Conductor’s Notes

Greetings from Great Western Railway – getting ahead of myself with notes from yesterday’s session and plans for next week. Thank you for a rushed but useful rehearsal. The church was chilly and we were rather cramped, but we did cover some useful ground (see last week’s Notes as we managed everything apart from For unto us…). When we return to St Mary’s on December 8th we will set up as close to concert formation as we can, with due regard to distancing, ensuring no one is left out on a limb.

The Annual General Meeting was swift and I presented my final Conductor’s Report which can be found here:


Following the masterclass on public speaking by Boris Johnson – our Prime Minister – on Monday, I will be making no references to cartoon characters, will not imitate any kind of motorised transport and have carefully numbered my pages to keep them in order.

It is a pleasure to present my conductor’s report for the 2020-21 season – which is to be my last! My first must have been in Autumn 1998, but I have no record of any until 2001, which was rather perfunctory, and contained the bold statements: The sound continues to be good and poor tuning has been eradicated’ and ‘Everyone rises well to challenges’. Remarkable progress over four years.

(NB ‘Tuning’ refers to performances and your ability to attain it. Rest assured that to this day, in rehearsal poor intonation is still achievable!! – update: November 2021)

I am not treating this report as a ‘leaver’s speech’, but it does present an opportunity to reflect a little on the choir’s enormous achievements and progress over 24 years. BTW, my first concert with CNCS was 24 years ago this week – Nov 22nd 1997.

So, what exactly is the season on which I am reporting? The last 18 months have been incredibly challenging, and dates & timelines get blurred. I did submit a report to the zoom AGM in November 2020, which referred to Belshazzar’s Feast from November 2019, the Christmas concert (Chilcott’s ‘On Christmas Night’) and the beginnings of the Rossini Mass and music festival appearance in March, before lockdown on the 23rd

Throughout the summer and into the autumn of 2020 I stayed connected with posts from The Man At the Front which were designed to inform, educate, and entertain (BBC’s Charter!!) in an effort to keep bodies and souls together as we couldn’t sing. During that year, in July, we very sadly lost Peter Barber, a bass who together with Wendy, had been in the choir for 20+ years. This loss inspired some digging deep into the publication he edited and produced for many years – Leading Notes – and I was able to quote from it in the blogs – a reminiscence project I enjoyed very much.

As the 2020/21 season began, we very nearly got back together in November for a Return to Singing, but were thwarted until December 17th for ‘one night only’! It was fun, but very strange – wearing masks and standing 2m apart. Not at all a real singing experience, but better than being isolated at home on zoom I feel. A small working party worked hard to set this up, mindful of the pandemic and all the H&S requirements, and I would like to express my gratitude and say ‘thank you’ on behalf of everyone to the team for their dedication and planning make this happen. Sadly, we had to lock down again, but a robust process was in place for the future.

In February of this year, I attended Shauni McGregor’s funeral and, as one of the thirty mourners permitted by covid rules I was honoured to be present as a close friend and representing the choral society. It was very fitting, and a great mark of our affection for Shauni that so many of you gathered outside the school to pay your respects as she took her last journey to the church in Shipton. To those of you who don’t know, Shauni was our accompanist and assistant conductor for many years, conducting a Mozart programme in 2006. Her most profound impact on our musical achievements was as the fixer for soloists and instrumental players, drawing on friends and contacts from a professional career in London. This choir would simply not have become the choir it is without Shauni, and she is a huge loss to the community of Chipping Norton.

The summer of 2021 came, I kept blogging – something I really enjoyed BTW, and we geared up for Return to Singing 2 in May. Unfortunately, the government ignored the amateur music sector, and we were subjected to harsher rules than sport and night clubs, so couldn’t resume singing. I was heartened by the tenacity of the choral organisations (ABCD and Making Music) and some choir members, writing to MPs and the Culture Secretary to plead our case, seeking justification for the apparent ‘discrimination.’ No one got a satisfactory response, so we continued twiddling our musical thumbs and joined online choirs, workshops, and masterclasses.

We finally returned to singing on July 7th, then met every Wednesday to resurrect the Petite Messe Solennelle by Rossini, postponed from April 2020, and performed it on August 14th in Deddington Church.

We were supported by Stewart Taylor (my predecessor at CNCS) on piano and Anne Page, Harmonium, both of whom had been booked for the 2020 performance. Moreover, they had both performed the same piece with us in 2003! In that year’s conductor’s report, I wrote: ‘Very exciting and hugely enjoyable. We have the capacity to capture the appropriate flavour of any piece we do. The choir is reasonably mouldable and cooperative and is much better at doing what is asked than it used to be! The vocal soloists were a little disappointing but produced the goods. Anne and Stewart were fantastic and made a significant contribution to the effective performance.’

Much of that comment applies to the August performance but this time the soloists were amazing (James Berry, Philip Costovski, Lorna Day, and Isla MacEwan), the choir was brilliant and totally committed, having really absorbed what was expected of them, and the whole experience was utterly thrilling after such uncertainty and a long absence. Well done all.

Despite the chaos and frustration, isolation and grief, this last academic year has been one of calm endeavour with a triumphant return. We are still here, with new members and growing, able to prepare for a concert in four weeks’ time and looking forward to a bright new future.

My annual reports over the last 24 years (despite some gaps) have steadily got longer, more fulsome in their praise for the choir’s singing and more challenging in expectations and ambition, which have resulted in some spectacular performances – Bach’s B Minor Mass, Belshazzar’s Feast, Elgar’s The Music Makers and Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem in the last 5 years. In my report of 2014/15, I wrote:

Thank you all once again for working so hard since January, I’ve enjoyed the journey. We chose Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius as a challenge and could have avoided it – too difficult, too expensive – but I’m reminded of the final verse of Robert Frost’s The road not taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

And finally… The process for appointing my successor is strictly this year’s business, but now is an appropriate moment for me to say thank you to everyone for contributing to it so openly and with such sincerity. You have made a sound choice in Ben which I am happy about, and confident you will continue to grow with fresh challenges.

None of the above over 24 years would ever have worked so effectively without the many committees and volunteers, for which an enormous thank you. I have always been supported and encouraged by the committees, none more so than this year, which has been particularly challenging, requiring a lot of extra time and duties, thank you. Strong leadership matters, both on the conductor’s podium and in governance and each committee has enjoyed good leadership from their chairs. Thank you to all of them.

Leadership from the chair has never mattered as much as it has this year! Eric was appointed at the 2020 AGM believing his largest challenge that of emerging from the pandemic after not singing for nine months. In January we met for a walk by the canal in Cropredy to chew the fat and put the world straight, finishing with a whisky in the churchyard. Already exercised by the uncertainties ahead, he met my bombshell that we were moving to Devon, with remarkable restraint. Although dismayed and upset, he characteristically turned all our conversations to what the future might look like and how we would get there, determined to maintain and cherish what we have all created. Eric, you reefed the sails well ahead of the storm and have guided us to calm and safer waters, thank you.

Peter Hunt


What we will do on 01.12.21

Rehearsal is at Holy Trinity Church, London Rd at 7.30.

