SWGMC 2015: A Bass Note

SWGMC are back from our summer break and already gearing up for our next concert (17 October, since you ask), but rather than spending all of our time looking forwards we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back at how the choir have spent 2015 so far. So here our bass section leader, Stephen Whitehead, talks us through his highlights of SWGMC 2015:

Steven along with his section in a sectional gathering.
Steven along with his section in a sectional gathering.

I’ve been asked to write about what it’s like to sing with SWGMC, in particular in those performances which are not principally ours but where we are invited to perform by others, sometimes for the first time. And events in 2015 have provided the ideal opportunity to do just that. Here goes.

By January 2015, South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus’ programme for the year was set, and included dates for our own Cardiff concerts in June and October, plus a visit to Cornwall in May. The first music for our June ‘Brotherhood’ themed concert had been sent, downloaded and printed ready for learning. Then three invitations, out of the blue and hot off the e-mail press, meant that our public performances would begin earlier than planned. Each would be a ‘first’ and would, in its own way, prove to be truly memorable.

SWGMC at the premier of "Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage"; Ruth Jones and Gareth Thomas paused for a picture with the boys
SWGMC at the premier of “Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage”; Ruth Jones and Gareth Thomas paused for a picture with the boys

In February we were approached by National Theatre Wales. Would we be able to sing in the Sherman Theatre at the press night of Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, a new play which told the story of the career and ‘coming-out’, and resulting media sensation, of Welsh International Rugby player Gareth Thomas. Since he came-out Gareth has become an active campaigner against homophobia in sport, working especially with young people.
A couple of years ago the media reported a number of suicides amongst young people in Bridgend which had a devastating effect on the community, and through a thought-provoking balance of humour, drama and sport, the play skilfully interwove Gareth’s story with that of Bridgend and those suicides.
It showed not only how far we have come as society with regards to LGBT equality as a whole but also, in some respects, how far we have yet to go. It’s a sobering thought that for some in our audiences, these performances may be the only time they knowingly come into contact with openly gay people. The choir foregathered in the bar post curtain where, with a suitably chosen programme and against a percussive accompaniment of tinkling glasses, we entertained an appreciative audience. At times music becomes the way by which we can build bridges.

Pride Film
Pride (2014) highlighted the struggle the Miners and LGBT community faced back in the 1980’s under the Thatcher Government. Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners formed in 1984 and a year later they were joined in solidarity by the Welsh Mining Communities to march in London Pride of 1985.

In March we received another invitation, this time from Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre. Would we be able to sing at a special screening of ‘PRIDE’ at the Big Pit Mining Museum? The award-winning film charts the events of 1984/85 when a group from London, LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners), spearheaded a nationwide campaign to financially support striking miners through voluntary collections. Initially they focussed on Onllwyn in South Wales, and thanks to their efforts the two disparate communities became united in a way that was unprecedented. As most of us had seen the film, some more than once, and knowing how moving, inspiring and uplifting it is we also knew this performance would be extra special. Thankfully we sang our twenty five minute programme prior to the film’s screening, as it would have been difficult singing afterwards. As one of our members commented, ‘Will there ever be a time when we don’t cry at this film?’ The question was not necessarily rhetorical.

London Pride
Subsequently we had the honour to join LGSM and Tredegar Town Band on June 27th at London Pride to commemorate this historic event in the campaign for LGBT equality.

Question: how do you squeeze eighteen choristers, a conductor, vocal coach, accompanist, keyboards, a presenter and all the usual studio equipment into one small BBC radio studio? The secret is to take it in turns to breathe, as we discovered when were asked by BBC Radio 2 to sing ‘live’ on the Jeremy Vine Show from BBC Llandaff in March.

SWGMC join the Jeremy Vine show live in Cardiff
SWGMC join the Jeremy Vine show live in Cardiff

Two numbers leading up to the main news on the hours of the programme? No problem. Would we be able to do something ‘extra’; how about a jingle for the programme? Certainly. You have one? Ah, you want us to invent one!? No problem! Three minutes to go, improvisation kicks in and with moments to spare we have a jingle, it is rehearsed, the BBC like it, and three minutes in we sing it ‘live’; to an anticipated audience of 7 million people. We have sung in concert halls, theatres, churches, even a bio dome at the Eden Project, but to an unseen audience of 7 million people! No pressure!
Those of you who were listening in may have recalled that rather challenging question Jeremy posed from his audience of “Why a gay choir?” – Mark Anderson told us all at the time very much “Why a gay choir?” in his blog.

