I’m trying a new-year resolution format for the blog, with headings to keep it organised and focused and hopefully a little more frequent than last year. I may not be able to fulfil these ambitions, but it’s courageous to have some! It works for H. M. Government and they seem to get away with it. So look out for:
Soap box: Headlines, general news and info, thoughts and Man at the Front rants and ramblings.
Voicebox: Practical activities for you to try at home (and I do mean ‘try this at home’) e.g. warm ups, voice work, exercises, songs.
Opportunity knocks: Links to stimulating stuff which will feed your souland keep you connected – online activities, articles, books etc
Music box – The inspiration slot – for your listening
Chatterbox – Quotes, extracts, articles, funny and serious, including gems from the old Leading Notes
Return to Singing (R2S): The current lockdown and general uncertainty about the course of this pandemic makes planning impossible, but we are constantly reviewing the way ahead. R2S will continue as soon as we safely can, similar to our session in December, building in capacity as conditions allow – that’s all we can say right now. The Rossini Petite Messe Solonelle is still on the table! If this is too tantalising, there is an opportunity in November with the Oxford Orpheus Choir (see link below)
STOP PRESS – CHIPPING NORTON MUSIC FESTIVAL (March 6 – 20)
Important announcement: Undaunted by the pandemic restrictions, the festival is committed to its principles of inclusion and opportunity, so this year it will be a virtual festival. Performers will enter a video recording which adjudicators will adjudicate in the usual way, in their own time. Feedback to performers will be given via a zoom session during the festival fortnight. There will not be any workshops or concerts; ensemble classes (e.g. choirs) might happen if there are enough entries. Please pass on this info to anyone you can. We already have an entry for Edinburgh! See website for details: www.cnmf.org.uk
Are you singing at all? Whether or not you are participating in online activities, it’s essential to give your singing voice some attention regularly to prevent atrophy, and better still to keep it in good condition! This Voicebox section of the blog encourages you with exercises, activities and things to sing, developing over time. Find yourself ten minutes as regularly as you can to develop a vocal practice. Of course, as members of an outstanding choir you can already sing brilliantly and have performed some of the most challenging pieces, so don’t let this stop you ‘giving it large’ whenever you like. It’s good to reconnect with basic techniques though and particularly useful if you haven’t sung for a while.
Session 1 is just b-r-e-a-t-h-i-n-g. Future sessions will link with huMMMMing, then singing, using a range of simple material to create an engaging and hopefully useful warm up routine.
Here are some suggestions for you – no equipment needed! Try the following routine:
SESSION 1 – BREATHING No equipment is required, just a quiet space….Allow yourself 10 mins in a quiet space to JUST BE – Sitting or standing comfortably with relaxed shoulders, breathing slowly, through your nose at all times if possible
Attend to your breath and notice how it is
Place one hand over your heart and the other over your belly – keep breathing
Attend to your belly hand and notice how it is moving – imagine the air is filling the space behind it. Close your eyes.
Establish a beat or pulse in your head (about 60 beats per minute [bpm]) – breathe in for 4 beats and out for 4 beats.
Repeat this cycle four times then breathe normally – i.e. without counting or thinking!
Repeat above and exhale for 6 beats
Now inhale 4 – hold 4 – exhale 4
Repeat above and exhale 6
Relax and breathe normally. Congratulate yourself for achieving this, or if it’s no challenge then just for bothering!!
Now link all three exercises in cycles of four, with no breaks for normal breathing
Extended finish: Inhale 4 – hold 7 – exhale 8 for a cycle of four times.
Relax. Notice how you are. Do you feel any warmer, colder, no different? Is your mouth drier or more moist than when you started?
Do you do YOGA? You might enjoy the Youtube yoga sessions with Adriene which started this month. She was a hit during the first lock down. Her latest series of 30 sessions is called ‘Breath’ and she makes a point of exploring breathing techniques through the yoga practice. You can join for free, go to:
An Oxford group called newChoir is offering something online which looks exciting and everyone is invited. Their new conductor, Benedict Goodall says:
“The first session, which will be on Tuesday 26th January at 19:30-21:00, will be a webinar on the wondrous piece Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. In these sessions, I will be dissecting the piece, analysing it, and giving as much information as possible on the history of the work, as well as describing what it is like to perform it. We will then have the opportunity to talk about it as a group to really understand these masterworks.
BOOK IMMEDIATELY AS NUMBERS ARE LIMITED TO ACCOMMODATE THE DISCUSSION
The second session is on Tuesday 2nd February at 19:30-21:00, and will be a fun quiz, heavily focussing on choral music.
Rossini Petite Messe Solonelle – Workshop on 13th November 2021
Depending on what is allowed and sensible by then, here are some provisional dates for the Oxford Orpheus Choir workshop. Wesley Memorial Methodist church in Oxford has been booked for a celebratory daytime workshop and evening concert of the original version with piano and harmonium.
The day my voice broke: What an injury taught me about the power of speech
This ‘Long Read’ from the Guardian is very interesting. It highlights how we should be careful with our voices and what our spoken voices say about us. Do we really know what we sound like?
Dixit Dominus by Handel – This 40-minute work was completed in 1707 when Handel was in Italy. It’s uplifting and full of energy with some delightfully reflective solo movements. CNCS has never performed it – a future challenge?
Deserted Discs I bet that somewhere in your collection of CDs there is lurking a favourite piece of VOCAL MUSIC (choral or solo), a recording you had forgotten about, or something you think everyone might like to hear. Maybe there is a significant piece associated with an important time or occasion in your life. With a nod to Radio 4 and Roy Plumley, if you have something you are prepared to share from the CNCS desert island, let me know. Include a youtube link or just the details and I’ll find a recording if I can and post it. A short introduction or biog reference would be interesting OR let the music just speak for itself. You might even enjoy provoking your listeners by stretching their ears with something different…..
“The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of man. It does strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes.” (William Byrd: Psalms, Sonnets and Songs – 1588)
Hello everyone! I hope you have had the best Christmas possible, however and with whomever it was celebrated. It is New Year’s Eve as I write, a moment to reflect on the past year and seek some optimism for the new one. Sadly the “what-a-year!” conversation tag will not be disappearing from our lexicography as covid-19 knows no calendar boundaries – the wagon rolls on. The date changes of course, so we’ll feel hopeful 2021! There is something about which we can be absolutely certain at the turn of this year however, something which will affect our united kingdom (or is it Island State?) and have considerable impact on our lives which is not a virus, but for which we are fully prepared of course, and have the resources and capacity to meet and greet. BREXIT. It got done. Whether you are whooping or wailing about this, welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, enjoy!
It has been a grim year for the choir, resulting in us being together for only 21 hours (9 rehearsals, music festival and Return to Singing this month) and no performances. That does sound bleak, but I know many of you participated in online singing, staying engaged. This will improve in 2021 and we have every reason to be very hopeful. The committee is still exploring ways of making music as soon as we can and I am considering what we can do online too!
One beacon of hope, a bright shining light at the end of the covid tunnel is the fantastic progress with vaccines. Like me, I’m sure you are particularly proud of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which was approved only yesterday! The world is rejoicing, but it feels special to us being led by our county city. We all owe the research team our thanks and gratitude for their dedication. By way of public appreciation there was a concert in The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on December 18 given by the choir of Merton Chapel and Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Rutter and featuring Bryn Terfel. Threaded together with tributes from dignitaries and musicians it makes a delightful 40-minute concert. You’ll really enjoy it, and I defy anyone hearing Rutter’s arrangement of You’ll never walk alone not to well up, at least! His Joseph’s Carol is also lovely and pushes all the right buttons, adding to the swell of longing to be engaged in singing as soon as we can. There is a blast of Hallelujah Chorus to finish, ramming the point home! Thank you Nikki Rycroft for sending the link to this concert.
RETURN TO SINGING Arguably the most significant occasion for the choir this year was the R2S on December 17th. I am so pleased that we achieved this in the small window left ajar between lockdown and tiers and it was wonderful to see so many of you. Eric emailed everyone after the event with some lovely feedback – thank you to the team involved in organising it and to St Mary’s for supporting us. Gatherings of any sort look unlikely for a while now but we will grab any opportunities arising provided we can remain safe. In case you missed the email, here are some comments from those who took part:
“The Choir was awesome tonight....”
