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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Inspirational and Visionary!

A team from the Wessex Male Choir was recently fortunate enough to attend a Male Choir Conference in Peterborough. Now you might think that sounds a bit dull, particularly if your view of male choirs is that they are ‘pale, male, and stale’ – a term we heard quite a few times during the day. But it seems that the Wessex Male Choir has very similar aspirations for male choir singing to those of the inspirational choral director, Will Prideaux, who masterminded the conference. I think it’s fair to say we share a vision of male singing reclaiming its rightful position after years of steady decline. The Wessex, under the expert guidance our music director, Rhiannon Williams, is thankfully one of those choirs prepared to ‘up its game’ and play its part in the renaissance of men’s singing.

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Will Prideaux conducting the Peterborough Male Voice Choir during the conference.  (Photo – Peterborough MVC.)

So much for grand designs, but rebuilding and maybe re-branding a somewhat tarnished and neglected genre is going to involve a lot of hard work, commitment, and tough decisions, and maybe not all choristers are prepared to put their shoulders to the task. As Churchill once said “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”.   Perhaps that’s too stark a picture though, because as most of us who sing in choirs know, it’s also a matter of great satisfaction and pride when things go right. It is a rewarding and fun experience being in good choir, but we agree with Will: music, singing and choir development must lie at the heart of what we do if we take our singing seriously.

Of course, there are different types of men’s choirs: some are little more than singing social clubs for elderly gentlemen where, in reality, the priorities are very different. I have to say that I saw a male choir recently in concert that left me cringing and wanting to tell other audience members that ‘not all male choirs are like that!’   In that moment, I would not have owned-up to being in a male choir.   (Perhaps they had misread the sarcasm of my earlier blog (The Art of Coarse Choral Singing) and taken it as actual performance advice?)  Undoubtedly the ‘social singers’ have their place, but the image and standard of singing they present to the public is most likely one of the reasons for the overall decline in the popularity of male choirs, both in terms of recruiting and audience appeal.

To see just how far male choral singing has fallen, we only have to think about the great composers like Elgar, Schubert and Sibelius (to name but a few) who wrote numerous works for male choirs. The number of contemporary composers writing works for male choirs today is pitifully small, especially in the UK, and is a measure of the degree to which male choral music has lost respect.  We can certainly help ourselves in this respect:  for example, the Wessex Male Choir is commissioning the acclaimed British composer Paul Mealor to write a Remembrance piece for male choir.  But male choirs generally have lost the respect of many other singers.  I know many ‘choral society’ and ‘classical’ singers who look down on male choirs with something approaching disdain, and yet, done well, male choral singing can more than hold its own with more classical genres.

As already mentioned, if we are to reclaim our rightful place, we will have to work hard. We need to adopt a much more professional approach to our music-making – and that includes hiring-in professional music staff, ensuring the focus is on the music, singing, and developing the choir’s skills and competence.   Will mentioned in his keynote address the apparent pride with which a elderly chorister of thirty years’ standing had once told him that he didn’t read a single note of music.   It begs the question, that if someone takes their singing seriously, why on earth wouldn’t they make the effort over a thirty-year period singing with the choir, to develop their skills and learn how to read music? It beggars belief, but I suspect that nearly every male choir has choristers like this and some can perhaps be forgiven if they have never been encouraged to learn, but wearing it like a badge of pride is surely wrong-thinking.  You don’t hear people boasting about being unable to read.   Of course, the Choir itself has a duty to provide the help and training required, and there are many great ways of doing this. Katie Jeffries-Harris of Peterborough Sings, highlighted and demonstrated some of the great technology that can help.   We will certainly be looking at how we might use the Music Prodigy app!  Having a chorister development programme and offering to teach potential choristers new skills is one of the things that attract the right calibre of new recruit.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get get what you’ve always got”

The Wessex Male Choir’s founder and former musical director, Robert T Elliott, an experienced and highly respected choral adjudicator, gave a presentation on competition preparation and what adjudicators look for. With commendable clarity, he spelled out what we should already know. Rather like rugby, you need to do the basics well, and that repeating the same old ‘plays’ (or in this case, the same old stale male repertoire favourites) isn’t going to impress or bring success. A later speaker summed it up well when he quoted the words attributed to Henry Ford when he said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  For male choirs who want to develop, and for whom restoring respect for the male choral genre is important, the message is clear: we need to work hard and innovate, not least in our repertoire selection. For competition success, preparation is key. If you prepare well and allow just the right amount of time, you greatly increase your chances of success. Of course, even then, sometimes the TMO can it wrong though!

