competitions on the national and international stage, including the male choir competition at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 2011, and best male choir in the Jersey International Choral Festival in 2008.
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Rob Elliott, our first musical director, in fine form telling the audience a joke!

The Choir’s founding musical director, Robert T Elliott, created the Wessex and its bedrock principles, standards and organization.  Rob was keen to refresh male choral singing for the 21st century and to move away from the stuffy traditional repertoire to which many male choirs adhered.  The genre was showing signs of decay and declining popularity, with many choirs’ membership having an average age of over 65, and being unable to inject young blood to replace retiring singers.  Even notable and acclaimed choirs such as Côr Meibion Pontarddulais are feeling the pinch, and the traditional male voice choirs almost everywhere worry about the increasing average age of their choristers.  Rob was, and continues to be, at the forefront of a movement to enhance the relevance of male choir singing in the modern age, a group that also includes the likes of William Prideaux of Peterborough Male Voice Choir, Mark Burstow of Bournemouth Male Choir, and Tim Rhys-Evans of Only Men Aloud.

Rob left Wessex in 2013 and was appointed as Festival Director for the Cornwall International Male Choral Festival, the world’s largest male choir festival, featuring over 70 choirs from all over the world.  He also adjudicates at many prestigious choral festivals in the UK and overseas, as well as advising choirs as they prepare for competition.  More recently, he has also taken over the baton at Basingstoke Ladies Choir.

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Katrine Reimers, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2016.

Following Rob’s departure, the Wessex was fortunate to acquire another excellent musical director in Katrine Reimers, who led the Choir between January 2014 and July 2016.  Katrine studied music at King’s College, Cambridge, piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and trained as a professional repetiteur at the National Opera Studio.  Katrine led the choir on successful tours to Ireland and Italy (where she also conducted a massed festival choir of over 2000 singers in the singing of Verdi’s Va Pensiero), and under her direction, the Choir was victorious in the 2016 Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts, winning the Male Choir competition, Show Tunes competition, and the Gold Cup itself for outstanding choir of the whole Festival despite never having worked with a male choir before.  Katrine built on the excellent foundations laid by her predecessor and, in particular, worked on developing the Choir’s musical expression, not least through her own very expressive and communicative conducting style.

Unfortunately for the Choir, Katrine’s abundant talents were noticed by others and she left the Wessex to take up a prestigious post working with youth choirs across Europe, although she is still involved with music locally around her home in Bath. Like her predecessor, Katrine remains a good friend of the Wessex and can still be seen occasionally in the audience at concerts, having made many friends during her time with the Choir.

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Rhiannon Williams conducting the Wessex Male Choir at Lechlade in 2017.

Continuing the fine line of excellent musical directors, the Choir’s current musical director is Rhiannon Williams who joined Wessex in 2016. Rhiannon’s conducting career began in 2002 as musical director of the Ynysybwl Ladies Choir, a position she held for ten years, during which the Choir won competitions at the Abergavenny and Hereford festivals. Rhiannon led Bridgend Male Choir to success at the 2014 Male Choir Competition in the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. This was notable since only Wales’ most successful competition choir, Cor Meibion Pontarddulais, had previously won the world-renowned competition from the South Wales area. In addition to this, Rhiannon has previously achieved success as an accompanist for the Bridgend Male Choir at the Cheltenham festival and has a wealth of experience working with other top Welsh choirs including Pontarddulais, Treorchy, and Llanelli.

A native of South Wales, Rhiannon began her musical life as a singer. Among many competition successes, she was named British (& Welsh) BET Choirgirl of the Year in 1989 (28 years ago today!).  This led to solo appearances at the Royal Albert Hall, and Cardiff’s

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Rhiannon was Choirgirl of the Year in 1989.

St David’s Hall, among other venues, and to membership of the National Youth Choirs of Wales and of Great Britain, the RSCM Cathedral Singers, and the Choir of St John’s, Smith Square.  Rhiannon’s professional piano training began with a part-time scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music. The London College of Music awarded her a Fellowship, and she has achieved Distinctions at Licentiate and Associate levels from the Trinity, Guildhall and Royal Schools of Music. In 1998 she became Principal Accompanist for the renowned Treorchy Male Choir, which ultimately bestowed on her an Honorary Lady Membership.  In addition to her day-job as a professional musician, she has also recently become the musical director for the Cowbridge Male Voice Choir.

In the hands of a great musical director, the Wessex Male Choir is like a finely-tuned instrument, capable of expressing great depths of emotion, astonishing tonal colour, and dynamic contrast that lends excitement, power, and sensitivity to its performances.  If you haven’t heard it for yourself, you really should!  For more information about singing with the Choir, hearing us in concert, or hiring us for an event, please visit our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk  You can also follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wessexmalechoir