Our approach to learning

I’ve always been passionate about learning. I think it’s one of the most important things we can do as human beings – acquire new knowledge, new skills, and hone what we do until we’re the best at it that we can be. Why settle for anything less?

I’m also fascinated by the ways in which we learn. Since we started BeVox back in 2010, I’ve experimented with different ways of working with the choir in order for us to learn – not just learning the music, but learning how to sing, how to perform, how to do everything we do. We’ve gone from a very “director-led” approach, where I taught every note to every part by rote, to a far more “singer-led” approach, where everyone learns the material themselves but turns to me to help when they’re struggling. I’m moving more and more down this route this season, and I’d like to explain a) what the end goal looks like, and b) why I’m heading there.

The model I’d like us, as a choir, to be working towards is fairly simple. We provide learning materials for the people who sing with us – sheet music and rehearsal tracks. For singers who aren’t completely new to us, these materials are available before the season even starts – sometimes as much as a month in advance. Right at the beginning of the season (or a little earlier if possible), I provide a “session plan” – showing which songs we’ll cover in each week of the season. In the first few sessions of the season, I’ll teach the songs using a “if you think you know how it goes, sing it, otherwise, listen to it being sung” approach. This enables people who can sight-read the music, or who have downloaded their rehearsal tracks in advance and done some work on the songs, to get stuck in straight away, whilst not leaving behind those who have joined us new and so haven’t had chance to look at the songs in advance.

After the first few weeks, when we no longer accept new singers, we move to a slightly different approach. Singers can learn the music themselves, using the rehearsal materials we provide (sheet music and rehearsal tracks). They come to the sessions with a reasonable knowledge of the song we’re about to start working on. In the session, we concentrate on putting the song together – singing one part against another, adding dynamics, phrasing, working on a blended sound, getting the right sound for the song etc. We can do more technique work too, applying vocal techniques to the songs we’re working on as the need for them becomes apparent.

A vital component of this process is for it to be “singer-led”. As we get to the point where singers are learning the music themselves, it’s really important that they are reflective about this – that they’re sufficiently engaged with the process to realise which bits they might need some extra help with. They can then come to the sessions armed with that knowledge, and begin by asking me for the help they need. This focusses our work in the sessions on the bits that actually need work, rather than spending time going over things that everyone has already got sorted out.

This will take a bit of a mental gear-shift from all of us. Our singers’ involvement in the process will be more active, and they will need to be engaged with their own learning. There’s a difference between having the CD on in the car and having a bit of a sing along with it, compared to focussing on learning the music (including making notes on which bits you haven’t quite got yet). This approach will ask more of our singers, and require a greater commitment on their part.

In return, there are great benefits to each singer, and to the choir as a whole. In the sessions, we’ll spend a lot less time “note-bashing”. This can be a tedious process (especially if I’m spending a lot of time with one part – all the other parts are not singing during this time, and it’s possible to spend a long time waiting for me to finish working with other parts). Spending more time singing should make the sessions even more fun. It will give greater satisfaction too, as whenever we take more responsibility for something, we get more satisfaction from it when it succeeds. It also means our singers will get the best out of me – the expertise I can bring to bear on shaping a performance to be the best it can be, rather than “just teaching the notes”. And finally, the standard of performance we give will improve as a result of all these things.

All of this stems from a fundamental belief I have about striving for excellence. As a leader, if I have low expectations of the people I’m working with, we will only ever meet them. If I have high expectations but don’t provide the necessary support, we are likely to fail. But if I have high expectations, and provide the necessary tools to support people striving for those expectations, we will soar. It isn’t always easy, and it takes hard work and commitment from everyone involved – but the result is something we can all be incredibly proud of.

Venue change, Lincoln, 19th September 2018

We’ve just been told that tonight’s session in Lincoln will be in the Old Hall, not the Main Hall. Use the main entrance to the school car park, around the front, and then go through the door in the middle of the big arches. Carry straight on and you’ll find the Old Hall. We’ll put signs up to guide you, and if you get lost, call my mobile (if you don’t have it, I’ll put it in the email I’m about to send to everyone in Lincoln!).

It’s not a mystery any more!

Yesterday was our Musical Mystery Tour – and what a day it was! Toni and I had been so excited (and nervous!) about the plans we’d made, and it was simply incredible to be there and see them all becoming real. It was a truly special day, in so many ways.

