Bee-bops, jazz hands and yodelling: Shirley and Teddy on a memorable Voice Festival weekend

Last weekend, the great and the good of the amateur a cappella world descended on Birmingham for the fabulous Voice Festival UK (VFUK). This annual celebration of the bee-bops of barbershop, sh-dams of show choirs and dv-pffff of vocal percussion is now in its seventh year and continues to grow. Members of In the Smoke have been involved in VFUK’s university groups competition since the festival began, as ushers, running workshops and generally helping out.

As VFUK’s success grew, new categories were created for non-student groups like us as well as school-based groups, widening VFUK’s reach to include singers from primary school-age to retirement…

This year, the community competition saw four shortlisted groups battle it out for the title of Community Champions 2015. They were: Gem Connection, Just Voices, The Beatroots and us.

Drawing lots put In the Smoke at the top of the programme: with nothing to lose, we socked it to ’em!

A twelve-minute medley of musical theatre numbers arranged by our own Michael Humphrey was our 2015 offering. It was a tricky arrangement demanding vocal precision alongside a good deal of hamming it up. From ‘Send in the Clowns’ to ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ (yes, the yodelling one from The Sound of Music), it was an emotional roller-coaster!

It went down a storm and set the tone for a fantastic programme of a cappella showcasing. Our rivals treated us to arrangements of barbershop standards, recent pop hits and even a vocal arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon.

The judges were suitably impressed by the variety and effort that all the groups had put in to their performances and praised the attention to detail and general high standard of presentation.

When the verdict was given, we were delighted to be named as this year’s winners. A special award was also given to Michael for his outstanding arrangement.Community Champions 2015

Prizes aside, a fabulous weekend was had by all! Those of us who were around for the whole weekend enjoyed the workshops and were amazed at the high standard of the university groups competing – we especially loved the tongue-in-cheek self-reference of the song that one group wrote all about being in an a cappella group: ‘Who even listens to a cappella?’. It was definitely deserving of the Ward Swingle Award for Originality that it earned for Choral Stimulation!

All in all, it was great to meet new groups, share ideas and perform in front of fellow a ca-enthusiasts – thanks, Voice Festival!

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What good is sitting alone in your room… when you could be at the Voice Festival 2015?

Just one rehearsal left before we head up to Birmingham to compete in the Voice Festival 2015. *Gulp*

We gave some of our London-based friends a sneak peek of our set on Thursday 2 April – thank you to everyone who came along and let us know what you thought! And for anyone who missed it, here’s a little teaser…

Looking forward to seeing some of you (and meeting lots of fellow a cappella-yellers) at the Festival Weekend. Everyone else, keep your fingers crossed for us – we’ll let you know how we get on!

BLOG: Back to school!

As we pick up rehearsals again after our summer break, our new Musical Director Michael shares his a-ca-vision for the year.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. As a teacher for the past nine years*, and a university student and school pupil for the 16 immediately before that, September is engrained as the time of new beginnings. Although In the Smoke now only contains two teachers, the group has just started back from a summer break, and there are lots of exciting plans afoot.

Arrangers have come back with a couple of new songs each that they’re desperate to hear the group do, and ideas for dozens more that they probably won’t find time to write until next summer. New committee posts have already begun discussing exciting gig ideas and new forays into video and recording. And those in the group whose only responsibility is to show up and sing beautifully have been giving their voices some valuable beach and beer garden-based R&R.

As MD for this year (taking the reins back from a cappella veteran and mad – but in a very polite way – scientist Edward Brightman), I’m most looking forward to:

– Heading out to Bristol to perform, rehearse, and of course party with the formidable Original Sing (Voice Festival Community Champions 2013)
– Developing our third a-ca-panto for a gig in November/December, having missed out on doing a Christmas gig last year
– Experimenting with recording techniques that we haven’t utilised before
– Making a bunch of music videos
– Getting out and performing as much as possible, hopefully in collaboration with some Alzheimer’s Society projects we’ve had our eye on for a while
– Bringing a few experimental arrangements to rehearsals that frighten, intrigue, and then eventually endear themselves to the rest of the group… *evil laugh*

We’ll be seeing ya,
Michael

*Cheeky plug: I’m actually not a teacher anymore – solo album out within a month – keep checking www.mdhmusic.com

NEW VIDEO: No water in the water fountain

James tells the tale of one of the most recent additions to our repertoire, Water Fountain by tUnE-yArDs

Three times in the past I’ve been so enamoured of a song I’ve woken up to (on BBC Radio 6 Music) that I’ve hunted it down, downloaded it and listened the bejeezus out of it*.

