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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Keeping Your Choristers Happy!

Looking back over some of the previous blogs on here, it seems that the focus has often been on how to recruit new members.   We often overlook our most valuable assets – the members we already have! So in a round-about way, this blog is about retaining people, and how to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls.  For various reasons, I had my grumpy head on when I first published this blog.   Since then I’ve re-read it and realized it was pants, so I’ve revised it.  It’s still pants, but at least it’s not so whingey!

I guess choir politics are pretty much the same whichever choir you belong to and without doubt, in a male choir, egos are never very far from the surface.   Personally, all I’m really interested in is the singing, and making that as good as it can be, but inevitably, if you’re passionate about something, you end up disagreeing with others, and this can become a source of disharmony in the choir if you let it.  Compromise and good communication can prevent choristers feeling that their contributions don’t count.  Most of us try very hard to subjugate our personal agendas to ‘the greater good’, (I can never say that without thinking about Hot Fuzz!) but I doubt that anyone ever really succeeds in doing so, despite the best of intentions.  Having an agreed Choir Vision that everyone can buy into is a good idea and takes away some of the guesswork! Be tolerant with others and remember, all of us think we’re better than we really are. For example, I think I can sing.

Lesson 1: No matter how good you think you are, a little humility and compromise never hurt anyone.

I was left ‘spitting feathers’ a few weeks back when someone quite brazenly claimed credit for something that I had done. Deep breath. Count to three, and move on.  Some people are just like that and most of your colleagues will see it for what it is.  I’ve noticed quite often in the past, that members can be quite critical of committee members, often without really understanding the at times difficult decisions that need to be made. I suppose that if you stand for the committee, you open yourself up to all manner of criticisms (mostly behind your back) and it goes with the territory.  If you’re in that privileged position, try to find the time to tell people informally about what the committee is doing for the Choir.  I’m not sure that posting your committee meeting minutes on the noticeboard really cuts it!

Lesson 2:  Treat everyone fairly and recognize their contributions, no matter how small.  If you’re on the committee, make a real effort to talk to members about what the committee is trying to achieve – and don’t be afraid to elicit opinions.  If you’re not on the committee, cut them some slack – they are trying their best and deserve encouragement. Of course, if you think you can do better, then put your money where your mouth is! In short, communicate, give credit where it’s due and don’t take credit for the work of others.

It’s funny how things tend to come in threes, shortly after having someone take credit for my work, and with just four days to go before a long-planned singing workshop, the visiting workshop leader pulled out due to ill-health.   I like a challenge, but that was a bit of stress I could have done without! Thankfully, my old friend, the amazing Dr Rebecca Berkley, stepped in to fill the void and delivered a superb workshop which I think made a positive and lasting impression on all who attended. (To be clear, when I say ‘old’ friend, I don’t mean she’s old – just that she was MD at Kennet Opera a few years back when I had the privilege of singing the role of MacDuff in Verdi’s Macbeth under her musical direction!) Fair to say, the workshop, which had been sponsored by One-Stop through their ‘Carriers for Causes’ scheme, was a great success, not least because we learnt a new round all about Gin and Tonic!

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Dr Rebecca Berkley leading the workshop astray with thoughts of Gin and Tonic!

No sooner had the dust settled on the workshop, than I received an e-mail from the local performing arts academy in Swindon where we had booked the auditorium for a weekend of recording work, only to be told (with a just a month’s notice), that they were cancelling the booking. I suppose I should be grateful it was a month’s notice and not just a week! However trying to find a good alternative location with the right acoustic and facilities at short notice isn’t a heap of laughs, and as the recording company deposit had already been paid and diaries cleared, changing the date wasn’t an option. Thankfully, one of our committee, Stuart,  for solved the problem (thank you Stu!) and found a location almost on his own doorstep!  The point is that it pays to build networks and tap into the your choir’s ‘collective knowledge’, whether it’s for a last-minute replacement for a workshop or a replacement venue!

Lesson 3: Many heads are better than one when it comes to problem-solving. Your members are your best asset – tap into their knowledge and connections. Do you even know what they all do, what skills they have, or who they know that might be able to help the choir?  Keep them all involved.  Team-working strengthens the sense of belonging.

