There is no I in Tim

There are lots of different ways to lead a choir (or to lead in other areas of life, too). These are some thoughts about the approach I take, and how that manifests itself in what we do as a choir.

To me, the absolute most important thing about leading a choir is putting the singers at the heart of what we do. When it comes to responsibility for the choir’s successes and failures, I have a simply philosophy: if the choir succeeds, it’s because of the whole team; if the choir fails, it’s down to me. No-one in the choir should feel that their actions could lead to the choir failing – I’m the safety net to prevent people having to take that responsibility. When singers know that this safety net is always there, they feel free to experiment, to take risks, and to explore the edge of what’s possible.

As a simple example of this, take a look at the system BeVox uses for selecting the repertoire for each season (and hence for each set of concerts at the end of each season). Every singer in the choir is able to suggest songs, and every suggestion is taken seriously. This means that people can suggest whatever they want, without worrying about whether it will work or not, whether it will fit within a programme or not, or whether it will be popular or not. All these suggestions go into a big melting pot, and I have the responsibility for picking songs from those suggestions and building a programme from them. If the songs for a particular season are well-received, the team as a whole can take credit – the singers for suggesting the songs, and me for picking a good combination. If the programme doesn’t go down well (and this has happened once or twice), the only person who has to take responsibility for that is me. It’s not the fault of the singers who suggested the songs – they could well have worked if they’d been put into a different programme. If we succeed, it’s down to all of us – if we fail, it’s down to me.

Another example of this can be seen in my approach to singing from memory. I encourage singers to try to sing from memory whenever possible (although it’s only a requirement for our “big events”, and people can use their sheet music for smaller events). I see it as my job to help people get to the point where they can take that leap of faith and put their book down – and then it’s my responsibility to give them as much help and support as I can so that they feel confident singing from memory. This is why I mouth all the words, all the time. It’s why I give really big cues for when each voice part is about to come in. If one voice part is singing “Ooo” whilst another is singing lyrics, I’ll be mouthing the lyrics whilst making a circle with the fingers of the hand I’m conducting with, so there’s always a clear cue to show what’s happening. It’s my job to give singers as many tools to succeed as I can – and if the whole thing falls to pieces, that’s my fault, as this can only happen if I’ve asked people to do more than they’re capable of, or not provided them with sufficient support to enable them to achieve their potential.

The only way that it’s possible to take this approach is by shedding any hint of ego. If I had an ego about my work, it would get in the way of this philosophy – not just because I’d want to take credit for our successes, but also because I’d struggle to take responsibility for all our failures. One of our singers recently summed this up with a great quote: “Despite the spelling, there is no I in Tim!”.

Please don’t think that this makes me some kind of martyr though, constantly taking the blame for our mistakes and passing responsibility for our triumphs onto others. The approach that I take gives me the deepest possible sense of fulfilment. Seeing what a difference this approach makes to people’s lives is a source of constant joy for me, and I get a huge personal kick out of seeing singers achieve things they didn’t think they were capable of. No approach to leadership is sustainable if there isn’t something in it for the leader too – it’s just that I get my kicks from seeing other people flourish, not from basking in the limelight myself!

If you’ve seen BeVox in concert, you’ll have seen me very much front and centre. I conduct the choir, I talk to the audience between songs, I accompany soloists on the piano, and I’ve even been known to sing too (as a soloist, or in duets or ensembles with other singers). If I had a different mindset, if I let ego creep into things, it would be very easy for BeVox concerts to become “The Timothy Allen Show”. But I don’t think anyone would come away from one of our performances thinking that it was all about me (at least, I hope they wouldn’t!). There are a few things that I do, very deliberately, that show the audience that the stars of the show are the singers. They are small things, but I think they make a difference. One of the subtlest of these things is the order in which people bow at the end of the concert. In many choirs, where the conductor has brought their ego with them, they will bow first, and often several times, before they acknowledge the choir. And in a lot of cases, that’s all the choir get – an acknowledgement. With BeVox, the first and second bows are taken by the choir. That’s who the audience have come to see – not me. I will take a bow, to thank the audience for their applause and to acknowledge my part in the success of the performance, but that comes after the choir’s bows – always.