Parking available in the Primary School playground.

Britten: Movements 1,  4  and  7

Messiah: Worthy is the Lamb/Amen chorus

Thank you


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Conductor’s Notes

What we did on 17.11.21

Great rehearsal last night – well done. Nice to welcome Bernard back to the piano stool. The sectional work was particularly useful and paid dividends. For the first time this term we were beginning to pay attention to dynamics and the words so that the drama started taking shape. This is a sign that confidence is growing!

I advised everyone to keep practising – listening to the piece a lot, and in addition to securing the notes, repeat any short phrases/passages over and over like an exercise, so it really sticks.

Sopranos and altos were developing really characterful singing in Nicolas was born. I’m not sure if references to midwives and trainee nurses were helpful, but there was definitely an improvement.

Tenors and basses were sounding positively tribal in movement 8, with a much better tonal blend and energy to the sound. Impressive.

Thank you and keep up the good work.


What we will do on 24.11.21

Rehearsal in St Mary’s Church at 7.30 (Carol singers meeting at 7.00)

Annual General Meeting at 9.00

Britten: Movements 5 and 9 (p76)

Run through of movt 2 (S&A)

Messiah: For unto us (p55) and He trusted (p115)

Looking forward to 01.12.21

Rehearsal will be in Holy Trinity Catholic Church, London Road 7.30

Britten movements 1, 4 and 7

Messiah – Worthy is the Lamb/Amen (p217)

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Conductor’s Notes

We warmly greeted the news that Ben Goodall has been appointed as the new conductor from January. I have written to Ben with congratulations and good wishes. I know you have appointed the best person for the job and I am delighted to hand over the baton to a fine musician who is keen to take you to higher and better things. Ben replied: I’m really excited to be taking over, and I’m so grateful for all of the support…. I’ll absolutely do my best to continue the amazing work you’ve done with the choir.

Let’s make sure we do some amazing work over the next few weeks to produce a good concert in December! Last week’s rehearsal was excellent and very encouraging, thank you.

What we will do on 17.11.21

Rehearsal at the school 6.30

After warming up – Britten sectionals:

Sopranos & Altos: 

Movt 2, movt 7 (p57) and movt 8 (p68)

Tenors & Basses:

Movt 1 (checking how secure the harmony is),

Movt 4 (particularly the harmony section on p29)

Movt 8 (p69 to end)

We will run movement 8. At the bottom of page 72 (Let the legends…) it divides into 6 parts and taken in the following order: Sops, A1, A2, Tenors, B1, B2

Movt 5

Messiah: Surely (p98)

What we will do on 24.11.21

Rehearsal at St Mary’s Church 7.30 – 9.30

Britten: Movements 5, 9 (p76) and the Hymns (p46 & p86)

Messiah: For unto us (p55) and He trusted (p115)

Annual General Meeting at 9.00

Have a good week


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Conductor’s Notes

I thoroughly enjoyed our rehearsal on Wednesday – thank you everyone for some hard work. Like you, I am anticipating the white smoke from the Vatican, as the appointment committee burn their ballot papers with the results of the outstanding process we ran to appoint a new conductor. I’m sure we will select the right person to take the choir forward and I know you will support him by working as hard as you have for me over the past 24 years, to keep CNCS the outstanding beacon for choral singing that it is.

What we will do on 10.11.21


Sing through Movt 7 – Pickled boys (left over from last week)

Movement 4 (p20-30) – Journey to Palestine  

Movement 1 – Introduction

Messiah – For unto us (p55)

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Conductor’s Notes

What an interesting couple of weeks since my last posting! Thank you all very much for the audition sessions which were extremely successful. It was interesting to work with different colleagues who wish to become your new conductor, and I would like to pass on your congratulations to them all for their commitment and helping us with our rehearsal. I am looking forward to your responses, finishing the selection process and making an announcement as soon as we can. In the meantime, it’s business as usual folks.......

We have two more rehearsals in the school hall before more venue changes, so let’s use them as an opportunity to get the Britten ‘under our belts’. I am pleased with progress so far. I have oft stated, that although there aren’t many notes in the piece, they do contain surprises and take a while to become really familiar.  You’re doing well, thank you. Please practise as much as you can and miss no more rehearsals without just cause or impediment.

What we will do on 03.11.21


Pages 68-73  from fig 51  Let the legends

Pages 76-85  Nunc dimittis

Movement 5 – Pickled boys (recap and run through)

Messiah – Glory to God (p68)

What we will do on 10.11.21


Movement 4 (p20-30) – Journey to Palestine  

Movement 1 – Introduction

Messiah – For unto us (p55)

Best wishes to you all.


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Conductor’s Notes

My thanks to Bernard for taking last week’s rehearsal. I received a fulsome and encouraging report of the evening and it sounds like you made much progress. He highlighted the challenge that we are discovering with the Britten and that is the ‘bitty’ nature of the music, being in short sections, with the possible exception of Serve the faith….. Compare that with the Messiah choruses, or the Rossini longer movements, in which the melodies hang around and develop, so you ‘stay in the zone’ for longer. The tactic for mastering this is to listen to the Britten so much and sing it frequently, so it becomes familiar, becomes so ‘sticky’ that it sticks.

Last week’s Messiah choruses were less secure than I had imagined so we won’t neglect or consider them an ‘afterthought’. From now on they will get equal billing with Britten in rehearsal and likewise in your practice at home, please.

This is the opportune moment to mention that we will add some Christmas music to the concert too, just a few simple pieces, to be issued later in the term.

What we will do on 20.10.21 and 27.10.21 – Conductor auditions – Starting at 6.00

Eric has written to everyone with the arrangements and explained what is required of everyone involved. Please treat them as rehearsals with a guest conductor! Your feedback is crucial and will form part of the decision-making. You might ask, how is it possible to rehearse and at the same time assess a conductor’s effectiveness and whether you could work with them regularly? It’s a tough call, particularly for something so personal and bound up with your own feelings of satisfaction, enjoyment, and pleasurable achievements. I recommend ‘considered gut instinct’.

Here’s the considered bit – keep these at the end of your antennae:

Are you engaged and enthused?

Are you set any expectations and are you helped to improve – are you learning?

Do you sense any improvement in your singing over the (short) 45 min session?

Based on this small sample, could you work with this person every week?

After each audition, don’t think too much, rely on your gut feeling at this stage and trust yourself that you have sung with enough conductors to know what’s right. I trust you – good luck, have fun.

Music extracts for the auditions:

Britten – Movements 1 and 8

Messiah – Worthy is the Lamb (p217)


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Conductor’s Notes

I am delighted with the news that Mark our Membership Secretary shared with me last night, that we have 81 singers rehearsing this term. That’s brilliant, and still they keep coming! Welcome one and all. It is very encouraging that the new times of 6.30 to 8.30 are manageable and I am pleased with the hall as a space – plenty of room for everyone, and a decent piano. I hope this is true for you too.

