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.
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!
A 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