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.