The Dowsing Sound Collective’s Christmas Cocktail – a cracker!


A view from the stage

Click here for the official video of the gig.

This time last year Puffles got an invitation to see the Dowsing Sound Collective at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

Jenny, it’s all your fault!

So…where dragon gets an invitation, dragon tends to go!

…and then we were hit by this wave of musical energy

Spotting the wonderfully talented Jennie Debenham in the collective, my first reaction after that track was:

“Yep – I wanna be where they are!”

My thoughts following last year’s concert – and on the launch of the Dosoco Foundation are in this blogpost. That launch as it turned out was the start of something that is already changing lives across Cambridgeshire.

Fast forward a few days short of a year, and that’s where I found myself – with my camcorder recording the concert from the other side of the hall. It was just before the interval where Andrea Cockerton, our musical wizard who unleashed the power within us all on stage, made a series of announcements on £4,000 of grants. Have a watch.

Of the charities mentioned, The Romsey Mill in my neighbourhood does amazing work with teenage parents. I am featuring them in my film for the Mill Road Winter Fair 2014 – a first draft of which is here. The other, Centre33 (based in Cambridge & Ely in Cambs) may be familiar to many longer-term readers. Over a decade ago they provided me with much-needed and empathetic free counselling,  something I had really struggled with at university. It was here that I had one of the very few counsellors that I connected with and who was able to analyse the ‘noise’ in my head & distill issues down to a handful of ‘hinge’ moments in my personal history. Hence in 2004 I did a TV interview as a service user for BBC’s Look East, followed by a radio interview in the same role for BBC Cambridgeshire. In 2013, Centre 33 was adopted as on of two official charities for Mayor Paul Saunders’ term of office. Here’s the story behind his choice. So to hear that Centre33 are benefiting at a time of continued grant funding cuts from elsewhere is great to hear.

A very tough run up

As far as my health was concerned, it was an awful run-in to a massive performance. Sleeping patterns all over the place (which inevitably plays havoc with my mental health), and strikingly persistent head cold that I’ve still not shaken didn’t do me any favours. It screws up your concentration, and voice-wise means you cannot get any volume. I wasn’t the only one taken out by the cold bug – we lost a number of very talented people to it on the evening of the performance. Despite our numbers, it makes a difference. Well, to me it does. Many of the people that sing with us are in their 30s-60s. Thus their presence – especially the altos – tends to have a calming effect on me.

Finding musical anchors in a sea of talented musicians.

I mentioned this to Angela Jameson-Potts earlier this year at my first concert hall performance with the Dowsing Sound Collective. In the video below, she’s on my right-hand-side.

In that performance, she was my musical anchor – as well as being that little bit older and wiser than me. I hadn’t really appreciated how used to having the second altos behind me in rehearsals until the full dress rehearsal and the performance. With so many of us singers in the collective, Andrea’s able to run wild with the number of different vocal parts she can write into pieces – the result being some incredibly powerful crescendos of chords. With vocalists rehearsing on two separate days, the traditional ‘soprano-alto-tenor-bass’ parts can be broken into upper and lower parts for each, with one for each day. 4 x 2 x 2 means Andrea can write up to 16 different parts if she wants to. And that’s before she’s even looked at the drums, bass, rhythm & lead guitars, string quartet, brass/sax trio and any other instruments she can throw in. Last night we had bagpipes, eigenharp (see here for a demo) and a steel pan player!

It was at this performance that I got a sense of which musical parts I need & where. For example I’m more comfortable when us tenors are clustered rather than spread out. I also prefer not being in the front row – it somehow feels less exposed that way.

The energy of an audience – crowd dynamics at play?

Being in an enclosed space with over 1,000 people in the same hall applauding you is something that would move even the most stone-hearted of people. At the final pre-show run-through, a combination of sheer exhaustion along with internal angst over various pieces of news coming together at the same time was something I found incredibly challenging to deal with. Not least because you don’t want to let anyone down or cause problems over issues that in the grand scheme of things are either personal or minor. You want to keep that focus. In part, that’s where any professional training in any field in the workplace comes in. You grit your teeth & get on and do it because you’re a professional. OK, it wasn’t quite true. It was more a case of having to go through these moments to experience the emotional highs on the other side.

Because of the above, when we marched onto the stage, my mindset was on getting through it as fast as possible. Fortunately the audience had other ideas. The applause here was noticeably different to what we had both for the summer performance on Parker’s Piece for the Cambridge leg of the Tour de France, (which was open-air), and at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds (which was a smaller venue, smaller crowd & a modern hall with a much sharper acoustic). Hence my mood for the second half was more this:

About two decades ago, Oasis played that very track on that very stage in that same venue.

The audience didn’t dance last year, but they conga’d down the aisles this year!

By the time we got to our final track, I was roasting underneath the stage lights despite the very cold temperatures outside. Hence ditching the dinner jacket for that famous Scottish anthem ‘500 miles’. Spontaneously, most of the other men did the same at the same time – as they did the previous year but to a different number. That I didn’t see coming – but having spotted Becky Chambers of one of Dowsing’s new London collectives leading it, we were even more smiles. Straight after, a group of teenage girls raced towards the stage, gesturing and waving with huge grins on the faces. At one point it looked like the were going to invade the stage – until one of them eyeballed me asking me to get the attention of one of my fellow singers (Tom) next to me. Turns out it was his daughter & her friends.

Post-gig parties – they are always fun, aren’t they?

I ended up at two, some even more. The first was at St Catherine College’s incredibly trendy-London-style bar and function room – which was buzzing. My friends Penny & Chris had come up from London for the gig. The Dowsing crowd took them under their wings. We then ended up at The Fountain Inn – where Fay Roberts runs the Hammer & Tongue poetry slam events. (Here’s a clip). The taxi driver on the way back told us they had a licence to stay open till 3am. On a Sunday night/Monday morning. It was surprisingly busy even at 2am when we called it a night.

“What was it like being on stage?”


Actually, I take that back. It was inspiring.

We had an audience that ***wanted us to do well***. When there are over 100 of you on stage, you inevitably have a room teeming with family & friends. As soon as we got on stage the number of people waving at us from the audience was incredible. That was when I got the first sense that the audience would be far more energised than the previous year. Makes a change from some of the policy audiences I’ve spoken at where there are people in the room that want you to screw up big time because they don’t like the government’s policy of the day that as a civil servant you’re presenting & defending.

It wasn’t ‘mindless noisy applause’ either. The mood of the applause matched the tone of the songs we performed. So for the more mellow-but-moving tracks, the applause matched the mood of the song. The songs that ended on really intense and extended crescendos got applauses that matched that intensity. It was this response that got me through that evening.

“Good night had by all?”

Yep – and the footage I filmed came out better than I had expected. Obviously the audio was always going to struggle, but I’ve got it at a level where I can replace it with the recorded version on the professional sound equipment used by the venue. Before the gig I set up my camcorder and ran a series of test-recordings during the sound checking to zoom in enough to get visual expressions of individuals while trying to get as many faces into the shot. Just before the performance started, I pressed record & left the camcorder to do its magic. Over Christmas I’ll be working on the footage – and lots of other digital video things.

***Thank you & well done*** to everyone involved in what was a wonderful experience.

For more info on the Dowsing Sound Collective/We Are Sound – including spaces at the new London collectives, and on the Dosoco Foundation, please see



2 thoughts on “The Dowsing Sound Collective’s Christmas Cocktail – a cracker!

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