On the most recent occasion, in April of this year, I wasn’t quite sure what I was listening to. The first half of the song roused me gently yet playfully from slumber. The second hit me round the head with a series of musical frying pans. And it wasn’t even one of Cerys Matthews’ Sunday morning wildcards (I think back fondly to stirring to the strains of some pre-revolutionary Iranian pop, featuring a traditional tune which was also used in Fiddler on the Roof) – it was an actual, real-life song.

Having been too asleep/shocked first time around, I was lucky that it cropped up again a few days later and this time I was ready to note the artist & track name: ‘Water Fountain’ by tUnE-yArDs. I found it, played it on loop for a good while, and 24 hours later I had a first draft four-part arrangement of it.

This is not normal for me. I’ll usually spend a few months dipping in and out of an arrangement, waiting for something good to happen… It took about a year and a half and at least one spreadsheet to put the Disney Medley together.

In any case, four of us tried it out one Saturday morning and got the MD’s permission to add it to the Greenwood gig set list, squeezing in run-throughs before and after rehearsals on a Tuesday night, and we’re pretty happy with what we ended up with, even if we still can’t quite get the words in the right order. In fact, we’re already playing with what happens if we all join in and the forces are more than trebled…

There may be no water in the water fountain, but this arrangement has not yet run dry.

* If you’re curious, the other two were David Byrne & St Vincent’s ‘Who’ and James Blake’s ‘Retrograde’.

NEW VIDEO: Thanks for coming to our gig – here’s a video!

To all those who made our gig on 4 July – THANK YOU for being such a brilliant audience and making it such a great night! We really enjoyed it, and we hope you did too.

To all those who couldn’t make it: you missed some seriously incisive Question Time-standard debate on the thorny issue of Scottish independence, a deeply moving musical interpretation of the British reaction to the Boston Tea Party, and a Walt Disney impression which – I think we’d all agree – wiped the floor with Tom Hanks in Saving Mr Banks.

And a lot of a cappella, obviously – including new arrangements of Fidelity/Pumpkin Soup, Falling Slowly, Happy, Water Fountain and a stonking Disney Medley, courtesy of Joel, Hazel and James.

Here’s a little taster of the night – we’ll be uploading more videos in the coming weeks and updating you on our plans for the rest of 2014, so check back soon…

BLOG: A Tale of Two Pastimes

Video

Michael’s written a little blog that explains why his mind may have been elsewhere in rehearsals:

My name is Michael Humphrey and I’m an acaholic. I love singing, and I really love singing songs with my friends without instruments. I’ve managed my addiction for more than a decade now without my career or my family suffering, but at the moment I’m on a knife-edge of anxiety.

The one thing that I can rely on to ‘keep me off the singing’ for a couple of hours is a football match. And even though I’ve only got free telly, at the moment there’s more footy on BBC1 and ITV than there are dooos and daaas in an In the Smoke concert. Problem is that we’ve only gone and scheduled a flipping brilliant concert (think 1966 if you’re English, think 2014 if – like me – you are not) on a big football night. So here is my guide to multi-tasking football and cutting edge a cappella.

    • 4:00pm – LEAVE WORK – feign some kind of acute illness and travel to London Bridge by any means necessary
    • 4:30pm – Ensconce yourself in one of the myriad pubs to watch what will probably be a belter of a game (my prediction is Germany v France)
    • 7:00pm – Skip the dull post-match analysis to go and find a kebab-esque meal equivalent
    • 7:30pm – Make your way to the Greenwood Theatre, with your ticket in hand (that you may have already bought from a group member at a cut price)
    • 8:00pm – Watch a brilliant first half of an a cappella show
    • 9:00pm – Watch a brilliant second half of an a cappella show, so scintillating you won’t even check your phone to find out how Brazil/Chile and Colombia/Uruguay are doing
    • 9:45pm – Stand up clapping at the end of the brilliant a cappella show and make your way back to the pub you were in to watch the second half…

…SAVE ME A SEAT!