“Mission accomplished with great success! All went well, brilliantly executed. The hour passed quickly, schedule as planned – I can see clearly… worked well. Fascinating how the dynamics change completely when singers are separated and masked – the atmosphere is gentle and slower as communication takes longer to sink in! The singing was confident .....and everyone was thrilled to be together and doing something!”
“I think last night was a success! We were all highly delighted to set real eyes upon each other, and the sound in St Mary’s was beautiful. I have never had the chance to hear it properly before, in the nave, and the fact that we had been enjoined to avoid strain produced a magical, pure sound from the choir. Interesting and enjoyable, and Peter the old pro paced it and directed the whole operation perfectly.”
“The CNCS with a difference on 17th was good, so nice to be together. Vocally nowhere near our best of course but that didn’t matter one bit. Singing in a mask is weird as is the necessary distancing.”
“It was truly a golden hour to sing together with other like-minded souls and I believe Peter did an outstanding job in the circumstances – he didn’t even check if we had brought pencils so the strain is obviously getting to him”
“It was so nice to be singing again and to see people. Thank you to everyone who made it happen. Great to do some vocal and breathing warm ups as my voice is definitely rather rusty, and then nice to put a piece together in an hour”
“During Lockdown I found it very hard to sing alone. The online things just didn’t appeal and I tried singing along to recordings but that didn’t motivate me either. I think it was the solitary nature of it. I don’t enjoy just hearing myself sing. So I hadn’t sung for months before the 17th and had no idea how it would work. In spite of all the differences from our usual rehearsals there was still enough of a sense of community and shared experience to help me find my voice. I can’t pretend I sang quietly but I sang with feeling and thoroughly enjoyed it. If it happens again I’ll be there!”
“I thought it was lovely for some to get together again, very well organised and socially distanced”.
“Just a belated note to say how fantastic it was to get together last week. I know it was just an hour, but I know how many man hours of work must have gone into making that hour possible, so a huge thanks to the team involved. It felt really safe. Let’s hope it is not too long until we can do it again”
I really appreciate being called ‘an old pro’, because let’s face it, that’s how it is, and thank you for the compliment! I am also struck by the comment about no pencils! Do you know, it hadn’t even occurred to me, I had forgotten, it had ceased to be an important matter. How symbolic! It was certainly lovely just to sing gently and get the old band back together.
Did anyone sing carols at all? I’m sure some of you did, but this year must rank as the leanest for opportunities. I overheard people talking about ‘singing around the village’ and other Christmas celebrations, but overall there must have been fewer renditions per head of the population. I only got one opportunity this year, at Swinbrook Church, two miles from Burford. I mention it, not because the occasion so magnificent that I was temporarily transported to a higher spiritual dimension beyond the toil and strife of this weary world. We were outside in the graveyard, it was raining, cold and my music had turned to papier mache, but we were edging towards that Christmas feeling – carols, readings and a warm community. The highlight of the evening though was being ‘raided’ and shut down by the Thames Valley Police before we could sing the final carol – O come all ye faithful, because the gathering was too large. We were not in Salisbury or Swansea, Sheffield or Stirling, where hoards of young people were probably five deep at the bar in a Weatherspoons, but Swinbrook – population 139. Most churches would give their collective cuspids (eye teeth) to have a congregation large enough to be considered a potential danger to society, I suspect. Anyway we all duly obliged and hummed the descant in the car on the way home. So near, yet so far.
It’s a new year tomorrow and I want to wish all of you a very happy one and all the best for a brighter 2021. Made any resolutions? Good luck if you have. Until we meet again the blogs will continue and in the spirit of moving forward I will aim to stimulate – activities, music links, thought provocation related to singing and less to political commentary perhaps.
As a parting gesture though, I am going to point you towards a very readable retrospective of 2020 called The lost year – how coronavirus changed everything, by Jonathan Freedland. It’s a thoughtful piece about how the pandemic has exposed society’s weaknesses but also illuminated what strengths we have. If you don’t read it, just take in the final paragraphs:
We learned what we are by what we missed. Life without even the possibility of a trip to the pub; a night of laughter at the theatre; tears at the cinema or the thrill of live music; an afternoon of shouting yourself hoarse at the football; a quick chat over a drink or a long meal with friends; a few hours with your parents or your children; or a simple, wordless hug – that kind of life was hollow and hard. We longed to know those pleasures once more.
The pandemic took away so many lives, but it also reminded us what life was for; the simple joy of being with other people, close enough to touch and be touched. Like a magnifying glass placed over each one of us, the pandemic revealed what is our greatest weakness but also our most precious strength: our need for each other.
Robert Dean, who led our amazing Belshazzar’s Feast workshop in October last year, shares some thoughts and advice from his experience of the covid crisis and the impact on his students and teaching, with some helpful hints and a link to an excellent resource at the end….
LOCKDOWN! Isn’t this the worst term for any singer to contemplate? It goes against the whole ethos of what we as singers do and what I, as a teacher of 30 years standing have been constantly trying to discourage as the antithesis of the necessary liberation of breath and body if we are to sing with our best tone. The performance of Elijah we gave on February 29th this year was the last live music performance in which I was involved. Looking back now, it seems in some way fitting that it was the story of a good and visionary man (for which read ‘an everyman singer’) who was crushed by those who hated him but who despite adversity, rose once again to even greater glory. Covid the enemy has almost sapped the life blood out of us all and in particular the performing arts. Sadly, singers have come under particular scrutiny, the experts warning that singers pose the greatest of dangers with their droplets being dispersed much more readily in the air whilst singing loudly rather than softly. The answer? We all have to sing quietly! Now we all know how technically difficult this is and how that simply wouldn’t work in a performance of “Elijah”!
Watching the BBC Singers on TV in a live Prom, sing in a socially distanced way in an empty Royal Albert Hall was a dispiriting experience – taking away the joy of performance for the online audience as well, I imagine, as a true sense of ensemble for the singers themselves. If anything needs to be recognised, if the thrill of live music making is to be regained, it is a reminder that the communal act of being together is what makes it so satisfying; which might also mean standing right next to your fellow singer even if they are singing the wrong notes or are sounding terrible! Whilst I am delighted that so many online opportunities in lieu of the real thing have found a place in singers’ lives during this pandemic, it can be nothing more than an inadequate and lonely substitute for doing what human beings do best – social undistancing.
Once I recovered from having the virus myself in March (the finger points to a student at the Guildhall – or was it that workshop I gave on the Brahms Requiem the week before falling ill, where I was encouraging the singers of the choral society to sing lustily but healthily in those fugues?), I was faced in my teaching life with two problems. Firstly, so many of the singers I work with had their work – and as a result their livelihoods – taken away from them overnight; and secondly, the young students I work with at the Guildhall were at a loss as to know how the School was going to continue their musical education. The depression and lack of motivation in the former group was most distressing. All I could offer was to give them their lessons via Skype for free (a surprising number did not take me up on this) and to keep encouraging them by telling them this was not going to last forever. But when work is taken away, and even the future work you have been booked for might not happen, why bother to open a score and learn a role that you may never be required to sing?
In the second group all lessons were moved to online – and something startling began to happen. Without exception, all my young students began to make excellent progress! Without the continual rushing around between classes, and with many of the outside pressures removed, the young singers with my help became their own teachers in their living rooms and bedrooms; and were able to concentrate and learn during the course of a lesson in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Inevitably having to sing continually into a computer screen made them much more self aware of bodily ticks and tensions, and the screen became something of a friend as well as a harsh critic. However much I as a teacher disliked hearing and seeing them electronically (and by the way it is so much more exhausting teaching this way), I could not deny that they embraced the compromise and made it work for them with enthusiasm.
Now, six months down the line we are taking tentative steps to get back to some sort of normality. I have once again opened up my studio to singers replete with a 7 foot perspex screen for them to sing behind and with proper health measures in place on arrival. This week I heard live singing for the first time since March 13th and I was deeply moved but encouraged by the thought that there is nothing quite like it. Even if one listens as I do to recordings of many great singers, nothing can replace the sheer visceral quality of a live singer or singers in full flood, right in front of you – LIVE!