Recruiting, as always, was a topic of great interest, and the Peterborough MVC approach is certainly worthy of study. (Visit their website to see the sort of things they do). Quite a few of the ideas can also be found in one of my earlier blogs here. Claire Hailey of Peterborough Sings shared her experiences of project-based recruiting and the many good ideas it encompasses.   Whilst incredibly envious of Peterborough’s recruiting budget, I also reflected that Wessex Male Choir’s ‘Project RMS’ (Real Men Sing) from just over a year ago, employed many of the same methods and produced some excellent results at a fraction of the cost.   However, we will certainly be ‘tweaking’ our future campaigns to incorporate some of the ideas picked up at the conference! When you see the average age of Peterborough MVC members, it’s clear the organization is getting it right.

At the start of the day, we were treated to a recent recording of a once undeniably great choir singing a well-known song – a staple of the MVC repertoire, particularly in the Land of Song. It was pretty rough and ready, and certainly nowhere near the standard historically achieved by this once proud choir. (Which reminds me – be careful about the performances you permit to be posted online).  Despite a fairly depressing analysis of the state of male choir singing today, speaker after speaker shared ideas and provoked thoughts about how good choirs could raise their game. At the end of the day, Will and the Peterborough Male Voice Choir treated us to a demonstration of some rehearsal techniques and sang some new repertoire by way of example.   The singing was excellent and finished the day on a high note, having given us all more food-for-thought, and some very clear ideas about what sort of choir we wanted to belong to. At the end of day which started with such a dismal ‘report card’ about male choir performance and standards today, I think everyone was enthused, raring to go, eager to start making some of the changes, and committing to the hard but satisfying work needed to reclaim the great tradition of male choral singing. Bring it on!

Many thanks to Will Prideaux, Peterborough Male Voice Choir, members of Peterborough Sings, and the guest speakers for making this conference such a great and inspiring event.

 

One Chorister’s Story

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wessex Male Choir singing at Wembley in 2016 in front of 85,000.

From that moment on I can simply say it has been fantastic: music festivals, competitions, Christmas concerts, tours to Ireland and to Italy, and many cherished memories I will never forget with what can only be described as an extended family. Singing a wide variety of music ranging from sacred pieces, West End musicals, 16th century folk songs, Italian opera and modern contemporary pieces.

They say you get out of something what you put in and never is this more true than when you sing with a male voice choir. So for all you would-be singers singing in the shower at home, or all those former choirboys who would like to re-live those bygone years, come along and try us out. You will never regret it, and don’t be like me who lived in the musical wilderness for 15 years and wishes he had found the Wessex family so many years before!

AH

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The Wessex Male Choir is based in Swindon and currently has vacancies.  If you are interested in finding out more, or coming along to a rehearsal to find out what it’s like, then please visit our website for further information.  We meet on Tuesday evenings from 7.30pm-9.30pm.   See www.wessexmalechoir.uk

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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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Do you need money?

Would you like a cheque for £1500? £1800? £2500?

Okay, it’s a daft question, we all need money, but specifically, do you need money for a special cause? Maybe the church roof needs repairing, or you support a major charity or health organization? Maybe you’ve held coffee mornings to fund a playgroup, or completed a sponsored event to raise money for a hospice or local food-bank? Maybe you knit woolly hats for llamas.   Whatever your favourite cause, the chances are it needs fundraisers like you to help it carry out the valuable work it does.  So would you like a cheque for £1500,  £1800, or £2500 for your cause?

WMC at Wembley Poppy Launch 2016Launching last year’s RBL Poppy Appeal at Wembley in front of 80,000 fans

Working with local promoters, our two most recent concerts raised about £1500 (for the Royal British Legion in Cirencester) and £1800 for the Lechlade Village Hall Fund.   At St Mary’s Church in Fairford a few years ago, our concert raised £2500 for the church appeal. So what’s the secret of their success?

The key to the success for such concerts is YOU. We can put on a fantastic show for you, but without YOUR network of contacts, friends, family, and supporters, we cannot generate an audience. The Wessex Male Choir is based in Swindon where we are well known and have an enthusiastic following, but in the towns and villages away from Swindon, we don’t have the same connections, so this is where you, as a local promoter, can make all the difference.   If you have got a good network or a popular cause, then selling enough tickets for a concert to make a handsome profit, should not be a problem.

