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 Birthday to me

Just over a month ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday. There were various different celebrations throughout the week, including a family party with jelly and ice cream! I got two different cakes at that party – a “Happy Forte-th” from Toni, and a BeVox van cake from my mum.

Happy "forte"th cake
Happy “forte”th cake
BeVox van cake
BeVox van cake

Toni took me out for a posh meal too, and I had an incredible weekend.

The BeVox singers outdid themselves in their birthday gifts to me – something I never expected, and I was utterly bowled over by everyone’s generosity. The Lincoln group, newest to the fold, had clubbed together to get me a case of wine – some gorgeous vintages that I’m really looking forward to sampling. The rest of the choir combined their resources to buy me an “experience” – two top-price tickets to see Les Mis in the West End, with hotel vouchers to make it an overnight stay. As I’m a massive fan of Les Mis but have never actually seen it in the West End, this was a really fantastic idea.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to take the Les Mis experience – there was some small print that restricted the dates it could be booked, and the only dates that it was available were dates that BeVox has sessions! However, the voucher could be swapped for any other experience provided by the same company, so I took a look to see what I could do instead. One thing leapt out at me straight away – the chance to drive supercars around a race track. I’m a bit of a petrolhead, but I’ve never had the chance to drive any top-flight cars. I’ve always fancied a track day but I’ve never been able to justify one – this was the perfect opportunity!

So, today I’ve spent the afternoon at Prestwold racing track, driving a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Roadster, and a Porsche 911. Afterwards, Toni and I were taken out as passengers as a pro racing driving sped around the track in a Monaro VXR – a 6 litre beast of a machine. It was an incredible day, and I’m grateful beyond words to everyone who chipped in to make it possible.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Roadster
Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Roadster
Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
Porsche 911
Porsche 911

The passing of time

I’ve been thinking a lot about time passing recently. Part of the nature of my job is that I’m constantly flitting between different timescales – one minute I’m working on events over a year in advance, the next I’m planning how to tackle a song I’m teaching this week. Having to swap between thinking about small timescales and large ones can be disorientating sometimes, and it can take a short while for my head to refocus. It can also make it hard to be truly “in the moment”, as even when I’m in the middle of a session working on a song, part of me is thinking about how the shape the song next time we sing it, how it will work in different performance spaces, and whether we can bring it back for a big concert in six months or even a year. I’ve been feeling the need recently to find a way to park some of the bigger “planning” thoughts whilst I’m doing immediate things, so that I can truly enjoy every second of what I’m doing. It’s important to be truly in the “now”, I think, and I’m going to focus on that in the coming weeks.

Maybe some of this introspection is related to anniversaries. The idea of forming BeVox came to me on a long car journey in June 2010. That makes this summer our 5th anniversary. As most fledgling businesses do, I made a business plan, which included 5-year projections for where we would be in 2015. Re-reading that plan now, some of it is hopelessly naive, and some we have failed to deliver on pretty spectacularly (the business plan had us running eight groups, two a night, with 480 singers by now!). What’s really interesting is seeing how the focus of the business has changed over that time, and whathas stayedthe same – all of which has been led by suggestions and comments from our singers.

Of course, the other anniversary that’s on my mind is my birthday. I turn 40 today – traditionally an age at which people reflect on the past and think of the future. In some ways, turning 40 feels odd – I remember my Mum turning 40, and it feels very strange to be hitting the same milestone. In other ways, it’s just another day – I’ll be starting the day with a Workplace Choir session, then recording backing tracks all afternoon before heading out for a BeVox session in the evening. I am celebrating at the weekend though – privately with Toni on Friday, then a family party on Saturday. It’s the first time in decades that I’ve celebrated a birthday with a family party, and it will be great to be surrounded by them this weekend.

So, nothing particularly musical in this post, but just some musings. One thing is for sure though – I would never have dreamed I would be where I am today, even just five years ago, and I’m incredibly grateful for the shape my life has taken. I’m glad to share it with so many lovely people.