Michael

Independence, eh?
Friday 4 July 2014, 8-10pm (bar open from 7.30pm and during the interval)
Greenwood Theatre, 55 Weston St, London SE1 3RA
Tickets £10 (£5 concession or FREE for under-16s and school pupils)
www.ticketsource.co.uk/inthesmokeuk

BLOG: Three weeks and counting…

Video

This week was all about the girls: we had a stonking new solo from Anna in Russian Roulette, Shirley-Anne taking on the female lead in No Air (both arranged by Michael), Mel giving it her all in Hazel’s Happy, Rachel and Lizzie mashing up Joel’s Fidelity/Pumpkin Soup… Katie was the only lady duetter whose partner was present and so who had to share – she and Michael are showing Hazel’s Falling Slowly who’s boss.

The girls also get all the best moves, not least Mel’s octopodeian Ursula impression for Poor Unfortunate Souls in James’ Disney Medley, which gave rise to handy choreo mnemonic ‘After the octopus, get into the bra’. Check it out on the video…

Independence, eh?
Friday 4 July 2014, 8-10pm (bar open from 7.30pm and during the interval)
Greenwood Theatre, 55 Weston St, London SE1 3RA
Tickets £10 (£5 concession or FREE for under-16s and school pupils)

www.ticketsource.co.uk/inthesmokeuk

GIG: Friday 4 July – Independence, eh?

We’re pleased to announce that we’re returning to the Greenwood Theatre in London Bridge this summer, and tickets are ON SALE NOW!

With the possible exception of some Independence Day ‘humour’*, this is a no-gimmicks, straight-up, best-of evening of great a cappella. Expect some old favourites, recent favourites, not yet favourites (aka world premieres) and a Disney Medley. Oh yes.

Independence, eh?
Friday 4 July 2014, 8-10pm (bar open from 7.30pm and during the interval)
Greenwood Theatre, 55 Weston St, London SE1 3RA
Tickets £10 (£5 concession or FREE for under-16s and school pupils)

Tickets are on sale now (no booking fees!): www.ticketsource.co.uk/inthesmokeuk

* It was the only date we could get the theatre…

BLOG: Encore!

We’re as guilty as any other group of preparing an encore just in case we do a good enough job to warrant one. After all, we’d hate to palm paying punters off with a poor performance and second rate singing, if they’ve enjoyed us enough to request more… Last impressions and all that.

The thing is, though, that the requests can often be a tad specific, and one request has been bellowed at our bowing bodies more than all the others put together. It’s a song that’s been with us since our first gig over five years back, as famous for its moves and video as its music and vocals… none other than Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller‘.

It’s quite a rush dragging your reluctant feet across the stage, crooked arms outstretched to grab the virtuosic Vishal, while trying to remember whether this ‘doop’ is the one that’s sharp…  But like all our songs – and our members – it needs some time off to put its feet up after a long stretch of hard work.

So if you’re coming to see us on Saturday, please do ask us for the encore we’ve so presumptuously prepared, but don’t expect to have any choice in what it is. You’re gonna love it.

–James

BLOG: Our trip to France – general impressions

It’s always fun when your brief is a lot more vague than those of your brothers and sisters. Oh well, here goes nothing. Adopting a gestalt approach, the bits that seemed to stand out for people were:

1. the presence of Tyler
2. the absence of sunshine
3. a kind of thick wettish mist rising through our Pyrenean forest home
4. books everywhere (although maybe that was just me)
5. a screaming goat

So you might suggest a short story: A lonely tiler, laid off, tramps through a kind of thick wettish mist. Bored, he happens upon a pile of unread books, sits, cross-legged on the ground, and begins to read. Through the dark moisture, he hears the rich golden tones of Bill Withers, “…ain’t no sunshine, when she’s..”. Suddenly a goat screams, as if outraged.

–Vish