We have organized countless concerts over the years and we have put together a handy Guide to Promoting a Concert which tells you all you need to know about organizing a successful event – and we offer it free to any potential concert promoter.  (Ask Stuart for a copy concerts@wessexmalechoir.co.uk).   We’re also happy to help out in other ways (for example, we can offer a free poster design service – and we have contacts with very reasonably priced local printers). We can even help you sell tickets online. We have our own staging, amplification, and lighting (if required) so you needn’t worry about any of that.

PUK Christmas 2015 (16 of 16)The Wessex Male Choir at a charity fundraiser for Parkinson’s UK in Southwark RC Cathedral, along with Jenni Murray, Jane Hill, and Jane Asher, and PUK Chief Executive, Steve Ford.

Successful promoters try hard to keep costs to a minimum, and in particular, if you have free use of a good venue, then that’s a huge advantage.   Most churches, schools, and community centres have reasonable hire rates, and may even provide the venue free of charge if the cause is one that is close to their hearts.

The Wessex Male Choir is one of the UK’s leading male choirs and has won numerous national and international singing competitions. We offer a very varied and professional programme. We even have our own chamber group, the Wessex Camerata, that helps us to widen the choice of songs on offer! We aspire to professional standards, but of course excellence comes at a cost: we have professional music staff, only use properly authorized arrangements and copyrighted music, and our ‘on-the-day’ concert management and staging is slick. We have to cover our costs by charging a charity fee, but one that is easily covered by selling just 50 tickets!   The income from another 50 tickets would almost always comfortably cover most venue hire costs and publicity, therefore we reckon anything over 100 tickets sold is pure profit for your cause. So the challenge is this: do you think that you and your network of friends, family, and supporters can sell more than 100 tickets? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’re onto a winner!   We can help you raise funds for your favourite cause.

WessexMaleChoirWithAledJonesSheffieldThe Wessex with one of our patrons, Aled Jones, at a charity concert.

We occasionally raise funds directly for charitable causes. For example, back in 2007, a sizeable contingent from the Wessex Male Choir took part in the London Marathon to raise funds for the charity, Parkinson’s UK  Our completion time was dreadful, but then again, we kept stopping on the way around to sing to the crowds! We raised £32,000 on the day and, at subsequent events, have taken the total to over £65,000. One of our choristers, Jeff Hannath, who has been a stalwart supporter of the charity, saw that the first London Half Marathon – ‘The Big Half’ – is being held in March 2018, and so a group of us, along with a few former choristers and friends, will be participating once again to raise funds for Parkinson’s UK. Doubtless the temptation to sing to the crowds will be too great to resist!   (If you would like to sponsor us, then please visit our Just Giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/wessexchoir)

LondonMarathon2007Crazy choristers!  Wessex choristers singing their way around the London Marathon to raise funds for Parkinson’s UK. 

They say that ‘charity begins at home’, and running (no pun intended) a choir as good as the Wessex costs money. We’re an arts charity in our own right, dedicated to spreading the joy of male choral music far and wide, and sometimes we have to raise funds for the Choir so that we can keep on doing the great work with others. Of course we’d love it if an individual or a company offered to sponsor us, or even if someone were to sponsor a concert in aid of their favourite charity. We’re always pleased to collaborate with other entertainers too, and have worked with youth groups such as MJ-UK Music & Arts, celebrity singers such Paul Potts, Hayley Westenra, and Juliette Pochin, and we have sung in front of capacity crowds at Wembley and Twickenham!   Please get in touch with us if you would like details of our sponsorship packages.   Our events diary can fill up quite quickly, so if you’re thinking about hiring the Choir, please don’t delay!

Our own Christmas Concert this year is on Thursday 21st December at the Multi Entertainment & Cultural Arena (MECA) in Regent’s Circus, Swindon.  Tickets cost £12.50 and are on sale online now from www.ticketsource.co.uk/wessex-male-choir.  (Reserved seating is only available to Friends of the Choir, but you can easily become a Friend for free, by sending your name and e-mail address to friends@wessexmalechoir.co.uk  This will add you to our mailing list and you’ll receive about three newsletters a year, be able to reserve seats at our concerts, and take part in occasional online feedback surveys.)

