Guest post by Ali Sheppard (@alishepster)
Should art be competitive ? That’s a big question and one that I have been contemplating a lot recently. By ‘art’ I mean the arts in general, including painting, sculpture, music, drama, writing, dance etc. Last year we saw the ultimate international competition in the form of the Olympics, London 2012. With sport, it is almost impossible to imagine sport not having a competitive element, despite some primary schools trying to introduce non-competitive sport into their curriculum. At the same time as London 2012, there were a whole host of art events under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad, and whilst some of these events were certainly well attended, they naturally did not get the same coverage in the media despite some events having artists at the very top of their game. There are also various competitions for art, including the Turner prize, various literary awards such as the Booker and Orange prizes, but these tend to be awarded after the artistic process has taken place, and I doubt that any of the artists involved would state that they wrote their book or painted their picture with the sole purpose of winning a competition. On the other hand, over the last few years, talent shows like The Voice UK, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent have become increasingly popular, although there are many water-cooler moments across the country in which people debate how seemingly talentless people do well at the expense of those who can sing/play/dance but who perhaps don’t have the same ‘back story’.
The reason I have been pondering about this lately is that I sing in a choir, and my choir is about to take part in an international choir competition in Tours, France. I first started singing in a choir around 15 years ago. At the time, I was working for the NSPCC, and attended a lunchtime lecture on giving effective presentations. There was a guest speaker who talked a lot about breathing from your diaphragm, and she mentioned that she sang in a choir. I spoke to her about this after the talk and expressed an interested in finding out what it was all about, and the following Monday I got a call to ask if I was interested in going along to a rehearsal of her choir that evening to see if I liked it. I went along and soon started attending regularly, going on tour with them to Germany to sing in a concert only a few months later.
I sang with that choir for a few years before finding that I much preferred singing in smaller choirs (the first choir was a big choir) and so a couple of years later I joined my current choir, called Pegasus. One of the things that attracted me about Pegasus was that it was smaller, a ‘chamber choir’, and it didn’t rehearse every week unlike lots of choirs, but rather just had a few concentrated rehearsals before a concert. This is important to me as my job doesn’t allow me to commit to regular weekly rehearsals, as it the case for many others in the choir. The choir members come from all walks of life, and all kinds of jobs – we have amongst our ranks a female vicar, several charity workers, a police officer, several teachers, someone who works at the V&A, an Aid worker for Save the Children who often has to miss rehearsals as she is in the Democratic Republic of Congo or some other far-flung place, a florist, a doctor, and a host of other jobs!
But why do we do it? Singing is a great form of stress release; if I’ve had a tough day at work I find that going to a rehearsal and focusing on the music and singing soon stops me feeling stressed. Equally I find it hard to remain sad or depressed when singing. A couple of years ago we had an osteopathy student who came and tested the levels of oxygen in our blood pre- and post-rehearsal, and he found that the oxygen levels had increased significantly during the rehearsal. I’m sure that singing transmits those endorphins in the brain that you also get from sport – the feel-good neuro-transmitters, and am sure that it is good for your health. Singing on your own does all these things, but singing together with others adds a new dimension – there is something about all coming together for a combined goal, breathing and matching the voice of the person next to you. And then there’s the social side; often we go for a drink after a rehearsal and many people have found lifelong friends through the choir. We often socialise outside of choir, and various members of Pegasus have gone on holiday together, gone skiing, as well as going to the theatre and parties together. I recently was introduced by Ian Street (of this blog) to Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen” video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI in which the lyrics are taken from a famous essay written in 1997 by Mary Schmich, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune who gives her advice for life. Two of her pieces of advice are: “Do something every day which scares you. Sing.” Great advice, although for some people, singing in public is something that scares them!
