Exclusive Interview with The Voice Festival UK (Part 1)

Although the Voice Festival UK (VF-UK) is most widely known in the world of university a cappella for the national competition it hosts each year in late February and early March, the Voice Festival as an organisation is about much more than just one event. Now in its fourth year—and still run exclusively by a team of volunteers—the Voice Festival is the UK’s largest not-for-profit a cappella organisation, and has played an important role in helping to raise the profile of a cappella singing in the UK.

On an unexpectedly sunny November afternoon, I sat down with the Co-ordinator of the VF-UK University Programme and former member of the University of St Andrews’ The Alleycats, Tyler Mattiace, to talk about anything and everything a cappella.

In the first part of the interview, we talked mainly about the VF-UK University Programme and the growth of the Voice Festival UK over the past four years.

UACUK: So, you are the Co-ordinator of the University Program for the Voice Festival UK. What does that involve?

TM: As the University Programme Coordinator, I’m responsible for overseeing and delivering the Voice Festival’s year-round calendar of events and opportunities for university a cappella singers. However, as a team, the Voice Festival staff all take on various organisational responsibilities, so you may well see me helping run a workshop for members of the public or backstage at a showcase event for youth groups. Additionally, this year I am the Regional Manager for our events in Cambridge and London.

UACUK: So most of our readers will know of the Voice Festival as just the university competition that takes place in March. Is there more to it than that?

TM: Absolutely. The Voice Festival runs programmes for a cappella singers of all ages and backgrounds. Our offerings are divided between three programmes: the Youth Programme for singers under 18, the University Programme for singers in higher education, and the Community Programme for adult and post-university singers.

UACUK: And are these programs just about the competition in March?

TM: Definitely not. Each programme runs a year-round calendar of events and opportunities aimed at bringing together a cappella singers of all ages and backgrounds as part of a national a cappella community to meet, perform, and learn, both from each other and from VF-UK’s network of a cappella professionals and vocal experts. Each programme runs workshops, master classes, showcases, social events, and of course, an adjudicated competition for participating a cappella groups.

UACUK: So what’s the main aim of the festival?

TM: The Voice Festival has four main aims. (1) We aim to encourage new a cappella singers and foster the development of new a cappella groups by providing educational, financial and networking support at schools, universities and in communities across the UK. (2) We aim to develop new a cappella audiences by providing members of the public with opportunities to learn about and experience a cappella, such as public showcases and educational events. (3) We aim to support the development of current a cappella singers by providing opportunities for groups and singers from across the UK to meet, perform, and learn together throughout the year. (4) We aim to help build UK a cappella communities by creating opportunities for new and existing singers to meet, share ideas, and collaborate both at events and through online communities.

UACUK: So how does the University Programme fit into all of this?

TM: Well, in designing the Programme each year, we aim to provide a mix of events and opportunities throughout the year and across the country that will work towards all four aims.

UACUK: What about the University Competition?

TM: The Competition is an important part of the programme because it helps to raise the profile of a cappella, it provides groups who might normally never meet with opportunities to meet and learn from each other, and it gives University singers something to work towards each year.

UACUK: Let’s talk a little more about the University Competition now. You’ve decided, for a second year in a row, to expand the competition, which will now include a regional round in Bristol. Why?

TM: Each year, as a cappella continues to become more popular, especially at universities, we continue to re-assess our programming to ensure that opportunities like the Competition are available to as many groups as possible. We’d been talking with groups in ‘the West’ for a few years, but hadn’t felt there was enough interest to bring the Competition to Bristol until this year. This year, in addition to TUBBS, who participated in Birmingham last year, we’ve also had expressions of interest from a group at Bath, and a few groups at Exeter Uni including the Sweet Nothings who competed a few years ago, but had not participated in recent years. Obviously a lot of work is needed to make sure a Regional Round goes ahead, especially a new one, so we felt adding three at once last year would have been a little bit overwhelming – we do all have day jobs after all!

UACUK: Are these six rounds set in stone now then?

TM: Hopefully yes, but realistically if not enough groups from the Bristol area end up applying, then they’ll be allocated to one of the existing rounds. Between 4 and 6 groups are needed to run a round. With more than 6 groups, the evening is just too long and with fewer than 4, there isn’t the same atmosphere. Additionally, we want to make sure that all groups have roughly the same statistical chance of making it to the final (i.e. it wouldn’t be fair if some groups had a 1 in 3 chance while others had a 1 in 8 chance). We are pretty confident at this point though that the Bristol round will go ahead as planned.

UACUK: How are the applications coming? Do we have any new groups who are now definitely taking part this year?

