Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello everyone, so good to be greeting you again. Impossible to believe that we are entering our second year of the pandemic and its limitations, but with significantly more confidence and optimism. I hope you are well. My last blog opened with ‘Happy New Year’ (a bit late) and today I greet you with nearly ‘Happy Easter’ (a tad early). I got rather caught up with moving house in between, but all is settled now and I am looking forward to seeing you for the Quiz Night soon (more later) and being with you in May.

Soapbox

I wrote to the choir with the CNCS plan for Return to Singing (R2S) earlier this month; the committee has discussed it in detail, and we are on course to meet again in the church on May 19th unless circumstances change the national road map. Whatever happens we are ‘good to go’ when allowed and I am confident there is enough rehearsal time to prepare the Rossini for August 14th in Deddington. The harmonium, players and soloists are all booked, and like us, desperate to perform again!

I have been asked to recommend a good recording of the Rossini with piano and harmonium accompaniment. Here is an excellent one from youtube – the choir is small, but this helps clarity and when it comes to the speeds – they’re thinking what I’m thinking!

Rossini: Petite Messe solennelle – Groot Omroepkoor – Live concert HD – YouTube

By the way, here is what the adjudicator wrote for our performance of the Cum sancto movement at last year’s music festival:

Alert articulation here and excellent give-and-take between the voices dynamically to allow the entries to come through the texture clearly. You were rhythmically alert too. You were precise with the rests – just watch those quaver endings to ‘Amen’ never sound clipped. Good warmth in the sound for the soft sustained ‘Amens’. You do watch – look up as much as you possibly can, whilst counting like mad, to give even more authority to your performance. Splendid work – generous warm-hearted singing (Eileen Field 07.03.20)

CHIPPING NORTON MUSIC FESTIVAL: The 2021 festival might have escaped our notice this year, no choirs class, workshops or concerts, but it did happen online and was a stunning success. Sarah Cobb (Chair) wrote in her report:

During the last fortnight, we have held 36 Zoom calls where our fantastic team of 7 adjudicators have between them commented on 303 videos and gave friendly, helpful and constructive feedback to our amazing performers. We have seen performers, teachers, parents and grandparents join the sessions from school classrooms, sofas, kitchen tables, and have been entertained by the presence of a number of your pets coming to see what all the fuss was about! (Music Festival website 22.03.21)

OUR QUIZ NIGHT: This Wednesday, 7.30. You should have received a zoom link for this. If not please ask Eric eric.clubley@braidholm.com It will be fun and I am looking forward to seeing you again – there might even be a sing at the end! Thanks to Nicky Smith for setting this up.

I want to thank the whole committee, and Eric’s chairmanship, for the constant attention to choir matters, in particular the R2S plans, and some first tentative considerations about the process of finding a new conductor. This will take a while and everyone will have a voice, but it is essential to start thinking about options soon.

Voicebox

Last edition’s Voicebox was about breath. This session features only humming. Yes, just humming. I have a book dedicated to humming and health – see Opportunity knocks.

The voicebox activities are accumulative and that preparing to sing requires briefly visiting each step as part of warming up.

  • Begin with a gentle facial massage: Place your palms on your cheeks and with the carpels (the bony part of the wrists) gently massage your cheek bones in a slow circular motion. Continue, working down your face to cheeks and along your lower jaw, working up to the ‘hinge’ beneath your ears.
  • The breathing exercises encourage slow deep breaths thinking towards the belly, so the sound is supported. Take a few deep breaths, remembering to take longer breathing OUT.
  • Now breathe deeply then simply hum as if expressing delight!
  • Repeat, taking the pitch for a short walk higher and lower; then do it again with a longer walk, exploring higher and lower.
  • Now hum some simple tunes you know well, not too fast. Two suggestions which stretch the pitch and have reasonable phrase lengths are Chestnuts roasting on an open fire (Merry Christmas) and Edelweiss.
  • Final challenge: Improvise and hum Moon River along with Jacob Collier in his arrangement (see link below). For the introduction (the first 1’ 26”) sustain any notes you choose – making each one float on the breath for its length and enjoy the sensation of being a part of the rich texture he builds up. For the next two minutes, hum the tune with him, breathing when he does. Aim for a confident sound, using all the breath for each phrase. Then for the final five minutes listen to what happens – sit in awe with your jaw on the floor, quite literally gobsmacked at what this young man can do alone in his bedroom. I don’t even have that many shirts! His creations are not to everyone’s taste (’over the top’ is not even adequate) but you must admire his skill and capacity.

