It’s difficult to stay silent when you’ve gone beyond what you thought you were capable of


An evening as part of the Dowsing Sound Collective – even more inspiring than being in the audience. (Followed by some thoughts on what course/workshop providers and institutions can learn from this).

It was turning up to their performance below…

that made me think: “Yep – I want to be part of that lot!” I blogged about it here.

Whether we’ll end up singing this number over the next few years remains to be seen.

(Yes, plug it into your sound system and disturb the neighbours – actually, better not).

“Isn’t this a bit ‘Gareth Malone’s Choir’???”

You mean this? Perhaps, but without the mainstream TV cameras and the pressure that comes with the mainstream media. Just because something is on the tellybox doesn’t automatically make it bad. After all, have a listen to the following:

How many of you have heard the intro to that? (I have Mog & Puffles sitting next to me as I type this – the former seems soothed by it.)

“Why awesome?”

Because I’ve never knowingly sung in G-flat major? Actually, although I could read the music, unlike my viola I had no real concept of whether I was hitting the right or wrong note other than my fellow tenor singer next to me. Having no real choral experience, trying to hold my own with an alto singer next to me was a little tricky. I have a habit of following the person singing next to me.

Being made to feel welcome vs being blessed with bad luck

Funnily enough, that makes a huge difference. When I moved away to go to university, I went along to a choral gathering to see if I could get back into singing in the way I had done at primary, early secondary and early sixth form. At sixth form I lacked the courage to take up the offer from the head of music to join the choir there. I’ve regretted it ever since. At university, the conductor was horrible as was the only other male there – a classically trained tenor. Which in part explains why I found the Christmas concert and their part in it laughable and depressing. In the mid-2000s, I tried again with a local music teacher. But there was no fun in it. It took another decade to get to here.

Fortunately the Dowsing crowd seem to be a friendly bunch – mainly my age and older, which is a different dynamic to what I’ve been used to in recent years. But then so was the atmosphere. There are no exams or performance management assessments in this. (Just a performance in front of many hundreds of people sometime in the future).

Contributing towards something greater than the sum of its parts

Which is what a choir ultimately is – expressed in vocal music. Eric Whitacre has taken the concept further with digital media. Have a look and listen:

The difference here being that all of these people were in their own rooms. A different dynamic when you are in a room with about fifty other people. This was also the first time I had been part of a choral experience in the wider sense. Different people singing different parts of a single piece of music. And it was actually quite moving when we put the whole thing together.

Deconstructing and reconstructing a piece of music

That’s what Dowsing and other musical collectives do really well. They take an existing track, break it down into its component parts, play with the components and add/subtract various bits to it, mix it up and come up with something very different but strangely familiar. What was fascinating for me to see was just how quickly the whole thing seemed to come together. The only thing that initially concerned me was singing in G-flat major. But it turned out not to be a problem in the way it would be on the viola. (No open strings – and I like open strings – it’s a string-players thing).

“So, you’re going to stick with it?”

Looks like it. It has got me thinking again about some issues familiar to regular readers…

Big Society

That old chestnut again?

The thing is, running a choir like that isn’t cheap – and also requires a lot of effort by a lot of people, fun though it is. Rehearsal premises have to be booked out and paid for, as does the music that we use. You can’t just buy one copy and whack it through a photo-copier. Each piece has to be paid for when buying licensed music. It reminded me of a question someone put to me not so long ago:

“Has society reached its capacity for the amount of voluntary work it can do?”

Given the current way the economic and legal systems are set up, along with the current distribution of wealth and power, I get this feeling that we are close to it. That’s not to say things could be better organised where people get far more out of what they put in. For example being able to find the most suitable organisation or activity.