TM: We’ve had a reasonable number of applications so far, but there are still quite a few to come in. The amount of interest we’ve had from groups around the country is encouraging, and it looks like we’re going to have a really full festival, which is great. We’ve had expressions of interest from a group in Aberdeen, a group in Bath as I said, a group in Bristol, so it’s coming along well.

UACUK: I spoke to several groups about the judging system after last year’s competition, some of whom were unsure as to why they had or hadn’t qualified for the final. Have you looked into the judging system ahead of this year’s competition?

TM: From the beginning, the Voice Festival Competitions have avoided using an extremely quantitative adjudication process for a few reasons. When VF-UK was founded, the University Competition only had three regional rounds and there was considerable overlap between judging panels. As we developed our adjudication system for the first year, many of our judges strongly advised us against using a numerical system, saying that in their experience it was both redundant and counter-productive.

They said that when they had adjudicated at competitions that used numerical rubrics, they spent more time looking down at their adjudication forms trying to decide on point values than they did actually watching the performances, which often meant that they would miss out on funny or memorable parts of the performance. They would then often find that, upon entering the judges’ room, all had already agreed on a winner but then were forced to spend time doing the maths on their adjudication sheets and either confirm what they had already decided, or change the numerical scores to reflect the decision they had come to through discussion.

Additionally, they were frustrated by the inability of rubrics to capture some aspects of the performance that were unquantifiable. How do you quantify personal enjoyment? How do you quantify creativity? Should jazz hands be 4 out of 5 or 7 out of 10? What if you feel that one group’s incredible arrangement made up for its bad solo interpretation, but the rubric says that the solo is more important than the arrangement?

UACUK: OK, but do you have guidelines that the judges should follow, regardless of any point scoring system?

TM: Absolutely. As I mentioned above, when we initially began to develop our adjudication system, the Festival was much smaller. As the Festival and the Competition have grown, it has become more important that we give the judges more guidance and have clearer judging criteria. We want to ensure continuity in the adjudication process across different rounds and ensure that the process is clear and understandable for participants. With seven rounds in the University Competition—not to mention the Youth and Community Competitions—we have a lot more judges, a lot more opinions, and a lot more scope for things to become unclear.

That’s why we’ve put a lot of time this year into expanding and clarifying the judging criteria to make sure that both judges and participants understand the system. Obviously our judges are experts in the field, so to some extent we don’t want to tell them how to do their jobs. However, we do want to be able to say that the way that groups are judged in Birmingham is the same as the way they will be judged in Oxford, St Andrews, etc, and we want groups to be able to understand what the judges mean when they refer to different judging criteria in their decisions. At the moment we are finalising the expanded criteria, which will be released very soon so that groups can use them as guidance as they prepare for the Competition.

In the second part of the interview, we will be discussing the other three programmes that the Voice Festival is running in the coming year.

Oxford Belles Charm at Christmas Concert

by John Lau

The shops are all stocking up on Christmassy stuff, the Christmas lights are going up already all over the high streets and, most importantly of course, a cappella groups are holding their Christmas gigs. So I was pleased to partake in my first ever weekend visit to Oxford, to witness the Oxford Belles’ Christmas Concert on Saturday 19th November.

To my horror, I suffered the ignominy of arriving late at the gig at the Bernard Sunley Theatre of Oxford’s St Catherine’s College, to the extent that I missed the 7.40pm start – despite being advertised as commencing at 7pm I still managed to think that 8pm was a better time to arrive. In any case, I only missed the relative campness of “It’s Raining Men”, so every cloud does have its silver lining, though I’m sure that the 14-strong class of 2011 managed to make it sound better than Martha Wash or even Geri Halliwell.

As it turned out, there was only one Belle participating in this gig who I managed to recall by sight from the group that I seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Show, due to the ‘Annual Revolving Door’ act that results in many ins and outs in these groups at the start of the academic year – but more about that later.

The Belles repertoire is easily recalled as they tend to stick to mainstream pop for their arrangements, but considering that this concert was advertised as their Christmas gig, I thought it unfortunate that there were no pieces in their playlist that could be regarded as “Christmassy” music. However, I am sure the girls will address this nearer the time – perhaps during one of their charming busking sets that could be heard on Cornmarket in the middle of Oxford during my visit to the historical town.

The rest of the first half was filled with the likes of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and a mash-up of Cascada’s “Evacuate the Dancefloor” against Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive”. And it was all received positively by everyone present in the large venue.

