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.


Ireland Tour Taney Concert-18

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!

NeuroscienceSingingFeature

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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Male Choirs: A dying breed or an exciting opportunity?

Even in the Welsh heartlands, that bastion of male choral singing, choirs are struggling to recruit new singers and inevitably, some will simply fade away into silence, taking with them a once proud tradition of community spirit and male singing.   Their failure to evolve into something attractive to a new generation of singers seals their fate, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The stereotypical image of old men in blazers singing traditional Welsh hymn tunes is one that many men’s choirs, including the Swindon-based Wessex Male Choir, are working hard to dispel, but like all deeply-embedded stereotypes, it is proving difficult to shake off, and even innovative choirs have to tread a fine line between alienating audiences that love the traditional songs, and attracting new audiences and singers who want something more contemporary.

Informal WMC Hi Res

‘The Men in Black’ – Wessex Male Choir & Music Director Rhiannon Williams

So how do male choirs fight back and ensure that they remain relevant to today’s audiences and singers? There are plenty of articles in the press about the demise of male choirs, but considerably fewer offering suggestions for how the genre could evolve and develop. Science hasn’t yet reached the point where we can clone Gareth Malone, (and maybe that’s a good thing), so there’s no easy answer: if there were, then every male choir would be thriving.   However, it’s fair to say there are some emerging trends among successful choirs that may point the way.   Arguably, it is also true that choirs that are successful in attracting new audiences, are also successful in attracting new choristers: the two go hand-in-hand.

Butlin’s Bluecoats or an Undertakers’ Convention?

The first problem is the look. As smart as it may be, for many people, a choir dressed in blazers seems very old fashioned. But what to replace it with is equally challenging. For many years, Wessex choristers have worn black trousers and open-necked long-sleeved black shirts when performing (although sometimes we wear DJs and red bow ties – or a garish selection of Christmas pullovers). But even the black shirts are now commonplace and maybe rather passé.   Various choirs have experimented with different coloured shirts, different ties, bow ties, waistcoasts, jackets, and altogether more informal styles such as rugby shirts, ‘working clothes’ and even pirate costumes. The jury is out as to which works best because there are still occasions that call for a more formal look. I remember on one occasion when we tried our black shirts with bow ties we looked like an undertakers’ convention! And trying to look ‘cool’ if you have a Zimmer frame or a beer belly is also tricky, but somehow choirs have to find a cost-effective style that works and doesn’t send younger audiences and singers running for the hills.

Wesley’s Greatest Hits

The second problem is repertoire. I don’t think any male choirs want to completely turn their backs on the wealth of wonderful tunes represented by the traditional male voice choir genre, but if we are to attract younger audiences there has to be a desire to innovate and try new stuff including pop and rock arrangements, and choral works by modern composers. Getting the balance right can be difficult, and selecting the right material is also hard with most choirs having to indulge in a costly bit of trial and error to find songs that really work. Whilst there are some good arrangers out there, there is also a shortage of great arrangements of modern pieces for TTBB (tenor/tenor/baritone/bass) choirs, and quite often, the cost of obtaining the rights to arrange a great pop song, rock anthem or music theatre piece can be prohibitive.   I know from personal experience that trying to secure arrangement permissions from companies like Disney, who own the rights to a huge number of very popular songs, can be too costly to contemplate.   The Wessex Male Choir strongly encourages our choristers and our audiences to suggest songs they would like us to sing.   This can be a double-edged sword at times because it can create expectations that are difficult or impossible to deliver.   To ‘manage’ all the suggestions, we have a repertoire advisory team (RAT) that supports the Music Director in finding new pieces. A lot of the suggestions received by the RAT are simply not viable because of copyright or performing rights issues; because there are no suitable arrangements available; or simply because the style of piece relies too much on other voices (e.g. sopranos) or long instrumental riffs for guitar and drums that sound pants when played on a piano! It’s early days for our RAT, but with the encouragement of our Music Director, we are already building a sizeable chunk of enjoyable new repertoire that is quite different to most other choirs: but we still have a long way to go!

A Bunch of Stiffs

The third problem is the challenge of being ‘entertaining’. Serried ranks of choristers standing rigidly to attention on stage is a real turn-off for everyone except retired sergeant-majors (who are strange people anyway). Choirs need movement to help them express the joy and energy of the songs they sing, and just as dynamic contrast can deliver spine-tingling moments, so too can stillness when contrasted with movement. Choralography (the art of putting choreographed moves together with choral music) needs careful handling if it isn’t to look silly or detract from the music. The music has to come first. Choralography needs to be slick, polished, and rehearsed to perfection if it is to work. And if your choir is populated by 70-year olds, the moves might be quite limited (e.g. no splits, pirouhettes, or balletic grand jetés!). Other forms of stagecraft can also help make the performance more interesting: use flags, torches, umbrellas, hats, false beards; stand in a different formation, move about while singing, hang the second tenors upside down from the ceiling (please)…anything but be more imaginative than just standing on parade and your audience will love you for it.