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.

Thank you

I feel the need to make a very public “thank you” to one of our singers. One of the things that Toni and I believe really strongly in is the importance of our singers having a voice in what we do. This should permeate every part of who we are as a choir – not just the planned things like song suggestions, but everything we do. We will always take a leadership position, making decisions on what to do that we think is in the best interests of the choir, but we can only do that wisely if we’re guided by the thoughts and views of our singers.

Mo got in touch with us a couple of weeks ago, with some feedback about the sessions. She felt as though they were becoming harder and harder work, and she wasn’t having half as much fun as she did when she started singing with us. I invited her to come and grab 5 minutes with me before the start of the next session, so we could chat about it. I wanted to get to the bottom of what was causing her unhappiness with the sessions, and she wanted me to understand it too. We had a good chat, and about halfway through it I had one of those “lightbulb coming on” moments. The problem was that I’d got so caught up in working on the detail of each song, I was kind of polishing everything as we went, without allowing any time to just enjoy singing. Taking that approach meant that the sessions were feeling like hard work – so much time focussing on small details and concentrating hard were making everything feel like being back at school (in a bad way). Mo understood that there’s a balance to be struck between just having a good old sing and striving for high standards, but she felt the balance was swinging too far one way. I promised her I’d take on board what she’d said, and try to rebalance things.

I reflected on these comments for a few days, and it changed my outlook on the weekly sessions. I threw myself into a slightly different approach – not actually skimping on the detail at all, but making sure that we did lots of singing things through. One thing I’d got caught up in was stopping whenever I heard a mistake, rather than singing through the section then going back to fix the mistake. I’ve made a conscious effort to change this, and the results have been immediate. The sessions have felt like a lot more fun – singers have commented to me on how much they’ve enjoyed the last session or two, and I’ve enjoyed them a lot more as well.

So – thanks Mo. Your comments came at just the right time, and they’ve made a difference to the whole choir. And if anyone else has any feedback about how we do things – please let us know – you might just make a big difference too.

Proud of who we are

There have been a few things over the last week or so that have made me really proud of who we are as a choir. The way people have handled my minor operation has been great – concerned but not overbearing, and just smoothly slotting in to help with the things that I’m not able to do for the next couple of weeks, without any fuss. That’s the mark of a real caring community.

Then we had the auditions on Sunday morning, and the additional session in the afternoon. All the auditionees turned up having fully prepared, and did their stuff without fuss or drama. There was a great, sensitive discussion amongst the panel afterwards – people being really supportive of their peers, without being unrealistic about what could be achieved. There was no danger of any diva behaviour, and everyone genuinely wanted everyone else to do well.

The rehearsal in the afternoon was great fun, and everyone adapted well to a slightly different way of working – again, no fuss, just getting on with what we were there for. We had a good laugh together, and made some great music – learning four songs in three hours takes some focus, and everyone rose to the occasion. I’ve had a few lovely emails from people who hadn’t sung those songs before, saying how much they appreciated the help given to them by people around them who knew the songs already. That kind of teamwork is at the heart of what we’re about.

We’ve had two out of our three sessions so far this week, and we’ve been moving on to new material – but it’s felt like the songs we’ve been covering had already been taught the week before, because everyone had done some advance work on them, and so the process just flowed with no fuss. Last night in Nottingham we essentially learnt the vast majority of four songs in two hours, and it didn’t feel like I was melting peoples’ brains – everyone had a good time, came out feeling like they’d achieved something, and we’d made a great sound in the process.

I’m so proud of the kind of choir that BeVox is. We have fun together, we work hard and play hard, and there’s no drama. It’s utterly lovely, and I thank every one of you for contributing to that.

Preparations for the New Year

I hope everyone has had a really great Christmas, and that you’re looking forward to 2014. I know I am! It’s been an incredible year, filled with drama and emotion – both personally and professionally. It was the year in which Toni had her life-saving transplant operation, which had its highs and lows – it was one of the most worrying times of my life, waiting for her to come out of theatre, and the weeks after the op were incredibly stressful and difficult, but since then the changes in her have been incredible to see, and that has been truly remarkable. It was also the year in which I finally proposed, after seven years of us being together.