The passion for singing is what keeps us coming back for more, but sometimes the singing (in my case, my own) doesn’t live up to expectations.  After one rehearsal recently, I found myself feeling unusually low and seriously contemplating my own departure in search of pastures new.  There’s a local singing group I’d love to join, but it meets on the same night as choir, so I can’t do both. It made me think that almost every chorister has something else they could be doing on rehearsal night, and sometimes the pull of the alternative is strongly felt.   I’d been feeling a bit crappy that night anyway, and once I had manned-up, I felt somewhat happier, so for now at least, the Choir will have to put up with me. The moral of the story is, no matter how ‘embedded’ someone seems in the Choir, it doesn’t prevent them having times when they wonder if it’s all worth it. Watch out for the signs and get them back on board quickly!

Lesson 4:  Never assume that your members are happy just because they’re not complaining. Engagement and valuing your members is everything here and the serial whingers whose voices are often loudest, may not be the ones you need to worry about!

One of the many things that makes it all worthwhile is the sweet smell of success. Back in March, the Wessex Male Choir had a particularly successful outing at the Mid-Somerset Festival in Bath where we managed first place in all three of the categories we had entered thanks in no small part to the brilliant leadership of our MD.   Our chamber choir, the Wessex Camerata, also entered a class but, perhaps not surprisingly given our new line-up which is still bedding-in, we only managed a creditable third place against some very good competition. Still it was a good test of the guys’ mettle.   Preparing for the competition was hard work, but as Samuel Goldwyn once said, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’ – it’s true both as a choir and on an individual basis.

Wessex MD, Rhiannon Williams, with two out of the three trophies won in Bath.

Lesson 5:  Success and hard work go hand-in-hand. Ensure that everyone understands this – there is no such thing as a free lunch or a short-cut to success! The sooner that choristers understand the connection, the happier they will be about having to work hard. Manage their expectations. No-one said it was going to be easy!

With preparations now well underway for the Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts later this month, it would be easy to overlook some of the other great things we are doing this year. We’ll be recording our latest CD next month and, as well as a few well-known numbers to keep our traditionalist fans happy, the CD will be packed with new material and different genres. (Follow us on Facebook to hear about the launch of the CD and a special offer on pre-orders!) .

We’ve also received the first draft of a new song of Remembrance that we commissioned from the acclaimed British composer, Paul Mealor. Paul is unique in having held top chart positions in both the pop charts and classical charts simultaneously, and will be known to many as the composer of the Military Wives’ Choir hits Wherever You Are and in My Dreams.   The commission (supported in part by a Co-Op grant), is for male choir but with an optional descant, suitable for a school choir (our way of involving youngsters in remembering the fallen). We asked Paul to use some of the text from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which includes the well-known stanza that begins ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old…’ and he has done a fabulous job.   All we need now is a good local school choir to help us perform the premiere at a big RBL event in October this year! Also in October, we’ll be performing in the Sheriff of Wiltshire’s event, An Uncelebrated Journey, a showcase for the best of Swindon talent.

We’re very much looking forward to our annual summer concert at STEAM in Swindon again this year (14th July) where our guests will be ‘The Magnificent AK47’ – an anarchic group of singing land-pirates and DIY-ers who are single-handedly changing perceptions about men’s singing. They wear hats, have far too much facial hair, and sing rousing stuff in a manly manner. We’re sure that our Swindon audience will love them! We’re especially looking forward to doing a few joint numbers with them including a rendition of the old English drinking song, ‘Down Among the Deadmen’.

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Brothers in song… Magnificent Wessex choristers with members of the Magnificent AK47!

Lesson 6:  Acentuate the positive! We have an interesting and varied selection of events and activities to look forward to – something for everyone. The promise of the next big gig or special event is often enough to keep people’s enthusiasm flowing!

Okay, I’m mad about singing and over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from hundreds (or maybe thousands) of hours of singing tuition from some outstanding singers (including Ros Plowright, Stuart Burrows, Ryland Davies, James Gilchrist, Gail Pearson, Susan McCulloch, Patricia Wheatley-O’Neill, Adrian Thompson and many more).   I’ve done masterclasses, consultations, summer schools, and more grade exams than I care to remember, all in the interest of improving my singing (especially as a soloist) and being the best I can be, given that I’ll never be more than a keen amateur. My poor family have been driven nearly insane.  I didn’t really start singing until twelve years ago and I’d like to think it’s never too late to learn new tricks, even for an old dog like me.  One thing is certain, we never stop learning.   So encourage choristers to learn, to attend workshops, to take lessons, to learn how to read music, to rise to musical challenges.  Making development opportunities available to choristers is a good way of keeping the challenge fresh and choristers engaged. The sense of accomplishment and recognition that comes with developing or learning new skills will keep your choristers happy!  As well as having a chorister development programme in the Wessex, our chamber group (the Wessex Camerata) provides some additional challenges in a cappella singing for those who want to push their boundaries a bit further.