So it seems apposite at this point to give you a pointer to a website, the creator of which – Deborah Miles-Johnson – was my co-director at the Philharmonia Chorus for 10 years, and whose vocal exercises I can heartily recommend; along with some tips on how to keep your voice shipshape for that time when we shall all be back together again, singing our hearts out. “THEN DID ELIJAH THE PROPHET BREAK FORTH AS A FIRE”. Like the Prophet, let’s look to the day when the singers of Oxford Orpheus and of choral societies throughout the land most certainly will be back and now, with the added realisation of what they have been missing, they’ll be singing better than ever and with even greater enthusiasm! https://dmilesjohnson.bandcamp.com/album/vocal-exercises-for-classical-singers
Tips before you use the exercises:
· Remember to breathe before you sing – don’t overfill the lungs, just breathe comfortably and in a natural expanded way, letting the abdominal muscles naturally move outwards but not locking; lifting the soft palette as you breathe gets you into a place of openness at the throat.
· Feel this space as the gateway to your breath and so sense the lift occurring internally whilst making sure your neck, jaw and tongue are relaxed as you take the breath.
· Feel the vocal folds come together as you precisely sing the vowels a – e – i – o – u on a comfortable middle pitch keeping that space, even increasing it as you sing the sequence.
· Use your hand on an inward gesture on each one to help with this. The idea is to invite your voice onto the breath and therefore the body.
· Then try out some of Debbie’s exercises – they are gentle but effective.
Remember to sing every day if you can – the muscles like to be used and become more toned and efficient the more you use them. There is no such thing as lockdown in this way of singing!!
Well! Where to start? Being an accompanist can be the most exciting and thrilling experience – and it can also be very occasionally scary! I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying many different groups, from cathedral choirs to solo singers, choral societies to school productions. There are so many nuances that come with the territory, working with musical directors and their differing methods, different instruments and venues to name a few.
My earliest experience of having to accompany anything was when I was 14. I had been having organ lessons for around 6 months, and our local parish church needed someone to play for midnight mass (as the incumbent organist was not keen on being out at night). This was to be my first ever accompanying engagement – only a church full of 150 people, a choir and extra hymns and carols to play for! I was terrified – having to actually play hymns with people singing and keep in time, listen for consonants to work out which verse we were all on, play the fun last verses from the various Carols for Choirs books – and improvise when required. This really was being thrown in at the deep end! I came out elated, unscathed, but exhausted.
This led to several years of playing at various churches on Sunday mornings in and around Peterborough every week – practising my trade, as it were, learning new music, meeting different people. Most of this was me alone at the console, just getting on with it, no choir. I was lucky to be taught by one of the Peterborough Cathedral organists, Mark Duthie. A master of accompanying (and word painting in particular) I picked up some brilliant (if slightly naughty) tricks and habits from him. The hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ has a super line of ‘though he with giants fight’ – this, for me, meant bringing out all the low, trembly, thunderous stops – I distinctly remember being partly ‘told off’ for doing this at one church!
Accompanying isn’t all about playing the right notes all the time (as I’m sure many of you have noticed...), but supporting the music going on elsewhere in the room. Sight reading is one of my favourite things to do, reading lots of lines of music and making sense of where the music is going, and what it is doing. For me, it is about supporting everything that is happening in a rehearsal or concert, predicting what might happen next and then acting on it! Working with different conductors is exciting as well, getting to know mannerisms and movements, and taking the rehearsal, in some sort of ghosted parallel with them. Lots of ‘if this were me, we’d go back to page 5 now, probably with the basses, I better play an F# for them just before he tells them...’. The partnership between conductor and accompanist, I have often thought, can make or break a rehearsal. You must be on the same page/stave and in the same key/note! Sometimes this can take a bit of getting used to, but often becomes a well-oiled machine over time.
The most exhilarating moments of accompanying have been those last-minute changes of plan – perhaps the conductor is ill, and there is no other option than to go it alone. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be working with the King’s Lynn Festival Chorus. One evening, the conductor was delayed (puncture in the car tyre, I think?). We were working on the Mahler’s epic Symphony 8. For those who don’t know, it is a monstrously large work – double-double choir, hundreds in the orchestra, all sorts of peculiar extras like brass bands, mandolins, organ etc. Well...I’m at the piano, surrounded by 130 singers, and I have to rehearse the music with them. 8 different vocal lines on the score, with the solo lines also included, the piano part is a ‘reduction’(?!) of the orchestra, and there are page turns seemingly every 2 seconds! And to make matters worse, I couldn’t sit down, as my vertically challenged nature meant no one would be able to see me! I definitely earned my money that evening. As a side note, my first rehearsal with the choir was with the same piece, and a cat managed to get into the school and within seconds came and sat on the piano and told me which notes weren’t quite purr-fect....I did wonder what I had let myself in for!!
Things don’t always go to plan. My most frustrating and embarrassing moment took place when I was organ scholar at Wakefield Cathedral. There are two organ consoles, with one being in the nave. When this one was used, there was a button which HAD to be pressed on the main console, otherwise you would be unable to reduce the number of stops used. At one of my first carol services playing for the choir, we had completed the opening carol – cathedral full, lots of loud singing, full organ at the end. The next piece was a very quiet, gentle piece for the choristers to sing, which started unaccompanied, before me joining in a bit later. I had to give a quiet chord. I chose a suitable stop on the nave organ, and when indicated I played the simple D major chord. Disaster – I had forgotten the special button. The chord I actually played was a thunderously loud full organ sound – the congregation almost jumped out of their seats, the choir were a mix of shocked, annoyance, and stifled laughter, and the conductor was...well...to put it mildly ‘unimpressed’. Anyway, the choir did start the piece – and I then ran to the other console (quite some distance away), pressed the correct button – but then had no choice but to stay there and accompany, blind, for the remainder of the piece, as I didn’t have time to get back before my next entry. I was not in the good books that day!
There have been lots of funny moments at the piano. One of the most bizarre I can recall was at a school concert back in Norfolk around 10 years ago. All the department buildings had their own alarms, rather than one centralised one. We were halfway through a solo performance evening when we heard the distinct sound of the burglar alarm in the technology block. Jokingly, my boss suggested out loud to the audience ‘It’s OK, Mr Brown will just improvise something that fits’. Challenge accepted! For several minutes the audience were ‘entertained’ with various tunes, including (but not limited to) Thomas the Tank Engine, Beethoven 5th, EastEnders, Postman Pat, some of the pieces already played that evening (but in a lounge piano style), O come all ye faithful...it was very, very silly!
I’m sure there are many other anecdotes I could include, but maybe they can wait for another day.
Stay safe everyone, take care, and hope to see you soon.
It’s been a while, but here we are and our covid lives look set to get bleaker, if that were possible. I do hope everyone is keeping their spirits up after the slight ‘respite’ (I guess) over the summer months. Substantial and carefully considered plans are being prepared for those of you desperate to sing together again in St Mary’s Church and I can’t wait to get going.
I am involved in planning for the North Cotswold Chamber Choir to sing a concert at St Kenelm’s Church Enstone, on December 5. Sarah Tenant Flowers will be conducting a 60-minute programme of carols with readings reflecting on the Christmas story, possibly twice in succession if audience numbers demand and even live streaming if we can. This is perfectly permissible within the guidelines, at the moment, and like CNCS, a detailed Risk Assessment with substantial mitigations has been prepared. It could all come to nothing of course and might possibly end in tiers (ha ha), but they are hopeful. Fingers crossed that we can make our return to singing work too – please join the joy.
FACING UP TO FACE MASKS
Despite being pretty comfortable with wearing face masks routinely now, people’s opinions and feelings are divided about doing so for singing. I don’t like the idea much, but all the advice suggests it is essential, both to help protect yourself and those around you. I found this interesting perspective from a singer posted on the Making Music website on October 16.
Opinion: In praise of face masks?
When face masks were first introduced, I was not happy.
I struggle with hearing, so a mask makes it even harder for me and cuts out the possibility of lip-reading. I didn’t even realise how much I was relying on lip-reading until masks became widespread. I now find myself constantly apologising in shops, as I have to double check everything a shop assistant is saying to me if they’re wearing a mask.
And I was not thrilled about having to wear one, especially for any length of time, finding them suffocating and hot. So when I was told I had to for choir rehearsals, I was totally dismayed. Perhaps I wasn’t that keen on in-person rehearsals after all? Or maybe we could just turn up in a mask and then take it off? That hope was dashed when the choir committee issued dire warnings about not wearing one, with penalties, like we were back at school.
But now, a few weeks down the line, I’ve changed my tune (pun intended) and consider myself a new fan!
We’ve just been told that complacency is one of the biggest risks for a second wave of coronavirus: people not following the rules, either because they don’t think it’s necessary or (far more likely in my view, judging from my own experience!) because they forget. When you’re out and about, life can feel quite normal and so you automatically start behaving as such, often walking too close to people in the process.
