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

To compete or not to compete

Recently, several people have told me that they’d like BeVox to enter a singing competition – be it “Britain’s Got Talent”, “Eurovision Choir of the Year” or any one of a number of others. In this blog, I’d like to look at this suggestion, and explain the thought process behind why my answer is “no”.

What is good, and what is good for us?

There are some basic things that a choir can be reasonably accurately judged on – objective things. Are they in tune and in time? Were the notes, rhythms and words correct? However, these objective measurements don’t take into account who it is that is singing, and what their experiences are. For The Sixteen or the BBC Singers to achieve all of these objective goals is hardly worthy of mention – it is the absolute least that you would expect. For a group of complete amateur singers, who have just come together to enjoy singing, achieving all of these things would be a big deal. So, what constitutes success when you have such wildly different expectations of different groups?

With BeVox, as with virtually all community choirs, within the choir we have strong, confident singers and nervous, timid ones. We have people who have been singing most of their lives, and people who have never sung before. We have people who are comfortable standing up in front of an audience, and people for whom it takes all their courage to walk into the weekly session with the rest of their fellow singers. We have fluent music readers, and people for whom the sheet music may as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs. What standard of purely technical achievement would constitute “good” for this disparate group?

Any judgement of the choir would be given to us as a single entity, not taking into account the variety of people we have within the choir. Technical perfection would be beyond our least experienced singers, so if this is the standard used to judge us, we’ll always fail. But if the standards used to judge us are lower, they fail to recognise the achievement of those who do get everything right. They also fail to recognise the achievement of those who previously haven’t been able to get everything right, but now can – and that journey, from “can’t” to “can”, is the most important thing we do.

Who judges us, and what authority do they have?

There are so many more elements, beyond those mentioned above, that we could be judged on. After we’ve considered the objective measurements that can be made, we get into the realm of the subjective. Does the choir blend well? Did we have lots of variation of volume? Was the meaning of the song conveyed? As soon as we get into these subjective areas, personal taste starts to play a part. With some things, such as blend, there can be broad agreement about what is a “desirable” sound, but there’s room for different views. With other elements, such as emotional resonance or the “tingle factor”, it’s entirely personal, and one person’s view has no more weight than another’s. In a race, one person goes measurably faster than the others and wins – in a choir competition, how can you fairly decide who has “won”?

If a competition judge was to tell us that our performance lacked variety of volume, this is because they expected variety of volume and we didn’t deliver it. We might have chosen to keep the dynamics subtle for a reason, but because it wasn’t what the judge was expecting, or what they wanted, we’d be marked down. Why does the judge’s opinion on this have more weight than ours? Sure, they’re likely to have a significant amount of musical experience, but that doesn’t make their view on subjective matters any more valid than anyone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that experience and expertise count for nothing – just that elements of personal taste are bound to come into something as subjective as the sound of a choir singing. These elements of personal taste couldn’t be shared with the competitors beforehand, so we would be trying to please the judge without knowing what their criteria were. Plus, there is a tendency to accept the judgement of authority figures without question, and I think this should be challenged. The wisdom of experience is definitely valuable, but it shouldn’t be accepted blindly – after all, how can new and startling things be developed if everyone aims to replicate what has already been done?

Winners and losers

In any competition, there are winners and losers. How we handle being branded a “winner” or a “loser” will depend a lot on our psychological make-up. If we’re called a “winner”, it can make us feel happy, proud, and jubilant. Why would we be happy and proud of our achievement because someone else has told us we’re a winner – why couldn’t we be happy and proud of our achievements anyway? Why do we need an external source to validate what we’re doing? Wouldn’t it be more healthy, emotionally, to evaluate how we’re doing as a choir every time we sing, and have our emotional reaction to that, rather than to someone else’s subjective opinion of our performance? Taking this further, is there a danger that we become “hooked” on seeking external validation – wanting to win the next prize, to succeed in the next competition – constantly looking for the next buzz rather than enjoying what we’re doing right here and now? Is there also a danger that the thrill we receive from winning starts to dull if we keep winning? That we become complacent or blasé about success?

Striving to win a competition includes wanting other like-minded people to lose. If we want to get better at what we do, we might do better learning from other groups rather than hoping they fail so that we can succeed.

And how about if we lose? We are a “loser”. For some, this will spur them on to try harder next time – in fact, this is the main argument that people put to me when I suggest that “winning” and “losing” isn’t healthy. It certainly seems like it could be a good thing – we enter a competition, we lose, we try harder next time in an effort to win. Where’s the harm in that? My argument is that we’re working harder in order to get someone else’s validation, someone else’s approval of what we’re doing. Wouldn’t it be much better if we were seeking our own validation – our own sense of pride and success? “Chasing the win” puts responsibility for our successes and failures in someone else’s hands – and takes away from the great sense of pride and joy that should come from being in a choir. For me, singing should be about enjoying making music together, not from jumping through arbitrary hoops in order to please an external judge.

Of course, for some people, being a “loser” is a big blow. They’ve worked so hard, come so far, and then they’re told it’s not good enough. It might bring back memories of being told they can’t sing, perhaps as a child (a very common story from people who join community choirs). It might make them question why they’re bothering. It might make them less confident, not just as a singer, but at putting themselves forward in life generally. Is that a price we’re willing to pay?

I would argue that, when a group of people come together to share their love of singing, there can be no losers. We know the great benefits that singing together brings – physically, mentally, socially. How can anyone who is engaged in that activity be a loser? The label just doesn’t fit, and I view it as wrong for competitions to brand people as “losers” for failing to match some arbitrary, subjective standards – not just something I merely disagree with, but something that is actively damaging to those taking part.