In the second half of the gig after a 15-minute interval, the Belles rendition of Britney’s “Toxic” sounded a lot smoother here than it did when I saw them for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but whether that was because I saw them after three voice-punishing weeks of Fringe madness rather than at the start of their run remains to be seen. Putting that to one side, my undoubted highlights of this particular gig were probably the medley of three soulful tunes containing Duffy’s “Mercy” and “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston, and their silky rendition of
“Run” by Snow Patrol.

Their last piece was another rap mash up between another Rihanna piece “Love The Way You Lie” against Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, which wrapped the concert up (excuse the Christmas pun) in a rather cool fashion.

So all in all, it was a pretty gig to go to, and one which was enjoyed by everyone present, despite the lack of a real Christmas feel to it. The Belles expressed their thanks and gratitude to everyone who attended, especially some of their own parents who were sat on the front row, and this really emphasised how charming and genuinely friendly each and every Belle is.

On a closing note, I hope that any future arrangements will not be too much of a problem for the Belles, as I found out in talking after the gig that their former Business Manager who had arranged all of the tunes sung at this gig has jumped ship to another a cappella group at Oxford University. This will no doubt help to continue the healthy rivalry between the Oxford groups, which will be displayed in its entirety in the Oxford Regional Round of the Voice Festival UK, which is just over four months away. I wish the Belles the best of luck with the competition and the rest of the year ahead.

Follow the Belles on Facebook here.

VF-UK 2012 Applications Now Open!

University a cappella groups – applications are now open for the Voice Festival UK University Competition 2012!

The 2012 University Competition will be bigger and better than ever before, with competitions, workshops and master classes in six regions across the UK culminating in the VF-UK University Competition Final in London on 10-11 March, where one group will be crowned Voice Festival UK University Champions 2012.

As always, singers from groups registered for the competition will have special access to the year-round schedule of events and opportunities provided by the VF-UK University Programme, which focuses on bringing together university a cappella singers from across the UK as part of a national a cappella community to meet, perform and learn both from each other and from VF-UK’s network of a cappella professionals and vocal experts. VF-UK University Competition participants receive special (often free or discounted) access to these events for being a part of the Voice Festival UK 2012.

To apply to enter the Voice Festival UK 2012 University Competition, click here to fill in the online application form. The deadline for receipt of both applications and entry fees is Wednesday 30 November.

The Voice Festival UK 2012 University Competition looks to be bigger and better than ever before with more singers from more universities at more events across the country and, we here at the blog hope as many groups as possible will want to show off their amazing a cappella talent across the country! If you have any questions or concerns about applying email tyler@thevoicefestival.co.uk.

You can follow The Voice Festival UK on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest VF-UK updates.

VoiceLab’s ‘Big Winter Sing’ – Applications Now Open!

An exciting opportunity has presented itself to all of our groups in the form of VoiceLab’s ‘Big Winter Sing’, which will be taking place on December 18th at the Southbank Centre in London.

The Soutbank Centre, which is the largest single-run arts centre in the world, is inviting all and any applications to perform during this night, which promises to fill ‘every nook and cranny’ of the building with music.

The night will start at 5pm, with several groups singing 20 minutes sets in different places, both inside and outside, and choir from all over the country will be expected to take part. The evening will culminate in a procession to the Clor Ballroom, where the choirs will lead spectators in a s election of festive favourites.

In the past, VoiceLab have performed with Mercury Prize Winners Elbow and have partaken in projects involving as many as 450 people singing simultaneously as part of huge choral festivals, so this is sure to be an unmissable opportunity and a fantastic experience.

To apply, either contact the Voice Festival at voice@voicefestival.co.uk, or VoiceLab themselves at voicelab@soutbankcentre.co.uk. For more information about the event, click here.

Voice Festival to Debut in New Bristol Regional

The Voice Festival UK yesterday released its first press release for the upcoming 2012 competition, with the revelation that it will include a sixth regional round, which will take place in Bristol.

This confirms rumours that several groups from the University of Exeter will be participating, with The Sweet Nothings, Semi-Toned and Take Note the favourites to make the step up to competitive competition, and with the Leeds A Cappella Singers also set to apply, this would make the Festival another record-breaking year in terms of participating groups.

The Festival has also decided to add a Community competition, which is for those not in higher education but wish to participate regardless. This emphasises the Festival’s domination of a cappella in the UK, and could see professional groups competing in the Festival for the first time.

We here at the blog are thoroughly excited for the highlight of the collegiate a cappella year in the UK, and look forward to seeing all the groups, from perennial challengers such as Out of the Blue and current champions Cadenza to any newcomers that will be participating. For the groups, the hard work starts here!

For more information about the Voice Festival UK, see their Website.

