Exclusive Interview: The Voice Festival UK 2013 Kicks Off

Guess what? The time has almost come for the biggest collegiate event of the year. Forget University Challenge, forget the publication of the league tables, this is all about pure, unadulterated awesome in the form of university a cappella.

As always, we here at University A Cappella UK will be following every group, every round and every song as the events unfold, including previews and reviews of each round and the prediction polls, which we hope will evoke much discussion like last year. Before all of that though, we spoke to Cherith Graham, member of the Voice Festival team, about the structure of this year’s competition, the upcoming ‘Big Weekend’ and personal favourites from the past season.

UACUK: Hi Cherith, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Before we start, let’s clarify your role in the team. What exactly is your area?

CG: Hi Mark! Each of the team has specific responsibilities. I’m Brand and Marketing Manager for the Voice Festival (VF-UK) as well as being one of the team’s Event Managers.

My focus for the last year has been on revamping the Voice Festival’s look and feel so that we can better communicate who we are and what we do. The Voice Festival has come a long way in five years – our offering has flexed and multiplied and we now have three fully fledged programmes (youth, universities, and communities) for supporting and developing singers of different ages and experiences. So in response to this growth, and taking on board feedback from our singers, volunteers, audiences and patrons we’ve made some significant changes.

As part of this rebrand journey, I’ve been responsible for designing our new website. It’s a privilege to work with so many vibrant and inventive singers and we wanted our website to be a stage for showcasing this talent, and energising new communities of a cappella singers and enthusiasts. The site makes it easier for existing singers and a cappella fanatics to share opportunities and knowledge, stay up to date with VF-UK opportunities and events, and keep talking to us and telling us what is needed from our programmes.

With my Event Manager hat on, I work on various events in the Voice Festival calendar. Like the rest of the team, this means anything and everything from sourcing venues for hosting workshops and events, setting up the box office, advertising the events, liaising with the performers, and making sure our workshops go to plan.

UACUK: And now the applications have closed, how has the response been in general compared to last year?

CG: The response has been great – we’ve had a lot of interest, and have ended up with more groups from more universities competing than ever before. We’ve had new groups coming forward, or at least expressing interest and making enquiries, and we’re really excited for the year ahead.

UACUK: Are you still running the three competitions (i.e. Community, Youth and University) side-by-side this year?

CG: That’s the plan. Applications have now closed for University and Community groups, and Youth applications will close shortly. Obviously a big part of what we at the Voice Festival aim to do is to encourage and enable a cappella singers of all ages and life experiences to meet and interact with each other, and this is once again a vital ingredient of the 2013 season.

UACUK: Have you ever thought about combining the three competitions?

CG: We have considered it in the past, especially when considering whether or not the competition would remain in its current format, but we felt that in order to keep the competition fair and healthy, it makes sense to grow them individually.

UACUK: Members of groups involved may know, although outsiders may not, that you were considering changing the competition from Regionals to one large ‘Big Weekend’ style competition in March in London. You then asked for feedback on these suggestions and have since reverted to the previous format. What exactly has changed since last year, and was this partly due to the feedback given by previously competing groups?

CG: Yes, having taken on board feedback from previous competing groups, and the feedback from our Big Weekend consultation, we’ve decided to maintain our UK wide competition format, as well as introduce the Big Weekend to this year’s programme.

This structure was prompted by feedback, yes, because we received some very strong opinions from several groups who said they would prefer the University competition format to stay as it was. But we also felt in order to further the goals of the Voice Festival, we wanted to keep our plans for the ‘Big Weekend’. as we felt it would be a great opportunity for groups to come and meet each other, learn from each other and from professionals, and to perform with each other in a less tense and competitive atmosphere. It will take place 15-17 March 2013 in London, and all groups from the regional rounds are invited to attend, with the idea being that transport will be paid for by the profits from each Regional Round.