Fast forward to July now (but not forgetting our Brotherhood concert in June, see previous blog post here). In 1471 there was some hostility in Tewkesbury when the Houses of Lancaster and York fought it out in the Wars of the Roses. Thankfully, when we arrived in 2015 all thoughts of hostility had abated, although the fact that the town was in the middle of a Medieval Festival was a vivid reminder of its past. As a choir we seem to thrive on challenges, and in this case this involved singing a selection of West End and Broadway Musical songs in a new venue (Tewkesbury Methodist Church), with a new orchestra (the brilliant Tewkesbury Camerata, who we’d never even met before) and under the baton of a new conductor, the accomplished maestro Mark Aitchison (who we had met before but not been regularly conducted by).

Shows-Songs-Final-Social-MediaTewkesbury Camerata are an orchestra who meet for the first time on the day of their concerts, rehearse in the afternoon and perform in the evening. We did exactly the same (after, it must be admitted, a piano rehearsal with Mark in Cardiff the Thursday before). Our previous experiences in Cornwall have proved that singing in Methodist Churches (Camborne, St Austell and now Tewkesbury) has a positive effect and this was no exception, as the capacity audience which was packed into the venue that night proved when, two and half hours later, they gave everyone participating that night a standing ovation. All performances are important – they are where we build bridges, establish new connections and invite audiences to share our world and love of music – but they are equally important in how we can raise awareness and funds to support our chosen charity. Of which, this year is Mind Cymru – our boys are running the Cardiff 10K Run in an effort to fundraise for Mind Cymru – Please help us reach our target of £800 for Team SWGMC

e98_EP6d_400x400 Cardiff-10K-code-panel

So far in 2015 we have received four invitations which have led to ‘firsts’ for us (and there are more to come at the time of writing, watch this space) and, as always, we have risen to the occasions. Singing is hard work, the ‘trick’ is to make it look, and sound, as if it’s not. It uses muscles you never knew you had, or had forgotten about. It involves intensive rehearsals, and any ‘deer in the headlight’ moments are combatted by an adrenalin rush. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun and with this choir it pays dividends on so many levels.

Oct 5th 2013 - RWCMD - SWGMC 5th Anniversary
Oct 5th 2013 – RWCMD – SWGMC 5th Anniversary

I’ve been singing for over fifty years, starting as a boy soprano, graduating through male alto and baritone to bass (by-passing tenor but not sure how), and over the years I’ve sung with some fantastic choirs, operatic societies and opera groups. I had the pleasure of joining South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus in 2009 and was invited to become bass section leader in 2012. From the moment we step out on stage to when we take our final bows, no matter what the venue or programme, singing with these guys is really special and there’s nowhere else, at that time, I’d rather be.

*** SWGMC says a huge thanks to Steven Whitehead on the blog he’s given us, recounting a very fruitful and enjoyable year we’ve all had! ***

A ‘Gay’ Chorus – To be, or not to be?

Since we were founded in 2008, South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus has grown significantly in ability, repertoire and ambition. We’ve been challenged – and improved – time and time again thanks to the continued efforts of our incredible musical team, and these days we regularly entertain audiences across Wales and the UK, and last year we even went to Ireland to sing at Various Voices festival in Dublin. In that time we’ve seen members come and go, and out of the ones who’ve stayed it’s fair to say that there are many different reasons for them sticking around. Some would say it’s the music, some would say it’s the company and the friends we’ve made, some would say it’s the great opportunities we get – like being invited to sing at London Pride in June 2015 (watch this space for more details!). And for some, what resonates most is the fact that we are a gay choir.

11075135_10153174743058622_5071767908282377816_oA few weeks ago you may have heard us on BBC Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show. We were invited along as part of a Welsh special, recorded here in Cardiff, and during this inaugural Radio 2 appearance we were confronted with a question about who we are. Jeremy’s audience were confused (particularly on Twitter) as to why we would chose to identify as a “gay” choir, and Jeremy relayed this question to us during the interview.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time we’ve been asked “why do you need to be a ‘gay’ choir”. Despite the fact that, yes, most of us are gay, the reason we come together to sing as a “gay choir” is not because we’re afraid of standing out in a non-gay choir, nor is it because we don’t want to sing with straight men (or with women). Instead the reason many of us joined is because we share a common interest (singing) as well as a common identity and set of experiences (our sexuality), and joining a group like SWGMC was a way of combining these aspects of our lives and meeting similarly minded people. All of us have different experiences of growing up gay – in particular there is a massive difference between the experiences of older members of the choir, who grew up when homosexuality was still illegal, and those of us still in our early 20s – but being a part of this group allows us to share these experiences, and in doing so we can learn from and support each other and help to build our collective confidence. This is a great thing for any group, but especially one where mutual support and a sense of community are so important. The news is constantly peppered with stories of LGBT people around the world facing disadvantage and even hatred and abuse because of their sexuality, so providing a safe space for our members to be themselves and do something they love, and do it proudly, is something that’s very important to us.