Amazing Night of A Cappella at Imperial

by Folarin Akinmade

As someone who cannot get enough of a cappella, evenings such as the one presented by The Techtonics on the evening of November 3rd at Metric at Imperial are Godsends. The Techtonics, in conjunction with the ICU A Cappella Society presented us with a veritable feast of a cappella. Many of the groups were unveiling their new line-ups for the first time after having had their auditions and so the excitement was palpable.

The Techtonics, as the hosts, opened the show with an epic sound, akin to the music you might have heard playing as Neil Armstong took his first step on the moon, underneath an absolutely hilarious movie-style voice-over by one James Haywood. They went on to give a very tight rendition of ‘This Love’ by Maroon 5, of which the balance and articulation of vowels showed a great attention to detail.

In The Smoke then took to the stage and their rendition of Thriller immediately showed that they were veterans to the game, their members drawn from various other a cappella groups. Their interpretation of Tom Waits’ Martha was evocative and haunting and contrasted brilliantly with their finale, a mash-up of Madonna’s ‘Music’, S Club 7’s ‘Don’t Stop Moving’ and Basement Jaxx’s ‘Red Alert. They also took this opportunity to partake of some very enthusiastically given audience participation and reminded us of their gig on the 23rd November at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall.

Next we had the first public performance of an all new line-up of The King’s Chix of King’s College, London. They suffered a bit of off tuning in the middle, but battled through to deliver a tender interpretation of Adele’s Someone Like You. Their cover of No Diggity’s Blackstreet was laid-back and confident and lead nicely on to a sultry cover of Etta James’ ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.

All The King’s Men, also of King’s College London opened up their set with a fun-filled cover of Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’. This was followed by a much more simple arrangement, ‘In The Still Of The Night’ in which the soloist, Himaka Jay was allowed to truly show off his soulful vocals. The men ended their set with a beautiful take on the classic, ‘Hallelujah’.

Next up were the Oxford Belles who opened up with Cascada’s ‘Evacuate The Dancefloor’, Aditi Arora’s powerful and confident vocals taking centre stage. We were treated to some amazing mash-ups, most pointedly their penultimate track a monster mash-up of Rhianna’s ‘Rude Boi’, Keri Hilson’s Turn My Swag on, Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ and ‘Love The Way You Lie Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise and 50 Cent’s ‘PIMP’. The brilliantly sung lyrics to the rap in Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ were delivered by Jane Lee who was also responsible for all of the Belles’ arrangements that night.

We were then presented with the Imperial College Chamber Choir, a larger group than most of the acts that had gone on before them and this was reflected in the richness and choral quality to their songs. We were treated to beautiful renditions of ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’, ‘And So It Goes’ by Billy Joel amongst others, performed stunningly by soloists, David McGuire, Michael Rownan, William Glendining and Helen Bratt.

We ended with another set from the Techtonics, ending on a high note with tracks such as ‘No Tomorrow’ by Orson. Very soon the crowd was up on their feet, dancing and our hosts were, at the behest of a very demanding and surprisingly rowdy audience forced to go on past their allotted time with a rousing rendition of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’.

Unauditioned A Cappella In St Andrews

Further to our interview with Alleycats member Andrew Adam at the end of August, we are pleased to announce that a new burgeoning a cappella group is on the verge of being created at the University of St Andrews.

The university already has four a cappella groups, The Hummingbirds, The Accidentals, The Other Guys and the Alleycats, but all four are auditioned, and Mr. Adam, the new President of the A Cappella Society at the university, wanted to allow people to get involved who would otherwise not have had the chance.

The first meeting of said group will be in Younger Hall on North Street in St Andrews on November 15th. We wish the group the best of luck in the future!

For more information, check out the event page.

The Magnets: A Talent For Survival

by Michael Welton

A while back The Magnets, and a number of other British a cappella groups, were contacted by an enthusiastic researcher from a TV company with plans to make a UK version of The Sing Off, a kind of X-Factor for American a cappella groups and a surprise hit for the NBC network. “Oh yes, it’s definitely been commissioned” she said sensing our scepticism. “Would The Magnets be interested in competing?” We politely declined, thinking forward to the ignominy of a professional group being beaten out of sight by a group of cute 16 year-old performing arts kids and their simple but energetic Grease medley, but added that we would of course be very interested in a role as mentors or judges. Alas for the UK a cappella scene the next time the researcher called the concept had shrunk to a Christmas special featuring only professional groups (raising the delicious idea of The Magnets duelling The Swingle Singers for best Yuletide medley), before the idea was unceremoniously dropped all together. Definite commission my arse.