Overview

Here’s a quick breakdown of what actually happened:

  • Two different coaches picked up our guests from four different locations, and took different routes to our first destination – the Seacombe ferry terminal on the Wirral side of the Mersey
  • Everyone boarded the ferry and had a guided tour of the Mersey, ending at Pier Head ferry terminal in Liverpool
  • We sang “Ferry cross the Mersey” to a very appreciative crowd right outside the ferry terminal
  • We walked to Liverpool ONE shopping centre, where we had lunch
  • At the end of the lunch break, another choir did a flash mob – but then it turned into “Magical Mystery Tour” and we all joined in
  • We went to Liverpool Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral and sang a full concert to a good-sized local audience, with some of the Liverpudlian singers from the flash mob earlier joining the choir
  • We had a celebratory themed banquet in the Lutyens Crypt beneath the cathedral

Trust

Something Toni and I keep coming back to whenever we think about the trip is how much faith everyone had in us. When we first came up with the idea for the trip (inspired by a throwaway comment by my mum), we knew it was a really big ask – we were asking people to trust us to give them a day to remember, without knowing any of the details beforehand – and to pay for the privilege too! No-one will truly know just what an effect it has had on Toni and I, seeing over a hundred people display that level of trust in us. We’ll never take it for granted, and we’re forever grateful for it.

Family

People often refer to BeVox as their “singing family”. I think this is true of most community singing groups – the bonds formed when people sing together are so strong, and BeVox is no exception. We love to include as many people as we can in our BeVox family, in lots of different ways, and the Mystery Tour certainly did that. We had our singers, from all the different areas we work in, and the friendships and camaraderie between them were a joy to behold, yet again. One of the things we love about our events is that we normally have singers from at least two, if not all three of our different geographical areas, and it’s great to see old friendships being renewed – people who only see each other at the end of each season asking after each other and sharing stories of what has happened in their lives since the last “big concert”.

For the Mystery Tour, we also had a number of guests – friends or family members of our singers, who were coming along for the ride, and to be our audience whenever we sang. We love spending time with the people who like to come and watch us perform – they are as much a part of the choir as those who sing, and everything we do relies on them being there to listen just as much as the singers being there to sing.

BeVox has family at its heart – in its most basic form, it’s run by the family that is Toni and me. My parents are massive supporters of the choir, as many of you know, and having them along as part of the Mystery Tour was very special. We included a bit more of my family too – the catering for our celebratory banquet at the end of the day was provided by Gravy & Custard, the catering firm run by my brother Dan and his partner Sam. I was thrilled to be able to work with them, and I know it made our parents very proud indeed.

We extended the BeVox singing spirit out to a wider family with this event too. We wanted the day to be full of surprises, and one of the most surprising things we can do as a choir is to do a flash mob. We thought about how we could integrate a flash mob into the day without giving anything away to our singers – and hit upon the idea of having ANOTHER choir do a flash mob, with our singers as the unsuspecting audience! So, over the last few months, we advertised and recruited singers from other choirs across Liverpool, and gave them the chance to form a “scratch choir” especially to join us for the Mystery Tour. We put together a “Liverpool medley”, consisting of songs made famous by artists from Liverpool, and rehearsed it in secret, before surprising the BeVox singers with a flash mob just as they were finishing lunch. Of course, we couldn’t resist the opportunity of getting the BeVox singers to join in with the flash mob, so the final song in the medley was our arrangement of “Magical Mystery Tour” – everyone entered into the spirit and joined in, essentially doing a flash mob without realising they were going to do one!

We were thrilled that the Liverpool singers wanted to play as big a part in the event as they could, so a significant number of them learnt our whole summer programme (in just two rehearsals!), and joined us for our big concert that afternoon – singing in the incredible setting of Liverpool Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral. The sound of 145 voices singing in that incredible building will stay with me for a very, very long time.

Charity

We thought it would be a great shame to put on a concert at the Cathedral and not use it as an opportunity to help support charitable causes in Liverpool, so we reached out to some Liverpudlian friends of ours to find out which charities would be dear to the hearts of a local audience. We then collected donations as part of our concert in the cathedral – and many of our singers generously donated too. As a result, we’ve raised £1,030, which we’ll split equally between Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and Sunflowers, a charity supporting cancer patients in Merseyside.

Feedback

Comments we’ve had from people who took part in the Mystery Tour have been overwhelming. Below are a few quotes to give you a flavour of how much fun we all had:

“What an amazing day yesterday in Liverpool. Huge thanks to BeVox for a fantastic experience being part of the flash mob and the scratch choir at the concert at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Everyone made us so welcome. Great experience and can’t wait to do it again.” – Julie, Liverpool singer

“What a wonderful day. A massive thank you to Tim and Toni for organising the whole day. A massive thank you to all the Liverpool singers who made our day so brilliant. Thank you, thank you!” – Anne, BeVox singer

“Thank you so much for a brilliant musical mystery tour. It was a fabulous day and your imagination, organisation and attention to detail was amazing and made the day so very special. The fantastic performance venue came as a complete surprise and certainly brought the ‘magical’ into the mystery tour. The impromptu flash mob was another highlight and as for the banquet, it was fantastic in terms of both the venue and the food.” – Sue, BeVox singer