pic5That may be the reason we joined. As for why many of us have stayed, this is partly because we enjoy each other’s company and the sense of community we get out of singing together, but also because being part of South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus is really rather fun. When asked “Why a gay choir?” one of our members jokingly replied “… to make our straight friends jealous!” He went on to explain that so many of his friends wished they were part of a group that were as close as we are – something that’s evident from our performances that they’ve seen as well as the fun we have in our frequently brilliant after-parties and social events (check out a past blog here about the social aspect of SWGMC if you want to know more about the fun we have when we’re not performing (well, not publically anyway!))

Of course the truth is that the “gay” aspect of our identity varies in importance among our members. For some it’s a fairly minor detail, whilst for others it plays an important role in shaping who we are. When we were founded, our gay identity combined with our musical ambition helped to mark us out as an alternative way for like-minded gay men to meet each other, away from the alcohol-fuelled stereotypes that gay men often have to resort to if they want to meet and socialise with other gay men. For some members this has been a fundamental reason behind them joining in the first place. Add to this the draw of an impressive and challenging musical repertoire and an increasingly impressive performance history and it’s little surprise that the group has become as popular as it is, for both members and audiences. Thanks to our focus on great music and on providing a safe space for all, we have continued to surprise people both within and outside the gay community by helping to dispel stereotypes, highlight a different aspects of the gay ‘scene’ and help create a proudly positive and visible gay presence, all the while putting on a bloody good show.

The countdown to the start of the night was a mass of ghastly preparations and lashings of fake cobweb and we were very excited by all the tweeting and support, especially from Stonewall Cymru, our charity for the year who we were raising funds for on the night.

We are greater than the sum of the words that make up our name – South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus – and if you delve beneath the surface of SWGMC you’ll find that our boys represent a diverse community of men of different ages, backgrounds, faiths, skills, career paths, opinions and of course different pitches of voice! And just as a choir wouldn’t be a choir without the different voices within it, SWGMC wouldn’t be so either without our diversity of members. It’s when our differences come together in harmony that we can truly make some beautiful music.

We are proud to be a strong and hardworking chorus who can perform proudly and confidently alongside any other choir – gay or otherwise. We have sung with other LGBT groups including London’s Pink Singers and Cardiff’s own LBT ladies’ choir, the Songbirds, and we will shortly be making our second appearance at the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival to show that “gay” isn’t all that we’re about. Any prejudices that we encounter we face head on, with a smile and a non-confrontational approach. We demonstrate to society at large that the gay community is not built from stereotypes but from people, and that apart from one small detail we’re just the same as the rest of you. One thing that’s particularly great about being in SWGMC is the fact that we can be out there singing, having fun, making friends and being ourselves, and all the while we’re promoting positive images of gay men and providing role models for others in the LGBT community to look to when they are struggling – something that we know groups like Stonewall Cymru really appreciate and which helps them in the brilliant work that they do.

We’re not very evangelical or political about our gay identity (but all pride to those who are about theirs!) – instead what we do is sing great music to entertain our audiences – a positive ambition that we are proud to carry forwards! Through the challenges of learning new music together we find that we are able to make a sound that is bigger and better than any of us could make on our own, and we hope that through doing so we can show the positive power of coming together to do something you love. As well as having fun, through our music we blast old wounds out of the water and help each other exorcise common and personal demons we’ve each faced in our lives. Sometimes we’ve even seen members of the audience cry when we’ve sung and have wondered what old wounds we are helping them to heal as well. What a marvellous thing to help people feel something!

But being gay, at its core, is about little other than who you fall in love with – that’s it. Not that much of a difference when you think about it. And despite our differences, we hope to show that finding a common ground can make us strong, be it sexuality, a love of music, a favourite sport, anything. The fact is, if we were the Splott Community Choir, or the South Wales Police choir – a group who only had their neighbourhood or their job in common as opposed to their sexuality – I doubt anyone would argue that their name was exclusive or inappropriate.

Having “Gay” at the heart of “South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus” isn’t about showing what makes us different, it’s about showing what makes us the same, and using our name as a beacon of pride, community and collective strength.

The bottom line is, we are the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus.
Loud and Proud!
Why on earth would we want to hide any aspect of that?
“Gay” is only one word out of five after all! 😉

RWCMD Dora Stoutzker - 5th Anniversary Concert
Oct 5th 2013 – RWCMD – SWGMC 5th Anniversary

*** written by Mark Anderson, edited and further contributions by Nick de Figueiredo – with feedback and comments from all at SWGMC