Unfortunately third series ratings for The Sing Off are on the slide (blame those new two hour episodes – it’s true, you can have too much a cappella), so that may be the last we hear of a UK version, although the French are giving it a try. But, as Out of the Blue showed on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year, it certainly won’t be the end of the story for a cappella on TV talent shows. Indeed, it is a little broadcast (or perhaps memory supressed) fact that The Magnets owe much to two such shows for our surviving the tricky passage from student to professional group.

In these Back to the Future days of ‘X-Factor vs Strictly Come Dancing’ Saturday night entertainment it is hard to believe that in the 1990s such light entertainment TV was considered as outmoded as the test card and the continuity announcer’s bow tie. But some TV executives, who now look like visionaries, were determined to prove there was still life in Variety on TV. The Big Big Talent Show was a vehicle for Jonathan Ross, already a star chat show host, and the format was as traditional as they come. Comics were pitted against crooners and acrobats against a cappella groups. Having won through a round of (non-filmed, can you imagine!) public auditions, we were the first act on the first show of this brand new ITV series. It was a pretty daunting proposition for a group that had only been together for 18 months, and by the standards of today’s student groups at least, were pretty shambolic with a repertoire largely limited to a few Rockapella and Kings Singers arrangements.

We were nothing if not cocky though, and being on the first show meant we also got to film the not-for-broadcast pilot in front of a studio audience, so by the time the show proper came around we regarded ourselves as TV veterans. Decked out by the costume department in lime green, purple and orange shirts with matching pin-stripe suits we fairly nailed Paul Simon’s ‘Call Me Al’ but, in a lesson for all wannabe a cappella talent show hopefuls, lost out to a cute ventriloquist’s dummy*. We were in good company. Also beaten on that episode were comedian and now professional Hollywood bad guy Omid Djalli and comedy hero Ed Byrne, while for good or ill the series went on to launch Charlotte Church onto the national stage. Even the ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin (who went on to win the series final by a country mile), has gone on to carve out a successful career on the circuit, including multiple appearances on that holy grail of light entertainments, the Royal Variety Show.

The Big Big Talent show lasted just two series, its creators having failed to come up with Pop Idol/X-Factor/BGT TV gold of placing the same faces in front of the public for 16 weeks in a row. Back then it was just one heat and then, if you’re lucky, the final several weeks later. In those pre-Facebook, pre-website days we had no way of knowing how our performance had gone down with the public (contrast that with the 5000 people who ‘liked’ Out of The Blue on Facebook during their run on BGT). Though we were suddenly being recognised on the Underground, it seemed perfectly natural that our next shows were back on the streets busking alongside the jugglers and clowns of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We were too naïve then to even know how to go about getting a venue.

But in our own minds we were now TV stars. Rather than hand it on to the next bunch of students we greedily kept hold of The Magnets, and that taste of glory, that inflated self-perception helped see us through a succession of dead-end managers, no-gig agents, record company A&R rejections and numerous other near misses and disappointments as we balanced the survival of The Magnets with the post-university reality of temping jobs and Milk Round training schemes. It sustained us over four years until our life changing record deal with EMI and our next brush with TV talent show fame, of which more another time. We made it pro. Surely it’s only a matter of time, and possibly a lack of other postgraduate career options, before another student group does the same.

*We had previous with that dummy. He’d beaten us in a talent show at Dagenham Working Men’s club a few weeks previously. Top prize £50.

Out of the Blue Set For Album Launch

Following their success on Britain’s Got Talent and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Out of the Blue, arguably the biggest and certainly the most successful collegiate a cappella group in the UK, are set to release their new album, entitled ‘Rush’, on Wednesday evening.

Not only will they be performing at Blackwell Rare Books in Oxford to promote the album, but it will also be the last ever performance of the class of 2011 OOTB. Not only that, but the 2012 incarnation, fresh from their first ever concert last week, will be performing as well!

We here at the blog are thoroughly looking forward to the album which is bound to be a thoroughly enjoyable and professional effort. While time will tell if any of the new numbers will make it onto another Best of Collegiate A Cappella CD, like their cover of Damien Rice’s ‘Cold Water’ in 2010, there are sure to be some excellent arrangements by the boys from Oxford.

For more information about the event itself, click here.

Exeter Groups To Make Seasonal Debut

Two groups from the University of Exeter are set to perform for the first time this academic year at a special charity event organised by the university’s Amnesty International Society, alongside three other bands.

The Sweet Nothings and Semi-Toned will be part of a great line-up of acts at Mama Stones on November 9th from 8pm onwards. Although we are unsure whether either group will be competing in the Voice Festival UK this year, we are sure that this concert will be well worth watching.

For more information about the concert, visit the event page. If you would like to know more about the groups themselves, click on the following links for Sweet Nothings and Semi-Toned.