Professionally, there have been some real highlights to 2013 too. We’ve done three incredible “big concerts” with BeVox (“Music at the Minster” in Southwell Minster, “Music for Life” at Wakefield Cathedral and “A Circle of Life” at Elsecar Heritage Centre). We joined with City Voices Cardiff and the Rodillian Singers to create three memorable flash mobs in London for Victoria BID. We’ve sung at weddings and funerals, in exhibition centres and greenhouses, in pubs, hotels and pumping stations(!), and helped to raise over £7,000 for several charities. And although it wasn’t a BeVox event, I was also thrilled to be the artistic director for the “Donate Life” concert at Sheffield City Hall, with Matt Cardle, Aled Jones and the National Transplant Choir.

I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the Spring season, which starts on 6th January in Wakefield (7th in Nottingham, 9th in Sheffield). We’ve got some interesting music this time around, and a great venue for our big concert. We’re working on a little extra something for towards the end of the season (we’ll announce the details here as soon as they’re confirmed). We’re also putting a call out for any local places you’d like to perform in – we want to really get out into the community this season and give as much back as we possibly can.

One final reminder before I sign off for this year – if you want to sing with us in January, you need to sign up via BeVox OnLine – and if you want us to print your music or burn you a CD, you need to sign up and request this via the OnLine system by the end of this year!

Happy New Year to you all, and I hope we’ll see you in 2014.

Reflections on an incredible journey

Almost all of our performances for the Autumn season are over now – we just have Papplewick Pumping Station to come on 22nd December. In the morning, I’m heading down south to spend a week with my daughter, so I thought I’d take a little time to reflect on what has been an incredible season – actually, an incredible year.

Toni and I started this season, back in September, feeling a little flat. We’d had a lovely week away over the summer, but we’d not managed to do most of the things we’d hoped apart from that – we’d wanted to spend lots of time relaxing with each other and enjoying Toni’s continuing recovery after her operation in February. We knew that the Autumn season was going to be hard work – we’d committed to putting on a big concert in December, and I’d outlined my plans to make it a different, unique experience, unlike anything we’d done before. I had my reasons for wanting to make this one special of course, but Toni didn’t know that, and we had serious reservations about the budget, and the amount of work we were taking on.

Within the first week or two of the season, we had our first ever Discussion Picnic – a chance for everyone to get together socially, but also to share their views about the direction BeVox was going in, and feedback any concerns. This was a really valuable process, and helped shape a number of changes. It was very grounding, hearing people’s concerns and being able to respond to them, whilst also being really rewarding as people shared what they love about BeVox, and what they want to do more of. Some of the issues raised have continued to be present throughout the season, but the way in which they’re being handled has improved no end.

As the season progressed, the workload got heavier, but it was made easier by the energy people were bringing to the weekly sessions. Although some of the music was difficult, everyone attacked it with enthusiasm, and that helped to keep us going. We had a number of setbacks behind the scenes, and sometimes it was hard to keep going – weeks of 12-16 hour days take a toll. Nevertheless, I was sure it would all be worthwhile, and the fun we had in sessions was a lifeline – it’s the most visible bit of the work we do, but it’s the most fun bit too!

The last week of sessions was a turning point, I think. Having got all the songs to a good standard by Week 11, we could easily have spent the last session running everything through and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Instead, everyone voted to push harder and find new emotional levels in the performance, and as a result, that final session was hard work, but very rewarding. I threw a bucketload of new techniques at everyone – material that would normally take 5-6 workshops to cover was absorbed in just 2 hours. Not everything worked entirely successfully, but everyone embraced the journey and it really transformed a number of the songs.