What we did on 06.10.21

Excellent progress in sectionals with Britten movement 5 – S/A learning their ‘solo’ sections between the ‘Amens’, then we worked on Serve the faith and pretty much nailed it, for now. Then S/A looked at the similar passages in movement 7. Meanwhile the T/B were studying movement 4 and the evening ended with everyone singing through that movement. A lot of hard work here, well done.

Bernard will be taking the rehearsal next week (13th) and we have conductor auditions on October 20th and 27th, starting at 6.00. Eric has written to everyone, and more people read his email than last week’s Conductor’s Notes – just saying. Seriously, thank you all for keeping on top of things, following developments and being organised. The Committee and Recruitment Panel are working hard and Eric is keeping everything ship shape, of course.

My next Notes will be published on Sunday 17th with some thoughts and guidance on the audition process and what is involved. Thank you.

You might recall that in this week’s rehearsal I went ‘off piste’ and mentioned a Radio 4 programme about doubt and leadership. It was in the series Fourthought, Wednesday 6th at 09.30. Here is the link – it was quite interesting.

Four Thought – The Power of Doubt – BBC Sounds

What you will do on 13.10.21

St Nicolas – Movements 5 & 7

Messiah – For unto as a boy is born (p55) and Surely (p98)

Have fun.


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Conductor’s Notes 30.09.21

Greetings from a very wet and squally Devon. I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s rehearsal, thank you. It was a pleasure to greet more new faces and welcome the return of some longstanding members. It’s good to know you just can’t keep away from a good thing! Everyone worked particularly hard this week and we covered a lot of ground. If you missed it, please refer to last week’s rehearsal list – we worked at everything except pages 2-4.

I’m grateful to Kieron who stepped in to play at short notice and for his effective sectional work with Sops & Altos.

Eric reminded everyone about subs and updated us on the search for a new conductor – we now have six candidates, closing date tomorrow.

Quiz question (posed last week – What is unique about the number 40?):

Answer – Forty is the only number with its letters in alphabetical order. A member of my Banbury Singing for Wellbeing group suggested It’s when life begins, which may not be true, but an inspired guess. Also minus 40 is the same temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. Nothing at all to do with singing, but a welcome brain break eh?

What we will do on 06.10.21

Warm up exploring SCALES. Please find out what a WHOLE TONE SCALE is, in preparation. There is a well-known (French) composer who was fond of exploiting these – who was it? Scales are made up of a mix of TONES and SEMITONES. Um…unless it’s a whole tone scale of course (clue’s in the name), or a CHROMATIC SCALE, which is just the semitones.

E seems to be a very important note in this piece. It is our rock, our anchor, our home, our saviour…..

In St Nicolas, Britten exploits some unusual harmonies by manipulating tones and semitones, so we sometimes feel very familiarly in a KEY, and sometimes uncertain – ‘at sea’ perhaps!


S&A Movt 5 p36-39   and Movt 7 p57, 59 & 60

T&B Movt 4 p28-31, 26/27, 20-25

Movt 5 Tutti

Movt 7 Tutti

If time – Messiah chorus For unto us a child is born

Have a good week, best wishes,


Continue ReadingConductor’s Notes 30.09.21

Conductor’s Notes

What we did on 22.09.21

We welcomed Terry to accompany. Busy rehearsal and some confusion with numbers – for which, apologies. Talking of numbers, whilst I think of it – quiz question: What is unique about the number 40? Answer next week.

I recommended online learning tools: and a free one –  Cyberbass doesn’t  have any CD learning tracks available, but THEY DO have online tracks. These are very useful for helping to learn notes.

We covered the following music:

Movement 7 p56-65

The opening movement p2-4

Movement 8 p66-68

Messiah – Hallelujah chorus

I gave out some small booklets which are pages 39-46 (of movt 5) written out in open score to make the notes easier to read, with more space. This is to be inserted after p38 and secured with an elastic band. The last page of the booklet must be secured with a paperclip to pages 39-46. There will be a demonstration next week!

I also recommended a website to investigate some very good online training sessions to help support breathing and exploring vocal issues, particularly for older voices. The founder/teacher Anne- Marie Speed is excellent and I picked up a lot of practical tips from her at a conference. See

What we will do on 29.09.21

Movement 5 (using inserted pages so come prepared)

Movement 4 in sectionals. S/A please note that you sing all of the S/A music, there is no ‘gallery semi chorus’, you are it! Please look through the movement in advance to be sure when you sing. On page 28 (bottom line) you divide as follows: All sops take the top line and altos divide (tails down) and I’ll confirm with you who does what next week.

Pages 8-9and revisit p2-4

Messiah – Worthy is the Lamb

Enjoy (or ‘hope you did enjoy’) your weekend. Thank you.


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Conductor’s Notes

Well done everyone for another fine rehearsal this week. Numbers continue to grow and it was great to see new members, who are all very welcome. Thanks to Kieron for accompanying and taking the S/A sectional – nice work, welcome aboard.

What we did on 15.09.21

Warmed up with page 46 – All people that on earth. Note that we are not observing any of the pauses except at the ends of verses. But of course, you will all be watching anyway!

Sectionals (S/A movement 2; T/B movement 4). We will return to these in detail in future, but the best way to consolidate the learning is to listen to the music as much as you can (see advice below) then the tunes will stick.

Movement 8 – We pulled this apart and tackled the first part of it (up to p68) working in paired voices. The challenge here is sticking to your notes! Each part is quite easy, but when sung in ensemble the ‘close harmony’ effect can lead you astray so chords can sound ‘muddy’ and out of tune. Again, slow patient work and familiarity are key – keep listening!

We ended with the nunc dimitis (p76) and the final hymn (p86) Again, only pause at the end of each verse.

What we will do on 22.09.21

Movements 7 – p56-61

Movement 1 – p2-4

Movement 8 p66-68

Messiah – Hallelujah chorus p171

What we will do on 29.09.21

Amongst other things we will start Movement 5 – p34

Which choruses are we singing from Messiah?

I have chosen some of my favourites, without apology, or any attempt to be consistent with the theme of Christmas or St Nicolas/Santa Claus, just a good sing! They are:

For unto us a child is born

Glory to God


He trusted in God

Hallelujah chorus (with audience participation)

Worthy is the lamb (Amen chorus)

Recordings of St Nicolas?

In last week’s Notes I pointed you towards my blog of March 23 for a link to an illustrated talk on St Nicolas and recordings. There are plenty available. The Corydon Singers (conductor Matthew Best) is good and the programme notes are also excellent.

Auditions for conductor

These are scheduled for 20.10.21. The following week is the half term break – there is no official rehearsal, but we might need it for auditions too.

Thank you everyone.


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Conductor’s Notes

Welcome back everyone!

There was a good turn out – about 50 – and everyone was on time for the new 6.30 start, thank you.

I thanked everyone again for the Magnificent Rossini concert, welcomed back members who have not sung since lockdown and also new members. I thanked Eric and the committee for their patient and careful work over the summer to navigate the challenges of returning to singing and securing a rehearsal venue following changes at the school. There was a round of applause for this!