Lesson 7:  Have a chorister development programme and provide plenty of opportunities for choristers to learn and improve. Have a culture that imbues choristers with the desire to do better, and make a point of rewarding those who make the effort.

There are probably many more things you can do to keep your choristers happy, I’ve just picked on a few that areas that represent quick wins.  Being in a really good choir is an incentive all of its own.   Above all, try and keep a sense of humour and make sure that singing is fun – but not at the expense of choir discipline!

GE

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

 

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!

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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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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!

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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.

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‘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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Are you an incompetent singer?

This week’s blog is meant as a challenge to all you singers out there.   You might think it is pretentious twaddle or you may find that it sets you a useful challenge.   Either way, I hope it provokes you to think about your singing and how competent you are as a singer.

Singing standards, audience appreciation, and competition success are all linked.   So whether you sing in an amateur choir or a professional ensemble, your skills as a singer ultimately dictate the success or otherwise of your singing group. That may seem obvious, but there’s far more to it than meets the eye, and it’s all to do with competence.

Back in the 1970s, a chap called Noel Burch described the four stages in learning any new skill and illustrated his ideas by using a ‘Competence Pyramid’.   No wait…don’t leave! I know it sounds like some esoteric management-gobbledygook, but it helps to explain a whole lot about how singers get good, how some audiences are more receptive than others, and how competition success can be achieved!

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Still here? Great. It’s probably easier if I explain the competence pyramid thingy by using a car-driving analogy – but it applies to almost any skill.

The first stage is blissful ignorance (or ‘unconscious incompetence’). For example: you have no idea what the clutch does, how to change gear, or even why you need to.   Then one day, you decide that you want to learn how to drive. Over a period of months, between nervous breakdowns, the driving instructor explains what the gears do, how to do three-point turns, and how to drive away from a junction without doing multiple ‘kangaroo’ hops like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. It will take lots of practice until you can do it all safely, but even if you can’t do it yet, at least you now understand what is needed, and thankfully your driving instructor is on powerful medication.   This is the second stage and is known as ‘conscious incompetence’ because you now realize that you have a lot to learn!

Then the big day arrives: the driving test! Hopefully you pass and you are now officially ‘competent’ at driving a car (meaning that you have learnt all the basic skills required).   But there are some things you still have to work hard at: you probably need to concentrate when doing a three-point turn or parallel-parking.   To start with, you still have to think very carefully about how to drive your car, even if you have passed the test without squashing any pedestrians.   This is the third stage and it’s known as ‘conscious competence’.   You can do it safely and competently, but you’re no ninja and it still requires conscious effort.

After a number of years, most drivers happily drive their cars around fairly safely and seldom have to consciously think about how to do it. They can even do parallel-parking without mounting the kerb or backing into a lamp-post while still talking to their passenger and listening to the radio at the same time. In other words, driving has become almost automatic. This is the final stage of learning a new skill, and it’s called ‘unconscious competence’.

So what? How does that map across to singing? Well as a complete novice, you may not realize how difficult it is to sing well. You don’t know what you don’t know. You hear people singing all time on the telly and radio, and it all seems pretty effortless. So you decide to give it a try and you join a choir. The musical director keeps wittering on about breathing, support, diction, timing, dynamic control, blending, tonality, phrasing, and loads of other things. Suddenly, you realize that there’s more to this singing malarkey than meets the eye, and you transition from ‘unconscious incompetence’ into ‘conscious incompetence’. You realize how little you really know – but at least help is on hand to get you through the tricky bits!

You start to improve, but when you concentrate on perfecting your diction, maybe your phrasing suffers or your ‘support’ is lacking.   Doing everything that is required all at once is really hard and takes years of training until it all becomes second nature. Professional singers often spend years taking singing lessons before studying vocal performance for three years at college – and often then going on to post-graduate degrees in performance studies. But even after all that, most would agree that they are still learning.   In fact only a select few professional singers ever truly achieve the ‘unconscious competence’ stage!