But face masks are the perfect unmissable reminder on everyone’s face that life is not normal, that we are still in the middle of a pandemic, and that we need to be careful, all the time.
And one more thing: wearing one shows respect. It says, ‘I take fellow human beings/choir members’ wellbeing seriously, so I’m doing what I can.’ It’s about respect for others’ anxiety, as much as for their physical health. It is not really about me.
So now I own half a dozen snazzy face coverings and have worked out the most comfortable ones for singing in. And you know what? Wearing one really is a very small price to pay for the joy of singing together again.
Plus: that’s Christmas stocking fillers sorted for everyone this year, right?
How do YOU feel?
I’m sure you have found something comfortable which stays in place. I bought one with a clear plastic patch over the mouth which makes lip reading sort of possible for the hard of hearing, thinking that might help singers at a distance from me stand more chance of engaging – at least that was the sales hype! It cost £15 plus p&p – and is rubbish. It’s poorly made, uncomfortable and the plastic window steams up – of course it does! Buyer beware.
If you fancy some simple, delightful and reflective singing crafted online, you might like this simple song written by the most energetic song writer and community musician I know – Gitika Partington. I like its message and inspiration and even if we are in different boats or trains, driving on different roads and walking other paths – we are all in the same storm and under the same sky. Here’s the link, and the words below:
SINGLE SKY by Gitika Partington and Andy McCrorie-Shand
The Dialing Tone Chorus released their 5th Virtual Choir Video on 24th October 2020 to coincide with UN Day and the clocks going back. On October 24, 1945, 51 countries came together to create the United Nations. Its purpose was to promote peace and cooperation around the world. … The event was to be observed by all member countries. United Nations Day continues to be celebrated globally, as part of United Nations Week. Reminding us there is a Single Sky.
1. We’re on the same boat, crossing the same sea. Oh woh
We’re on the same road, walking the same street. Oh woh……
2. We’re on the same train, rolling the same lines. Oh Woh
We’re on the same flight, crossing the same times. Oh woh…
LEAVING DARKNESS PASSING BY, SHARING STARS UNDER A SINGLE SKY
LEAVING CLOUDS YOU TELL ME WHY, SHARING LIFE UNDER A SINGLE SKY
3. We’re on the same train, rolling the same lines. Oh Woh..
We know the same songs, we’re singing the same rhymes. Oh woh…
Everyone tells us, it’s gonna work out fine They say it’ll turn out in the end All we know is we share a single sky (In love in faith in hope my friend x2) (leaving darkness passing by single sky leaving clouds you tell me why single sky x2) Way oh ..single sky
And finally to this edition’s selection from the Leading Notes newsheet of spring 2011, no. 26. A pretty regular feature each term was some kind of quiz, often related to the forthcoming concert or music in general. The upcoming programme (April 16th) was Bach’s St John Passion in Deddington Church (oh yummy, if only!). This rather clever little programme note played with the theme of translating composers’ (and one conductor’s) names into English. The text gives clues – see how you get on, good luck. Answers a bit further down in very small text!
You will certainly be familiar with Joe Brook (1) who spent his life writing church music for wealthy patrons. Freddy Trade (2) was in much the same line of business, but in addition wrote music for hooty horns celebrating a right Royal Thames Barge Festival. Later, this chap called Dick Coachbuilder (3) built himself a wooden theatre for the performance of his long music dramas, with uncomfortable seating to discourage inattention. A waltz-king was Joey Ostrich (4), whereas Dick Ostrich (5 and no relation) was in the opera business and is well known for a sexy one about a rose-queen. Further south, Joe Green (6) packed the opera houses year after year on into his old age, Shakespeare inspiring his take on the one about the Moor of Venice. At the beginning of his reign, Peter Jagd (7) inspired valiant CNCS troops to tackle a performance of the great and early Evening Service by Claud Greenhill (8).
Hello everyone, good to be writing to you all again; sorry I’ve been ‘away’ for so long. I last blogged over a month ago, how time flies when you’re still painting a kitchen and having a new boiler fitted – some people will find any excuse! But as predicted, the sun did come, then disappeared over the Bank Holiday. Anyway, it’s good to be here again and I hope everyone is safe and well and anticipating ever more eagerly a return to some singing as the time surely gets closer. I would say that not much has happened since I wrote, but to be frank, it hasn’t really! Covid19 ebbs and flows, causing local lockdown, lifting of lockdown so folks can get away on holiday, changes in quarantine rules so they all have to dash home again. It reminds me of the Pirate shanty chorus: We’re going this way, that way, forwards and backwards, over the Irish sea… Eating out in August was delightful – did you make a point of doing it as the state was treating us?! Socialism at its best. I wonder if this policy could be applied more widely – free university education, more social housing, re-opening youth centres, decently remunerating care workers, HS2 (oops, already doing that!).
Significant progress was made over the summer by the DCMS however and their roadmap has been carefully thought through and applied effectively. As they promised, rapid research was carried out to assess the real ‘dangers’ of singing (and playing wind and brass instruments) which reported in mid-August. The exciting news is that singing poses the same risks as talking – not greater, as first supposed. In both cases it is volume which makes a difference to the spread of the virus (more air and energy behind the action, which risks spreading droplets further). This revelation enabled DCMS guidance to move to stage 4 of their 5-stage roadmap, which is that it is now possible for up to 30 people to meet in covid compliant venues to rehearse. It is also permissible to perform to an audience provided they are socially distanced. I believe that more than 30 can gather provided there is space and sufficient management of compliance arrangements. This is what people who talk in such ways might call a ‘game changer’!
I am pleased to say that our excellent committee has kept apace of developments and is crafting the CNCS roadmap. You will have received an email from Nick (Chair) setting out the landscape, and also a brief survey inviting your thoughts/ideas about the route to returning. Sub-committees are considering risk assessments and social engagement, and venues are being researched. From here, it looks like a proper concert at Christmas is unlikely but we will endeavour to ‘perform’ in some way, but nothing is fixed and we are a flexible bunch. Thank you committee – we are indebted to you for your careful planning and attention.
If you did engage with the Beatles’ Here comes the sun and have been practising – how’s it going? I am so looking forward to putting it together. If we are not meeting for a while, I’ll find more challenges for you. I am eagerly anticipating singing again; rehearsals are likely to be shorter and gentler, but no less exciting and I am looking forward to being The man at the front in person!
Now it’s quiz time!
Question: What do we all do about 25,000 times a day? Clue: We do it automatically, but if we paid more attention to it we could significantly improve our health.
Answer: We B-R-E-A-T-H-E
I read a fascinating book called Breath – The new science of a lost art, by James Nestor. It is not specific to singing but to life, really, but of course can be immensely helpful to choirs. To whet your appetites, the cover notes say:
Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance, rejuvenate internal organs, halt snoring, allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease….None of this should be possible, and yet it is….
Breathturns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. You will never breathe the same again.
Bold claims and I know I’m easily won over, but I’m not completely gullible – it’s a very convincing read. We are all familiar with the importance of breath control in yoga, meditation, mindfulness or exercise practices, but its potential impact on wider aspects of health are interesting. If you want to delve a little deeper, visit www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath and look at the breath videos, particularly the Buteyko breathing exercise An understanding of the power of how to manage good breathing will support comfortable singing, so we must continue to pay attention to this in our warm ups!
Time for music!
At the beginning of lockdown I posted a musical sideswipe at Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham. Dillie Keane’s enthusiasm got the better of her again on September 1st, as schools were about to return…..
The popular group Voces8 have made a huge impact in singing circles and they have plenty of youtube postings. This splendid performance of Slap that bass caught my eye; a masterclass in brilliant singing and witty choreography. Given the song’s title, if you were the bass singer, you’d look out!
Closer to home, I heard a new recording of the Mozart Requiemon Radio 3 recently by The Dunedin Consort. It’s a reconstruction of the first performance, with period instruments and some gutsy singing. Here are the Kyrie and Lacrimosa as tasters and they certainly whet my appetite for including it in a future programme very soon!