Wherever possible, as the choir leave the stage, I’ll be there congratulating them on their performance – often in the wings, or on a staircase between the stage and the dressing rooms. And then, whilst the choir are backstage, enjoying their success, I’ll be back on the stage again, starting to pack away our equipment. It’s a funny thing, but I take great satisfaction in packing away the PA gear, the piano, the microphones, the cables and mixing desk etc at the end of a concert. It reminds me that I’m just a cog in the machine, no more or less important than anyone else on the stage.

This philosophy can be misunderstood as weakness. In our current society, having strong views and imposing them on others is often seen as strength, which makes a more collaborative approach appear weaker by comparison. I do have a very clear vision of what I want the choir to be, but this is a vision of the processes we’ll use, not the end result we’ll achieve. It’s also a vision informed by feedback from our singers and audience members. Note that this is only “informed by”, not “dictated by” – I do take the views of singers very seriously, but if they would take the choir in a direction that I don’t think is in the whole choir’s best interests, I won’t stray from our course (there’s that safety net again…). Anytime that a singers makes a suggestion, I’ll always thank them for it – and either incorporate it into our future plans, or explain why I’m not able (or willing) to. This means that every singer has a voice in the choir – not just a singing voice, but a personal voice too – whilst at the same time, they can exercise that voice in a safe space, secure in the knowledge that the responsibility for keeping the choir successful is mine.

In future posts, I’d like to explore some of the consequences of running the choir with this philosophy. It can be really empowering for people, and make a fundamental difference to their lives, way beyond just the singing. At the same time, it can have its dangers too, and if people don’t truly “get” where we’re coming from, they can struggle with the freedom our approach brings. And, to be completely frank, it poses challenges for me too – there is a delicate balancing act between BeVox the choir, BeVox the community, and BeVox the company, and navigating a sensible course between these three poles isn’t always easy.

Venue change, Lincoln, 26th April and 3rd May

For our first two sessions of the Summer season in Lincoln, we will be in the Gym at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School, rather than our usual venue of the Main Hall. This is because the Main Hall is in use by the school. We will put signs up around the school to direct people towards the gym. We recommend that you use the main car park entrance to the school, then turn immediately left – there is a gate at the end of the main car park, which leads to a parking area outside the gym. If there are any difficulties with this, park in the main car park (with the big arches outside), and walk around to the left-hand side of the school – or just follow our signs!

We’ll be back in our usual venue of the Main Hall for the third session, on 10th May.

That was the night – actually, several of them!

We’ve had three absolutely fantastic concerts in the last week. On Wednesday, the first concert of the season was Lincoln’s end of season at the EPIC Centre, Lincolnshire Showground. I think the event lived up to the venue’s name! It was great to share this music with an audience – and what an audience! A very appreciative crowd indeed – over 220 of them – and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy the whole show. We had some fantastic comments from people afterwards, and it was clear that everyone on stage had had a blast too.

The next day we were up in Sheffield for the end of season concert at The Springs Academy, where we’d sold out of tickets a week before the show. The atmosphere was electric, the singing was superb, and the camaraderie between the singers as evident as ever.

Then it was “Tonight’s The Night” – our big concert for this season, at Nottingham’s Albert Hall. What a night that turned out to be! I genuinely believe it’s one of the best concerts we’ve done. Everyone on stage gave their all, and it resulted in a really inspiring performance. I think we went through pretty much every emotion – the fun of “Pack up” to the passion of “All of me”, the desolation of “Mad world” to the rollercoaster that is the “Jesus Christ Superstar medley”. And of course we brought the sounds of Africa to Nottingham with a phenomenal rendition of “Africa”.