Regular practice and singing lessons is the only way you will ever move from incompetence to competence.

Book

Members of the Wessex Male Choir appear in David Howard’s excellent book on Choral Singing.  (This book would make someone a great Christmas present! Details at end of article).

Learning the techniques that make you a better singer is all well and good, and it might be tempting to approach singing very technically (e.g. making sure your larynx is in the right place, using diaphragmatic breathing, and learning how to mix chest and head voice etc.) but unless it is well-practiced and automatic, it will distract you from your main job on stage which is that of communicating with the audience: you know, those discerning folk who have paid good money to hear you sing. But if you’re standing in front of an audience worrying about your breathing (or where you left your larynx), then you have probably lost whatever rapport you were hoping for! A technically excellent performance can be boring if it lacks rapport, but similarly, an emotionally-connected performance can also be spoilt by poor technique, especially if the audience is even a little bit knowledgeable.

Of course, audiences don’t have to be ‘competent’ in order to enjoy performances, and they certainly don’t have to pass a test before they can go to concerts! But it is clear that some audiences don’t really know the first thing about singing and will quite happily applaud a really mediocre performance. You can often see that in TV talent show audiences where they go crazy just because a singer belts out an ear-splitting top note (however badly) or cunningly evades the melody by warbling around it so much that you forget what they’re meant to be singing. Ignorance really can be bliss! But if you or your choir want to perform in front of knowledgeable or discerning audiences (which might include other singers and other choirs), then you will have master at least some of the technical skills needed. The MD can’t do it all for you. Of course, competition adjudicators tend to know rather a lot about singing and are well placed to recognize whether you, as a singer, have mastered some of the skills needed for a great performance and whether your choir is run-of-the-mill or something rather special.

There’s another good reason for wanting to improve your competence as a singer. Good singing technique helps to preserve your voice, both in the short term, and so that you can enjoy your singing long into the future. Truly great singers like Placido Domingo (now 76 and still singing in world-class opera) attributes much of his longevity as a singer to his constant focus on technique – a focus that continues to this day. I think we’ve all heard choirs performing at major competitions when on ‘Day One’ the sound is beautiful, but by the end of the competition or festival, tired voices are very evident and the sound quality is poor. This is most noticeable in amateur choirs and I know of at least two otherwise very good choirs who have probably missed out on winning a ‘Choir of Choirs’ prize due to lack of individual technique – or possibly too many celebratory beers after winning the earlier stages in competitions!

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The Wessex Male Choir in fine voice.

But how can any choir hope to do well in competition if the choristers don’t understand what the adjudicators are looking for? A quick internet search on choral adjudication turns up a wide range of competencies required for good choral singing. There’s an edited version of one such guide here: What Adjudicators Are Looking For.  It’s clear that the good technique associated with competent singers produces the sort of high quality singing that adjudicators and well-informed audiences cherish.

Even brilliant entertainers can suffer the consequences of poor technique and it can be career-limiting. I suppose the most famous examples are Adele and Julie Andrews, both of whom had wonderful voices but suffered damage to their vocal cords almost certainly as result of their singing technique. Whilst it is less common among classically-trained singers and opera singers (the Olympic athletes of the singing world), it is certainly not unheard of. There was a great article about stars losing their voices in The Guardian in August 2017 by Bernhard Warner. The link is here, and it’s well worth a read!

So this is where it gets personal: where do you think your singing fits into the ‘Competence Pyramid’? Even if you don’t aspire to be a great soloist, surely when you sing in a choir you want to be the best you can be in order to contribute to the overall success of the choir? If so, what steps have you taken to develop as a singer? It doesn’t happen by accident. Do you know how to support your breath properly? What is ‘support’? What is head voice? How often do you work on your diction? How well do you know the words, notes, phrasing, and dynamics of the piece you are singing? If none of these things mean anything to you, then you are still floundering around at the ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage and the chances are that your choir will never be anything special.

GE

Recommended Resources: 

http://www.vocalist.org.uk/index.html  – a good website for singers with all sorts of technique tips and singing exercises.

Books:

Choral Singing and Healthy Voice Production’ – by David M Howard (complete with the photo of WMC singers on page 106!).   An excellent book that covers just about everything to do with Choral Singing.   Available from Amazon and all good book stores!

‘Find Your Voice’ – by Jo Thompson.   A great all-round singing guide, also available from Amazon and all good book sellers!

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