MORE BLASTS FROM THE PAST – EXTRACTS FROM LEADING NOTES
A fine feature of the termly newsheet Leading Notes, was the occasional Editorial Mutterings from Peter Barber:
Dog-sitting during the summer holidays at a daughter’s place, I came across three brand new as yet unopened books of songs: traditional American, Welsh and Irish folk melodies. Folding back the new crackling pages of each in turn, lo and behold there were titles familiar from the Dark Ages (i.e. just before and during the 39-45 lot), when as a youngster (teenagers did not exist then – “Mozart was never a teenager” I yell at the radio whenever an announcer perpetrates that solecism) I joined in the family Sunday evening sing-song round an aunt’s piano. ‘Did you sing this?’ I asked W, knowing full well that her family, like many others from Victorian times and earlier, had followed the same weekly ritual. Persuading her to the piano, we spent a nostalgic half hour ‘rendering’ I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, Ash Grove…and so on. Then we came to the American book, and there were the negro spirituals, in simple form, that had inspired Michael Tippett. Very affecting. The last time I had sung those must have been about 1943. From Issue 14, December 2005
In 2006, CNCS performed Messiah in Chippy Church and Catherine Bott was the soprano soloist. You don’t hear her so much these days but she was big then, also presented on Radio 3 and lived locally. Peter Barber wrote some more Mutterings about Messiah being a staple work of the burgeoning choral music scene in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He also enlightened us about the outcome of the Conference of Sunday School Teachers in 1841 which resulted in a form of musical notation which enabled thousands of working people to access singing together and hence join in with Messiah. More on this in a future blog….
The Messiah Edition of Leading Notes, Winter 2006, featured some personal recollections from choir members about their first or early experiences of singing this masterpiece; here are a few:
About 1960. We had both sung the work earlier during our (separate) student lives. But we remember especially this performance in Walsall Town Hall, or rather the Tuesday evening rehearsals, because of the delicate touch of the 17-year old rehearsal pianist drafted in from the local sixth form – Andrew Parrott, on the threshold of a distinguished musical career.
Wendy and Peter Barber
When singing the chorus ‘Messiah’
The altos’ performance was dire.
The tenors were lower than basses, and slower,
While sopranos sang higher and higher!
It was 55, or even 56 years ago. My school prospectus brooked no argument. ‘Boys who have any musical ability are expected at least to join the choir’. So I did; and either at the first Christmas concert or the following summer we sang Messiah. I can’t say I fell in love with the music at once. The entire treble section had to sing Rejoice greatly, and a right struggle it was. But I was thrilled the first time I heard The trumpet shall sound. And singing Hallelujah was great – I could easily manage a top G in those days.
Ah, I remember it so well, for it was all of 42 years ago, because it was one of those rare-as-hen’s-teeth occasions when we sequestered schoolgirls were allowed contact with the male of the species. No amount of stick-on beards or burnt cork moustaches were going to produce an adequacy of tenors or basses in an all-girls boarding school, to say nothing of trumpet players, so joy of joys, we had to link up with the Boys College – and not just boys, masters as well. Heady stuff!
All of a sudden the choir was the place to be and it was amazing how many tone-deaf pubescent nymphettes suddenly started paying attention in Musical Appreciation….We few, we happy few, were let loose on the delights of Going Astray like Sheep (oh yes please)…I will never forget the physical shock of being joined by tenors and basses for the first time. It sent so many prickles down my spine that I could barely get a note out, and it didn’t have much to do with the Glory of the Lord.
But when it came to the performance in the faded splendour of the Winter Gardens, to those soaring Hallelujahs complete with golden trumpets, the occasion transcended banal consideration of teenage hormones. Those peculiar beings in trousers were there, like us, for the music, the whole music, and nothing but the music.
Thank you for being here – more next time. Take care and look out for announcements about our return to some choral normality. Regards, TMATF.
all, how goes it? It’s been a while since the last post of June 29th
and a fair bit has happened, but I have been busy preparing something special
for you to ‘take away’ and get singing. More later!
think covid’s been conquered judging by the distances we see between people –
including most politicians – and yet we all have to wear masks in shops from Friday.
The words horse, stable and bolted spring to mind. Beauty salons are open now –
does that include nail bars? I do hope so. As time drags its weary feet, CNCS
folk are pondering exactly what proximity to another human being is acceptable
to be able to engage in our dubious activities of sharing aerosols and
exploring this, I need to tell you that Chris, our Chap At The Keyboard, has
finished a successful (and very weird) term at school and is looking forward to
a relaxing break. He has been personally very busy too – but I will leave him
to share that with you when next we meet! He sends his love and can’t wait to
get rattling the ivories again for us asap. Sticking with pianos for a moment,
I have a slightly amusing anecdote from an encounter with my piano tuner. We
were having a ‘man chat’ about how the early stages of lockdown resulted in
accomplishing dozens of small tasks that have been outstanding for a while (bet
you’ve got your own list?). Steve had proudly fixed something that had been
irritating him for about 40 years, which when he applied himself, took less
than two minutes. Any guesses? It’s something that every DIY enthusiast will
relate to. Answer at the end…
developments in our return to the new normal (speech marks not required any
longer!). The good news is that the performing arts professionals now have a
road map detailing their route back to public performances in theatres and
opera houses – hurrah! Sadly for we amateurs, trials and investigations are
required before any guidance can be given. What this man at the front can’t
fathom, is that surely amateur singers are far less dangerous than the trained
ones? Strong consonants are responsible for the ‘fluid burst’ of mucous which
potentially spreads the virus through the air according to the science, right?
With the greatest of respect to my amateur friends who try really hard with
their diction every Wednesday, they are not nearly as threatening as the likes
of Pavarotti or ___________ (insert your favourite opera singer). But then,
what do I know about singing? Forgive me for being a tad churlish – I
completely understand that our professional friends have livelihoods to regain,
and that theatres need filling, but we amateurs don’t have careers to resurrect
or company bank balances to improve, we just wanna sing and tweak our mental
health! Get on with it!
On that note
(C# probably), I can bring you the latest update from the DCMS, which is rather
encouraging (at least for the pros). It was issued on 15.07.20 – here is an
Non-professionals should currently not engage in singing or
playing wind and brass instruments with other people given these activities
pose a potentially higher risk of transmission and whilst research is ongoing.
DCMS has commissioned further scientific studies to be carried out to develop
robust scientific data for these activities. Existing and emerging evidence
will be analysed to assist the development of policy and guidelines.
developed a five-stage roadmap to bring our performing arts
back safely. These five stages of the phased return to performing arts are as
Stage One – Rehearsal
and training (no audiences)
Stage Two –
Performances for broadcast and recording purposes
Stage Three –
Performances outdoors with an audience and pilots for indoor performances with
a limited socially-distanced audience
Stage Four –
Performances allowed indoors and outdoors (but with a limited
socially-distanced audience indoors)
Stage Five –
Performances allowed indoors / outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)
From the 11 July, we will move to Stage Three. This means that performances outdoors
with a socially distanced audience can take place in line with this guidance.
DCMS will work with sector representative bodies to select a number of pilots
for indoor performances with a socially distanced audience. Dance studios can
fully reopen from the 25th July, and should follow guidance
for providers of grassroots sport and gym/leisure facilities. We expect to say more
on a possible date for Stage 4 soon and Stage 5 in due course.
Initial Phase Recommendation that singing and wind
and brass playing are carefully controlled and limited to professional contexts
only (i.e. for work purposes only as per this guidance). This is the current
You can get
a feel for the direction in which this is heading, a gradual loosening up and
increase in numbers of performers and audience. My hunch is that a similar
trajectory will apply to amateur groups in due course when we know more about
the aerosol/droplet distribution science. Again – watch this space.
There is more guidance, and careful reading of this suggests that if small groups aren’t suitable for the artistic outcomes, then larger groups can be considered if appropriate risk assessments are undertaken, so hopefully in time we will be able to interpret the guidance to suit what we need! Read it here:
written to the committee today based on all this advice and the science and
together we will hatch a plan to meet our needs as soon as is practical. Thank
you to them. You can see some suggestions I made in the blog of 29.06.20 for
BRING ME SUNSHINE –
I am aware
that CNCS has not partaken of any online singing, although I know some of you
have engaged with it elsewhere. I thought it would be a nice idea to have a
song that you can sing at your leisure and gently practise so that at our first
rehearsal we can put it together. Here comes the sun seems appropriate
as a metaphor – the ‘long cold lonely
winter’ of the pandemic and lockdown has prevented us singing, but a
sunrise is on the horizon as we emerge from isolation.
YOU NEED TO KNOW – Being an arrangement, obviously you won’t hear your part exactly as written (apart from the tune which is always in the soprano and shared with everyone at times) but it’ll be pretty close as the harmonies match the original and the parts shadow the melody rhythms, mostly. Give it a go, have some fun and we’ll rehearse it together in _____________(insert month here!!).
