I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky I left my copy of Rossini there, I wonder if its dry.
No – not Masefield or Milligan. Just a lonely second bass who has now relegated himself to fourth bass due to a serious lack of vocal activity since March. Can you blame me? I wait on every word from the wonderfully energetic and supportive committee hoping against hope that we may resume our endeavours.
But alas – aerosol particles of indeterminant size seem to be our warders as the poor old scientific community battle it out with the virus and sadly, often amongst themselves. Yet as the eternal optimist I took myself and other related bubbles off to Cornwall for a week of sun, sea and pasties only to find most of the rest of England down there trying to avoid the extremes of Storm Alex and insulting the locals by daring to choose the cheese and onion pasty option.
And worse – with the freedom of the first of October, allowing their varied genetically modified and uncontrollable canibus to leave multiple petite messe [!] solenelle all over the once occupied sand. I ask you!
It was not all gloom and despondency – far from it. High on a hill in the bright sunshine you could watch all of the ‘Doc Martin’ fans stroll around Port Isaac itemising all the significant buildings and places of accidents/illnesses. Instead of buying them to enhance your singing, you could wander into a local gift shop and actually talk to a real Fisherman’s Friend [lovely modest guy too] and if all else fails you could count how many people had put a facemask on their dog – I joke not!
You may start to pick up a sense of mental anguish from these comments but rest assured dear reader they are just deflections from wanting to add further scurrilous comments about the first basses or fivers and yet I have to admit I miss them dearly....
So having used up all my RSPB & RNLI jigsaws, read all my outstanding paperbacks, painted every piece of garden furniture ready for the winter [even washing all the covers], hoovered the car and made endless buckets of stewed apple, I leave you with the daily wonder of crosswords!
Solve this if you dare: Troubled punter, the boss [5,4]
I simply cannot remember the last time I sang. No longer does the bath soap jiggle off the side taking the pumice with it or the shower gel fall from its cage because of my deeply resonant renderings of Showtime classics. The sombre nature of ‘things’ seems to weigh heavily in our hearts as we reflect on the trials and tribulations of our nearest and dearest family, friends and colleagues. We wish them strength and dignity in all that they are currently facing.
And yet – thank goodness for ‘The Man At The Front’ (the answer to the crossword clue!). Such diverse and inspirational material that stimulate the grey matter and keep the real sense that we will ‘meet again’ and sing. As a youngster (!) needing to Google ‘CD’ to see what it means/is/was I am immediately drawn to Eric Idle’s great classical rendition of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. If it was good enough for the 2012 Olympics it is good enough for me – although ‘solo’ it may be, ‘choral’ it may not. You also wonder how long you would have to isolate on a desert island to play your CD. 10 days maybe presumably avoiding Friday?
I am told that one of the great casualties of COVID-19 has been common sense. We justify our bubbles; we convince the thousands of new walkers that we are following the rules whilst wondering what they are doing in our village; we wrestle with the moral dilemma of reporting our neighbours; we do the dodgems in the local supermarket; we tut at exposed noses; and convince ourselves we couldn’t possibly be in a vulnerable group. We long for an end to it all.
So if we ignore Eric Idle and you can still take eight gramophone records on to an isolated atoll I would choose:
Tippett – A Chill of Our Time
Walton – Belshiver’s Feast
Williams – A Sea Symptom
Howells – Hymnus Parasiti
Elgar – The Dream of Germontius
Strainer – Coronifixion
Bruckner – Locus Isolate
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me
Let Peter know about your hidden gems. My LPs all ended up as flowerpots; my EPs as place mats; my cassette tapes as cassette tapes; and my CDs as nouveau wall art. Who or what is Roy Plumley? Sounds like an old English apple.
I’m trying a new-year resolution format for the blog, with headings to keep it organised and focused and hopefully a little more frequent than last year. I may not be able to fulfil these ambitions, but it’s courageous to have some! It works for H. M. Government and they seem to get away with it. So look out for:
Soap box: Headlines, general news and info, thoughts and Man at the Front rants and ramblings.
Voicebox: Practical activities for you to try at home (and I do mean ‘try this at home’) e.g. warm ups, voice work, exercises, songs.