“Just wanted to say a great big thank you to you both for such an amazing day yesterday! It was an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world.  The flash mob was such fun and we were so lucky with the weather! Singing in the cathedral was a wonderful experience especially with so many great voices. It was very emotional. The banquet was a splendid way to round the whole day off. The food was absolutely delicious. It was lovely sitting and chatting to members of your choirs and sharing our musical stories!” – Gill, Liverpool singer

“Thank you so much for an unforgettable day in Liverpool yesterday. Fantastic surprises – much hilarity as usual – I had a wonderful time. Thank you for providing me with some opportunities and experiences I couldn’t have imagined having.” – Jill, BeVox singer

“It was a really phenomenal day, can’t remember when I last had a day that made so many memories! Every second was a joy; being flash-mobbed and  working with local singers was a master stroke – a real surprise in a day of surprises- even the weather knew it had to do its bit!!! As for singing in the cathedral- well, words fail me. To sing there was absolutely awesome, so special – goosebumps and even feeling a little bit tearful! The banquet was glorious- Dan’s food was absolutely delicious, and our table comprised entertaining and interesting new friends.  We had a ball!” – Lyn, BeVox singer

Videos

I’m collecting together as many videos of the various bits of the day as I can find and putting them all into one playlist on the BeVox YouTube channel. There are various other videos on Facebook, but they aren’t always publicly available – below is a link to everything I’ve currently found and have access to. I’ll continue to update this as I find more videos out there!

Musical Mystery Tour playlist

And finally…

As a number of people have commented, it took a lot of work and organisation to make a day like yesterday run so smoothly. Toni and I are both done in – but it was so worth it! We do love creating unique and unusual events – and we’re looking forward to our next one already…

Road closures near Rushcliffe School

We’ve just been notified that there are some road closures around Rushcliffe School tonight – access to the school is still possible, but you may need to take an alternative route. The map provided by Severn Trent Water is below:

Boundary Rd, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 7BZ, UK 6447187

It looks like the closure is on Boundary Road, between the entrance to the school and the exit – therefore, access from the Melton Road side looks possible, but it may not be possible to enter from the Loughborough Road side. We’d recommend approaching from the Melton Road end of Boundary Road to be sure.

Behind the scenes at BeVox: A week in the life (episode 3)

Part One of this post is here
Part Two of this post is here

Part Three: Mid-week – Session days

Tuesday 29th May: Backups, admin, Nottingham session

Up at 8:15am today, which is a little early for me, but I was awake so thought I ought to get up and get on with things. I’d had a minor nightmare about my computer crashing and deleting everything I’ve ever written, and it got me thinking about how I back up my work. Before I got my audio PC, all my data was stored on one computer, and I backed it up periodically to an external hard drive. I have to confess I didn’t do this as regularly as I should, and occasionally this caused problems. Since getting the new audio PC, I tried a different strategy for backing my data up, but it was quite a bit of faff, and I’d fallen out of the habit of backing up regularly. I took the hint from my mini-nightmare, and spent a little while researching good backup tools. Around 9am, I took the plunge and bought a license for an online backup system (Backblaze), installed it, and set it to work backing up all the data on my audio PC. It will take a few days for it to copy everything onto its remote servers, but at least then I can just let it run in the background, rather than having to remember to run a backup process regularly.

I got a call from our Nottingham venue around 9:30am, letting me know that the electrical work they’d scheduled for today had hit a problem, and there was not going to be any power in the main building for our session that evening. They’d let us know this was a possibility last week, and they had a contingency plan in place, which is what I’d emailed our Nottingham singers about the previous night. The plan was for the session to be moved to the Sixth Form Centre, rather than our usual room – apparently this might be a bit more “cosy”, but should still work for us. We’ll see how it pans out!

I went through the notes we took at our business meeting the day before so I could prioritise my “to do” list. There were some admin jobs that needed doing, such as working out the timings for the soloist auditions and sending them to people who were auditioning, and following up on some details with some of our suppliers for our Musical Mystery Tour event. These took me through to about 11am, then I went back to playing in the orchestral parts for the Les Mis medley. I finished the final pass of the string parts at 2pm, so took a break for lunch.

After lunch, I replied to a few emails, then jumped in the shower before heading off for the Nottingham session. We left the house at 3:45pm – a little earlier than usual, but that was to give us time to sort out putting up signposts at our Nottingham venue to direct people to our alternative location, and to sort out the seating. We got to the venue at 5:45pm, and spent 45 minutes getting everything ready, then the usual half-hour welcoming people and signing them in. The session ran 7pm to 9pm, and it was a tough one – the alternative venue was challenging to sing in, with poor acoustics and an amount of background noise, plus half-term meant we had lower attendance than usual. Everyone there put as much into it as they could, and we got some really useful work done, but it was still a hard session for everyone. We packed up and hit the road home by about 9:20pm, which meant we got home at 10:40pm. We were both tired, but also hungry, so we made some dinner and got to bed a little after midnight.

