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! ***

Of ‘Mind’ and men

Since last year and re-launching this site, we’ve begun writing blogs to give our audience an insight into what life is like in SWGMC. These blogs have been about the great times we (and hopefully our audiences!) have had at our concerts, about the journeys we’re taking to festivals and other events that we’ve been invited to around Wales and the UK, and about the fun and social side of being in SWGMC and the mischief that we get up to when we’re not on stage (and sometimes when we are!).

stage-hackney

Of course our music and our various performances make up a big part of what we’re all about, but we also make a point of doing more and just singing. For example, each year we nominate a charity to fundraiser for, something that has become a fundamental part of who we are as a group, and we’ve learnt a lot from and contributed to our chosen charities since we began. The recent AGM we had back in February was no different, and the charity voted in for this year was Mind Cymru, highlighted in the AGM blog that we posted earlier this year.

mapmc

In 2015, society and its acceptance of civil rights has made tremendous strides into a more tolerant era, albeit mostly isolated still to the more economically and socially developed countries of our world. The progression these areas of the globe have achieved has not been without its share of turmoil, and you’d think that by now we’d be more tolerant in our view of the unknown.

Only recently, we’ve heard about the devastating plane crash that happened in Europe and the following news headlines attached to this, most of them showing an incredibly negative side of mental health. Our thoughts at SWGMC are with the families affected by this tragedy, but also with the family of the pilot responsible for the crash.

SWGMC and the community we represent are often all too familiar with the mistakes and poor choices the media take in highlighting a small part of someone’s identity and stretching its relevance to sensationalise a story.
As Pink News recently highlighted, being ‘gay’ is still targeted in the media, as was the case in this story. Mind have also released a statement about the media coverage of this event to respond to the negative focus on the man’s mental health – and this sadly is one of many reminders of the struggles faced by Mind and other mental health awareness groups, not to mention those affected by mental illness and their loved ones.

SWGMC are proud to support Mind Cymru this year, because mental health should now, finally, be taken more seriously in today’s world. It brings it home to all the boys, every time we hear of another teen suicide in the LGBT community, or with personal experiences with friends and family. Many of us at SWGMC have opened up and faced some of our own demons, and as a chorus we’ve been there for each other through song and we socialise together almost like a second family. For me especially, SWGMC has been as much of a support group as it has a serious commitment to great musicality and great performance.

Mental Health is beginning to be recognised in many forms, but one which we’d really like to focus on with Mind this year is that which affects men in the UK. Back in February of this year, the BBC highlighted that suicide is one the biggest killers of men in this country, highlighting in particular that “78% of all suicides were in men.” This is indeed shocking and many of us in the choir know of a friend or family member that this has affected. And so we’re looking forward to the partnership and support we can gain by teaming up with Mind Cymru this year and particularly hoping to highlight men’s mental health in our upcoming concert Brotherhood: A Celebration of Masculinity.

SWGMC_Man postcard_Faces_v1_rev2 - SWGMC_Man postcard_Hobbies_v1_rev2 -  (1)

Speaking of my own experience, since the beginning of the year, I made a commitment to myself to set some personal goals. Some were about starting new things, some were about self-improvement and one which I’ve particularly enjoyed was starting to read more. I have one final note to end this blog and one of which I thought highlights our upcoming concert nicely, a particularly poignant quote:

“If expressing what you want and feel means you can’t be a man, then this society has a really ******-up view of masculinity.”
– from “Smoky Mountain Dreams” by Leta Blake

All the men at SWGMC have their own identity and the way we define or even express our masculinity is different, for each of us, but we’re proud of who we are, proud of each other and we stick together as a group.

Thanks for reading – we’re hoping to see you at our upcoming concert and in support of Mind Cymru.

AGM – SWGMC 2015-16

So 2015 seems to have flown by already, Jan has been and gone and we’ve already had our AGM.

Thursday 5th February @ St Anne’s Church saw the annual reports presented and the 2014 committee dissolved; with a heartfelt thanks [Nick McNeill – Chariman] to the committee for all the hard work over the past year. He regaled us with his own personal highlights and accomplishments we’ve all faced together and how excited we should be for the planned year ahead.

Following the reports and chairman’s speech, the first order of business was to make a slight alteration to the constitution. The change passed and saw our dedicated and supportive musical team [the ladies] moving forward gaining a vote in the AGM.

The re-election of the committee saw a mirror of its dissolving as last year’s committee got re-elected.

So a congratulations to the committee of 2015!

  • Chair – Nick McNeill
  • Musical Director and Conductor – Andy Bulleyment
  • Treasurer – Mark Anderson
  • Secretary – Mark Achurch
  • Chorus Liaison Officer – Nick de Figueiredo
  • Creative Lead – Phil Truman

Finally, we had to choose the charity of the year from our nominations of Mind Cymru and Prostate Cymru.
Mark Anderson and Phil Truman both put forth their reasons to vote and the question was put for any questions.
An unexpected conversation ensued about how we manage being involved in charities in future, but it was put to a vote and Mind Cymru was voted our charity of the year.

Mind Cymru is the leading mental health charity in Wales; Mental Health is something which affects us all in life, whether through personal experience, friends or family. Sadly, Mental Health isn’t given enough respect or acknowledgement in the UK and sadly we’ve been reminded all too often in recent news of the devastating affects it has on young gay teens. Amongst other ideas for fundraising and awareness his year, it’s a great opportunity in our upcoming concert: Brotherhood: A Celebration of Masculinity, to highlight there are many ways to be a man in this world and we should all take care of bodies as well of our minds.

The AGM was then brought to a close and discussions and plans for Cornwall and our next concert are already under way.
So like to start the year as we mean to go on – in song:

SWGMC 2015 Showcase Video
Featuring our performance of “All I Need is the Girl”
from our 2013 RWCMD 5th Anniversary Concert