The University of Exeter’s Semi-Toned – VF-UK University Champions 2015

Semi-Toned 2015Semi-Toned have been involved with the Voice Festival UK since before I even went to university. In 2012, the group, barely eighteen months old, entered the South West regional of the competition in Bristol. Although they made a strong impression, taking home the awards for outstanding arrangement and vocal percussion, they lost out on a place in the final to Bristol’s HotTUBBS, a group Semi-Toned would not cross paths with again until 2015’s Voice Festival weekend. The following year—my first at university—the South West regional competition was held in Exeter. By then we had abandoned our barbershop roots and performed a much more contemporary set, consisting of Cee Lo Green, Hard-Fi, Stevie Wonder and Muse. It was in this performance that the group first began to realise its potential, with judge and former Swingle Singer Tobias Hug offering strong words of encouragement. However, the confidence we had gained was soon washed away at the London final, where it became clear that we had a long way to go to catch up with the other, more established university groups. We left empty-handed, but excited to have ‘broken in’ to the university a cappella circuit, even if the best compliment we received was Dominic Peckham’s observation that our outfits matched the stage curtains.

In the summer of 2013, Semi-Toned headed to Edinburgh to put on our first ever Fringe show. We improved massively in preparation for this, and the work paid off—the show was a huge success, and by the time Voice Festival 2014 rolled around, we had established ourselves as a group to watch out for. This improvement was well-timed, as the Voice Festival’s decision to scrap the regional competitions in favour of a video submission-based system meant that all groups were competing with each other, across the nation. As you can imagine, whilst this was fairer, the standard necessary to be invited to the London semi-final was suddenly much higher. Thankfully, we made it through both the video round and the semi-final. At the final, we made a much stronger impression than the year before, largely due to the outlandish nature of our set—our mash-up of Olly Murs’ “Dear Darling” and Ylvis’ “The Fox” certainly managed to a raise a few eyebrows, as well as our Tolkien-tinged version of John Newman’s “Cheating”. We managed to snatch two awards—including “Best Soloist” for the irreplaceable Michael Luya—but lost out on the ultimate prize to the professionalism and charm of Oxford’s Out of the Blue, whose stunning rendition of “The Sound of Silence” meant they became the first group to win the competition twice.

Having felt that we were so close to winning, it would be a lie to say we were not disappointed that day. It was becoming clear that the standard of UK collegiate a cappella was improving exponentially, and we certainly felt the pressure to get ourselves ahead of the curve in preparation for our second Edinburgh Fringe show that summer. Despite any internal doubts we had, the group managed to pull it off, and “Toned Up!” managed to cinch a Bobby Award, one of only a handful given out that year by review company Broadway Baby. This perfect end to the academic year was slightly foreboding for me, as I had just been elected as Semi-Toned’s first official musical director (the group had run itself somewhat anarchically since the departure of founding father and eternal president Eddie Henley). I knew when the 2014/2015 year began that the only way the group could outdo itself again was to win the Voice Festival.

This was also the year that the group underwent its most significant re-shuffle in terms of membership. With five new faces in a twelve-man group, first term was largely spent frantically learning repertoire to quickly crank the group up to the standard we were used to. I can’t praise our new members enough for the diligence and raw talent they displayed in the early weeks of this year, performing music at multiple large gigs which they had barely gotten a chance to learn. The upside of all this raw focus, of course, was that, even though almost half the group had changed since Edinburgh, Semi-Toned were back on form very quickly, and earned an excruciatingly close second place at the ICCA’s first British regional in January 2015. Our friends in All the King’s Men took the prize, and as they performed their victory song we began to set our sights on the only goal we had left—Voice Festival 2015.

As usual, our preparation was anything but structured. Having customised our ICCA set for a microphone-based performance, we knew we could not simply touch it up and take it to Birmingham in April for VF-UK. But the problem with knowing that you need new repertoire is that you have to actually write new repertoire—and waves of inspiration are few and far between. Thankfully, we already had a fantastic number arranged by Eddie Henley, an aggressive mash-up of “No Church in the Wild” and the theme from Game of Thrones which featured in our 2014 Edinburgh show. Newbie tenor Ted Bartram took on the seemingly impossible task of replacing Adam Carpenter in this song, and gave the solo an icy, characterful flavour that we knew was sure to impress.

Michael Luya Semi-TonedOur two other semi-final pieces turned up as and when we needed them, which is always the way. My mash-up of “Uptown Funk” and Flo Rida’s “Low” (“Lowtown Funk”, geddit?) meant we had the comic element we always strive for, and Rob Cross, who had previously only dabbled in arranging, surprised us all by turning up with a stunning arrangement of Regina Spektor’s “Samson”, meaning we had the Luya-bomb primed and ready to drop. However, we still had a big, gaping, four-minute hole that needed filling in case we got through to the final and had to perform for twelve minutes instead of eight. We began to wonder what old song we could slot in there—perhaps Mulan’s “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” would do it, or even Meat Loaf’s “Dead Ringer for Love” which went down so well in Edinburgh?

But then a thought struck me—in our Edinburgh show, a number that really pleased the audience was our rendition of “Cry me a River”, which replaced Justin Timberlake’s famous falsetto with a trio of basses. The general lack of solos for those of us blessed (or cursed) with lower voices was something I wanted to exploit again, and a few days later I had arranged a version of the famous bass solo “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof, mixed up with Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”. We decided to take a risk and make this song our ‘secret weapon’, opting not to perform it in the semi-final and just pray we got through to the final. We soon began to regret this when we saw the standard of the competition in the semi-final—every single group performed better than we had ever seen them perform. How on earth the judges managed to whittle the twelve competitors down to just five finalists is beyond me. We particularly enjoyed the other four groups at the festival representing the South West—our old friends from Bath Aquapella were classy as ever; the Bristol Suspensions had come on leaps and bounds since we first met them back in October; our female counterparts the Sweet Nothings absolutely raised the roof with their version of “Midnight Caller”; and we finally got to see the HotTUBBS perform again—their instruction “Don’t forget the Mexican spices” has quickly become something of an anthem for us.

Semi-Toned 2015If we thought the semi-finals were tough, the finals were on a different league altogether. Every year the Voice Festival UK gets better, but in 2015 the standard was unreal. At one point, when the judges were about to announce the over-all winner, I reassured my friend Tommy that any single one of the groups deserved to win, and that we should not be ashamed to be a runner-up amongst such stellar competition. When the judges announced that we had won, the room exploded—I honestly can’t remember much about what happened next, except that we performed “Rich Man” one more time, at a tempo that, as musical director and as the song’s soloist, I would definitely call ‘uncomfortable’. Nonetheless, it was the perfect end to a perfect weekend, and the next day, bleary-eyed and still not quite believing we’d finally done it, we headed down to Heathrow to begin our first ever international tour to the east coast of the USA.

Thanks to Edward Scott of Semi-Toned for contributing this guest post.