I set out our challenges for the term ahead – St Nicolas, Messiah extracts and other music, plus appointing a new conductor, not least. This is a significant but manageable challenge involving everyone and I will help focus your thinking so that you can exercise your responsibilities at the auditions with informed confidence!

We welcomed Bernard to accompany and had an excellent rehearsal of St Nicolas only, covering movements 1, 8 & 9. There are some important instructions for the short section starting at figure 58 on page 72 (‘Let the legends….’). At figure 58 the semi-chorus 3 part will not be sung – you can cross it out. The first voices to sing here will be semi-chorus 1 and there are 6 entries, 3 by S & A then 3 by T & B. We are singing this in sections defined by birthdays, not where you are standing so it is all mixed and more exciting! It’s easy and I will re-issue instructions next time we sing it.

How to learn St Nicolas: Listening to a good recording is probably the most helpful with this piece. The choral parts are very clear so identifying your line is quite easy, and more importantly you will get used to Britten’s harmonic world which will help ears and brain to adapt in rehearsal as familiarity grows.

In my blog of March 23rd 2021 I posted a link to an illustrated lecturette by David Temple, conductor of the Crouch End Festival Chorus (not Bromley as I said at rehearsal) who guides you through the piece. The recording I posted is an oldish one by King’s College Cambridge with David Willcocks which is a good performance but not brilliant recording quality. Amazon has a few on offer and I have just bought The Corydon Singers conducted by Matthew Best; I have not heard it, but the reviews are good.

What we will do on 15.09.21

S & A – Number 2 – The birth of Nicolas

T & B – Number 4 – He journeys to Palestine

Page 46 – All people that on earth…

Page 66 – His piety and marvellous works

Page 39 – Serve the faith (read through)

Thank you all

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Message from The Man At The Front

First of all, a huge THANK YOU to Chris and Bernard for putting you through your paces last week. It’s comforting to know that we have such capable friends and colleagues in the neighbourhood, I am most grateful.

It would give me such pleasure to be able to report that I had a glorious week at the Dartington Summer School, which I was expecting. Alas I can’t, as the week was cancelled. Someone tested positive so a number of people were required to isolate, which made it impossible to run. After this ‘circuit breaker’ Weeks 3 & 4 will hopefully continue as normal. I was gutted and desperate for a week of singing – why should you lot have all the fun?!  Anyhow, I consoled myself by reflecting on how little disappointment or ‘loss’ I have had to face compared with many people during the pandemic, and was reminded that we are not over it yet and should continue to ‘hasten slowly’ back to normal. I was happy to leave you in Chris’s capable hands and as a consolation prize listened to the Bm Mass instead.

So, back to work, what will we do on 11.08.21? As promised, we need to sing through as much of the Rossini as we can, for confidence and ‘pre-concert’ comfort, without complacency. Two things will be under the choral microscope – DYNAMICS and LOOKING UP. I am eagerly anticipating seeing your chins as we will no longer be wearing masks. In return you can see how much greyer my beard has become. Or has it?! It’s less than fifty shades for sure….

In preparation please do your own homework if necessary, paying attention to the dynamic markings. From next week, notes are less important than passion, expression, energy and taking it to the audience.

On FRIDAY 13th we will meet in Deddington Church for a 7.30 start please. The first challenge will be sorting out our positions; the second and more pleasant one – growing used to singing closer together in a new acoustic. This should be much easier than usual as we have been rehearsing in a large acoustic for many weeks now.

The DRESS REHEARSAL on Saturday 14 starts at 3.30 and will finish at 5.30 latest. More details to follow next week.

Thank you


Continue ReadingMessage from The Man At The Front

What we did on 28.07.21

Hello everyone. Once again thank you for a super rehearsal last night, it was lovely to welcome five new singers for this concert, and possibly beyond?! A family sought refuge from the rain by resting in the church before we started and stayed on to listen. Apparently, they are interested in coming to the concert – there’s nothing like live advertising.

I waved the updated poster to encourage you all to spread the word about the concert please. We are not selling tickets in advance, only at the door, confident in the knowledge that we will have sufficient room for everyone. Audience size is not an issue, it will just be wonderful to sing live to other people and enjoy the sound ringing around the church.

We made good progress again and the Christe section of the opening Kyrie sounded particularly lovely – balanced and blended and much more confident. The Sanctus also benefitted from some close inspection and improved considerably. Our challenge now is to remember what we have put in place, so the music sounds assured from the get-go (I think that means ‘immediately’ in familiar parlance). This can be achieved in two ways:

Making sure you know your notes, so check those bits that still allude you

Singing the music through enough to cement it and build confidence

Everything will feel and sound so much nicer without masks, and the addition of a superb piano and the harmonium timbre will give us such a lift. We are on track to give a very good performance, so well done so far.

What you will do on 04.08.21

I will be at the Dartington Music Summer School singing Bach’s B Minor Mass with the Dunedin Consort all week and Chris will be taking the rehearsal, with Bernard at the keys. I am happy about leaving you in such capable hands and I thank them both. Have fun.

The following sections will be given attention in addition to singing through as much as possible for continuity and familiarity, and not least – for pleasure.

Kyrie (outer two sections) – note checking; linking with and revising the Christe

Cum sancto from p101 then running from p77

Sanctus (p180)

Agnus dei (p193), particularly the ending

What we will do on 11.08.21

Running through as much as we can, paying particular attention to DYNAMICS and how to support the quiet stuff, and really thinking about the ‘operatic’ qualities of this amazing piece.

Good luck – Enjoy

Continue ReadingWhat we did on 28.07.21

What we did on 21.07.21 with The Man At The Front

Hello everyone. Thanks again for a wonderful rehearsal last night, you did so well and it was only the heat that caused us to tire towards the end – the spirit was so willing! The feelings of rehearsal routine like the old days were beginning to come back, which was nice.

It was useful to sing through movements we sang last week as the repetition helps familiarity so much. We were sharply reminded that it is the joins, or ‘corners’ and ‘junctions’ as I call them, that catch us out. This is when the music changes key or there is a bridge to a new section or anything unexpected. These mustn’t take us by surprise – always expect the unexpected, of course!! Many of the hurdles will disappear when we sing without masks because we’ll be able to hear each other properly – hang on to that thought.

What we will do on 28.07.21

  1. Sanctus (p180)
  2. Et vitam (p163 to end)
  3. Et vitam (p150-163)
  4. Kyrie – particularly the middle section
  5. Agnus dei (p196)

Thank you TM@tF

Continue ReadingWhat we did on 21.07.21 with The Man At The Front

What we did on 14.07.21 with The Man At The Front

This week’s rehearsal was brilliant. We got so much done and for me there were flashes of ‘the old days’ – some note ‘bashing’, piecing pages together and building the confident sound back up again. Despite the masks we sounded good (if muted) and the overall quality quickly improved. We went through the Credo in detail, then picked apart and reconstructed the Et vitam, sustaining the long chords and louder passages well. As a ‘warm down’ we relaxed through the Agnus dei. Credit to tenors and sopranos this week who were smaller in number than usual, but congratulations to everyone for a lovely evening.