There is also a cool version of Here comes the sun sung by George Harrison and Paul Simon ‘unplugged’ in 1976 (Saturday Night Live)
OUR REGULAR TONIC –
QUOTES FROM PAST COPIES OF LEADING NOTES
On the theme
of consonants and their newly-discovered hidden dangers for all mankind (um,
fluid burst), it seems that over a decade ago, French singers had got this
sorted and were playing safe, as Geoff Hunter explained in LN Issue 23, Winter
of the final consonant – Lesley and I are
members of a small choir which goes every few years or so to Vaison la Romaine
in Provence to take part in a singing festival. We give an English
programme…and take part in the available workshops. On our last visit I
decided to join the workshop doing the Rutter Requiem. I was the only
Englishman in the group, and since everything is in French at the festival, I
thought I would have an easy ride. However, my point of collapse came in an
The work contains a
gradual crescendo, ending fortissimo, with…’in you O God we put our trust’.
This sounds rather innocuous until you realise that the French don’t generally
pronounce the final consonant in words, so hearing a hundred or so people
offering their surgical supports to God was too much for me. After stifling my
giggles, I quietly told the conductor what the problem was. He laughed, told
the rest of the choir….they laughed, but they still did it!
how many choir members reflect on why they sing in the choir? In my collection
of Leading Notes (which is sadly not that many) there are a few accounts of
people’s background in singing and what it means to them. Here’s an early
recollection from Mike Terry in 1997. He was a real character who made no
pretence of the fact that he couldn’t read the notes but joined in anyway! I
learnt from him a simple approach to sight reading –“the notes either go up, or they go down”. Here’s his account from
Issue 2, June 1997:
of a Bass Fellow – Len Brigwood said: “Why don’t you come and
sing with us? You’d enjoy it”. I said: “But I’ve never sung in a choir and I
can’t read music. I wouldn’t have the courage to tackle heavyweight stuff with
you lot. I’ve only sung blues with a Fleet Street pick-up group; all you people
know what you’re doing and I’d be floundering.”
He said: “Just come
with me to our next practice (note his subtle avoidance of frightening
technical terms) and stand next to a bass who knows what he’s doing. Take your
cue from him and you’ll be fine. Bothering about what the conductor wants will
come later.” So I came.
I was terrified.
There you all were, gearing up for Bach’s B Minor Mass, no less. But there was
Stewart Taylor, guiding, chivvying, making everyone laugh yet never allowing
the concentration to relax. There, with equally high standards was Shauni
McGregor with her warm smile.
And…. Ah! There
was THE SOUND. Slowly I lost my fears and began to enjoy myself. Len had been
right. Now, save for illness or holidays, Wednesday nights are sacrosanct. At
home in between Wednesdays, my wife Sheila patiently hears the latest pieces
played over and over again until musical rote-learning disguises my ignorance.
I had always viewed
musicians with awe, but now I have found their beautiful gift brings with it
great friendliness and spiritual generosity. Shauni quickly found out I’m not
good at counting – but at least I now realise that when the dots climb up so
should the voice. And vice-versa. And I’m having a lovely time….
thing Mike discovered from his new-found choral experience was that not only do
the dots go up and down, but all the instructions are in Italian! We all think
we know what they mean, but in truth their translation suggests something more
personal and close to home. Here is a selection, unattributed but I suspect it
was Peter Barber, from Issue 9, Spring 2003:
Defining moments – allegro molto: see who can get there first (molto
belto: basses get there first)
allargando: slowing down (but take your time about
crescendo: from ppp to fff in one bar
diminuendo: as above,
normally vice versa
piano: help in trouble
mezzo forte: fff, but depends on ambient relative
forte: ffff, ditto
da capo: see who’s dozing
rallentando: like allargando but avoid watching Peter
accelerando: leave the room
without stacking your chair
unison: discussion with
possible subsequent agreement about the melody
legato: sensitivity to
composer, or excessive lower body movement during warm up
andante: walk in late,
miss warm up
tutti: join in when the
parlando: soprano seminar
during warm up
folks, I’ll be back soon and I really promise to include some more music clips!
The last two blogs have been rather issue and data heavy, but understandably given
how things are. I hope you enjoy singing along with the arrangement and I look
forward to hearing it.
Take care y’all
and stay safe.
BTW – Piano
tuner Steve’s amazing success after 40 years was to grease his Black & Decker Workmate to stop
it squeaking. Incredible.
Afternoon all – how goes it with you?
My last blog required a lot of reading and I hope you found it informative and
encouraging, despite the lack of consensus about the science. Basically all
that floats between us getting back together or continuing in isolation is understanding
the difference between singing and shouting. It’s that simple (almost).
Quite by chance last Saturday
lunchtime I listened to Music Matters on Radio 3. The
programme examined how music can return, with a focus on singing and pleasingly
attention was paid to amateurs as well as trained singers. There is a link
below and the whole programme is worth a listen, but the relevant item starts
at about 13’30” in and lasts eight minutes. Tom Service interviewed a
laryngologist/teacher and a scientist who were keen to dispel the myth that ‘singing
caused covid clusters all over the world’. They also question why it is we
accept loud speaking but not singing, as we know that the aerosol behaviour is the
same, and why we aren’t treating them with equivalence. The science still isn’t
there yet, but the good news at the end of the item was that research into this
issue would start on Monday (July 6) and that hopefully results would be
available in weeks rather than months!! This is most encouraging and should
keep our spirits up for a while longer.
The other fantastic news recently is
the £1.57 billion for the Creative sector to open up theatres, concert halls,
museums etc. Although making no difference to us directly, it at least acknowledges
the importance of the arts to the nation (er… and the economy) and keeps the
issue centre stage which is helpful for our cause too.
This news is like a ray of sunshine
piercing the temporary gloom of CNCS’s non-singing world. To cheer us all up I
had an idea which I will share with you, hence the weak link. Here
comes the sun(Beatles, Abbey Road Album 1969) is a perfect song to
lift morale and celebrate the return of hope, happiness and wellbeing. Wouldn’t
it be lovely to make this the first song we sing together again, whenever that
is? In my next blog (soon, I
promise) I will attach a copy of my arrangement which you can practise by
singing along with the original – it all fits, nothing too fancy! Like an astronomer,
watch this space.
Leading on….In my recent tribute to
Peter Barber I promised that I would include some gems from past editions of
the news-sheet Leading Noteswhich he edited for years. It’s especially
poignant to include a reminiscence from Wendy. Savour and enjoy.
Quotes and Notes (from LN Issue 12, Autumn/Winter 2004)
A Christmas card form the Grosvenor Library of Recorder Music in York, prints Choir Rules in the Good Old Days, circa 1915 and offers the following:
‘The Tenors shall consist of many fair gentlemen who do not mind straining
their voices. All gentlemen left over shall sing bass.’
The choir meets for the following purposes:
‘To discuss politics, tennis, scandal and/or church affairs….and of
course, to flirt.’
‘No notice shall be taken of the conductor. He is always pleased to
receive advice from individual members. He likes to have….suggestions as to
tempo and expression, and is delighted to be instructed in the elements of
Your Man At The Front notes the
comments about taking no notice of the conductor and considers that little has
changed in 105 years! However, modern choirs are far more sophisticated and
express their collective opinion about tempo and expression through their
singing, usually slower and louder than the conductor would like!
Advert spotted in a Victorian
magazine at an exhibition in the Bodleian, from Issue 22, Spring 2009:
A private choral society is being formed consisting solely of amateurs
occupying good social positions. There will be none of the elements of the
ordinary choral society.
A lovely personal contribution from Wendy Barber, written for Issue 21,
‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’
As a penniless student the chance to earn some extra cash was attractive, but to be paid to take part and sing in a Hitchcock film was irresistible. Alfred H, who was shooting the climax of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in the Royal Albert Hall and needing singing extras, sent across the road (to the Royal College of Music) for students to fill the role.
The filming was scheduled for the end of the Spring Holiday and was almost scuppered by a national rail strike; however, after a very tedious journey on Easter Sunday from my native Worcestershire, I was at the Albert Hall in good time for the first rehearsal. This being a Hitchcock affair, there was a huge chorus and the orchestra, if my memory serves me well, was the LSO. After hours of singing, hanging around, being issued with costumes resembling shapeless nightwear, we were ready for the drama.
