Exclusive Interview with The Voice Festival UK (Part 2)

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. In this second part of the interview, we spoke about some of the other programmes run by the Voice Festival and how they fit into the Festival’s overall goals.

UACUK: So let’s move on to some of the other Festival programs you mentioned. First, let’s talk about the Youth Program, which is now in its third year.

TM: The Youth Programme has been an important part of what we’ve been doing ever since the Voice Festival was founded. In the first year of the Voice Festival University Competition [in 2009], we had some youth groups participating in the pre-competition workshops at the final with the university singers. This music education element has remained a huge part of what the Voice Festival does and has grown into a separate programme almost as large as the University Programme.

UACUK: So the Youth Programme started out as a way to create links between school-age singers and university groups?

TM: Exactly. As I mentioned earlier [in part one of the interview] one of the main aims of the Voice Festival is to encourage and educate new a cappella singers. We think that one of the best ways to do that is to get them interested in a cappella while they’re young! A big focus of the Programme has been bringing together youth and university singers so that younger kids get the opportunity to see that there is much more to singing than they may have had experience with and that singing can be ‘cool’ when they get older.

UACUK: So how has that now developed into a full Voice Festival programme of its own?

TM: Well, after the first year, we began to make more connections with local school music departments in the communities where we hold each of our regional rounds. We found that there was a lot of interest in learning about contemporary a cappella so we started getting schools involved in the workshops at our regional rounds.

UACUK: So the Youth Program isn’t necessarily about working with already formed a cappella groups?

TM: Well, it does a bit of both. As we were making more connections with schools and other music educators to try to provide more opportunities for younger singers to learn about a cappella, people began telling us about a cappella groups at their schools and asking whether there were any opportunities for them to perform or compete at Voice Festival events. At first this was just groups associated with schools, but more recently we’ve had also self-run youth a cappella groups contacting us independently about performing and competing. This has led to a huge growth in what we offer to youth singers. We still provide a lot of ‘beginner’ opportunities, but the Youth Programme also now runs events targeted specifically at youth groups, such as the Schools on Stage workshop at London A Cappella Festival this January and the Youth Competition, which runs alongside the University Competition. I should add that the Youth Programme and University Programme also still run joint events together because we still think it’s important to create links between singers of different ages.

UACUK: That brings us on nicely to the Youth competition – what can you tell us about that?

TM: The Youth Competition is in its third year now, and although it hasn’t quite reached the size of the University Competition, it’s been growing fast as more young people learn about a cappella and more youth a cappella groups form. For the past three years, the Youth Competition has taken place at the same location as the Final of the University Competition, usually sometime during the day. The youth groups usually participate in all or part of the workshops with the university groups and then go to a separate room to be adjudicated by one of the judges from the University Competition panel.

In its first year, it was just a group one-on-one with an adjudicator in a semi-competition semi-master class format, where each group would get immediate feedback and there was no audience. However, by last year the Youth Competition has grown into something very similar to the University Competition—auditorium style with an audience and written feedback afterwards, albeit usually in a slightly smaller venue. This year, we’ve had a phenomenal amount of interest from youth groups, and it’s looking like we may have more than one round of the Youth Competition, which would be very exciting for everyone!

UACUK: You’ve also decided to introduce a Community Program this year. Why?

TM: Over the past few years, we’ve had more and more amateur adult groups—including post-university groups and groups of older a cappella or barbershop singers—getting in touch to find out if they are eligible to participate in any of our events. At first we just considered somehow adapting the rules of the University Competition to fit in one or two older groups, but as more groups started hearing about our events and more post-University groups (usually made up of former members of university a cappella groups) began forming, we realised that interest from community groups was only going to keep growing.

In anticipation of this growing interest, we made the decision at our annual meeting this summer to start running the Community Programme in the 2011-12 Festival season. Obviously, the programme offers a lot of the same types of opportunities to community a cappella groups as the Youth and University programmes do to youth and university groups. This includes a Community Groups Competition, which will be held, at least in part, on the same weekend as the University Final, although it may include other events at some of our regional rounds depending on the level of interest.

Bringing in the Community Programme does throw up new sets of challenges, though, as many of the community groups perform a wider range of genres including barbershop and other less contemporary music. As the Festival expands, we have to focus more on providing events and opportunities that can appeal to a broader range of groups and singers while still maintaining the core programming that singers have come to recognise and rely on over the past four years.

UACUK: You’re also thinking of awarding some kind of award for work within the community. What can you tell us about that?

TM: This has yet to be finalised, but as I’ve already mentioned, education is a huge part of what we do and we want to encourage experienced a cappella groups to think a bit more about education as well. It’s one thing for the Voice Festival to hold workshops where young people get the opportunity to sing together and meet other singers, but we think it’s hugely important that individual a cappella groups get involved in music education in their communities as well. Groups can go and visit local schools or work with community choirs—anything that helps more singers learn about a cappella.

We also want to encourage groups to think a bit more about working to help each other. On our application forms for the University Competition, one of the questions we ask everyone is “If you had bunch of money to spend on an a cappella project, what would you do with it?”. Some groups say they would use it to finance albums or tours, etc. but what is really interesting is that a lot of the brand new groups actually say that they would spend the money on organising a workshop with one of the really successful university groups, because they feel that what they can learn from these groups about things like rehearsal techniques, promotion, arranging, recording, etc. is much more relevant than what they could learn from a professional a cappella group. So this award is another way to encourage groups from different backgrounds to work more closely with each other.

UACUK: And tell us about the Alumni Program. How does that differ to the other three?

TM: The Alumni Programme is focused on increasing alumni involvement. We’ve had a lot of alumni get in touch with us who are still interested in a cappella and still want to be involved, despite not being part of a group. The Programme is mainly about creating a network of alumni. This might involve an alumni reception at the competition final, or getting alumni to arrange some music for groups, or having workshops with the old MD of this group or the old President of that group, and things like that. Again, it’s about getting groups and singers to work more closely with each other and creating an a cappella community across the UK.

In the final part of the interview, we discuss the coming year and the future of British a cappella.

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