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

Unknown
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

Advertisements

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

Memory and Banter!

It seems like ages ago now, but back in June 2016, we organized a short recording session at Commonweal School and recorded two tracks; Memory from Cats, and Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. The intention was always to film them and put them on YouTube or something similar. Unfortunately, when we got to the editing stage, we felt that the recording quality wasn’t great and at the time, we never completed the edits. However, over a year later, we’ve managed to tweak the recordings and although the end-product is far from perfect, the first of the two recordings, Memory, is now online for people to watch. The second track, O Magnum Mysterium, will take a little longer to complete, but we hope that we can post that online too at some point.

WMC.jpg

Recording ‘Memory’ at Commonweal – June 2016 under the direction of Katrine Reimers.

Over the years, there have been a number of smaller singing groups within the Choir, such as Presto and After Eight (the latter is now an independent group and no longer part of the Wessex Male Choir) and more recently we have had the Wessex Male Choir Chamber Group. It’s a bit of a mouthful, so we thought it was about time to give the Chamber Group a name. There were lots of suggestions from members of the Chamber Group – such as ‘Crotchety’ (because some choristers can be a bit grumpy) and ‘Quavers’ (because we’re a bit cheesy?). In the end, we opted for something a bit more stylish, and will be known henceforth as the Wessex Camerata, indicating that we are firmly part of the Wessex Male Choir but a chamber group. And before you tell me, yes I know the abbreviation is W.C.

You may already know that a male choir is usually split into four sections: the guys with the highest voices (top tenors); those with high voices (second tenors); the lower voices (baritones); and the ‘lowest of the low’ (the basses). There’s a great deal of banter and competition between sections, but at the end of the day, we all sing together in perfect harmony.  Even if you don’t know what voice type you are when you join the Choir, you’re quickly sorted into the best section for you and helped to settle-in by an appointed ‘buddy’. Amidst the bustle of the new term, we’re always delighted to welcome new choristers, and so far this term, we’re pleased to say hello to three prospective choristers, Andrew, Dan, and Jason.

21230987_1149283728538261_4494549357249564324_n.jpg

The Choir has lots of characters…the cartoon is not meant to represent actual choristers!

Potential singers can easily be put off joining, thinking that they could never do what we do, but most of us started out feeling that way. It’s a bit like the first time you get on a bike: you’ve seen other people do it, but it takes a bit of practice until you get it right! By sheer chance, one of our choristers wrote a little piece about joining the choir, which is reproduced below. And in case you were wondering, the author is a baritone!

‘Recruitment is an ongoing challenge for male choirs, and one of the recurring reasons we hear for not joining is “I can’t read music.” In fact neither can around 75% of the Choir, but this hasn’t stopped us from being one of the best male choirs in the UK. Since most of us don’t read music, you don’t need to either. All that is required is a love of singing, the willingness to attend rehearsals and the need to put effort into learning the songs.

Another thing we often hear when we talk to guys about joining us is “I can’t sing.” Almost everyone can sing, and there are lots of ways our chorister development programme can help you. It’s a misconception that singing excellence is a prerequisite for joining. We don’t expect you to sing like Pavarotti: we just want people who can sing in tune with a bunch of others, learn some words and do what the Music Director asks them to do – for example “don’t sing too loudly.”

In fact, even if you can’t sing well, you can join our 2nd Tenors. (NB this is a joke and illustrates the eternal banter between sections!) Having made that clear…..

Q. If you threw a pianist and a second tenor off a cliff, which one would hit the ground first?
A. The pianist. The second tenor would have to stop halfway down to ask directions.

Q. Why must you never leave second tenors out on their own?
A. They can never find the key and they always come in late.

So if, like us you take your singing seriously, but yourself less so, and
want to sing with like-minded individuals in one of the most successful male choirs in the UK and have a riot whilst doing so, why not give us a call? After all, what’s the worst that could happen (apart from joining the second tenors!)’

Continue reading “Memory and Banter!”

New term, new challenges!

The Wessex Male Choir is just starting a new exciting season and is looking for good singers!

Well, we’re off to a great start for our 2017/2018 Season, lots of exciting new repertoire, some new members, a new chairman, and a new principal accompanist!  At our first rehearsal we managed a complete sing-through in four-parts of the wonderful ‘And Can It be?’ arranged by Dan Forrest.   What a fabulous piece of music it is.

We’re always keen to hear from men who are interested in singing with the Wessex, and of course we run a number of recruiting events every year.  We kicked off this year with a small group of choristers singing in some of the pubs in Royal Wootton Bassett.  We sang about half a dozen songs in the Five Bells, The Cross Keys, The Crown, and the Angel, before finally heading off to the Ganges Restaurant for a good curry.   We received lots of wonderful feedback from the audiences, and hopefully, some of the men who heard us will try to get along to our rehearsal venue at the Church of Christ the Servant, Abbey Meads, Swindon (SN25 4YX).  We meet every Tuesday evening from 7.30pm-9.30pm and we would be delighted to welcome any chap who wants to find out more about the Choir.   There’s no obligation to join, just come along and listen. chat to us, and join in if you feel like it!  We’re a very sociable bunch, so you can always join us for a beer and chat afterwards in the pub next door if you prefer!

1.jpgSome of the chaps enjoying a song in the Angel, Royal Wootton Bassett, on 2 September, as part of the recruiting drive.

We’re going to be busy in September preparing for our first concert of the season which is at the Methodist Church in Cirencester on Saturday 7th October.   The concert is a fundraiser for the Royal British Legion.  We suffered a bit of a set-back this week because the Welsh Male Voice Choir that should have been coming to take part in the concert has pulled out, but we’ll still have a great programme featuring both the Wessex Male Choir main choir and our very accomplished Chamber Group.  A week after that we’ll be in Lechlade, singing in a concert in aid of the Village Hall Appeal.   Details of both concerts and how to get tickets are available on our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk 

21432770_1152848664848434_4167066721726621310_n.jpgNow is a great time to join the Choir:  we’re learning new songs, so everyone is in the same boat!

We’re very pleased to welcome on board Tom Graff who has started as our new principal accompanist.  We also have a new Chairman, Simon Warren, who has taken over from Guy Edwards (who remains as part of the choir’s management group, but fancied a change of portfolio!).  We’re all looking forward to the new season immensely and know that our brilliant musical director, Rhiannon Williams-Hale, will be working us hard.  Over the summer, we also welcomed renowned British composer and TV & Radio Presenter, Howard Goodall, as our second patron alongside Aled Jones.

If you sing already in a community choir or other singing group, but you’re ready to step up to something more exciting, then please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!