Jacob Collier – Moon River – YouTube

  • Back to basics – simple sustained humming is very helpful for relaxing and coaxing the voice into action.

Opportunity knocks

I was recommended a book called The Humming Effect – Sound healing for Health and Happiness by a member of the choir. It makes very grand claims about the beneficial therapeutic effects of self-created sounds and the proven physiological impact of humming. The American authors are Jonathan and Andi Goldman. Some salt is required for pinching when you read it and a better case is made for the life-giving properties of the breath and the hum through yogic traditions, but it is an interesting and thought provoking read.

Music Box

Our proposed concert on December 18th will feature the cantata St Nicolas by Benjamin Britten. This work is not performed as much as it ought to be. Typical of Britten it was composed with amateur performers in mind, apart from the solo tenor – Nicolas, and a small cohort of instrumentalists. I found a very good, illustrated lecture which promotes a recent recording by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, but ignoring that aspect, the presentation is helpful in getting a good overview of the story and the music.

CEFC Listening Party – Britten’s Saint Nicolas – YouTube

The following link is to a recording only from 1970, by King’s College Cambridge under Sir David Willcocks and tenor Robert Tear.

Cantate de Saint Nicolas Opus 42 – Benjamin Britten – YouTube

Chatterbox

For this blog, the chatterbox section is devoted to reminiscence and reflection as we remember Shauni McGregor, to whom we bade farewell on February 26th (however formal, the grammar just had to right, or she would not forgive me!) The choir owes so much of its success and quality to her work as accompanist, assistant conductor, fixer, music adviser, singer, supporter and dear friend. During my move, I found a card she sent to me on April 10th 2006 after conducting the Mozart Requiem and C Minor Mass with you. She had temporarily moved back to London.

I quote: I shall miss the Choral Society very much; I have learned a lot from it, not least how to address a large number of people without quaking, but much more musically. I have been encouraged by both you and Stewart (Taylor) to try repertoire ‘foreign’ to me. I think especially of Merrie England, Elijah and Child of our Time, all totally different, but where I thought the music wouldn’t be either satisfying or particularly edifying. I was wrong.

I had the opportunity to conduct a professional band with the Mozart C Minor and Requiem (albeit made up of friends!). Thanks for having a sabbatical – it made me take the decision to have a go. I well remember standing in the procession for Midnight Mass next to Judith (committee chair) ready to start ‘Once in Royal’ when she whispered: ‘Peter is going to have a sabbatical – who can we get to do the Mozart?’ To which, I replied ‘I’ll do it’. ‘That’s alright then’ she said. I spent the rest of the service wondering what I let myself in for!!

The card was a photo of an expansive lush meadow, blue sky, wispy clouds and in the middle is a single stout oak tree – tall and majestic. Rather fitting I thought.

Leading Notes – the original choir newsletter – has been a delightful source of Shauni memories. In his conductor’s report from 1996, Stewart Taylor said: ‘Shauni it was who showed us the way into the big wide world of ‘real’ music making. I have learned so much from her expertise.... It was her idea to perform Israel in Egypt – I don’t think I would have had the nerve.’

This ambition set a benchmark of expectation because I inherited a choir which expected to perform major choral works with top professional players and soloists who regarded Shauni as family! The next 24 years was set.

...and finally, an extract from Roger Stein’s ‘farewell eulogy’ in LN after Shauni’s 2006 Mozart concert:

When Marian and I joined the Choral Society in September 1993, Shauni was already established as Assistant Conductor to Stewart Taylor. We quickly realised what an asset she was, at first as an outstanding rehearsal accompanist. But it soon became obvious that her qualities went beyond that. Her sheer professionalism, coupled with infectious enthusiasm and an ability to communicate, made rehearsals with her a real joy. She had high standards and was quite ruthless in making us reach for them. And yet she did so in a way that made sense to us amateurs: her delighted smile when, at last, we did wat she was aiming for, made all the effort worthwhile. It made a refreshing change to learn Latin pronunciation vis Italian food: RAH-VEE-O-LEE AHND SPAH-GE-TEE....

...and then there is all her work for the Music Festival, her organising of carol singing in the hospital – one could go on. But I cannot close without mention9ing her stalwart support of post-rehearsal socials in The Fox. Cheers Shauni! We’ll miss you.

