Long before the phenomenon of the office choir was hijacked by prime-time entertainment TV, it was a team-building tool that bonded, networked and even changed lives. Karen Stretch speaks to three musicians who are still passionate about the power of musical harmony in the workplace.
In a large conference room, 400 men and women earnestly follow a code-like score and use a mallet to strike a single note on a bamboo stick. Just 30 minutes earlier, they laughed nervously when told by the conductor that they would perform a full piece in harmony within the hour – but suddenly it seems attainable and, before long, they play Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You in gentle, meditative tones. There is laughter, euphoria and relief – they have gone from being virtual strangers to an ensemble with one common aim.
Heading up proceedings is Founder of Stix Music and Drums for Schools associate, Duncan McKee. He has travelled to Bangkok from his home in Bali (where he also teaches music at the Green School) for the conference ice-breaker workshop for Proctor & Gamble, bringing with him the instruments and training up a small team of local musicians to demonstrate how to play and rehearse with smaller groups. Starting off with the more familiar Boomwhackers, McKee soon realised he needed more range than the plastic tubes could offer so he set about devising his own instrument system, Bambajam, offering three octaves or more. ‘The whole point of the methodology is that you take a very complex piece of music and you explode it into single notes and give everybody one,’ he explains. ‘That fast-tracks it. I work from education through to leadership development so the whole point of everything that I do is to play music together.’
A professional jazz pianist, McKee moved from the UK to Singapore in 1998 and lived there for 15 years, setting up his company. Word spread and soon the calls started to come in from Bali, Europe and the United States where he opened the World Bank’s Global Leadership Conference 2016 in Washington DC as well as working with clients including Google, Microsoft and Reebok.
‘There’s a whole spectrum of objectives that I’ll get from a client,’ says McKee. ‘The lightest expectation will be to just have a bit of fun: ‘Can we open up the conference with an ice-breaker?’ and the reason they call me is because one of the challenges that an organisation has when they are designing their conference is that they need to have everybody engaged in it.
‘Getting them engaged makes them feel as though they own the experience and because I turn the audience into the orchestra, it makes them instantly part of the event.’
In his keynote speeches, McKee focusses on the comparison between the experimental nature of jazz and the precision of classical music and their relationship to leadership styles in the workplace. This flows through to his workshops where, if things don’t always go as planned, it can simply add to the whole experience.
‘I did a two-week workshop with Standard Chartered Bank and, in week one, it was the staff who talk to customers – nice and friendly, smiley and and bubbly,’ he grins. ‘The next week, it was investment bankers and I didn’t think for a second it would be so different.
‘They were very alpha male and competitive when they were supposed to be working together, which was annoying. My activity wasn’t going as I would like it to be perceived but the client was just really interested to know why it wasn’t working.’
McKee’s Stix Music Method has been the subject of an award-winning research paper, Beethoven and BAMboo, by Warwick Business School and he is constantly looking for links between music and the worlds of education and work. ‘I keep looking at what musicians do and how that can be translated in to something that other people can use,’ he says. ‘I think that music is one of the most important subjects we teach because it is the only collaborative subject we teach. It’s communication.’
In the Deutsche Bank Singers, it is this bond of communication that dissolves the boundaries between technology experts, managing directors and front office staff. Founded and run by Nick Bland, a director in the Global Transaction Banking Division, the Singers have been running for 14 years with 120 members of staff, ex-staff and associates on the roster and up to 50 turning out for each of the five events a year.
At the bank’s London Winchester House headquarters, concerts are staged at the back of the impressive Silver Ball reception area (so named because of the Anish Kapoor silver ball sculpture, Turning The World Upside Down, dominating the space). There, the three-storey-high glass and stone architecture offers a fantastic acoustic, space for an orchestra and the singers and seating for 200 people plus the added bonus that it’s almost impossible to miss it. ‘That worked out really well because one thing I’ve learned is that some people can be phenomenally lazy so it’s on their doorstep,’ laughs Bland.
‘We realised that people wanted to do quality stuff and if we do Mozart’s Requiem, we will do it in seven or eight rehearsals. Either people were scared by that or they relished it. I’ve only had to say to one person in 14 years, ‘I don’t think this is working for you’ so I’ve created a self-regulating vehicle.’
