Disclaimer: we like Gareth Malone. Not only has he done more than anyone we can remember to encourage singing in the UK but he also sent us a very nice message of support when we first set up Sing a Cappella! (and we don’t forget these things!). As we approach the final of his BBC2 series (next Tuesday 9pm BBC2) we reflect on what we’ve learned.
Have you been watching “The Naked Choir”? If so 4.4% of the UK population are with you (2.7 million per week). It easily ranks in the top five most watched programmes on BBC2. Few watchers are existing contemporary a cappella fans – all those who have struggled to sell tickets for events will attest that this hasn’t really broken into the mainstream. These are new potential fans – brought aboard by the driving impetus of the ubiquitous “balloon debate mechanism” and Gareth’s infectious enthusiasm.
Amongst existing singers feedback has been nuanced. Some have become disengaged citing the obvious levels of artifice involved, the forming of unsubstantiated “narratives” around each group and the fact that camera operators swoop vulture-like to “package up” anyone displaying any form of emotion into a neat 30 second segment. Speaking as someone involved as a contestant in the BBC’s last foray into choral competition – Last Choir Standing – I understand these concerns and recognise how hard it can be on the groups involved and how some might feel they are unfairly exploited by the “production machine”.
I think we need to cut the show some slack. It’s easy to be cynical about “reality tv” but it can’t be denied that the show, for all its artifice, is never less than compelling viewing, contains valuable truths about performance, solos, staging, choreography, arranging and engaging with an audience and has more than once captured those “bottled lightning” jaw dropping performances from talented people which keep so many of us such passionate fans of the genre. On this latter point I’d certainly commend to you Choral Stimulation’s Caitlin Sinclair singing an emotional rendition of Prince’s famous ballad “Nothing Compares to You” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSj_eS1Sqww), and Sons of Pitches’ extraordinary retake on Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBVq8FtsYyI)– both of which were arranged and choreographed in just three days – as amongst many highlights of the programme so far.
In your own chorus: there’s a huge amount to think about and learn from in the challenges set for the various singing groups. Episode three is all about taking a brave and unflinching look at your weaknesses as a group and challenging yourself to address them – I’m sure most of us don’t do this nearly enough. Episode 4 has some useful pointers on performance (note to self – stop closing your eyes when performing). Episode 5 some thought provoking stuff on harnessing social media via viral videos – sorry folks, this is an essential skill for modern day a cappella groups.
When the competitors were initially announced seasoned observers of these pages may have felt that effective competition ended the day Birmingham’s “Sons of Pitches” entered the fray. They are famously feted here and elsewhere as radical re-interpreters of songs and it’s been great to see their genius showcased to a wider audience. As it turns out the show’s producers chose wisely both in selecting the competing choirs and engaging some exceptional coaches and judges. ‘SoP’ might have been the group to beat in most challenges but each week there’s always been another group to run them close. All the groups performing are monumentally talented but those of us who sing in community choirs have a new hero in the form of recording artist Byron Gold (byrongold.co.uk), who proves with his talented singers that open, unauditioned, democratically run groups can provide just as good technical and artistic performances as the semi-pros. Overall any of the finalists could, and deserve to, win.
It’s fashionable these days to talk of legacies. How will this show be remembered once the winner has been appropriately feted? The moment a cappella broke into the mainstream? Probably not although it’s been lovely to receive a number of enquiries here at Sing a Cappella! from people wishing to try out singing for the first time after being inspired by the programme. A launchpad for the winning group to Pentatonix style global adoration? It can’t be ruled out but crucially winning “The Naked Choir” does not come with a Simon Cowell style “million pound recording contract” and many of us long termers will remember The Magnets at our workshop a few years ago speaking candidly about the difficulties of turning professional and making a living out of a cappella performance. At the very least it would be great to see a big influx of new faces at next year’s Voice Festival (on whose competitions “The Naked Choir” is based and who have provided much support to Gareth’s production team).
Ultimately I think the real winners of The Naked Choir are those of us a cappella fans and communities who get to admire these talented groups, marvel at and learn from their journeys through the show. It’s been a remarkable and memorable ride and for that, at least, we should be grateful to all the groups who have so generously shared their highs and lows, Gareth and the show makers.
If you would like to see more a cappella on TV (and live in the UK) then Gareth’s show is to be shortlisted for a National Television Award at the O2 on January 20th. Good support will encourage other production companies to feature a cappella talent so do vote for the show if you can. You can vote from 1st January but sign up for a reminder now at http://www.nationaltvawards.com/vote.
PS: I’ve been thinking for two decades that Yesteryear’s “comedy compere” Len Matthews should have his own TV show. How wonderful has it been to see him get one at last?
Will you be watching the final? Do you agree with me? Why not leave a comment below?
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