Wednesday 30th May: Admin, software update, Lincoln session

I was up and working by 11, and when I got up, I saw two Facebook posts on my phone that prompted action – one was from the husband of one of our singers, who had seen that a Classic Car Show had changed the date of their visit to Clumber Park, and it now coincided with our concert in the Chapel at Clumber Park. They’re expecting 10,000 visitors to the car show, so that could easily have an impact on our concert. I emailed our contact at the National Trust to see what we needed to do to ensure our concert would still run smoothly. The other thing I spotted on Facebook was that my music notation software, Dorico, had just been updated to version 2.0. This was exciting news – I hadn’t been expecting an update until the autumn, and there was an amount of new functionality included that I was waiting for. I paid the upgrade fee, downloaded it and installed it as soon as possible! The next hour or so was spent familiarising myself with some of the new features – just the ones that will be immediately useful to me, initially, although I’ll want to spend a significant amount of time exploring some of the other things when I have some “free time” (whatever that is!).

There was more admin to cover next, with a couple of people kindly volunteering to step down from concerts where we had an imbalance of voice parts. I allocated their places to singers on the reserve list, which moves those events closer to being well-balanced, and emailed the singers who had now got places on the events to tell them. I’d received a couple of invoices that needed paying, so I processed those, including logging all the details on our internal financial system so we can include the figures in our reporting to HMRC. My accountant had been in touch, reminding me we hadn’t paid his last invoice yet (oops!), so I quickly sent that payment too.

Lunch was calling at 2:45pm, so I stopped work on the admin. Straight after lunch I had a quick shower before we left for the Lincoln session at 4:30pm, getting to Lincoln at 6pm to set up, welcome everyone, and run the session from 7pm to 9pm. It was a good night, with everyone in fine humour! We were packed up by 9:15pm, but then we headed over to the local Tesco to do our weekly food shop (I know it sounds daft, but we like to do this after the session in Lincoln on a Wednesday night – it’s a better-stocked store than our local one, and it’s quiet at that time of night – plus it’s about the only point in the week when we can make the time to actually do some shopping!). Whilst Toni nipped round the shop, I took the opportunity to call my mum and dad for a catch-up. We were home for 11.15pm, and made a quick dinner which we ate in front of the telly. I had a few bits I wanted to catch up on after dinner – mainly reading more details about the new update to Dorico – so I eventually went to bed at 2.45am.

Thursday 31st May: Admin, backing tracks, Sheffield session

I was up and ready to go at 10:30am. I had some more admin to do first of all – various emails to send, and people to chase up. I also finished off the articles I’d been reading the previous night about Dorico – there’s a lot of new functionality in the upgrade, and it takes time to learn how to use it. By noon, I was ready for something more creative, so I went back to the Les Mis backing track. I’d earmarked Friday for writing my final Christmas arrangement (always good to have an uninterrupted day for writing), so I could work on bits and pieces throughout Thursday. I played in the majority of the percussion parts, which were a bit fiddly in places. I got so engrossed in the process, I didn’t surface for lunch until 3:15pm.

After lunch, I checked my emails before heading for the shower. We were on the road by just after 5pm, which got us to the venue at 6pm to set up. The session ran from 7pm to 9pm as usual, and there was some good singing, and a good atmosphere, even though the music was a bit stop/start – doing detailed work on tricky pieces like Scarborough Fair and Solsbury Hill is always tough, as I’m trying to balance the necessity for getting the small details in each part right against the need to keep everyone involved.

We were packed down and out of the venue for 9.15pm, and we went over the road for a quick drink and a bit of socialising with some of the Sheffield singers. We didn’t stay too long – out by 10pm, so we could be home for 10.45pm, in time to make some dinner. After dinner, I went back to my studio to finish off the percussion parts for the Les Mis backing track. I was enjoying the process, so I pushed on to start the brass parts too. I worked on these until 3.30am, then decided to call it a night – the brass parts weren’t quite finished, but I’d made a good start, and I knew I’d just get slower if I kept working when I was starting to get tired. I was planning to spend a good chunk of the following day writing the arrangement and orchestration for the final song in our autumn programme, but I knew I could always swap back to Les Mis if inspiration wasn’t striking. First job for tomorrow though – write the weekly email – which brings us round full circle on the week!

Conclusion

So, there you have it – a week in the life of BeVox, or at least from my perspective. I didn’t get chance to tell you about all the things that Toni got up to in the week, and of course I’m bound to miss a few things when trying to write it all down too. In total, if you include the time travelling to and from sessions, I worked about 74 hours this week – this is fractionally above average, but only by a small amount (last time I checked, I work an average of 71 hours each week). And of course, on top of all the things I’ve written down, I also somehow squeezed in the time to write this 5,000+ word blog series!