It helps that Deutsche Bank has always been a strong supporter of the arts with links going back to Gustav Mahler and sponsorship of the Berlin Philharmonic for the last 30 years. The Deutsche Bank Awards for Creative Enterprise (DBACE) support emerging artists from all fields and, from his involvement as a mentor, Bland (a French and Music graduate) realised that several of his colleagues had a musical background too, planting the seed of creating a workplace choir.
‘We really needed to establish something that was high quality and consistent with the brand values of the firm but provide people with the right flexibility to get involved, based on the myriad commitments that everybody had in their work and personal lives,’ he recalls. ‘From an employee perspective, the choir gets people together that wouldn’t normally meet each other with shared interests. There’s a cathartic element – it doesn’t matter what corporate title you are in the bank – everybody comes together and there’s a common goal there so we transcend those kind of things.’
With an annual budget of £25,000 (‘That’s small beer compared to what I discovered around sporting events the firm gets involved in!’) and a list of great contacts in the musical world, Bland pulls together concerts involving professional soloists such as the Gabrieli Consort as well as young musicians on the cusp of their careers plucked from the Creative Enterprises scheme. Links with the PricewaterhouseCoopers choir means they can increase numbers for bigger works with Duruflé’s Requiem on the cards for a future performance. ‘From Deutsche Bank’s angle, the best things we do as a firm involve our clients, our community, our partners and our employees and this easily covers those bases.’
For Bland, the only hitch is finding the time to run a successful, high quality choir alongside his demanding job with frequent international travel, not to mention being an organist at his local church. ‘My day job does require me to be rigorously organised and over the years, I have realised that what causes me grief is the stupid things like that the timpanist moaning that he can’t find a parking space near Deutsche Bank and all of a sudden, that becomes your problem,’ he smiles, ruefully. ‘That kind of stuff grinds people down – boring as the organisation is, if you want it to happen, you have to do it. When it comes to performances, whether I’m waving my arms or playing the organ, it’s the easy bit!’
For one-time music industry voice coach, Andrea Callanan, bringing singing to large companies to inspire team-building and morale soon proved to have other benefits. Co-founding her Cardiff-based business, Sing & Inspire, in 2008, clients (‘in call centre central’) were given a survey to fill in after two months of participation, showing phenomenal results. ‘We had one person who had been taking blood pressure medication twice a day for 20 years and joined the choir and in months, she reduced the medication by half,’ recalls Callanan. ‘We had loads of testimonials saying the reason people came to work was because of the choir and there were surges in sales so we knew that we were onto something.’
In 2010, the company started working with cancer care charity, Tenovus, leading to a global medical study on the effect of the choirs, including issues such as the perception of pain, mental health, agoraphobia and social inclusion – which put a rubber stamp on the benefits of choral singing. People took notice. In 2013, Callanan went solo and within four months, the business had spread to Northern Ireland, Manchester and London. Now part of InspireMe, options also include dancing, acting, painting and nutrition workshops, although singing is still very much the market leader. ‘The reason why I do it with the choirs is the reach,’ says Callanan, whose clients include BT, Admiral and GE Aviation. ‘I know it is changing lives and I have people from that very first Tenovus choir eight years ago coming up and they’ll say, “You saved my life! The only time I got out of the house apart from chemotherapy was for choir,” and it’s amazing what that can do.
‘Of course, it’s also to do with the fact that you have such a belonging, you feel better when you sing because of all the adrenaline and there’s the shared success when you dress up in posh frocks and do your thing!’ And although Callanan admits that Brexit has undoubtedly had a dampening effect on global companies making a long-term financial commitment, this has simply encouraged her to work in a new direction. ‘I’ve changed how I sell and I’ve got loads of interesting choirs,’ she smiles. ‘There has been a downward trend in the last two years but we now also do Superchoirs which are really cool. They are subscription-based, anyone can come along and people have an amazing time.
‘All we can do is give the best service we can and, fingers crossed, we’ll still have a business. Our plans are all about growth.’
Header photo: Stix Music Founder, Duncan McKee, ran this TEDx session in Ubud, Bali, in 2014 © Viktor Prushenov
About the author
After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.
Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.