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

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Musical Direction!

In this week’s blog, Dave Langley, one of the Choir’s founding members, talks about the Choir’s three musical directors and the vitally important role they have each played in making the Wessex Male Choir one of the country’s top amateur male choirs. As well as directing our concerts, the musical director selects our repertoire, teaches us singing technique, rehearses us through every song in minute detail, encourages us to give our best in performance, critiques our singing, and helps us to achieve the Choir’s vision.

Throughout its life, Wessex Male Choir has benefited from the inspirational leadership of exceptional musical directors. Music professionals all, each has brought differing areas of choral expertise to test and develop the Choir. Their patience, humour, commitment and professionalism has motivated, cajoled and ultimately, constructed one of the most accomplished male choirs in the UK.

Whilst each of the Choir’s musical directors has had a unique style, the unifying theme from each has been a constant striving for excellence.  It certainly hasn’t always been easy, but between them, they have constructed a modern choir with an appetite for high standards and a desire to continually improve. The Choir has won over 20 prizes in competitions on the national and international stage, including the male choir competition at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 2011, and best male choir in the Jersey International Choral Festival in 2008.
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Rob Elliott, our first musical director, in fine form telling the audience a joke!

The Choir’s founding musical director, Robert T Elliott, created the Wessex and its bedrock principles, standards and organization.  Rob was keen to refresh male choral singing for the 21st century and to move away from the stuffy traditional repertoire to which many male choirs adhered.  The genre was showing signs of decay and declining popularity, with many choirs’ membership having an average age of over 65, and being unable to inject young blood to replace retiring singers.  Even notable and acclaimed choirs such as Côr Meibion Pontarddulais are feeling the pinch, and the traditional male voice choirs almost everywhere worry about the increasing average age of their choristers.  Rob was, and continues to be, at the forefront of a movement to enhance the relevance of male choir singing in the modern age, a group that also includes the likes of William Prideaux of Peterborough Male Voice Choir, Mark Burstow of Bournemouth Male Choir, and Tim Rhys-Evans of Only Men Aloud.

Rob left Wessex in 2013 and was appointed as Festival Director for the Cornwall International Male Choral Festival, the world’s largest male choir festival, featuring over 70 choirs from all over the world.  He also adjudicates at many prestigious choral festivals in the UK and overseas, as well as advising choirs as they prepare for competition.  More recently, he has also taken over the baton at Basingstoke Ladies Choir.

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Katrine Reimers, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2016.

Following Rob’s departure, the Wessex was fortunate to acquire another excellent musical director in Katrine Reimers, who led the Choir between January 2014 and July 2016.  Katrine studied music at King’s College, Cambridge, piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and trained as a professional repetiteur at the National Opera Studio.  Katrine led the choir on successful tours to Ireland and Italy (where she also conducted a massed festival choir of over 2000 singers in the singing of Verdi’s Va Pensiero), and under her direction, the Choir was victorious in the 2016 Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts, winning the Male Choir competition, Show Tunes competition, and the Gold Cup itself for outstanding choir of the whole Festival despite never having worked with a male choir before.  Katrine built on the excellent foundations laid by her predecessor and, in particular, worked on developing the Choir’s musical expression, not least through her own very expressive and communicative conducting style.

Unfortunately for the Choir, Katrine’s abundant talents were noticed by others and she left the Wessex to take up a prestigious post working with youth choirs across Europe, although she is still involved with music locally around her home in Bath. Like her predecessor, Katrine remains a good friend of the Wessex and can still be seen occasionally in the audience at concerts, having made many friends during her time with the Choir.

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Rhiannon Williams conducting the Wessex Male Choir at Lechlade in 2017.

Continuing the fine line of excellent musical directors, the Choir’s current musical director is Rhiannon Williams who joined Wessex in 2016. Rhiannon’s conducting career began in 2002 as musical director of the Ynysybwl Ladies Choir, a position she held for ten years, during which the Choir won competitions at the Abergavenny and Hereford festivals. Rhiannon led Bridgend Male Choir to success at the 2014 Male Choir Competition in the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. This was notable since only Wales’ most successful competition choir, Cor Meibion Pontarddulais, had previously won the world-renowned competition from the South Wales area. In addition to this, Rhiannon has previously achieved success as an accompanist for the Bridgend Male Choir at the Cheltenham festival and has a wealth of experience working with other top Welsh choirs including Pontarddulais, Treorchy, and Llanelli.

A native of South Wales, Rhiannon began her musical life as a singer. Among many competition successes, she was named British (& Welsh) BET Choirgirl of the Year in 1989 (28 years ago today!).  This led to solo appearances at the Royal Albert Hall, and Cardiff’s

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Rhiannon was Choirgirl of the Year in 1989.

St David’s Hall, among other venues, and to membership of the National Youth Choirs of Wales and of Great Britain, the RSCM Cathedral Singers, and the Choir of St John’s, Smith Square.  Rhiannon’s professional piano training began with a part-time scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music. The London College of Music awarded her a Fellowship, and she has achieved Distinctions at Licentiate and Associate levels from the Trinity, Guildhall and Royal Schools of Music. In 1998 she became Principal Accompanist for the renowned Treorchy Male Choir, which ultimately bestowed on her an Honorary Lady Membership.  In addition to her day-job as a professional musician, she has also recently become the musical director for the Cowbridge Male Voice Choir.

In the hands of a great musical director, the Wessex Male Choir is like a finely-tuned instrument, capable of expressing great depths of emotion, astonishing tonal colour, and dynamic contrast that lends excitement, power, and sensitivity to its performances.  If you haven’t heard it for yourself, you really should!  For more information about singing with the Choir, hearing us in concert, or hiring us for an event, please visit our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk  You can also follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wessexmalechoir