Behind the scenes at BeVox: A week in the life (episode 2)

Part One of this post is here

Part Two: Bank Holiday weekend

Saturday 26th May: Mainly non-work related

I was up at 8am, which gave me chance for a shower and a catch-up on the news before I had to leave the house. It’s Toni’s birthday in August, and as it’s a big one (40), I’m planning lots of little surprises for her. I had an appointment to put some of those plans in motion, which kept me out of the house until about 1pm (I took the BeVox van for a quick wash on the way home). After lunch, Toni and I had to deal with an issue that had come in by email, which took a few hours – although this was business-related, it was also a little sensitive, so I’m not going to write about it here. We were both a little deflated by the time we’d dealt with that, so we decided to take the evening off. We’re going on holiday in August, for the first time since our honeymoon three years ago, so we did some planning for that instead!

Sunday 27th May: Rehearsal tracks

We had a bit of a lie-in, and I wasn’t up and working until 10:30am. Our usual daily schedule runs a couple of hours later than most people’s – because we don’t normally get to bed until between 2 and 3 in the morning, we tend to start the day a little later. I got back to fixing and mixing the tracks for our Summer Singing Day, and I had all the tracks done and ready for Toni’s vocals by lunchtime (about 2:15pm). This weekend was the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco, and I like to watch the races if I can, so I spent a few hours over lunch enjoying watching cars going round in circles.

After lunch, I recorded Toni singing most of the alto parts for the Summer Singing Day rehearsal tracks. We worked through until about 7pm, by which point Toni’s voice was getting a little tired, so we stopped – we’d only got one track left to finish, and there was no point pushing Toni’s voice to do this one when we could come back to it the following day. I began fixing and mixing the tracks we’d just recorded. I called it a night around 9:30pm.

Monday 28th May (Bank Holiday): Rehearsal tracks, backing tracks, business meeting

I was determined to finish the rehearsal materials for the Summer Singing Day, so I launched straight into work on the remaining tracks when I got up at 9:45am. I finished all the work I could by 11:30am – I just needed to record Toni’s vocals for the final song, then I could complete the mixing.

For any programme of music we sing as a choir, I have a list of jobs to do, and an order in which they’re usually done.

  1. Choose the songs
  2. Secure permissions to arrange and perform them
  3. Write arrangements for voices
  4. Lay out the sheet music
  5. Record a guide piano part for the rehearsal tracks
  6. Record the vocals for the rehearsal tracks
  7. Tidy up the rehearsal track vocals
  8. Mix the rehearsal tracks
  9. Write orchestrations for the backing tracks
  10. Lay out the sheet music for the orchestrated parts (for an orchestral arrangement, I typically create 4 different pieces of sheet music: 1 for all the woodwind instruments, 1 for all the brass, 1 for percussion, and 1 for strings)
  11. Record each individual instrumental part (using a keyboard to play the part, with the sound being provided by “virtual instruments” – I’ll provide more information on this part of the process in a future blog)
  12. Mix the backing track

In some circumstances, I’m able to change the order of these steps around a little – if we have a song that really relies on the orchestration to be effective, or if I’ve booked our session singers significantly in advance, I can do the final four steps (creating the backing track) before I record the vocals for the rehearsal track, which means I can include the backing track on the rehearsal track rather than using a guide piano part.

For the music we’re singing as part of the Summer Singing Day, I’ve got this whole process to do for 4 out of the 5 songs – as we’ve sung the Les Mis medley before, I don’t have to do new rehearsal tracks or a new backing track… or so you’d think. I’m actually going to create a new backing track for it, because I’ve updated the tools I use to create backing tracks so much since I first created a track for the medley, I can make it sound a LOT better now. I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to backing tracks, and I’m just not happy with the track I previously used now that I know I can improve it. I’m going to do a future blog post showing how I create a backing track, and in that, I’ll do a comparison between the old version and the new version so you can hear the difference.

So, after doing all the work I could on the rehearsal tracks before I recorded Toni’s final vocal, I jumped in to Step 10 of the process for the Les Mis medley – preparing sheet music for the instrumental parts. I’d already written an orchestration, but at the beginning of this year I swapped the software I use to write music on the computer. I’d previously spent around 20 years using Sibelius, but I’ve now swapped to Dorico – a new program, but one that is rapidly becoming the best in its field. I needed to transfer the score for the Les Mis medley from Sibelius to Dorico, then do the “laying out” of the sheet music for the instrumental parts. This is a lot quicker to do in Dorico than it was in Sibelius, but it can still be a bit fiddly. I finished this up around 1:30pm, and took a break for lunch.