Long commutes shot to pieces the voluntary work I was doing in Cambridge when I transferred down to London in the civil service. The high cost of rent and activities in London inevitably curtailed the number of things I wanted to do in London when I moved down there. High costs of living and long commutes into places where rent and house prices are high have a knock-on effect on the ‘big society’ activities that politicians regularly encourage people to take part in. Dare I say it, it also has an impact on the people who may want to put themselves forward for election. Who can afford the time commitment to be an effective local councillor if the only people that are able to carry out such duties are those with independent wealth and/or one hell of a commitment to their party or local area beyond what most might otherwise have? At a recent event by Cambridge City Council, the weekly commitment expected in terms of meetings and constituency work is over half a full-time job. But the expenses you get in return for the hours put in would barely meet the minimum wage. Finally, for those not in work, the system barely allows for any voluntary work to improve skills, build social contacts and make friends – and keep morale up, while job hunting.

“What do organisations like Dowsing need?”

I get the sense it’s more a case of trying to find out what the opportunities are given the technology and knowledge we now have, that we didn’t have 20 years ago. It’s not a case of simply chucking money at stuff. For me, the combination of technology and knowledge allows us to develop much stronger evidence bases to justify calls for things like new venues and facilities. At the same time, I also think it justifies calls for those that work in, and are paid full-time in the voluntary and community sector (whether through donations or grant funding) to improve their skills on digital and social media (particularly those in management roles). I’m almost tempted to say that any organisation in receipt of state funding/grants should ensure that organisations are proactively using social and digital media – or at least have it as a strongly desired clause when inviting applications.

Several local organisations – Dowsing being one, do a pretty good job with social and digital and/or have some exciting things planned for 2014 which will be a big step on from where they were. Cambridge has a vibrant arts scene – if you know where to look. Yet all too often, I get the sense that not nearly as many people know where to look. Hence too many people are unnecessarily and unwittingly excluded for what to me are utterly avoidable things.

Comparing the 1990s (and/or bad experiences) with the 2010s

This is something I often put to local institutions and organisations when I come face-to-face with them. In particular:

“My experience of growing up in Cambridge during the 1990s was X. What has improved since then, and what has remained the same and/or got worse? With the latter, what are you going to do about it and how can the wider community help you in that improvement?”

Hence why I’ve started getting more than a little angry and irate at some parts of local government in and around Cambridge at some of the slow rates of progress. Not surprisingly, this has ruffled a few feathers locally too. I guess part of that passion on my side comes from a sense of feeling that I ‘missed out’ on the fun with music, art, literature and drama – and that I don’t want future generations locally to experience the same. See my fraught musical journey here. If I was a complete luddite I’d shut down this place. But I’m not. But I find the push for grades and formal assessment to be absolutely poisonous to enjoyment. After all, if you want to take away a child’s passion for something, set them an exam on it. (And then judge them according to the grade/mark they get). To what extent do music teachers (and parents) acknowledge this impact? I’d be interested in a wide-scale in-depth academic study tracking the take-up and drop-out rates of children as they go through school, looking at reasons for taking up and giving up a musical instrument. What would the data tell us?

And getting back into music? Or anything for that matter?

For me it’s more about being inspired and encouraged to do things that are positive and constructive for those around us, as well as being soulfully/spiritually nourishing at the same time. (You don’t have to be religious or supernatural to acknowledge something as being personally beneficial for your heart and mind). At the same time – and this was something I picked up at UKGovCamp 2014, there are many psychological barriers that stop people from doing something they might have done at school. How do you encourage someone to write as an adult when writing lines was a regular punishment at school at a time when a special need was not diagnosed? (I’ve since met a couple of people I was at school with who told me that diagnosis only came after they finished school – by which time the damage was done).

“Why does this matter to local institutions?”

Because they might be spending lots of money on creating and advertising a programme of classes, workshops and events that press all of the wrong buttons. Or in my case with Dowsing thus far, pressing the right ones. Perhaps it’s similar to some of the things I listed at the end of a blogpost on school sports – see here. Available, accessible, affordable, enjoyable, sociable – and to that I’d probably add inspirational and achievable too. Furthermore, perhaps something that provides a challenge – that makes you feel a little uncomfortable as a result of it being something new, or the surroundings and people being new.

Something for local institutions to ponder over as they plan for 2014/15?


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