TM@tF

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man At The Front

Welcome and Happy New Year one and all….

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

SOAPBOX

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

Voicebox

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

Relax

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:

Opportunity knocks

 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.

We hope you will be interested in taking part. Booking is through Eventbrite and the link for the first event is https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/belshazzars-feast-by-william-walton-tickets-136826338261?utm-medium=discovery&utm-campaign=social&utm-content=attendeeshare&utm-source=strongmail&utm-term=listing 

Check out the choir website and read about the conductor: https://www.newchoir.org.uk/

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?

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/jan/19/vocal-polyps-injury-singing-john-colapinto-steven-zeitels

Music box

This is the inspiration slot. Lovely and/or interesting music which is worth sharing. Tiri vamwe means ‘we are together, we are one’ with multi languages added by The Joyous Choir

https://www.youtube.com/watch?fbclid=IwAR2EYq72zpyLeiOiR0yZjX2FrueHz8iZx9iRiMZfw5Yj20kzqFFt2iG62dU&v=i0neIrrsZPU&feature=youtu.be

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?  

Chatterbox

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…..

It’s been a pleasure – see you again soon

TM@tF

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man at The Front

“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 Songs1588)

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM8fn4sSho0u0026amp;feature=youtu.beu0026amp;ab_channel=OxfordPhilharmonicOrchestra

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 yearhow 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:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/11/covid-upturned-planet-freedland

   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.

Be safe, stay well.

TM@tF

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Covid thoughts from Robert Dean

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!!

Continue Reading Covid thoughts from Robert Dean

Greetings from The Man At The Keys

Being an accompanist – a view from the piano

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.

‘The chap at the keys’

Chris

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Greetings from The Man At The Front

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…

CHORUS

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

CHORUS (x2)

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).

1  Johann Sebastian Bach

2  George Frederick Handel

3  Richard Wagner, theatre at Bayreuth

4  Johann Strauss

5  Richard Strauss, ‘Der Rosenkavalier’

6  Guiseppe Verdi, ‘Otello’

7  Peter Hunt

8  Claudio Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610

Keep smiling and stay safe, from the M@tF

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man At The Front

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!).

I digress.

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….

Breath turns 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 Requiem on 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!

Kate Smith

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.

Roger Stein

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.

Helene Barratt

Thank you for being here – more next time. Take care and look out for announcements about our return to some choral normality. Regards, TMATF.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Sunshine shared by The Man At The Front

‘There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day.

They are absolutely free.

Don’t miss so many of them!’

Greetings 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!

You would 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 droplets.

Before 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…

So, what 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 extract:

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.

We have developed a five-stage roadmap to bring our performing arts back safely. These five stages of the phased return to performing arts are as follows:

  • 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 phase.

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:

WHAT ABOUT OUR OWN CNCS ROAD MAP? I hear you cry.

I have 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 reference.

BRING ME SUNSHINE – AT LAST!

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 will need the following:

Link to the song on youtube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mc1ta1UMGeo

Copy of the music. This is a full score so you can follow the accompaniment and what the other voices are doing

The Learning Notes! These support you by pointing out some of the musical features and orientating you around the score which should make the task easier.

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 2009:

The perils 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 unexpected fashion.

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!

I wonder 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:

Confessions 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….

Another 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 it)

crescendo: from ppp to fff in one bar

diminuendo: as above, normally vice versa

piano: help in trouble times

mezzo forte: fff, but depends on ambient relative humidity

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

G.P.: raffle time

andante: walk in late, miss warm up

tutti: join in when the spirit moves

parlando: soprano seminar during warm up

That’s all 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.

Continue Reading Sunshine shared by The Man At The Front

Aerosol update from The Man At The Front

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.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000kmyx

I have just read that the World Health Organisation (who?) is acknowledging emerging evidence of airborne coronavirus spread. Welcome to the party guys! Read it here:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/08/who-says-evidence-emerging-of-airborne-coronavirus-spread

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 Notes which 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 musical grammar’.

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, Winter 2008:

‘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.”

https://www.contagioncabaret.co.uk/

Continue Reading Aerosol update from The Man At The Front

Peter Barber remembered by The Man At The Front

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 called Baby Mozart with 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 challenge?!

Then how about music as barbed wire?

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.

Continue Reading Peter Barber remembered by The Man At The Front

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