What’s the alternative?

When I tell people that I don’t believe competition is healthy, a number of them think I’m saying that we shouldn’t strive to improve. That couldn’t be further from the case. Striving to improve is absolutely central to my whole philosophy – not just for choirs, but in life generally. I believe the only sensible, healthy measure of improvement is to measure yourself against yourself – to try to get better at what you are doing, not to worry about how you compare to others. If you don’t have the beautiful tone of Bryn Terfel (there’s that subjective thing again!) or the vocal range of Whitney Houston, that’s because you’re not them; you’re YOU. If you’d like to have a nicer tone or a wider range, you can work on it, and see how you improve – compare the you of now to the you of last year, and compete with that, rather than with anyone else. This is like athletes striving to beat their previous personal best, and is the healthiest form of competition I can imagine.

Competition versus collaboration

Rather than competing with other choirs, why not collaborate with them? That doesn’t necessarily mean singing with them, although it easily could. It could involve a partnership where two choirs in a similar area agree to go and watch the other’s performances, and give each other feedback afterwards. This is hugely rewarding in lots of different ways – musically, each choir will learn from the other; socially, all the singers will get a great night out; and financially, each choir will get a bigger audience for their concerts!

There are a small number of music festivals that just celebrate people performing, rather than awarding prizes or introducing other elements of competition. These festivals seem far more worthwhile to me than those that compete – you come away from them having been immersed in great music-making, and with new bonds of friendship formed between the performers. I would view this experience as being far more in tune with the goals of a community choir than any competition could ever be.

Post-script: The difference between competition and auditions

I’m very aware that I’m posting this blog the day after the BeVox soloist auditions, and there could be a danger of people looking at what I’m saying here and thinking that auditions do a similar thing to competitions. After all, they rely on an external person (me) making subjective decisions about people’s performance, and if someone auditions and isn’t offered the chance to sing in a concert, they may feel they’ve been branded a “loser”. I wanted to address this idea straight away, as I can see how it would be easy to think I was saying one thing and doing another, and I want to explain why that isn’t the case.

First of all, with our soloist auditions there is no competition between singers taking part. This is because we don’t have a set number of soloist “slots” within a concert that we have to fill. If we were looking for a fixed number of soloists, say 5, then the “best” 5 solos from the auditions would be picked, and everyone else wouldn’t be, which means that singers would be competing between themselves for the available slots. We don’t do this – we have a certain standard that we’re looking for in our soloists, and if people meet that standard, they’re offered the chance to sing in a concert. It doesn’t matter how many people meet the standard – if they do, they’re offered something. (We’re able to do this because we do multiple concerts at the end of each season, so we can spread the soloists over several concerts if we have lots that hit the standard). The only competitive element is people competing with themselves to develop as singers, to the point that they’re ready for an audience.

The audition process isn’t about being “judged”, it’s about getting an accurate appraisal of how your performance as a soloist would be perceived by an audience. It’s a step in a process, not an end in itself. There are two goals to the audition process – one is for the soloist to find out what standard their own performance is at, which calibrates their own self-assessment of their development. It’s tough to get an accurate picture of how your performance stacks up as a singer, and having an external ear (and a video recording of your audition) can help with that. The other goal is for me to assess whether a soloist’s performance is ready for an audience or not, and to match soloists with appropriate events. This is partly about making sure we have the right soloists for a concert, but it’s equally about making sure we have the right concerts for a soloist – it’s about giving people an event that matches their current capabilities. It’s not in the choir’s best interests for us to include a soloist who isn’t ready for an audience yet – but more importantly, it’s not in the soloist’s interests either. When someone auditions and I don’t offer them a spot in a concert, I’m not branding them a “loser” – I’m protecting them from the deeply debilitating experience of singing to a live audience who don’t enjoy their performance. I also give them focussed feedback on how they can improve, alongside a video of their audition that they can watch and learn from. It’s a supportive process, with the best interests of the singer at heart – a far cry from the atmosphere of a singing competition.

There is no I in Tim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BeVox Summer Picnic 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year!

2015 was a big year for us, in many ways. BeVox celebrated its fifth birthday, which felt like a real milestone. We recorded our first ever CD, and had our busiest year ever when it comes to number of performances, and number of singers singing with us. We helped to raise nearly £12,000 for charity in 2015, taking the total we’ve helped to raise since we started to over £42,000. And amongst all that, we managed to squeeze a wedding in too!

The New Year is a time for looking forward as well as looking back, and we have lots to look forward to. We have a number of big concerts planned for 2016, as well as continuing our smaller, community-based events too. The bigger events include “Let us entertain you”, our first big concert in Lincoln, at the Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on Sunday 17th April. We’ve also got exciting plans for our big concert for the summer in Wakefield, which will see us at a new venue (for us) – more details will be available soon. We’re exploring a couple of different options for our 2016 Christmas concert too (yes, we’re thinking about next Christmas already!) – one of those options would be absolutely jaw-dropping if we can pull it off, so we’re working hard to make it happen if we can.

On top of the usual run of events, we have some other plans for 2016 too. Not all of these are ready to be revealed yet, as we’d always rather wait until things are definite before announcing them. I will mention though that we have ideas for some exciting workshops this summer, and a brand new initiative that will really raise our standards – without changing our open-to-anyone ethos. We’re also planning to develop our relationships with other leading musicians, which could open some very interesting doors…

2016 feels like a year of possibilities – a year in which change is inevitable. That sounds rather exciting to me, and I can’t wait to get started!