My growing frustration with Gareth Malone

Gareth Malone is on the BBC tonight, launching his “New Military Wives” programme. As a leader of community choirs, I’m often asked about Gareth Malone and what I make of his work. The answer I’ve given has changed over time, and his latest programme is making me shift my answer another step in a negative direction.

First of all, I think Gareth Malone is a great musician. I saw him live on his recent “Voices” tour, and a close colleague worked with him on that tour – he sang well, was very engaging, and the ensemble of professional singers he toured with were all exceptional. The arrangements he commissions are fantastic, his work takes choral singing in modern, exciting directions, and he’s not afraid to embrace new technology to breathe life into the medium. I wanted to get that out there first.

My frustration with him is in his approach to amateur music-making. From the first time I saw him on TV, I was torn – on the one hand, he was promoting group singing to beginners, and giving it a wider audience, which is absolutely in tune with my own musical mission. On the other, his teaching techniques seemed questionable – not his musicianship, but his ability to meet his students where they were and work with them to improve. There was a strong sense of him being the “master”, and of him sitting in judgement of these inferior mortals who deigned to attempt this tricky discipline of “singing”. When people made mistakes, he was scornful of them and exhorted them to “do better”, rather than supporting them and guiding them through the personal challenge of standing up to sing in public. His razzamatazz and charisma inspired his singers, but these qualities encouraged his choir to be utterly reliant on him, and they weren’t encouraged to develop any self-sufficiency as singers.

As his popularity grew, I watched him work with other groups – boys, nurses, postal workers, and of course the Military Wives. In each case, his method of working concerned me, whilst I applauded his desire to get the nation singing. For instance, I can understand the need to audition soloists for a performance, but I don’t understand why people should have to audition to simply join an amateur choir. I can understand that people need to be told when they aren’t getting the notes right, but I don’t understand why they should be made to feel bad about it. And I can understand why people should be encouraged to strive to become the best that they can be, but I don’t understand why singing, why art, should become a competition where the majority of participants are eventually branded losers.

Tonight’s “New Military Wives” is building towards a performance commemorating the servicemen and women of the First World War. War is the great leveller – a bomb kills indiscriminately, with no regard for rank or ability. When I saw that the premise of Gareth’s programme was to narrow down the 2,000 members of the various Military Wives Choirs to a 100-strong “super choir”, my heart sank. What message does that send to the 1,900 singers who won’t be selected? What does it say to the person who is thinking about maybe joining their local community choir, but is worried about whether they will be “good enough”?

I talk to many, many people who hear my choir sing, and I always encourage them to consider giving it a go. The answer I get from 99% of people that I talk to is “I can’t sing”, or “I wouldn’t be good enough”, or “I’m tone deaf”. Seeing Britain’s most visible choir leader on the BBC, selecting only those voices he deems to be of sufficient quality, makes it harder for me to persuade those people that they can sing, that they will be good enough, and that they’re not tone deaf. It hurts Gareth’s own self-proclaimed mission of getting the nation singing. It is this that frustrates me about him, and it is why, when people ask me tomorrow what I thought of Gareth Malone on the telly last night, I’ll tell them that I think he is well-meaning, but ultimately misguided and damaging to amateur choral singing.

Christmas concerts a-plenty!

What a fortnight it has been! We’ve done 14 performances in the last fortnight – everything from charity events to full-on concerts, from small-scale performances with a couple of dozen singers to the magnificent sound of over 125 voices at Wakefield Cathedral last night. I want to say a little something about each of them, but that would mean going on for even longer than I usually do, so I’ll just pick out the highlights.

Lincolnshire Food & Gift Fair, 30th November

This was the first time that any of our Lincoln singers had performed with us, and so there was lots of excitement and nerves before we started. After the incredible experience we’d had at our final session of the season, I was full of confidence that we’d put on a great show, and we certainly did. The feedback from everyone was fantastic – members of the public, stallholders, and the events team at the Showground all said how much they’d enjoyed our singing, and it was really clear from conversations with the singers how much they’d enjoyed themselves too. It was a really strong debut performance!

Parkinsons UK Sheffield Christmas lunch, 2nd December

Under slightly challenging circumstances, we brought lots of fun and enjoyment into the lives of some very special people. We didn’t have an ideal blend of voice parts, we weren’t in the best of acoustics and we weren’t laid out in the most useful way, but despite these challenges we still did a really good show – thank you to everyone to took part, for pushing yourselves to achieve great things.

Kimberworth Christmas Concert, 6th December

I have to confess that I’d been looking forward to this concert especially, as my Mum and Dad were coming up from Reading for the weekend to see this concert and our appearances at the Lincoln Christmas Market the following day. They normally come up to see our big concert if they can, but this season they weren’t able to make it as they’ve joined a choir themselves, and their big concert was on the same day as ours! We just about squeezed everyone on stage, and I had some fun juggling the conducting, piano-playing and operating the mixing desk. The singing was really strong, and we put on a show to be proud of. Feedback from the audience afterwards was overwhelmingly positive, and we were immediately invited back by the organisers for another concert in the summer.

West Bridgford Methodist Church Christmas Tree Festival, 9th December

We arrived at the church to find it surrounded by the most beautifully decorated Christmas trees – it was a real treat to be singing in such festive surroundings. It was lovely to be able to do a performance here, after having to move our end-of-season performance elsewhere – it’s such a great venue to sing in, and all the singers threw themselves into it with gusto. Again, we had utterly lovely comments from the audience afterwards, and we may have gained a few new singers for next season too!

“Christmas at the Cathedral”, 13th December

I was nervous about our big concert this season. I wasn’t worried about the singing – I’d heard such great singing in the lead-up to the concert that I knew we’d make a great sound. It was all the other bits that make up concert day that worried me – setting up the audio equipment, getting everyone onto and off the stage safely, getting the audience into the venue smoothly etc. I love that we are involved in every single aspect of our concerts, as it means we can be sure that everything is done in a very “BeVox” way – and the BeVox philosophy was right at the core of yesterday’s show, with lots of people stepping up to the plate to help each other out, and to be there for each other. I felt very proud of this choir.

And then we started to sing… and oh boy was that good! Everyone gave it their all, and the result was something to be incredibly proud of. My uncle and grandma were in the audience, and they were blown away by the whole experience – they wanted me to pass on their heartfelt appreciation to every one of our singers for giving them a really memorable night. Another old friend was in the audience too – an accomplished choral director who I’ve worked with several years ago, and who I’ll be working with again next year, and he was full of praise for the choir – he’d been looking forward to hearing BeVox for months, and he said it was well worth the wait.

There were several of our singers in the audience too, a number of whom had never seen a BeVox concert from the audience side before. They had some really useful and constructive feedback for me too, which chimes with observations I’ve made myself throughout the performances this season. Every one of them was really impressed with the sound we make, and a number said that even though they knew what was coming next, as they’d learnt all the music themselves, it still exceeded their expectations. They also had a few suggestions for things we could do to raise our game still further for future events, and we’ll be looking at ways to incorporate this feedback into our performances for next season. For now though, all I can say is that I am inordinately proud of the show we put on last night, and of the incredible atmosphere that all our singers created, both on stage and backstage. Thank you for being a part of our journey.

Onwards…

That’s not the end of our performances for this season – we still have plenty more to come between now and Christmas. I did want to let everyone know something else that we can be really proud of though. With the performances that we’ve done for charity over the last few weeks, we’ve taken the total amount that BeVox has helped to raise for charities since we started to just the tiniest fraction under £30,000. Now that’s something to celebrate…