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.
Rob telling a joke

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.

Cheltenham 2016 - Katrine Gold Cup

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.

Rhiannon copy

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

Ladies: Send us your men!

In common with most male choirs, the Wessex Male Choir is always looking for new recruits. One of the ‘nice problems’ we have is that the average age in the Wessex Male Choir is quite a bit lower than most male choirs. We have a lot of younger men and, every year, because of work or family commitments, some of our singers reluctantly have to leave the Choir.  So recruiting is a never-ending challenge. The crazy thing is, it should be easy.   Ask any of the guys in who sing in the Wessex (or indeed, any other choir) and they will tell what a great experience it is.   So why aren’t more men queuing up to get in on the fun?

WMC Rehearsal - 10 Oct 17 copy.JPGGreg, Andy, Andy, Andy, and Mark share a joke with principal accompanist Tom during a rehearsal.   (Please note, due to the high number of ‘Andys’ in the Choir, any more wishing to join may have to change their name by deed poll.)

We ran an article recently in the Swindon Advertizer in which one of our singers, Paul Gahan, told us about how he came to join the Choir – and it’s interesting because he hits on some of the things that had put him off joining.  Paul says:

“There’s no denying it can be an intimidating thing joining a choir with a reputation like the Wessex, especially so for anyone who isn’t particularly musical. My wife spent six years trying to persuade me to join, but I kept insisting the standard was too high for me. Eventually a chance encounter with a Wessex chorister, on a windswept touchline at a rugby festival, persuaded me to turn up for a rehearsal and give it a go.

Having the courage to take that first step is the hardest part, but at the Wessex Male Choir, we make that as easy as possible. Men can pop-in to any choir rehearsal to see what it’s all about and to gain a sense of the Choir’s camaraderie and teamwork (we meet on Tuesday nights at Abbey Meads from 7.30-9.30pm) and they will be sure of the warmest of welcomes.   Bringing a friend along can also reduce any anxiety. Men who come along don’t have to sing (unless they want to join in); they can stay for as long or as little as they like; they can join other singers in the pub afterwards for a chat; and there’s no obligation if they decide it’s not for them. As Paul says:

I nearly walked out of my first rehearsal I was so terrified: I‘d never heard the piece I was supposed to be singing and I didn’t have a clue if I was singing the right notes or not, but with encouragement from the other singers, I stuck it out, eventually passed my audition and made it to concert standard. It was hard work, there’s no use pretending it was easy, but the support structure and learning aids at the Wessex are superb and you never have to cope alone.”

Although the male choir tradition is steeped in machismo (think of male choirs rooted in tough, mining communities), the repertoire of the male choir has moved on considerably. We still sing the occasional Welsh hymn tune, but these days, we do so much more than that! Our current repertoire includes rock anthems, songs from music theatre, pop arrangements, beautiful choral pieces and even the occasional rousing opera chorus or drinking song! And although male choir repertoire may have changed over the years, the sound of a male choir at full throttle has lost none of the powerful, virile sound which makes male choirs so popular with audiences.

Current Rep SelectionA selection of the Wessex Male Choir’s current very varied repertoire.

Our singers come from every walk of life and are all bound together by the love of singing.   Some can read music, but many cannot.   It’s not a barrier because the way the Choir learns music is designed to make sure everyone can enjoy their singing.   It does take some commitment of course: choristers need to spend a bit of time between rehearsals practicing the songs, although with the Choir’s online learning aids, it’s really easy to download rehearsal recordings or choral parts onto a smartphone (or burn a disc) so you can sing along in the car or in the shower!   As well as those with little or no singing experience, we also welcome more experienced singers.   We find that men who have sung with community choirs or rock choirs and who are looking to step up a gear, find the four-part singing and overall performance standard of the Wessex is exactly what they need to take their singing to the next level. We also have a chorister development programme which helps everyone improve their singing.   And right now is a really great time to join the Choir as we are starting to learn our Christmas music (so everyone will be in the same boat!).

I’ll leave the last word with Paul.

I’ve been a Wessex chorister for over four years and I can’t imagine life without the Choir. I’ve sung at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people, I’ve sung in cathedrals, concert halls and churches all over the country and abroad, I’ve won major choral competitions, made the most amazing friends and yes, I wish I’d joined ten years earlier.”

For more information on the Wessex Male Choir, including how to join us or come along to a rehearsal, please visit our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk

GE