The disappointing news is that when you’ve done all this successfully, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll attract younger audiences or younger choristers. The trouble is, there are just too many other distractions for them. So how do you make singing so ‘cool’ that they will choose singing over other options? I’m not sure, but here are a few recruiting ideas to consider.

Recruiting.

At present, we still get most of our new recruits via existing choristers.   Your members are your best advert and they need to advocate vigorously on behalf of the choir. Get them talking about the choir to men at work, in the pub, in the club and at the game – and anywhere else! Their enthusiasm is the biggest selling point you have, and make sure they are well supported with a plentiful supply of attractive business cards, flyers and other recruiting literature.   Gone are the days when you could just put on an ‘open evening’ and expect men to flock in. As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”, so be bold, try new things to attract new choristers.

Last year, the Wessex Male Choir ran a very successful recruiting campaign called Project RMS (Real Men Sing), which included singing at Wembley in front of 85,000 people, visiting a local military base (examining the hardware and singing in one of the messes), a flash-mob, getting broadcast on local radio, and singing in a concert – all without any obligation to join the choir!

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Part of the Wessex Male Choir’s ‘Project RMS’ recruiting trifold from last year.

Even better is to give men a reason to sing, rather than expect them to admit they rather fancy the idea! Get them singing to raise money for charity. Just think how many outrageously hideous moustaches you’ve seen in Movember? Perfectly nice, rational men who for the rest of the year look almost respectable suddenly turn into hairy slug-balancers and sprout the most ridiculous 1970’s porn-star moustaches…in the name of charity! Joining a choir (even temporarily) to sing in a charity fundraiser is the excuse that men might need, and it’s nowhere near as bad as having to grow dodgy-looking face furniture.

Use social media as much as possible. Write a blog. Create memes for Facebook and Twitter. Get people talking about your choir! Consider using targeted advertising on Facebook where you pay to ‘boost’ a post to a specific demographic. For example, for recruiting, you might want to target 30-60 year old men with an interest in concerts and singing who live within 20 miles of where you are based. Facebook should then serve up your post into their Facebook ‘feed’ and hopefully, you’ll get your message across.

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An example of some recent Wessex Male Choir memes for Facebook and Twitter.

Get collaborating – especially with youth choirs. Not only do they generally drag their proud parents along to hear them sing, but as they transition from a youth choir into something more adult, if they have seen you perform and maybe shared the stage with you, there’s a good chance they’ll consider joining you.   But please, don’t be a ‘vampire’!

Old Vampires and Young Blood!

How many times have you heard old choirs talking about needing young blood? I hate the term – it makes us sound like a bunch of desperate old vampires! And that brings me onto a related topic: all too often, the existing members see the need for new members but don’t want them to ‘rock-the-boat’: in other words, some older members can be very resistant to change. The choir has to belong to the new members too – so do what you can to empower them.   Seek their views on everything from stagecraft to repertoire, and dress code. You need them more than they need you.

Recruiting from Colleges and Schools

Recruiting from schools and colleges may seem like an obvious approach for finding younger singers but it can be hard work getting the right access and finding the right event format. The offer of running a singing workshop, or performing at a school assembly may seem good to us, but to a busy school with a jam-packed curriculum, it may not be met with quite such enthusiasm. Getting the lads to sing in front of their mates is also likely to be tricky unless you have got something really interesting to offer them. In my experience, this recruiting path seldom delivers, but when it does, it can build a core of younger singers that will help to attract more.   (Don’t forget to use your younger singers in your publicity photos!) Having a youth choir is perhaps the best way of getting younger men interested in singing, but very few choirs have the resources to be able to offer this unless working in collaboration with a school or the local music hub. Sadly, even when you’ve enjoyed some success in recruiting younger choristers, the investment can often be negated by the pull of university and all manner of other attractions, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

OBA

The success of groups such as Only Boys Aloud shows that boys can be encouraged into singing!

Retaining all your new recruits can be a challenge: even following our very successful Project RMS, we struggled to retain some of the newbies. The Wessex is an auditioned choir with high standards and that requires a lot of time and effort from our choristers, so inevitably, some of our new recruits reluctantly felt that they couldn’t commit.   We try to make it as easy as possible though: we have a buddying system to help new recruits; there is no shortage of support, encouragement and advice from section leaders and other choristers, and we have a first-rate set of online resources for helping people to learn the songs. For example, every rehearsal is recorded, just in case you want to go over something again! Lastly, having a chorister development programme helps to build confidence and attract singers as well as improving the overall standard of the singing. It is something that no good choir should be without.

I hope this article has given you some ideas about how male choirs might tackle some of the common problems we all share. We would love to hear your ideas too. Let’s grasp this exciting opportunity to transform the genre! The alternative is unthinkable.

Guy Edwards


Some articles about the challenges facing male choirs.

Welsh male voice choirs struggle to attract young (BBC 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-19173496

Can the male voice choir survive in the modern world? (The Daily Telegraph -2016) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/can-the-male-voice-choir-survive-in-the-modern-world/

Welsh male voice choirs: a vocal minority (The Guardian -2011) https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/01/welsh-choir-only-men-aloud

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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