The challenges of singing through masks and not being able to hear each other properly still remain but we are progressing well. It was good to hear some people admit there are corners of the music they still get wrong and are committing to practise at home – bravo!

What we will do on 21.07.21

Gloria p19 – Only 2 pages of music so good for a warm up!

Cum sancto p75 The Music Festival section and in particular the ending (p100)

We will revisit the Credo and Et vitam from last week as singing through after extra practice at home and forgetting most of it is always useful!

Warm down – Sanctus (p180)

Thank you TM@tF

Continue ReadingWhat we did on 14.07.21 with The Man At The Front

What we did on 07.07.21 with The Man At The Front

It was great to see so many of you on Wednesday, thank you for coming and congratulations on a super rehearsal. It went extremely well, everyone coped with the challenges of distance and masks and we made good progress resurrecting parts of the Mass. I also enjoyed some down time in The Chequers with a few of you, such an important part of belonging to a choir.
I was pleasantly surprised by the rapid improvement in the strength and quality of your vocal tone as the evening wore on; we were all discovering our limits and just how isolating it feels standing alone and singing into a mask. Well done to you all, it was wonderful to be back together again.
I will be giving thought to the set up in the church. Moving the sopranos to the front made a big difference and I will consider what else we can do to make everyone feel part of the action – sorry altos! At the very least we can rotate the sections around so nobody feels permanently marginalised.
I read out good news from The Association of British Choral Directors, received at 16.00 yesterday and we are hopeful that at least we will have more flexibility in how we operate, mitigating risk in a way which feels sensible and acceptable to us. Losing masks will be a huge benefit if we decide to do that. The committee will confirm any changes in due course.

Restrictions on choirs in England to be removed at Step 4

The Government has announced its intention to end all Covid-19 restrictions in England on 19 July, though this date will not be confirmed until 12 July.
In addition to the announcement by the Health Secretary in the House of Commons on Monday that there would no longer be any restrictions on ‘communal worship or singing’ from Step 4, we’re delighted that yesterday the Secretary of State announced on social media that all restrictions on choirs will be removed. No further details have been announced and we’ll be keeping a close eye on what the small print might be, but we hope this is a big step forward.
More generally, live music restrictions will be eased and there will no longer be legal limits on audience numbers indoors or outdoors.
This is all good news for the music industry, and for choral music in particular. However, Performing Arts Guidance has yet to be published and we will be looking closely at the content of that. We know that whilst some will be ready to return as soon as possible, many choirs will want to plan a gradual return to their usual programmes. We will continue to support, advise & encourage choirs & their leaders as they make their plans and to keep you all informed with any further news.
ABCD 07.07.21

What we will do on 14.07.21

REMEMBER: Inalare la voce!
Credo (p106)
Et vitam (p150) A reminder: We broke this movement down by identifying the musical themes or motifs which make it up, each with a distinctive feature. It starts (fig 42) with the arpeggio tune up to ‘Amen’. This is supported by the scale pattern (‘Amen’ in the tenors). The rhythmic motif – ‘Amen’ in the S & T at the top of page 151 – becomes significant, appears quite frequently and is kind of developed in longer phrases later. The final building block is the stepwise theme which first appears at the top of page 153 (again in S & T). Recognising these and where they appear minimises the time required to learn the music and gives you confidence as you know more than you think!
Agnus dei (you start on p196)

On 21.07.21 we will look at the Gloria and the cum sancto (p75) which we sang so brilliantly at the music festival, plus other sections tbc.

On 28.07.21 we will rehearse the Sanctus (p180) plus other sections tbc.

Very many thanks – forward together! TM@tF

Continue ReadingWhat we did on 07.07.21 with The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man At The Front



What does that mean to you? Answers on a postcard please…..

Song lyrics with ‘afterglow’ in the title seem to be mostly about relationships, and there is a category labelled ‘afterglow poems’ for loss and remembrance.

In science we are familiar with light or radiance remaining in the sky after the sun has set, a secondary glow from heated metal before it ceases to become incandescent, and of course the dying embers of a bonfire at evening’s end.

Geoff Evans, who is one of the longest-serving members of the Dunvant Male Choir from Wales, revealed in a Guardian article about the choir’s covid experience, that he “…is a regular at the choir’s afterglows, the post-concert singalongs in the nearest pub, hotel, or club…..massed voices whisper together, mesh and soar, often fuelled by ‘a few cwrws’ (beers).”  The article is a touching insight to the importance of the choir for the men and their community, keeping their singing up during the pandemic. Read it at ‘We were determined Covid wouldn’t finish us off’: the Welsh choir who sang through the pandemic | Music | The Guardian

I was really drawn to ‘afterglow’, which the dictionary defines as ‘good feelings remaining after a pleasurable or successful experience’ and knew exactly what Geoff meant. I cannot recall ever knowingly using the term for something which is so utterly familiar, and a fundamental component of choral activity. It is even more than that – the reason why many of us sing in a choir – to feel that afterglow.

On reading the article I nostalgically recalled those moments (and hours) after a great concert – and sometimes a good rehearsal – usually in a pub and always with other people who were involved, or at least shared the same experience (audience). It is that warm happy glow of achievement and success, the shared endeavour, the physical release of tension and elation after so much anticipation, the pride, the wash of ‘feel good’ hormones that make us elated, the bonding with fellow travellers that has a heightened special resonance only in that moment, before becoming a fond memory, leaving a thirst for more because it feels so good. Although challenging to explain to non-participants, the impact of the ‘singing effect’ is unmistakable. We all know what it’s like and it has been absent for too long!

The singing effect is so powerful in fact that in 2017, rugby player Warren Gatland, who is coaching the British Lions ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Africa ‘……introduced choir practice every night after dinner as not only a means to ensure the Lions could respectfully reply to traditional Maori greetings in New Zealand, but as a way of unifying his players.’

Contemplating all of this reminded me of the concept of FLOW, introduced in the 90s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pronounced ‘cheeks send me high’) who, through decades of research on positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, and total involvement with life – established principles by which people can transform their lives into ones full of enjoyment and happiness. He describes the eight characteristics of flow as:

Complete concentration on the task

Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback

Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)

The experience is intrinsically rewarding

Effortlessness and ease

There is a balance between challenge and skills

Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination

There is a feeling of control over the task

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

It seems to me these characteristics precisely describe average CNCS rehearsals and concerts, and we never knew this was invented in 1990!! It will not be long now until we are back ‘in the flow’ and basking in well-earned afterglow. Perhaps it should be known as AFTERFLOW? (although this sounds like a kind of plumbing device) Looking forward to it anyway, only twenty-three more sleeps!

I will issue a rehearsal schedule for May 19 the R2S2 via email from Eric, but as a heads up – we will visit the Beatles’ song Here comes the Sun in addition to the Rossini. You will need a copy and possibly some practice – see my blog of 22.07.20 for the materials and links.