Opportunity knocks: Links to stimulating stuff which will feed your souland keep you connected – online activities, articles, books etc
Music box – The inspiration slot – for your listening
Chatterbox – Quotes, extracts, articles, funny and serious, including gems from the old Leading Notes
Return to Singing (R2S): The current lockdown and general uncertainty about the course of this pandemic makes planning impossible, but we are constantly reviewing the way ahead. R2S will continue as soon as we safely can, similar to our session in December, building in capacity as conditions allow – that’s all we can say right now. The Rossini Petite Messe Solonelle is still on the table! If this is too tantalising, there is an opportunity in November with the Oxford Orpheus Choir (see link below)
STOP PRESS – CHIPPING NORTON MUSIC FESTIVAL (March 6 – 20)
Important announcement: Undaunted by the pandemic restrictions, the festival is committed to its principles of inclusion and opportunity, so this year it will be a virtual festival. Performers will enter a video recording which adjudicators will adjudicate in the usual way, in their own time. Feedback to performers will be given via a zoom session during the festival fortnight. There will not be any workshops or concerts; ensemble classes (e.g. choirs) might happen if there are enough entries. Please pass on this info to anyone you can. We already have an entry for Edinburgh! See website for details: www.cnmf.org.uk
Are you singing at all? Whether or not you are participating in online activities, it’s essential to give your singing voice some attention regularly to prevent atrophy, and better still to keep it in good condition! This Voicebox section of the blog encourages you with exercises, activities and things to sing, developing over time. Find yourself ten minutes as regularly as you can to develop a vocal practice. Of course, as members of an outstanding choir you can already sing brilliantly and have performed some of the most challenging pieces, so don’t let this stop you ‘giving it large’ whenever you like. It’s good to reconnect with basic techniques though and particularly useful if you haven’t sung for a while.
Session 1 is just b-r-e-a-t-h-i-n-g. Future sessions will link with huMMMMing, then singing, using a range of simple material to create an engaging and hopefully useful warm up routine.
Here are some suggestions for you – no equipment needed! Try the following routine:
SESSION 1 – BREATHING No equipment is required, just a quiet space….Allow yourself 10 mins in a quiet space to JUST BE – Sitting or standing comfortably with relaxed shoulders, breathing slowly, through your nose at all times if possible
Attend to your breath and notice how it is
Place one hand over your heart and the other over your belly – keep breathing
Attend to your belly hand and notice how it is moving – imagine the air is filling the space behind it. Close your eyes.
Establish a beat or pulse in your head (about 60 beats per minute [bpm]) – breathe in for 4 beats and out for 4 beats.
Repeat this cycle four times then breathe normally – i.e. without counting or thinking!
Repeat above and exhale for 6 beats
Now inhale 4 – hold 4 – exhale 4
Repeat above and exhale 6
Relax and breathe normally. Congratulate yourself for achieving this, or if it’s no challenge then just for bothering!!
Now link all three exercises in cycles of four, with no breaks for normal breathing
Extended finish: Inhale 4 – hold 7 – exhale 8 for a cycle of four times.
Relax. Notice how you are. Do you feel any warmer, colder, no different? Is your mouth drier or more moist than when you started?
Do you do YOGA? You might enjoy the Youtube yoga sessions with Adriene which started this month. She was a hit during the first lock down. Her latest series of 30 sessions is called ‘Breath’ and she makes a point of exploring breathing techniques through the yoga practice. You can join for free, go to:
An Oxford group called newChoir is offering something online which looks exciting and everyone is invited. Their new conductor, Benedict Goodall says:
“The first session, which will be on Tuesday 26th January at 19:30-21:00, will be a webinar on the wondrous piece Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. In these sessions, I will be dissecting the piece, analysing it, and giving as much information as possible on the history of the work, as well as describing what it is like to perform it. We will then have the opportunity to talk about it as a group to really understand these masterworks.
BOOK IMMEDIATELY AS NUMBERS ARE LIMITED TO ACCOMMODATE THE DISCUSSION
The second session is on Tuesday 2nd February at 19:30-21:00, and will be a fun quiz, heavily focussing on choral music.
Rossini Petite Messe Solonelle – Workshop on 13th November 2021
Depending on what is allowed and sensible by then, here are some provisional dates for the Oxford Orpheus Choir workshop. Wesley Memorial Methodist church in Oxford has been booked for a celebratory daytime workshop and evening concert of the original version with piano and harmonium.