This will be made possible by one of the other differences this year. Instead of the Voice Festival team organising each Regional Round, volunteers from the groups competing will be forming what we’re calling ‘Event Co-Ordinator Teams’, which will work in partnership with a Voice Festival representative as the ‘Event Manager’. This gives each region more of a say in the format of their round and will hopefully lead to more regional character. It also encourages local groups to work together and become a central hub for growing a cappella in their region. Obviously, the adjudication side of the events will still be taken care of by us to ensure fair competition.

UACUK: Are you happy with the progress that the Voice Festival has made, both in the past four years and with the introduction of the Big Weekend? Are you happy that the majority of the groups appear to be on board with the developments?

CG: Absolutely. It’s a new, exciting journey for us as a team and for UK a cappella. In the feedback, people always tell us that one of the most rewarding aspects of VF-UK is the opportunity to sing to new audiences and in new environments, and so promoting those opportunities is central to what we are doing – adding to opportunities that groups make for themselves throughout the year. But also, we feel a bit of competition is healthy, because it leads to groups pushing themselves and pushing the boundaries of what they are capable of as a vocal group. So I think it’s definitely lining up to be a fantastic season.

UACUK: You’ve confirmed the date of the Big Weekend as 15-17 March. With regard to the Regional competitions, will you be suggesting dates to the team organising each event, or will it be up to them when they take place?

CG: A balance of both. We’d like it to be a collaboration between the Event Co-Ordinator Team and Event Manager so that a stretch of weekends are found that work best for everyone. Obviously they have the guidance of when the events have occurred in previous years to help them, and are encouraged to hold them at times that would be good, depending on term times and exams etc., but at the same time we’d like them to be roughly at similar times as in previous years, simply because those dates have worked well in the past. I think we’ll probably end up with Regionals sitting in the same time period as before.

UACUK: However positive it is that you’ve got a record number of groups competing in this year’s university competition, why do you think groups such as Cadenza, Out of the Blue, The Fitz Sirens and The Oxford Gargoyles have decided to pull out of the competition in the past two years, and is this a concern?

CG: I think it’s partly due to the nature of university groups. Because they change membership year on year, they also change their priorities. It depends on the group make-up. Obviously, we provide a service for the groups, giving them new opportunities and experiences, so it’s completely up to the groups whether or not they want to take that opportunity. While Out Of the Blue have decided they don’t want the competition to be a feature of their year, they are still keen to support the Oxford event and join the activities for the Big Weekend, as well as being involved in future years. And even though The Fitz Sirens didn’t compete last year, they still came and performed at our showcase up in Edinburgh in August. So it’s not a case of ‘if you don’t compete, you don’t get anything’; rather, groups are free to take part in our events as they see fit. It’s not a concern for us – the competition is still growing and we are still achieving our aims, and we are positive the groups not involved will still have thoroughly successful seasons.

UACUK: Are there any kind of plans to extend the competition to involve Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals as the competition element grows in the future?

CG: We can see the rationale for doing it that way, definitely, but what we’d like to focus on more is this idea of the Big Weekend. We don’t want to put up metaphorical ‘fences’ around different regions and only ever have groups meeting and competing with each other from certain regions. We want to encourage, for example, groups from St Andrews to really listen to and take interest in, say, the groups from Exeter, and vice versa. And the Big Weekend is, for this year, our way of doing that. Obviously there will be a post-Festival evaluation, as ever, analysing whether or not it worked. However, at least for 2013, the idea is to hang the Festival around our Big Weekend in London.

UACUK: One final question: as you may or may not have seen, we’ve been running a ‘Best of British’ countdown of our favourite tracks from 2012. Do you have a personal favourite from the past year?

CG: That’s a tricky one- I have too many favourites! There’s just too much great UK talent to choose from….hence.. the Voice Collection 2013! Now there’s another exciting Voice Festival project to look forward to for 2013.

The Voice Festival Regional Round dates are now confirmed as follows:

London: Sat 9th March
St Andrews: Sat 23rd February
Exeter: Sat 2nd March
Oxford: Sun 3rd March
Birmingham: Sat 9th March

The ‘Big Weekend’ and University Final will take place on the weekend of the 15-17 March. Don’t worry! We’ll keep you in the loop as we learn more.

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