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.