The whole day was an absolute joy for me. What can I say – I love working with you all! The relationship between a conductor and a choir is a special one, and I felt overwhelmed by the closeness of that relationship on Saturday. I received a lovely piece of feedback from an audience member on Sunday, which I’ve reproduced below (with permission):

There’s a clear passionate connection between Tim and his choir. It can be seen in the energy that flows between the two. It’s not a conductor with a group of singers, it’s people sharing a passion together. A deep love of music that reveals itself in the performance. The group makes you feel part of them as the music fills your soul. Well worth travelling to wherever they are singing!

We had our erstwhile unofficial videographer in the audience again (Tony Evans, the husband of one of our sopranos), so if you want to see how any of it looked, check out his YouTube channel here.

Dylan, my good friend and long-time musical collaborator, recorded the show from the sound desk, so we’ll be looking at whether we can make any of that available to people too.

That’s not the end of this run of concerts – we’re closing the Inner Wheel’s annual conference at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham on Wednesday, then appearing in two charity fund-raising concerts on Friday and Saturday, organised by Doris Stubbs on behalf of the village of Rywanyana in Uganda on Friday, and by Sue Humphrey and Jane Trotman on behalf of Go Make A Difference Tanzania and The Brain Tumour Charity on Saturday. For full details, see our website.

We’re looking forward to getting back into sessions again at the end of April, and then we’ll be performing again in June and July. We’re also going to be recording our second CD in July, so watch this space for more details of how you can get a copy!

Venue change, Sheffield, March 9th and March 16th 2017

We’ll be using an alternative venue for our sessions on March 9th and March 16th in Sheffield, as Sheffield Springs isn’t available on those dates. We’ll be at Newfield Secondary School, Lees Hall Road, Sheffield S8 9JP. Timings are as usual. We’ll be back to the Springs for our final session of the season on 23rd March, before the end of season concert on 30th March.

Date change, 2017 Spring season, Week 3, Sheffield

Our third weekly session for Sheffield in the Spring season will take place on a different date to usual. There will be no session on Thursday 19th January – instead, this session will take place on Monday 23rd January. The session will still be at our usual venue, Sheffield Springs Academy.

Apologies for this change of date. It is to accommodate our appearance in the filming of a forthcoming episode of the BBC’s “Songs of Praise”.

Venue change, Sheffield, Thursday 17th November 2016

We’re using a different venue for this week’s session in Sheffield, as the Springs Academy isn’t available. We’ll be at Westfield Sports Centre, Eckington Rd, Sothall, Sheffield S20 1HQ. This is just down the road from the Crystal Peaks shopping centre.
When you arrive at the school, the entrance from the road takes you into the Upper car park. Drive through this and follow the signs for the Lower car park. You can park in the Lower car park. The entrance we’ll be using is in the far corner of the Lower car park – marked as an entrance for the Leisure Centre. Once you’re inside the building, the staff at reception will guide you towards the Hall, where we’ll run the session. It is on the 1st floor, but there is a lift available for people with mobility issues.
We look forward to seeing you there!

BeVox Summer Picnic 2016

To round off the BeVox year in style, we had a picnic at Clumber Park today. It was a really great experience – sharing good food and good company with so many members of the BeVox community. We had everything from fun games (Frisbee, hula-hooping, bubble-blowing), to a sneaky peek at next season’s songs. That was particularly funny as it happened – the expressions on the faces of the other families around the park was priceless when the “Christmas: Impossible!” medley started blaring out! It was also really lovely to see how many “supporters” had joined us – the husbands, wives, children, and friends that are just as much a part of BeVox as the singers are. We recognise that being a family member of a BeVox singer can require a little patience occasionally, so it’s great to share the fun with everyone together.