Each of us sings in the choir for our own reasons, and we all get something different out of it. And although singing in rehearsals is great fun, putting on a concert and singing to an audience takes it to another level. There’s the whole thing about learning new music and working together to get the music up to performance standard, going to the venue, dressing up, hearing the hum of the audience gathering and wondering how many people will be in the audience, then walking out onto the stage and feeling a buzz of adrenaline running through your body. It can be scary, particularly if you have a solo – you wonder if you will lose your voice, if your nerves will get the better of you, and if you will look foolish. But then you find that you don’t lose your nerve, you gain strength from those around you, and the applause further adds to your confidence. You lose yourself in the music and it is all too soon over. Afterwards you feel exhilarated, and then there are the post mortems – usually in the pub!
But then we come back to the question – should art be competitive? Shouldn’t making music be done for music’s sake, not to win prizes? Well, Pegasus has entered some competitions in the past – the BBC Choir of the Year competition, in which we got through to the semi-final, and then two international choir competitions in Europe, one in Tolosa, Northern Spain and then in Arezzo, Italy, two years ago. Although we did very well in Tolosa, coming third in two categories where we were competing against professional choirs, in Arezzo we had a bit of a knock-back. We rehearsed for months beforehand, and thought we performed well on stage, but didn’t get through our heats to the final. When we found out we hadn’t got through, everyone felt deflated and demoralised.
So when one person in the choir suggested last year that we had a go at competing in another international choir competition, held in Tours, France in May, 2013, we had to think about it. We are a democratic choir, so we surveyed the choir members and gathered their opinions. Some people were dead against it. They thought that singing and music should not be competitive; that it is wrong to compare one musical performance with another; that we should be singing for ‘Art’s’ sake. But the vast majority were all for it. They thought that despite the knock-back in Arezzo, the experience had been great. We had improved as a choir by rehearsing for months on a difficult programme, and had bonded socially by the experience of going abroad and competing against other choirs. We decided to go for it, and put our entry in during the Autumn of 2012.
The competition is called the Florilège Vocal de Tours, and there arevarious different sub-sections that we could enter. We had to submit a recording and also tell them exactly what we were going to sing in the various categories. We anxiously awaited the results, and were informed in January 2013 that we had been accepted. We only found out recently that 17 choirs got through to perform live in the competition, representing 11 countries and we are the only UK choir to get through. Looking back at the history of the winners in the competition, there are some wonderful choirs from the UK who have won in the past, including The Sixteen, The King’s Singers and Tallis Scholars, but the last UK choir to do well in the competition was over twenty years ago, when the Swingle Singers won in 1992. So we certainly have a challenge on our hands if we are to do well.
We started rehearsing in February, and planned a rehearsal schedule which included two day-long rehearsals on a Saturday, and a couple of performances, one in Farnham Surrey, and one in Barking, East London. We also made the brave decision to perform our competition programme of 14 pieces of music in 6 languages, entirely from memory. This caused quite a lot of stress to many of the choir who, as busy people, felt they didn’t have the time to devote to memorising music, but many people were won over when they found that performing from memory adds a whole new dimension to the performance. Somehow, removing the crutch of a folder of music in front of you means that you listen more, and watch the conductor more, enhancing the overall ensemble.
The road to Tours has not been without difficulties. Aside from the people stressing about memorising the music, there have been differences of opinion over whether we should have a special, more uniform dress code, difficulties with finding a suitable venue to hold one of our all-day rehearsals and recitals, and various unexpected challenges – such as when our pianist fell off a ladder and broke his arm and ribs just shortly before our first performance! Throughout the last few months though, we have gelled as a group, we have all faced our own personal challenges and come through them, and now we are nearly all set to go! We have our tickets booked on the Eurostar and the TGV to Tours, our hotel booked in Tours, our dress code sorted, our music memorised, and our pianist’s arm has (hopefully) recovered enough to be able to play! We leave from St Pancras very early on Friday morning, with our first performance in the competition being in the evening of Friday 24 May.
So, should art be competitive? I don’t know. But I do know that with competition also comes fun. And the process of preparing for a competition has brought us together, has encouraged us to sing to a better standard and has improved us as a choir. Hopefully, we will do well in Tours, and will get through to the final, but if we don’t, it has still been a great experience. I hope to let you know how we got on when we get back!