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’.
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.