The stars arrived! James Stewart and Doris Day (‘Che sera, sera’) were involved in a heroic plot thwarting an assassination intended to happen as the Arthur Benjamin score reached its fff climax. It was for me an exhausting three days – chorally a unique experience. Seeing the film occasionally since, I scan along the second to back row, five from the end – but, how well have I remembered? However I clearly remember how rich I felt with £15 in my pocket.
A friend sent me a link to an amazing new show called The Contagion Cabaret created by Chipping Norton Theatre, which some of you may have seen. It’s wonderful and very entertaining. I hope they don’t mind me sharing it with you. They said: “Last week we released The Contagion Cabaret, a collaboration between The Theatre Chipping Norton and Oxford University. It is a unique alternative take on the pandemic, featuring literature, songs and short talks.”
Most of you will have caught up with
the very sad news that Peter Barber, one of our basses, died last week. The
choir has sent condolences to Wendy and his family and our thoughts and prayers
are with them. Peter last sang with us in Cheltenham Town Hall and he and Wendy
have been members of the choir for twenty plus years.
I shall miss Peter a lot. Although
unwell for some time he doggedly attended rehearsals and gave his all, and as
his hearing deteriorated, he would cup a hand behind one ear to try and catch
my rabbiting in case it was important. This always reminded me to improve my
delivery. More recently he asked me to wear a clip on microphone in rehearsal and
we enjoyed a unique relationship of direct communication; he only had to wave
occasionally to remind me to turn it on!
Peter was a kind man, and between the singing made a quiet contribution to the choir community in many ways. The most significant, and remembered fondly by many members, was as Editor of Leading Notes. This was a termly ‘newsheet’ as he called it, with many contributions from members of the choir. It featured Chairman’s Ramblings from Roger, Chairman’s Chunterings from Toby and Sarah’s Scribblings, concert and festival reviews, programme notes and miscellaneous musings about the next concert, soloists’ biographies, plenty of short reminiscences and reflections by members with heaps of amusing anecdotes, tall stories and puzzles. Occasionally there would be Editorial mumblings from Peter himself, often written on holiday in France or imploring people to contribute to copy! There are two lovely extracts below. Incidentally, all of this came for just £1 a throw – a healthy contribution to choir funds.
The patience and dedication required to pull each edition together and present Leading Notes so well was part of Peter’s commitment to the choir and we were all the richer for it, so a heartfelt posthumous ‘thank you’ from us all Mr Editor.
As a tribute to Peter and in his memory, I will be quoting something from past editions of LN in my forthcoming blogs, and as you read them spare a thought for the contributors (who might still be in the choir!) and the man who kept it all together.
Extracts from Leading Notes. Here Peter reflects on an amateur music experience in France and makes a gentle political point:
Missing a rehearsal, black mark, I was in France last week, and one evening, with glass in hand was talking with the mayor of a small town near Mayenne. We were at a buffet following a concert in which we heard English amateur string groups playing at the close of a week’s course (Wendy was playing, I was hanger-on). Then it was the turn of a large group of local people present, between 20-30 of them, ages from about thirteen upwards. Stands were set up, flutes, clarinets, some brass and percussion, were put in place and careful tuning followed…..They played delightfully and musically….There was a strong local musical tradition the mayor explained and many of the youngsters had lessons at the town’s School of Music. Once upon a time the lessons had been free, but that had changed now and families had to pay. Oh tell me about it, just like home. The Venezuelan youth musicians who, rightly, have been accorded an ecstatic welcome wherever they have performed, are the products of an enlightened system of fostering talent in urban and rural communities regardless of origin or parental financial status…..But did we not have our own sistema, called county peripatetic services and serving the whole population excellently, until poleaxed by political shenanigans? Leading Notes Issue 22, Spring 2009
Peter considers how music soothes and challenges us:
Sops, challenges and barbed wire:
Music as emollient: Classic FM makes much of playing ‘easy listening’ selections as a
background wash to persuade us to put up our feet after a busy day. Fine. After
all, who needs a challenge when you have end-of-the-month accounts/preparation
of tomorrow’s lessons/children’s bedtime on your mind? Indeed recent press
articles have reported on the therapeutic value of music played in clinics and
hospitals. Mozart’s name seems often to recur in this context too. A very
successful enterprise, according to these reports. If music be the food of
love….. Baby therapy too – Mention of children’s bedtime reminds me of the
popularity of a DVD calledBaby Mozartwith certain
very small people of my acquaintance. Teddy bears cavort, toy trains
loop-the-loop to Mozart minuets and marches engagingly played on what sounds
like a glockenspiel, and the audience goes quiet.
But music as challenge: As
amateur choristers we are conscious of performance
challenge, but listeners get
challenged too. From the beginning composers have thrown down the ever-evolving
‘sound worlds’. Notes that fall discordantly on the ear of one generation can
become sweet music to the next. To lend an engaged ear to as wide a spectrum of
sound as possible can be a stimulating antidote to sugar overdose. (Will A Child of our Time prove a double
Then how about music as barbed
Mozart (again!), piped to doorways and to open exterior areas of department stores or malls to repel ‘up-to-no-good’ likely lads who gather there after closing time. Music as therapy OK – but oh! – please not the aversion type. Leading Notes Issue 12, Autumn/Winter 2004
Thank you Peter, it was good knowing
you. Go well.
Hello everyone. I hope you are well and starting to spread your wings a little in a responsible fashion, whether at 2m or 1m with mitigation. Isn’t it so good to even be thinking about meeting family and friends and I hope you enjoy getting out, or staying in if that’s preferable! Some rum things happening around the place which are disappointing and rather worrying, shaking one’s faith in human behaviour, but we’ll not dwell. I promise in today’s blog, to avoid all political references and any temptation to make pointed remarks about leadership qualities (offer limited to one week only!). Heartening to see our ‘High Streets’ opening gradually, despite some contrary advice, but I deeply regret that Nail Bars are not included. How am I to lecture a devoted crowd on a point of music theory or the merits of pencil ownership? Good luck getting a hair appointment, if that matters to you. I have not been near a pair of scissors since before our Christmas concert, which will probably matter to everyone except me! Owing to the sheer amount of material to share this time, the music clips are limited. There are a couple at the end, but the next blog can feature more music and less chat perhaps.
So, to business: I am delighted to be
in a position to update you on progress and developments towards CNCS being
able to get together again – hurrah! Like the regular (and now much lamented)
daily government briefings I will of course over promise and under deliver,
just to comfort you with a false sense of security (oops, hint of sarcasm, apologies).
In the blog of 12 June I included my
letter to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport,
drawing the department’s attention to the needs of amateur music groups and encouraging
the DCMS to consider when we can function again. His department responded this
Dear Mr Hunt, June 23
Thank you for your correspondence of 11th June to the Department for
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, regarding your concerns over local choirs
during the current pandemic. I am responding as a member of the Ministerial
Support Team. This has been an unprecedented time for the arts and culture
sector, and the department is fully aware of the difficulties many singing
groups are currently facing. The government recognises the huge contribution
the cultural sector makes, not only to the economy and international reputation
of the United Kingdom, but also to the wellbeing and enrichment of its people.
Local choirs are vital to the lives of so many people across the UK, providing
a creative outlet and strong sense of community for choir members and excellent
entertainment for those that attend their performances. The government
published its COVID-19 recovery strategy on 11 May, which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-governmentscovid-19-recovery-strategy.
The department’s priority is to work with the arts and cultural sectors
to address the challenges of reopening, as and when it will be possible to do
so. From the information we have been receiving from various organisations and
professionals, we know that the picture is nuanced across the country, with
different organisations facing different challenges when it comes to the
question of reopening. The government recently announced that representatives
from the arts, cultural and sporting worlds will be joining a new taskforce
aimed at helping to get the country’s recreation and leisure sector up and
running again. The Entertainment and Events working group, which is one of the
eight working groups that will support the government’s Recreation and Leisure
Taskforce will include Arts Council England and other organisations from the
arts and culture sector. Community arts will be one of many issues discussed.