The BeVox Summer Picnic 2016, Clumber Park
The BeVox Summer Picnic 2016, Clumber Park

Of course, this wasn’t just our summer picnic – we were also celebrating my Dad (Rob)’s 70th birthday. It was lovely to have several members of my family sharing the fun with us all – my brother Dan and his partner Sam, my Mum and Dad, my Grandma Joy and Uncle Phil. The birthday boy had a really incredible day, and I was very touched when he told everyone assembled that it was great to spend the day surrounded by so many new friends. Toni made him a birthday cake, which was admired by all!

The birthday boy - my Dad on his 70th birthday at the BeVox Summer Picnic
The birthday boy – my Dad on his 70th birthday at the BeVox Summer Picnic
The cake that Toni made for Rob's 70th birthday
The cake that Toni made for Rob’s 70th birthday

Quite a large number of us had taken my brother Dan up on his offer of preparing food for the picnic, rather than bringing our own. Boy, what a spread he brought! I’m very lucky to have such a talented and accomplished chef for a brother – the only reason why I’m not twice my size is because he lives so far away! The comments from everyone who sampled his food were that it was really first-rate – I overhead one of our singers telling Dan that the trifle he prepared for dessert was the best pudding he’d had in years.

Smoked salmon for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of "Gravy & Custard"
Smoked salmon for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of “Gravy & Custard”
3-day roast pastrami for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of "Gravy & Custard"
3-day roast pastrami for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of “Gravy & Custard”

After we were all stuffed from the food, a good number of us strolled over to the beautiful chapel in the grounds of Clumber Park, where we had planned to have a bit of a sing. Technical gremlins forced us to be creative, as all the backing tracks seemed to have flown from my phone – so we sang a number of songs a capella. This was quite a different challenge, as most of our songs really aren’t designed to be sung without accompaniment, and the end result was… variable – but huge fun regardless, and when it worked, it really worked!

All in all, the day was a fantastic chance for us to celebrate what BeVox is really about – the people that make up our incredible community. It was about friendship, fellowship, and coming together. We had an absolute blast – so much so that we’ve decided that this needs to be an annual event. We’ve spoken to the people at the National Trust who look after us whenever we perform at Clumber Park, and they are very happy for us to return every summer, so today can now be referred to as the inaugural BeVox Annual Summer Picnic!

The start of Evolution

For a long time, I’ve wanted to do more than I currently do with BeVox. I love everything we do with the choir, but there are natural limitations to the musical standards that it’s possible to achieve with a non-auditioned, amateur community choir. A few years ago, I thought the answer was to start a separate, professional ensemble. I tried that for a year, and it didn’t work out. Ever since, I’ve been trying out different ideas in my head about how I could scratch this musical itch. It was only at the beginning of this year that I realised why I couldn’t find an answer – I was looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If I wanted to work on higher musical standards, I needed to do that within the context of BeVox, not separately from it. I needed to work out how to do that without compromising on the open-access nature of the choir, as it’s so important for BeVox to remain open and welcoming to those who may not have sung before. At the same time, there was a real opportunity to offer something more to those people who were ready to take the next step – to begin a gradual process that would improve the musical standards of the whole choir by offering additional training and insights to those who wanted them, and were ready for them. It was time for Evolution.

It took a while to work out exactly how this process would work, and as with every transformative process, it’s still a work in progress. It has already changed in response to feedback from within the choir. One of the most important aspects of what we’re trying to achieve is that it mustn’t create an “us and them” situation, where people who aren’t part of Evolution feel like they’re missing out or being left behind. Everything we do with Evolution needs to be for the good of the whole choir, not just the people involved in Evolution. There are lots of things we’ve put in place to make sure this happens – not least, the process of teaching more advanced techniques and skills to the Evolution group will help me develop my ability to teach at this level, which I can then start to feed into the choir as a whole. The whole thing is very much about learning together, and sharing the fruits of that learning with everyone. As the idea has grown over the last few months, I’ve been more and more excited about it. Yesterday, we held our initial workshop – the first time people could try out what we’re offering with Evolution, see if it was something they wanted, and see if they were ready to work at this more focussed intensity. The results were thrilling.