By the way…. Did anybody listen to the performance of the Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem on Radio 3 on Good Friday April 2? Thanks to a nudge from Ruth Nissim I flagged it up via email and reminded everyone what a superb performance we gave in Banbury in 2018. What was special about this radio concert was that the orchestral resources had been reduced from the normal 53 players to less than half in a special arrangement to comply with social distancing, and to match the reduced choir size – 24 voices of the BBC Singers. Although well-performed I had reservations about this experience, which I will share these with you in the next blog. I wonder what our listeners felt?


The Voicebox section aims to reconnect with your voice and gently exercise it to get it back to singing. The first session (21.01.21) focused on BREATHING; session 2 (23.03.21), making a sound with just HUMMING. Session 3 is about CONSONANTS & VOWELS.

Start with good posture, well balanced on both feet, shoulders proud but not tense

Roll your head round and side to side gently to loosen your neck and check you are feeling tall, confident and relaxed

Spend two minutes taking some long, slow and deep in/out breaths

Continue by adding a sigh and then some hums, gaining in intensity each time, to the out breath

Now take your hum for a walk, exploring pitch range then hum a tune you know well

Now it is time for some CONSONANTS:

In a gentle voice speak the words ‘The lips the teeth the tip of the tongue’, 4 times

Relax, then take a deeper breath and say it 6 times, faster

Notice that, obviously, you cannot articulate this effectively without active use of lips teeth and tongue and that the sound is all produced right at the front of your mouth. The less you move your mouth and focus on the lips and teeth, the easier it becomes!

Choose a comfortable pitch in the upper middle part of your register and sing the exercise 8 times, one to each note of a descending scale for an octave.

Try again two times, once starting on a higher note than the last, and finally starting on a lower note than the first one so you explore a wider vocal range.

Now make space for the VOWELS:

In a commanding voice speak each of the 5 vowels, smoothly A-E-I-O-U For fun, try this in different voices, starting with King Lear!

On a single pitch, sing them

Explore each vowel by singing these phrases – smoothly, to a single pitch:

Clare’s rare bear snares hares

We three fleas need trees

Ah Pa’s fast car’s last

Tom stops Ron’s long songs

Do you glue blue shoes?

Make sure that in each exercise the vowel matches. Tip: Don’t move your mouth too much so that the vowel shape changes, make the consonants work around the shape. Remember ROBERT DEAN’S advice – have your mouth in the right shape for the vowel as you breathe in (‘inalare la voce’!!)

On a different pitch (just in case you’ve been stuck on the same one!) sing:

Are there bees on you? (notice that all 5 vowels are required and in alphabetical order)?

Repeat a few times, paying attention to each vowel, making sure your mouth cavity (and lips and tongue) is in the same shape each time. Really listen to the sound and feel what your mouth is doing. You might feel that too much attention is required and it sounds unnatural, so relax but keep listening. You are aiming for a smooth connected sound; the consonants must not interrupt the flow and tone of the sound.

Well done if you are still here and did it!!

Opportunity knocks

Now that the future for group activities (and shopping) look brighter – but still with care! – you might be searching around for some additional singing opportunities. The support service Choraline has some listed which might interest you.

Vocal Scores for Run by Singers : Choraline

I heartily recommend this CD of singing exercises by Deborah Miles too:

Vocal Warm Up Exercises Devised and demonstrated by Deborah Miles-Johnson Deborah Miles-Johnson : Choraline

This is a new resource on the horizon which is targeted at choral singers is coming soon – look out for it on the Choraline website:

During the past twelve months the Choraline team has been working with Deborah Miles-Johnson and Brian Parsons from ‘Choral Clinic’ in developing a new range of singing tutorials starting with a complete beginner interested in joining an SATB choir through to a very advanced singer with years of experience.

Debbie and Brian are two of the most brilliant singing teachers we have ever worked with and we are absolutely delighted to include these tutorials within the choral repertoire. Their individual careers have included work with lots of major UK choirs and ensembles – the Monteverdi Choir, Schutz Choir, The Sixteen, The Tallis Scholars and London Voices.

In our view, most ‘learn to sing’ tutorials tend to be too general and not relevant for SATB singers, but these have been specifically produced with us in mind. You can select a tutorial for your specific voice part and level of experience. Each tutorial is carefully planned and includes exercises and excerpts (from Messiah) to improve your technique, voice, and confidence.

We are currently working on the finishing touches and will make them available via the ChoraLine App and ChoraLine website during the next few weeks.

Music Box

I love being surprised and delighted by chance encounters with music in passing on the radio – usually whilst eating breakfast (home-made muesli btw). Radios 3’s Record Review, April 17th at 10.27 featured the most exquisite singing from a hugely talented soprano from Egypt – Fatma Said. The song – Give me a flute and sing – was from her debut album El Nour and is a setting of text by Kahlil Gibran. Beautiful singing and incredible breath control!  The CD is a ‘crossover’ collection of European and Egyptian pieces reflecting past cultural ties and current folk influences with some contemporary settings, some of which are accompanied by a novel instrumental ensemble.

The extracts include Give me a flute and sing, some opera to demonstrate the versatility of Fatma’s voice and her BBC new Generation Artists interview, which reveals some interesting perspectives on her lessons and training as a classical singer.

Fatma Said records “Aatini Al Naya Wa Ghanni” أعطنى الناى وغنى – YouTube

Fatma Said & Rolando Villazón on “Stars von morgen“ BRINDISI – YouTube

Fatma Said Interview – BBC New Generation Artists – YouTube


I have just finished reading the most delightful book called LEV’S VIOLIN by Helen Attlee, which was Radio 4’s Book of the Week in early April. I recommend it. Beautifully written, it takes you on an absorbing journey inspired by the sound of a violin. I quote from the dust jacket – which has a nice cover too!

From the moment she hears Lev’s violin, Helen Attlee is captivated. She is told that it is an Italian instrument, named after its former Russian owner. Eager to discover all she can about its ancestry and the stories contained within its delicate wooden body she sets out for Cremona, birthplace of the Italian violin. This is the beginning of a beguiling journey whose end she could never have anticipated.

Making its way from dusty workshops, through Alpine forests, cool venetian churches, glittering Florentine courts, and far-flung flea markets, Lev’s violin takes us from the heart of Italian culture to its furthest reaches. Its story of luthiers and scientists, princes and orphans, musician, composers, travellers and raconteurs, swells to a poignant meditation on the power of objects, stories, and music to shape individual lives and craft entire cultures.

For once, this is not inflated hyperbole, the unfolding story is a ‘beguiling journey’ and like a good detective story, the end was truly a surprise. Why did I like this book? Not only was my knowledge of the violin and the Italian composers whose music was profoundly influenced by its development, significantly broadened, but I was fascinated by the making process and enchanted by the author’s exploration of the cultural and geographical threads that this popular instrument wove across Europe into the 19th century. The most interesting revelations for me were in the chapter about the ‘foresta dei violini in the Dolomites, where the Alpine spruce trees (‘wood of resonance’) were sourced, and the rich variety of people who were involved in every stage of the transformation from tree to luthier to performer. Through the book, the story of the violin becomes a metaphor for the difference between value and worth – does a multi-million ££ Stradivarius excite and communicate more than a cheap German copy in a folk band? Exactly why IS an Amarti worth millions of pounds and how can you tell when you hear one? Lev’s Violin is an absorbing 202 pages, make it part of your holiday reading.

