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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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