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.

 

One Chorister’s Story

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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