On a completely different note: If you want an inspiring and gently jaw-dropping evening on TV, I recommend My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. It is a documentary about said eight-armed cephalopod mollusc narrated by a marine biologist who observed and ‘befriended’ it over a year. The director won a Bafta for it. The photography is breath-taking and it out-attenboroughs young David.

And finally…I am most excited about the possibility of gaining possession of a full set of Leading Notes which Shauni collected. Whilst chatting on the phone with her last year about the blogs, and much else, she said I ought to have them. I anticipate sharing more of their priceless contents with you in future blogs.

Until then, best wishes, TM@tF

Continue ReadingGreetings from The Man At The Front

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.


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 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.


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


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.


Continue ReadingGreetings 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


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)


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:


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:

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.


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 

Check out the choir website and read about the conductor:

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?

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

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.....

It’s been a pleasure – see you again soon


Continue ReadingGreetings 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.

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:

   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.


Continue ReadingGreetings from The Man at The Front

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!

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 ReadingCovid 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’


Continue ReadingGreetings from The Man At The Keys

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.


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...



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).

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 ReadingGreetings 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 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!


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 ReadingGreetings 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:


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.


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

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)


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 ReadingSunshine 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.

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:

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.”

Continue ReadingAerosol 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 ReadingPeter Barber remembered by The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man At The Front

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 week:

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:

I appreciate the difficulty the pandemic is creating for community arts groups, particularly for singing groups. For now, practicing (sic – ed.) in a virtual setting is the best option for choirs. The current published guidance suggests that activities such as group singing should not restart yet, and this position will not be revised until a future review of restrictions indicates that it is safe to do so. The guidance can be found here:

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:

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:

Making Music (to whom we re affiliated)

Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD)

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!

Where have all the singers gone? – full paper

Here is a single page of conclusions. I’m not a researcher but they read more like reflections and thoughts to me. Helpful all the same

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 useful summary.

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)!

Where to next?

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

Masks in rehearsal – Preferably not (because of the effect on singing quality and audibility), but it would be an individual choice

Activity – 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

Attendance – Once underway, regular attendance would be expected; anyone unwell should not attend

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 speech:

From Australia this is a gentle read with some interesting ideas, including a video of two tenors singing behind plastic spit shields. Absolutely NO WAY will we be going down this road......

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.

Best wishes to you all.

Continue ReadingGreetings from The Man At The Front

Covid19 and choirs – a letter to the Culture Secretary

To: Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State DCMS

Dear Secretary of State,

Coronavirus: Standing up for amateur choirs and community music groups

As the UK begins to ease out of lock down, I am writing to ask that your cultural task force pays attention to the thousands of amateur musicians who in normal times would meet regularly to make music. Choirs, orchestras and community music groups of all types are a major source of pleasure, social cohesion and physical and mental wellbeing for people of all ages across the nation – at no cost to the government. Their loss is having a profound impact on quality of community life.

I was heartened to read in your recent Evening Standard London Indoors interview  that you are passionate about the arts, and are engaging in ‘intricate discussions’ with HM Treasury about supporting the sector to protect its viability. This is welcome news and I wish you luck.

You will be aware of the recent intervention by Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder, making a strong case for the protection of our cultural sector, exposing the potentially bleak landscape for professional musicians in general without some urgent action.  I would like to know what strategies you are proposing for amateur musicians to continue making music. Unlike the high-profile organisations, my choral society needs no extra financial support, or to be made a special case, we just require guidance for starting up safely; and this needs to happen quickly.  

The article by Richard Morrison in the Times (Will no one in Government stand up for British choirs? June 4th)  draws attention to the current plight of British choirs, in particular how inconclusive are the small amount of data for Covid19 infection amongst the singers. What evidence there is suggests that it is not singing per se that spreads the virus, but more likely the social interactions, physical contact and singers standing close together. Further research is essential please. Careful management of safe conditions for a large choir to meet are relatively easy to achieve and groups around the country would relish the challenge as the activity means so much to them, but we need your task force to address this creatively and advise government without delay.

Please let me know when this matter will be considered by the cultural task force and what recommendations you will make to Government to ensure that the country’s amateur musicians can start sharing music together again soon. Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Hunt  – on behalf of Chipping Norton Choral Society

Copies to: Victoria Prentis (MP for Banbury). Radio 4 Front Row, BBC Newsnight

Continue ReadingCovid19 and choirs – a letter to the Culture Secretary

Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello and welcome to Week 12 of lockdown, but looking up?! I hope you are still well and keeping body and soul together. When I started this blog on the 2nd (oh my how time flies when you’re locked down) we had just been told officially that we could meet five other people in the garden. Now single dwellers can visit another household and stay overnight provided the bubble arrangements are appropriate. This could result in a lot of ‘bubble bursting’ surely? I’m confused, so I’ll stay at home and write letters to the Culture Secretary and my MP urging them to let 80+ singers make music together asap – see below.

I would like to congratulate everyone who was involved in the Self-Isolating Choir Messiah performance on Sunday May 31. Even if your voice was not a part of the concert, well done if you engaged in learning it, or just dipped into some of the rehearsals. I gather nearly 4000 singers were involved from around the world (although the performance only sounded like about ?50) and it was an impressive undertaking. Lovely to hear a small band and great soloists (btw – Carolyn Sampson has sung solo for us before!). Did anyone else notice that the violin was the wrong way round (bowing with left arm)? I’m sure this was a trick of the filming or editing. Enlightenment on this welcome please. In the fullness of time it would be interesting to discuss how you folks found the experience of learning online and participating. Did anyone send in their voice recording and what was the process like? Is there anything we can learn from all this for our programme preparations? Maybe we can do all rehearsals online – you practise when you want to (but we still meet in the pub on Wednesday evenings!), have a grand ‘live’ workshop on concert day and perform in the evening. Bingo! Hmm, somehow that doesn’t feel right does it? Anyway, judging by online comments, many of these initiatives have been popular and enjoyable, which is the most important thing.

Thank you to everyone who sent me birthday greetings on May 24. I was touched by your kindness and there were some lovely personal comments which I very much appreciated. If this pandemic goes on much longer we might all be a year older by the time we meet again.....

The brouhaha surrounding Dominic Cummings was live when I started writing so I was all set to run with it, but as it’s old news now and he is back at his desk running the country, the moment has passed and satire has already chewed it to death. I predict that Barnard Castle will be the most visited monument in the North East next summer; I gather the teashop is offering free eye tests. I located something musical inspired by Mr C’s alleged suggestion that pensioners dying due to C19 would just be collateral damage. Curiously this rather casual attitude towards our elderly crept into policy when patients were later discharged from hospital without testing. Ah well, we were listening to the science no doubt. I hope song this will neither frustrate further the already angry, nor upset the passionate supporter. Apologies if it does. It’s called Song for Dominic Cummings by Dillie Keane.