We had nearly sixty singers at the workshop – more than I’d initially thought would be interested, and that was exciting in itself. A lot of them were very nervous about what they’d be asked to do. I’d asked everyone to learn and memorise three songs specifically for the workshop, so we could focus just on the techniques I wanted to teach, and not spend time learning the notes. People were aware that, if I didn’t think they were ready for Evolution, they might not “get in”, and for some people that was a real worry. No-one needed to worry though – it became clear during the course of the workshop that everyone there was ready to work at the level I was expecting, so I was able to let everyone know on the spot that they could be a part of Evolution if they chose to. I think the sense of relief in the room at that point was palpable!

It was really rewarding to be able to focus on some detailed bits of technique during the workshop. We took the songs to a new level, even just within a single afternoon. It was also a fantastic opportunity for me to identify what further work we can do – even though the songs we worked on became a lot stronger during the workshop, I could see just how much stronger they could still become. I’m really excited about developing the content of the coming sessions so we can really hone those songs, and our collective technique, to the point that they’ve achieved their full potential. It’s going to be an amazing journey, and I’m absolutely buzzing about taking the next step.

Onwards and upwards

It’s been a long time since I lasted posted a blog – too long! Here’s a quick update of what’s happening with the choir.

Our Spring season, running January to April, went really well – lots of good singing, great concerts, and fun times had together. The concerts at the end of the season got fantastic comments from audience members, and a number of people who had never seen BeVox before spoke to us about just how impressive the whole experience was. We’ve got a number of new recruits for the Summer season – people who saw us perform and thought, “I want to be a part of that!”.

We also continued doing events that support various different charities, and as a result of this work, the total amount that we’ve helped to raise since we started has now exceeded £55,000 – something we’re very proud of.

We got off to a slightly bumpy start to the Summer season in Lincoln, as we were stranded on the A1 and couldn’t make it down for the first session of the season – we’re really looking forward to getting things kicked off properly in Lincoln next week. Everywhere else, it was great to be back together and making a joyous noise. The music for this season is such fun to sing, and it was sounding pretty fantastic after just one session – I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like at the end of the season!

Our “big concert” this season is “The BeVox Show”, at Leeds Town Hall, on Sunday 24th July – 4pm. Tickets are on sale already, from the Leeds Town Hall box office – you can get them by calling 0113 376 0318, or you can book online at www.leeds.gov.uk/townhall

We’re launching a new initiative this month – BeVox Evolution. This is a chance for us to raise the musical standards of the choir still further, by offering additional training to those who want it and are ready for it. You can find out more about this at www.bevox.co.uk/evolution

We’re working on several really exciting projects for later in the year too – we’re very close to being able to announce the details of our big concert in December, and we have a number of other special events that are in the pipeline. We’ll release more information once everything is confirmed. Until then, take care, and have fun!

Nottingham sessions affected by the football

We love singing at our usual session venue in Nottingham, the West Bridgford Methodist Church. It’s a great venue to sing in, with really good acoustics, and the people that run it are incredibly friendly and helpful. It does have two related downsides though – parking isn’t always easy, and as the church is just down the road from Nottingham Forest’s football ground, parking becomes a serious issue on match days. Last night was one of those occasions, and I know there were some choir members who drove around for half an hour trying to find somewhere to park, and ended up giving up and going home again! Obviously this isn’t ideal, but sadly there’s not a lot we can do about it, except to publicise the dates when parking is likely to be a bigger problem than usual, and encourage people to come early if they can on those dates.

There are only two more dates we’re currently aware of when Forest are playing at home whilst we have a session. These are:

  • 26th January (Week 4 of Spring season)
  • 8th March (Week 10 of Spring season)

You can find the complete list of Forest’s fixtures here, which might be useful for the future.