After lunch, Toni and I had planned a business meeting. We have these at random intervals, whenever we feel that we need to go through all the different projects we have on the go and get a handle on where we are with each of them. It can be really handy to get an overview of everything we have on our plates, and often results in us passing jobs from one person to the other so that we have a better distribution of the workload. The notes from this meeting were really helpful, and will shape how we work for the next few months. We did a bullet-point list of the jobs we have to do – everything from immediate tasks (send an email to everyone who has signed up for this season in Nottingham with some information about the following day’s session) to jobs that need doing for events that are a year away (our massive event for April 2019). The list ran to four A4 pages!

Once we’d finished the meeting, we recorded Toni’s vocals for “Can you feel the love tonight?” – the final song to be completed for the Summer Singing Day. This didn’t take too long, and afterwards I launched straight into tidying the recording up and mixing it. Once all the mixing was done, I went through and exported the rehearsal tracks for each voice part for each song, then uploaded them to BeVox OnLine. By this point, we had four non-BeVox singers who had signed up to take part in the Summer Singing Day, so I sent them a link to the rehearsal materials too. This took me through to 9pm.

I wanted to make further progress on the Les Mis medley, so I went to print the orchestral parts out – only for my computer to have an argument with me about whether it could “see” our printer or not. The printer lives in Toni’s office, but it’s on our wireless network, so we can print to it from anywhere in the house, in theory. It seems to work fine from all our computers and laptops, except my audio PC (which is where I run Dorico, and so is where I wanted to print the scores from). I spent about half an hour trying lots of different approaches to fix the problem, and in the end, admitted defeat – I exported the scores from Dorico as PDF files, transferred them onto my “admin” computer, and printed them from there! I set up the track ready to start recording the orchestral parts, and began by playing in a good chunk of the string parts (the strings tend to play most of the way through, whereas the other sections of the orchestra have bits of the song where they don’t play much, so it makes sense to get the strings down first). Again, I’ll go into more detail about how this process works in a future blog post, but for now, I’ll just say that I recorded the first pass of the string parts for all the different instruments before calling it a night at 11:30pm – just in time for dinner!

Part Three of this post is here

Behind the scenes at BeVox: A week in the life (episode 1)

I’ve had a few conversations with singers recently who have wanted to know more about what goes into running the choir. Often these conversations have been from people wanting to understand how the music gets put together, but other areas of the choir have come up too, such as how we organise concerts, or simply how much travelling we do. In order to give a little bit of insight into what’s involved in running BeVox, I thought I’d chronicle the events of a random week. As I’m starting to write this, I have no idea what the week ahead will have in store, and whether it will be at all typical or not – I’ll provide some context about that at the end of the week! This only covers the work I’m doing – Toni had her own working week too, which was at least as full as mine.

Part One: Friday

Friday, 25th May 2018: Weekly email, admin, arranging and rehearsal tracks

An unusual start to the day – I woke up at 7am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I thought I may as well come down to the office and get started. One of the great things about working from home is that the morning commute is pretty simple – just walk down a flight of stairs! Toni and I each have our own office room in the house – Toni’s is full of stationary, printers, and storage for paperwork and CDs, whilst mine is my home studio, with keyboards, microphones and other recording equipment. I run two different computers in my office – an old and noisy machine that I do all my admin on, and a high-end, silent PC that handles all the audio. I’ll be moving between both today, as I have some admin jobs to do, plus some work on musical things.

I started the day by writing the weekly email – an email that we send out each week to all our singers who are singing in the current season, containing details of what we’ve covered in this week’s sessions, what we’ll be doing next week, and all the upcoming concerts for the season (and sometimes for events up to a year ahead). We’ve got stuff about the GDPR in this week’s email, along with info on auditioning for solos. There’s also our usual statistics – how many people attended each session this week, and how that compares to trends in previous seasons etc. These statistics are pulled from a reporting tool I wrote, which is connected to BeVox OnLine, our web application – and because Toni hadn’t had chance to process the previous night’s session into BeVox OnLine yet, I left the statistics off the email for now, and saved it as a draft.

Writing the weekly email always highlights other jobs that need doing, and this week was no exception. Looking at the list of forthcoming events, I could see that there were some where the voice part balance wasn’t quite right. I checked the reserve list and found that we had some people of the right voice types to balance the events, and we’d had offers to step down from people in the over-represented voice parts, so I was able to balance these events – thanking the people who had volunteered to step down, and emailing some people on the reserve lists to tell them they now have a place. We’re also opening up our Summer Singing Day to singers from other choirs this week, so I put together the online application form for that, put a page on the main BeVox website with the details, and included a link in the weekly email. (If you sing with another choir and would like to join us, the information is at www.bevox.co.uk/events/summersingingday2018).