Dillie Keane sings with an all female trio called Fascinating Aida and if you were tickled to be sure (they’re Irish) you might like something by the group. It will put you in holiday mood. I think the language is a bit ripe in places, but being an Irish word, I’m not sure.

I am indebted to one of the ‘boys at the back’ for keeping me informed and ‘on task’ as conductor, with responsibility for your learning. Recently I instigated my ‘Nail Bar’ which opens occasionally in rehearsals when there are titbits or gobbits to explore. Its mission, like the BBC’s charter, is to Inform, Educate and Entertain. Arguably it fails to achieve all three, but I do like to try and help everyone understand the context of everything we do. This includes a little background to the music we are singing and more recently introducing some basic theory to help folks understand what’s happening on the page. The musical device called a Hemiola has featured intermittently over the years when preparing Baroque pieces. It is a very common 18th century rhythmic and harmonic feature but dashed difficult to explain clearly. I thought my last attempt (Vivaldi’s Gloria – 2018) with Bernard providing live illustration at the piano was brilliant, but for those who missed it here is a much more engaging and visually arresting lecturette. I am delighted that here too could not resist the rather feeble joke about it sounding like a disease! Toby the secretary always reassured the choir that ointment was available....  

You will be relieved to know that I will not be juggling next time the Nail Bar opens –  I talk balls most of the time as it is. Incidentally, hemiola should not be confused with semolina – a slow dance-like movement served as part of a baroque sweet!

Returning to the loosening of lockdown and the government’s ‘roadmap’ for our route to normality, the spotlight is fading up slowly to highlight arts and sport. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is heading a cultural task force to explore ways of opening up theatres, concert halls, sports venues etc. The country is thirsty for its culture and those employed in the sector need their work. The two metre social distancing rule is posing a significant challenge, but I’ll wager that changes soon – watch this space (just as theatre directors are watching theirs – large and empty – ha ha). Incidentally, did you know that five different social distance measures between 1m and 2m have been adopted around the world, with 1.5m being the most common? Whose science are we listening to?

Anyway, I have written to Oliver Dowden requesting that the Dept of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) consider their strategy for the route out of lockdown for amateur community music-making, choirs in particular. Major revenue-earning venues are obviously important but I fear that people like us, as we know, community choirs and orchestras serve a very different function, and contribute enormously to the health and wellbeing of participants. As we cost the government nothing and have a low profile, we are likely to be considered last. Ironically, with careful planning and imagination I reckon we could start up ‘any time soon’, but that needs to be recognised and understood by the policy makers (Mm, perhaps Elgar could write an oratorio about that!).

My letter is posted separately and the links are worth reading. There are two articles from The Times and Guardian plus an interview with Oliver Dowden who claims to be passionate about the arts. I’m sure he is, but the proof will be in the pudding (hemiola) that we can share at our first gathering before Christmas!

And so to music....

In addition to Fascinating Aida, I have a varied and rather reflective selection this time. It is suggested that choirs are more prone to infection because they stand close together in confined spaces and expel a lot of air and moisture. This is true, but the causes are not completely clear and there is mixed evidence as to how far the air travels from singers’ mouths and how contagious this might be. Choirs are also close-knit communities who hug and touch each other quite a lot too, which is also a source of transmission. Research from Munich suggests that droplets travel about 0.5m and then fall to the ground, a retired dentist friend says: The latest science suggests that it takes 17 minutes for the aerosol in a dental surgery to cease to be air-borne after vacating the room.”  When we eventually meet, face coverings might still be required and although this might be limiting, making music together is still possible as this choir from Poznan, Poland demonstrates beautifully. It’s called ‘Music in times of Plague’.

Chór w czasach zarazy

To, co dzisiaj chcielibyśmy Państwu zaprezentować, to jedyny w swoim rodzaju projekt artystyczny – „Chór w czasach zarazy”.Tęsknota za wspólnym muzykowaniem zaczęła nam tak mocno doskwierać, że postanowiliśmy poszukać takiej platformy spotkania na żywo, dzięki której moglibyśmy, choć w części, zaspokoić artystyczny głód personalnej interakcji.Okazało się, że wielu poznańskich artystów, którzy na co dzień uczestniczą w szeroko pojętym życiu chóralnym, zarówno jako śpiewacy, dyrygenci, czy soliści różnych stylistycznych proweniencji, odpowiedziało pozytywnie na apel Jacka Sykulskiego i zgodziło się spotkać w jednej z najpiękniejszych poznańskich świątyń – farze, by wspólnie zaśpiewać jego „The peace meditation” (Medytację o pokoju).Utwór powstał w 2001 roku, tuż po ataku terrorystycznym w Nowym Jorku. Rok później Chór Akademicki UAM pod kierownictwem Jacka Sykulskiego wykonał tę kompozycję w „strefie 0”.To poczucie niesienia nadziei, podczas pamiętnego występu w Nowym Jorku, miało swoje odbicie w poznańskiej farze – wiązało się z przeświadczeniem, że spotykamy się w jakimś sensie również na gruzach, na których przychodzi nam teraz odbudowywać nasze muzyczne życie.Nie da się tego zrobić osobno w domowym zaciszu – tylko spotkanie, artystyczna komunia osób, ma moc kruszenia murów.Efekt tego spotkania przerósł najśmielsze oczekiwania każdego z uczestników. Chórzyści śpiewający w maskach, z zachowaniem odpowiednich odległości, bez żadnej wcześniejszej próby, wykreowali medytację, która płynęła prosto z ich przebogatych wnętrz – śpiewali nie tylko zapisane na kartach partytury dźwięki, ale również dokopali się do tych muzycznych treści, których w nutach zanotować się nie da.Spotkanie to, jak wierzymy ma nieść nadzieję, a także inspirować – dla nas stało się to czymś tak oczywistym, że zamierzamy kontynuować ten projekt, aż do czasu, w którym wszystko wróci do normalności.Mamy nadzieję, że również i Was zainspiruje do podobnych kreacji.

Gepostet von Poznan Boys' Choir / Poznański Chór Chłopięcy am Freitag, 15. Mai 2020

The Cummings clip was a satirical song about older people who have borne the worst of Covid19, whilst children seem to have suffered much less. I couldn’t resist sharing the result of a wonderful project from Birmingham Children’s Hospital where the chaplaincy worked with Ex-Cathedra’s Singing Medicine Team to form the first hospital-wide children and young people’s virtual patient choir. It’s called the Lifting Spirits Choir and does what it says on the tin.

Finally I share something in my ‘Music for meditation’ category, that is, pieces that allow your mind to simply drift and float..... It’s a song by the brilliant Michel Legrand sung by Trinity College Cambridge. I am so envious of everything about this recording – warm summer, singing in a circle, exquisite building, heart-melting music, talent, sublime solo singing, youth. Find a box of tissues and enjoy.

If this were a rehearsal we would now repair to the pub for some minor restoration. I have discovered a new beer from Brewdog – The Barnard Castle Eye Test. At 6% it’s a Hazy Durham IPA

Cheers. Look after yourselves and take care.

An encore:

Continue ReadingGreetings from The Man At The Front