Alongside this working group, the department has had ongoing engagement with a
number of organisations and individuals who represent the hugely diverse nature
of the cultural sector, including representatives of voluntary and community
arts. This is of course a fast changing area of work, and so we would advise
that the best way for you to keep up to date with the situation would be to
subscribe to our weekly bulletin capturing recent government announcements
associated with the arts and cultural sectors and the current COVID-19
pandemic. Please sign up by emailing the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yours sincerely, Ministerial Support Team Department for Digital,
Culture, Media and Sport
This is the kind of reply I expected
and is as encouraging as it’s possible for them to be right now, but they do
need to consider more carefully the evidence relating to singing and possible viral
contamination, and be flexible in their interpretation. The advice to practise
(see sic) virtually is limited but there are online opportunities to keep
singing going this way. This hasn’t floated our boat so far, but it’s an
option. I have signed up to their weekly bulletin to keep us informed.
Since I wrote, there have been more letters to the DCMS – from John Rutter et al and two significant interventions under the banner Singing Network UK which represents 27 organisations involved with singing in choirs. This network connects with pretty much every singing group in the UK and has the authority and clout to represent us very strongly. They make the case well and this higher profile is going to help the process:
The ABCD submission includes an excellent
research paper by Martin
Ashley (Editor in chief of ABCD Choral Directions Research) called Where
have all the singers gone and when will they return? It wasprepared during the Covid-19 lockdown and contains extensive references to
recent publications and research relating to virus transmission and infection
rates etc, shedding light on the science which is influencing the strategic
decisions which will produce the policies for safe return. It is very
informative and well worth reading and highlights many contradictions about
air-borne virus transmission. The full report is 31 pages long; I have provided
links to the conclusions and an information sheet for the fainthearted!
The full report has a lot to say
about aerosols and droplets. It’s looking like the future
of group singing is coming down to our understanding of the risk level posed by
air-borne particles and how to mitigate their impact! This is a clear and
Still with me?
To break the intensity for a moment here is a quiz question, to which you will
know the answer if you have read the full research!
Q: When was the first time that (as
now) choirs were silenced totally?
A: The English Civil War! Recruitment
of singers was banned and there were no sung services from 1652 to 1660.
Interesting facts: Neither of the world wars silenced choirs in England. The King’s College
Cambridge Nine Lessons service was broadcast despite all the stained glass and
heating having been removed from the chapel. During WW1, the boys singing
matins at St Paul’s were disturbed by the sound of anti-aircraft fire and a bomb
landing 150yds from the cathedral. They continued singing and were commended
for their ‘calmness under fire’. Plucky eh?
What are the immediate challenges for us?
Any activity contains risk. We need
to assess the risks of singing together, take a considered view (‘wisdom and judgement must step in at the
limit of knowledge’) and set out clear guidelines for activity and
behaviour from what we’ve learnt, that enable us to function effectively,
whilst minimising these risks to our health. Statement of the bleedin’ obvious,
but it’s important that the route map to the new normal meets our needs
and enables us to enjoy what we do. There is not a ‘one size fits all’
solution. We need to be proactive, hence this analysis of the research to keep
us informed, close monitoring of the campaign, and beginning to sketch out a plan. I hope the
govt can be persuaded that our type of activity needs assessing separately from
the professional arts (theatres etc) as the considerations are very different. If
we are in a queue behind the West End it could take a while!
What does the research tell us?
There is much uncertainty about the
nature of immunity from Covid-19. Breathing and speech can carry viruses,
likewise singing. The action of speaking, shouting and singing are the same –
mucous lining the lungs and vocal tract ‘ bursts’ and moisture particles are released and
travel through the air (see aerosol info sheet above). Opinion is divided about
particle size and the extent of the virus carried, but aerosol particles (the
smallest) are likely to travel furthest and linger longer, particularly in
enclosed spaces. Currents of air circulate in random directions, so if aerosol
particles DO carry virus, and DO ‘remain active
in the rehearsal room for at least an hour’ then a closely spaced choir is
at risk of infection. The louder you
sing and the more you project then ‘singing
would appear to be at least as harmful in this respect as loud speech or
shouting, possibly more so.’
Some research and reports have declared
singing to be safe, but this evidence is less robust (sample size), and ‘most authors with relevant knowledge, but
whose work has not been peer-reviewed, have
declared singing to be unsafe’. One paper stressed the significance of
asymptomatic transmission and that the danger posed by this meant ‘there are at present no conditions under
which choirs could safely resume rehearsal.’
Masks? Where do we stand?
There is insufficient evidence to
make a recommendation on the use of
masks to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory virus. One review
revealed evidence that ‘the retention
properties of masks used during deep breathing in vigorous exercise can lead to
infections that would not happen without the masks’. Masks might also
contribute to difficulty in breathing, particularly for older people. Experts
are divided on this but the consensus seems to be that any protection could
make a contribution to limiting infection spread, so: ‘Recently, due to the lack of clear evidence….the use of masks has
been promoted due to applying the ‘precautionary principle’’ . The jury is
out on this, but if masks are to be used, they must be proper surgical ones and
not ‘homemade fashion statements’!
Wearing masks in rehearsal would be challenging for singers and would
compromise the results, but if we consider it worthwhile/essential we could
manage this with the way we rehearse (e.g. not always singing the words)
The certainty of Social distancing (which I prefer to call ‘physical distancing’ as
socially we are all still very close – but there you are!) seem unequivocal and
was set at 2 metres for the UK which is regarded as a minimum by many
researchers. Two reports conclude that ‘any
environment that is enclosed, with poor circulation and high density of people
spells trouble’ and that ‘social
distance guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces’. There is support for the
view that contagion can be mitigated when singing indoors by keeping the air as
fresh as possible (open windows/doors) and limiting numbers so that spacing can
be adequate with no singers facing each other.
The European Choral Association (ECA) represents choirs in Europe (and
beyond) and has been studying and surveying the effect of the pandemic on
choirs and singing. I have only dipped into their report but found much useful
information about what European countries (+ others) are doing, consideration
of the issues and some fun musical clips. Worth looking at sections 2.1.3, 2.1.4
and 2.1.5 if nothing else. Two German women model a very practical face mask
(see last item at 2.1.5)!
We need a route map ready for our
journey out of lockdown once approval is given. We know the likely challenges,
so armed with information presented here and available widely, it’s possible to
lay the foundations for a swift start.
The following are my suggestions
for our planning.
The committee is responsible for final decisions.
Large venue –
e.g. School hall, Town Hall, Church or other. It is unlikely that at start-up
all +/- 80 singers could meet so we could consider splitting the choir in half (2
lots of SATB) and meet on two nights each week.
Crucial to the venue is plenty of space and ventilation. Sadly the music
room is too small to allow for the appropriate distancing
Hygiene – If
required, a small squad of volunteers could wipe down surfaces such as hand
rails, door handles etc and check loos prior to use. Hand sanitizer on entry. Venues
with two entrances (e.g. school hall and TH) could have separate in & out.
Spacing – Each
singer would have a 2m square, with chair; no physical contact allowed
rehearsal – Preferably not (because of the effect on singing quality and
audibility), but it would be an individual choice
Until we know the likelihood of being able to perform a concert, rehearsals would
consist of singing a range of varied repertoire for fun and engagement to get
back into the habit of singing. Once we have our future programmes agreed we
can start work as appropriate. Warm ups would be based on our usual approach
without compromising the health risks, e.g. gentle movement/stretching,
humming, avoiding high volume and explosive consonants. Particular attention
will be given to limiting the mobility of tongues and lips (!).
Rehearsal length – Possibly 7.30 – 9.00 with short ‘comfort breaks’. If necessary we
could consider some online learning aids too
Once underway, regular attendance would be expected; anyone unwell should not
Future programmes – Re-establishing our meeting again is the priority. Performances/concerts
present another layer of risk assessment and management, and in this regard we
are more closely aligned to public venues generally and will have to wait for a
steer on that. If our Christmas concert can proceed we could for example make
it short and offer two or three ‘sittings’, late pm into evening. It is
unlikely that the Rossini will be possible in October as rescheduled so will be
considered for the spring, or later.
If you are still here – thank you for reading!
I’m sure the committee will be happy
to hear your thoughts and I encourage you to keep abreast of developments. Any
decisions are OURS, but in line with national expectations.
I have included links to some
additional articles for those with time to spare!
This is fascinating but quite
technical and a tad more yawn worthy, about aerosol emissions during human
A little light music. We have all seen many examples of online choruses which have painstakingly constructed performances from individual voices. This one captures the challenges in ‘The Birth of the virtual choir’
How can I keep from singing? This traditional song has been given a nice groove and really lifts the spirits.
I hope you are managing to sing
somehow, and if you are having to ‘keep from singing’, be patient and keep the
faith – it won’t be long now.