I finished the first draft of the weekly email at 10:15am – three hours is a little longer than it normally takes, but not by much. I never send my first draft – Toni gives it a read-through, then we discuss it before it is sent. She often either spots something I’ve missed, or suggest a better wording for something that makes it clearer.

The next three-quarters of an hour was taken up by reading and responding to email. I normally go through my email at least once a day, but often I’ll just flag the emails that require a response and write my responses when I’m not in the middle of musical things. This morning was a chance to respond to a few emails that had been waiting for a day or two.

I switched to my audio computer at 11am, ready to work on some of the music for the Autumn season. I’d set aside part of the day to work on an arrangement of Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”. I have a couple of different approaches I can take to writing an arrangement – sometimes I write out the melody line and accompaniment by listening to the original carefully, a few seconds at a time, and then transcribing it, but today I’d bought a copy of the sheet music for the song, and began by entering that into my notation software (I use a program called Dorico now – I swapped from my previous software, Sibelius, last season). It took about half an hour to input the music, then another half hour to check this against the original recording and make changes. Almost all commercially available sheet music contains simplifications – either bits where the rhythm has been straightened out to make it easier to read, or where little variations of pitch in the singer’s rendition have been removed. I like to start with a version that is absolutely accurate to what the singer originally sang – I very occasionally make small simplifications myself, but generally I like to notate exactly what’s on the original record. Once I’ve got that written down, I can start to arrange it for the choir.

A took a lunch break at 12, and as well as grabbing a bite to eat, Toni and I had a catch up, and watched a bit of telly (another advantage of working from home!). After lunch, I went back to working on my “Merry Xmas Everybody” arrangement. In the middle of that, I had a call from a PR agency asking if we would be able to sing for a product launch they were promoting. After getting all the details, I had to turn it down – they wanted about an hour of music, and the event was in two weeks’ time. We won’t have the full summer programme learnt by then, so we couldn’t help them out. They’re keeping our details on file in case we can work for them in the future.

The interruption took me out of my creative flow, so I did a couple of other little admin jobs – it was the last Friday of the month, and that’s payday for us, so I processed the payroll and submitted our National Insurance and PAYE payments to HMRC. I didn’t want to abandon musical work for the day, so I went back to the audio PC to keep working on the arrangement.

I finished the arrangement of “Merry Xmas Everybody” at about 5:30pm – it was a fairly easy one to write. Listening to the original recording made me spot some backing vocals I’d never really noticed before, so I worked those into the arrangement. Once the writing was done, I reviewed the work I’d done on other songs for the autumn season earlier in the week – it’s often useful for me to go back to things I wrote a few days ago and listen to them with fresh ears. I made a few tweaks, then asked Toni to come in and listen through to everything I’ve written or changed in the last week or so. Toni acts as “quality control” for the arrangements – she’ll often spot something that is a bit clunky or not clear, and get me to go back and have another look at a section. Everything passed muster this time around though, so by 6:30pm I was done with arranging for the day.

I wanted another brief break to clear my head before moving on to the next job for the day, so I spent a little while playing a computer game (Hearthstone, for anyone who’s interested!). I was ready to get back to work by about 7 o’clock, so I opened up my audio recording and mixing software to work on the rehearsal tracks for our Summer Singing Day. We recorded the soprano parts with Eloise at her flat in Twickenham a couple of weeks ago, and I’d recorded the tenor and bass parts myself just prior to that (it wasn’t practical to get together with Alastair, our usual session singer for the tenor and bass parts, this time around, so I sang the lower parts myself). We did the alto part for “I could have danced all night” with Eloise too, but we’re planning to record the other alto parts with Toni over the weekend. I went through the recordings we’d already done, “topping and tailing” (basically, tidying up the bits where we’d recorded some phrases separately to others), then setting up the basic effects processing for each vocal line (every part gets three main effects applied – compression, which makes the quiet bits louder and the loud bits quieter, reverb, which makes it sound like it was recorded in a nice space rather than someone’s front room, and EQ, which prevents high notes sounding harsh and helps lower notes sound warm without lacking detail). I also applied some artificial tuning tools to some of the phrases I sang – I’d recorded them late at night, with a tired voice, and some of the notes were a little flat. I can adjust them back into tune again afterwards, and it’s barely noticeable, but it does mean going through every note I sang and adjusting it manually if it needs it – this can be quite a time-consuming process. It typically takes me about five times as long to fix a single vocal take as it does to sing it, so a four minute song can easily take twenty minutes for each vocal line that needs adjusting. I did all of this, and did a basic mix of the three songs that were waiting for a vocal from Toni. I then did a proper mix of “I could have danced all night”, and exported the rehearsal tracks from that. I stopped work at 10pm, ready to make some dinner.

