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!


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

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