The week leading up to “A Circle of Life” was just incredible. Having got the vast majority of the work and planning complete by this point, we could sit back and enjoy the performances. The Wakefield end of season on the Monday set the tone for the week, with some fantastic singing, and an utterly lovely atmosphere. The support from the audience was great, and it reminded us of our community roots – something we really want to build on next season. Heading to Nottingham on the Tuesday, we were both excited – Wakefield’s performance had given us a boost, and the acoustic of the Nottingham venue is always a joy to sing in. It was another great night, with everyone raising their game to give a splendid night out.

Then came “A Circle of Life”, and what a day that was! Elements of that performance had been in the planning for the best part of a year, and it was so satisfying to see it all coming together. I had such admiration for the professionalism virtually everyone displayed in the tech rehearsal, handling all the challenges with admirable patience. I’m sure that the couple of people who didn’t play ball with the seating arrangements will have learnt from the experience, and the team spirit will pull them into line next time. We had our share of technical problems too, although they were small fry considering the amount of technical stuff we’d thrown into this show, and the time constraints the production crew were under.

After a frantic drive home to fix a technical problem during the lunch break, the matinee performance passed by in a blur – my head was focussing on so many different things at once, I barely had time to register it was happening before it was over. It was great to see so many supporters in the audience, including a number of our singers who hadn’t been able to take part but had come to watch. I’m sure everyone was grateful for the break between the matinee and the evening – a chance to come down, relax, and reset for the evening. And what an evening it was. From the beginning of the show, the atmosphere was electric. It’s great to perform to a sold-out house, and the audience were so incredibly supportive – they were clearly on this journey with us, and were cheering us on at every turn! The performances from everyone on stage were exemplary that evening – soloists, duettists, ensemble singers and choir members alike. I could feel the energy coming from every voice, every face. It was a very, very powerful experience.

Then of course, we ended the show with an event that has been seven years in the making. Toni and I would like to thank every single person that’s shared in that journey with us, and it was so absolutely right to celebrate our engagement with this community, this family, that is BeVox. We’ve been bowled over with the love and support everyone has shown us, and we count ourselves very lucky indeed to have such a great bunch of people around us. Thank you.

A Circle of Life

Wow. What a day. I know it will live in my memory for the rest of my life, and I’m sure it will stay with a lot of other people too. Thank you to every single person who was a part of it in any way. You all helped to turn it into something truly unique and incredible. The feedback I’ve heard from the audience so far has been overwhelming – it really was a landmark experience. And to top it all off, she said yes!
I’ll try to write more fully soon, but for now, we must to bed. Thanks once again for sharing this magical experience with us.

A test of what BeVox is truly about

BeVox has a few challenging months ahead. Toni, one of our two directors and my partner, went into hospital for a long-awaited transplant operation just over a week ago. She’s making a good recovery, which is massively encouraging, but her absence leaves a very significant hole. Running the choir in her absence is a tall order – she does so much behind the scenes, and it’s hard to pick up everything she kept going whilst also continuing to run the sessions and head over the Pennines to visit her as often as possible.

So, this is where we get to see the real heart of what BeVox is all about. The offers of help, in every shape and size, have come flooding in. Registers are being taken, rotas organised, people have cooked for me and transported equipment up and down motorways. This great community – a collection of people bound together by nothing more than their collective love of singing – has shown its true colours and risen to the challenge. I’m humbled by the level of support and care everyone has shown. Over 40 individual cards have come our way, with many of them from whole groups of the choir who have banded together to express their care for Toni’s recovery. This in itself shows part of what BeVox is all about – people who never knew each other until they sang together are coming together to express themselves, to share their concerns and resources. There are messages of support on social media sites from singers current and past, from colleagues and friends, from other choirs and people we’ve sung with across the UK and America.

Through adversity comes triumph. These next few months will be difficult behind the scenes, but hopefully everything will continue as normal – sessions will run, concerts will be performed, music will be made. And in the process, this band of people that makes up BeVox will become still closer. Thank you to each and every person who is a part of this amazing whole.