Part Two of this post is here

Looking back on Spring 2018

We’ve done virtually all of our Spring concerts now – our big “Sounds of the Sixties” event in Sheffield last Saturday, and our end of season concerts in Lincoln on Monday and Nottingham on Wednesday. We still have Hilton Grange coming up, but I thought now was a good time to look back on the season, and the concerts, and reflect.

The season, especially the end

We’ve had an amount of disruption this season, for one reason or another – different venues, the “Beast from the East” etc. Another choir has started in Nottingham, which has attracted a number of people who have previously sung with us, and this (along with the ongoing parking problems at our venue) has led to quite a fall in numbers – which in turn has worried those people who are still singing with us.

I’d just like to say – don’t worry! BeVox is an incredible community, and all of the things that could have brought us down this season have instead only served to make us stronger. The lower numbers in Nottingham haven’t meant that the group has weakened – those people who have been with us this season have raised their game, and the sound has been fantastic. (Oh, and by the way, we’d just like to make it clear that we’re happy for the people who have joined other choirs – we’ve always said that what we really care about is that people are singing, rather than who they’re singing with. It’s important that people sing with a choir that is right for them, and if people have tried another choir and found it suits them better than us, for whatever reason, that’s good – we’re pleased they’re happy! If it doesn’t work out in their new choir, for whatever reason, they’d be welcome back with us too – we wouldn’t want anyone thinking we had any kind of problem with people who have sung with another choir.)

The atmosphere in the sessions during the last week of the season was electric. The problems caused by the snow just spurred people on to give it their all, and I was blown away by the energy and vibrancy of the sound. It was huge fun, and I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Sounds of the Sixties

The big concert at The Octagon was an exhilarating experience. The revised schedule made it a very long day – after I started sound-checking with the band at 10:30am, the next chance I got for a break wasn’t until 6:30pm – I didn’t even get to nip to the loo! All the hard work was made so completely worthwhile by the concert itself though – it was such a buzz. There were some real spine-tingling moments, and a real sense of fun too. Some audience members filmed a few bits, so look out for them on YouTube – “Whiter shade of pale” in particular was fantastically good. Dylan, the drummer from The Magic Mushrooms (and my best mate), did a “behind the scenes” vlog too, which is also on YouTube – a good giggle!

Bravo to everyone who made the show such fun. Remember – I only wave my arms around – it’s the singers who make the sound, so hats off to every one of you. I hope you’re suitably proud of yourselves.

Lincoln end of season concert

Monday saw us in Lincoln for another blast through this season’s music – a near-capacity crowd was thoroughly entertained by the nearly-hundred-strong choir. The reaction during the interval and afterwards was fantastic – a number of people told me it was the best Lincoln end of season concert we’ve done.

Nottingham end of season concert

We were in a new venue for Wednesday’s event, and we had some very positive comments about it – despite the heating being stuck on! It was so warm, Toni even took her jumper off!! We’ll be certain that they’ve fixed that before we return in the summer. The concert itself went very well indeed – I know a few people were concerned about the voice part balance, but actually it worked very well, and people were very sensitive in their singing as they compensated for the slightly uneven number in each part.

A note on dress code

At the end of season concerts, we did notice quite a number of people who weren’t quite within the spirit of the BeVox dress code – tops that were more turquoise than blue, or had significant amounts of white trim etc. We have a dress code so that we present a unified look to our audiences. We want everyone to feel like they’re on the same team – but still give enough latitude within the dress code for people to be comfortable with what they’re wearing. We’d like to ask all our singers to remind themselves of our dress code (www.bevox.co.uk/dresscode), and to stick to it for future events.

The future

We’re putting the finishing touches to the learning materials for next season’s music, and we’re also hard at work on several other events spread across the rest of this year (and into 2019). We’ll be posting more about some of these soon – especially our “Summer singing day” on 18th August, which will be open to all singers, not just members of BeVox. Watch this space for more info!

Snow update – Monday session in Sheffield WILL RUN

We’ve spoken to the school and looked at weather forecasts, and taken the decision that we WILL run tonight’s session at Sheffield Springs Academy. The school is open, and although there is still some disruption to traffic, it seems to be easing. No further snow is forecast. Of course, people should allow extra time for their journeys and drive to the road conditions – stay safe.

We hope to see as many people as can make it – let’s face it, we could all do with a good sing right now!

Snow update – Big rehearsal CANCELLED – 18th March

It is with great regret that we have to cancel today’s big rehearsal in Sheffield. Road conditions are treacherous, and the venue will be closed.

We’ll email everyone later with an update on what we’re going to do – there’s no time to reschedule this rehearsal before the concert, but we might be able to adjust the schedule on concert day to make room for more rehearsal. We’ll keep you posted.

We’ll post a further update here tomorrow when we know whether we’ll be able to run tomorrow’s session at Springs.

Stay safe – and keep singing!