Busy as a busy thing….

Well first of all, I apologize for the long break in transmission. I’d like to tell you that I’ve been too busy relaxing on a sun-kissed Caribbean island, sipping margaritas and as a result, completely forgot about the blog, but sadly, that wouldn’t be true! The truth is altogether more prosaic: what with our Summer Concert and last-minute challenges getting our new CD ready for the big launch, things were just a bit hectic in the early part of the month and I simply ran out of hours in the day given that I still have to earn a crust or face selling the children for medical experiments.

So first off, let me say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who came to hear us in our summer concert at STEAM in sunny Swindon. It was a hugely successful concert even if, with well over 400 in the Great Western Hall on a very warm summer’s day, things got a bit sticky! We were especially delighted to welcome a party of 32 from Cowbridge Male Voice Choir who had traveled up from South Wales to hear us.

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Wessex Male Choir and The Magnificent AK47 join forces for ‘Byker Hill’

One of the discussion points after every concert, seems to be that of repertoire selection (and ‘Afterglow’ food – but’s that’s another thing altogether!), and this year’s summer concert was no exception. Earlier in the year, we had decided we had to focus on competition preparation and raising performance standards as well as preparing songs to a high standard ahead of recording our long, long overdue new CD. As with any period of competition preparation, it meant that we were not able to spend as much time learning new, funky repertoire as we would have liked. So perhaps not surprisingly, we did get a few comments about the comparative lack of light-hearted songs (especially in our first set) at the summer concert, and it’s something we’ll be addressing with a significant number of new, lighter songs which we start learning from September. But we also had lots of fabulous feedback from audience members including one long-standing supporter who told us that this year’s concert was our ‘best ever’ – which just goes to show how difficult it can be trying to keep all audience members happy when people want different things.   As Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘…you can’t please all of the people all of the time’.

Early in the planning stages for the summer concert, we realized that we were unlikely to have many ‘humorous’ items in the programme, so we looked for a guest act that would provide the additional entertainment and humour needed.   We briefly considered a troupe of itinerant ferret-jugglers, but eventually opted instead for a somewhat anarchic men’s singing group from ‘north, north Wiltshire’ (The Magnificent AK47) who we knew would deliver the fun element needed for a well-balanced concert overall. Of course, some folk were disappointed that Wessex didn’t get into humorous mode, especially as quite a few of our choristers and audience members fondly recall such classics as Rob Elliott’s arrangement of El Capotin. It would be fun to do that again, although I’m not sure in these days of ‘offence avoidance’ and accusations of ‘cultural appropriation and stereotyping’ whether donning sombreros, gluing-on unfeasibly large droopy moustaches, and pretending to be Mexicans would be acceptable. I also recall another humorous song from our past – Les Gendarmes – for which our choristers were required to don plastic police helmets and carry squeaky truncheons. Unfortunately the excitement invariably proved too much for some and all too often, words and notes were forgotten amidst the deafening sound of squeaking truncheons. ­So we will have to choose our humorous numbers carefully!

Another comment from one ‘punter’ about the summer concert was that he was unimpressed because didn’t know any of the songs in our first set, which is a rather disappointing thing to hear when, as a Choir, we aim to innovate and introduce new material to audiences (alongside some old favourites, of course). I wonder how on earth some people ever find any songs they like if their minds are closed to new repertoire! It’s also true to say that a lot of the male choirs that have died out in recent years ‘played it safe’ and stuck defiantly to the traditional favourites until their dying breath!

Anyway, our audience numbers are creeping slowly upwards and will one day exceed the large and excited crowd who, a few years back, breathlessly anticipated our opening number having been coaxed into attendance by a badly-spelled promoter’s poster that billed us as the ‘Wee Sex Ale Choir’. Back in the real world, some useful audience polling revealed that although a significant number of audience members hear about our concerts via word-of-mouth from our choristers, there is an increasing number of people who are coming to our concerts who have no connection to choristers. If you discount the possibility that they wondered into the concert by accident, that’s a really healthy sign, especially as we think we are close to the maximum number we can expect from ‘chorister ticket sales’ efforts alone! Other than press-ganging people from the streets of Swindon, the two most successful ways of reaching new audiences appear to be either via our mailing list or via Facebook, and while both are only showing modest numbers at present, both approaches have the capacity to grow significantly!

The other big event for us was the launch of our first new album in over seven years. Called ‘Memory’ (no-one can remember why), we’re pretty pleased with it and initial sales have been very encouraging. (We still have plenty left, so if you would like a copy, please order one via our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk) It’s an eclectic mix of new and old and genres as diverse as pop, opera, music theatre and some traditional male choir favourites.

 

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A week after our own summer concert, a few of us travelled to Cowbridge to hear their concert, which was a lovely event and featured some wonderful soloists as well as some rousingly good singing by Cowbridge MVC under their strangely familiar Musical Director, Rhiannon Williams.   A few of us reflected that in terms of sponsorship and audiences, Cowbridge is very well supported – perhaps because the male choral tradition is still very much stronger in Wales than in England. It’s a sad state of affairs that we struggle to get even small amounts of sponsorship for the Wessex and I can’t help but feel it reflects poorly on Swindon businesses and their interest in supporting the arts. So if you’re a local business based in or near Swindon and want to ‘do your bit’, then please get in touch via our website!

That’s all for now!

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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.

 

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