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

Author: Tim Allen (admin)

Director of BeVox

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