The day my voice broke: What an injury taught me about the power of speech
This ‘Long Read’ from the Guardian is very interesting. It highlights how we should be careful with our voices and what our spoken voices say about us. Do we really know what we sound like?
Dixit Dominus by Handel – This 40-minute work was completed in 1707 when Handel was in Italy. It’s uplifting and full of energy with some delightfully reflective solo movements. CNCS has never performed it – a future challenge?
Deserted Discs I bet that somewhere in your collection of CDs there is lurking a favourite piece of VOCAL MUSIC (choral or solo), a recording you had forgotten about, or something you think everyone might like to hear. Maybe there is a significant piece associated with an important time or occasion in your life. With a nod to Radio 4 and Roy Plumley, if you have something you are prepared to share from the CNCS desert island, let me know. Include a youtube link or just the details and I’ll find a recording if I can and post it. A short introduction or biog reference would be interesting OR let the music just speak for itself. You might even enjoy provoking your listeners by stretching their ears with something different…..
“The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of man. It does strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes.” (William Byrd: Psalms, Sonnets and Songs – 1588)
Hello everyone! I hope you have had the best Christmas possible, however and with whomever it was celebrated. It is New Year’s Eve as I write, a moment to reflect on the past year and seek some optimism for the new one. Sadly the “what-a-year!” conversation tag will not be disappearing from our lexicography as covid-19 knows no calendar boundaries – the wagon rolls on. The date changes of course, so we’ll feel hopeful 2021! There is something about which we can be absolutely certain at the turn of this year however, something which will affect our united kingdom (or is it Island State?) and have considerable impact on our lives which is not a virus, but for which we are fully prepared of course, and have the resources and capacity to meet and greet. BREXIT. It got done. Whether you are whooping or wailing about this, welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, enjoy!
It has been a grim year for the choir, resulting in us being together for only 21 hours (9 rehearsals, music festival and Return to Singing this month) and no performances. That does sound bleak, but I know many of you participated in online singing, staying engaged. This will improve in 2021 and we have every reason to be very hopeful. The committee is still exploring ways of making music as soon as we can and I am considering what we can do online too!
One beacon of hope, a bright shining light at the end of the covid tunnel is the fantastic progress with vaccines. Like me, I’m sure you are particularly proud of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which was approved only yesterday! The world is rejoicing, but it feels special to us being led by our county city. We all owe the research team our thanks and gratitude for their dedication. By way of public appreciation there was a concert in The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on December 18 given by the choir of Merton Chapel and Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Rutter and featuring Bryn Terfel. Threaded together with tributes from dignitaries and musicians it makes a delightful 40-minute concert. You’ll really enjoy it, and I defy anyone hearing Rutter’s arrangement of You’ll never walk alone not to well up, at least! His Joseph’s Carol is also lovely and pushes all the right buttons, adding to the swell of longing to be engaged in singing as soon as we can. There is a blast of Hallelujah Chorus to finish, ramming the point home! Thank you Nikki Rycroft for sending the link to this concert.
RETURN TO SINGING Arguably the most significant occasion for the choir this year was the R2S on December 17th. I am so pleased that we achieved this in the small window left ajar between lockdown and tiers and it was wonderful to see so many of you. Eric emailed everyone after the event with some lovely feedback – thank you to the team involved in organising it and to St Mary’s for supporting us. Gatherings of any sort look unlikely for a while now but we will grab any opportunities arising provided we can remain safe. In case you missed the email, here are some comments from those who took part:
“The Choir was awesome tonight....”
“Mission accomplished with great success! All went well, brilliantly executed. The hour passed quickly, schedule as planned – I can see clearly… worked well. Fascinating how the dynamics change completely when singers are separated and masked – the atmosphere is gentle and slower as communication takes longer to sink in! The singing was confident .....and everyone was thrilled to be together and doing something!”
“I think last night was a success! We were all highly delighted to set real eyes upon each other, and the sound in St Mary’s was beautiful. I have never had the chance to hear it properly before, in the nave, and the fact that we had been enjoined to avoid strain produced a magical, pure sound from the choir. Interesting and enjoyable, and Peter the old pro paced it and directed the whole operation perfectly.”
“The CNCS with a difference on 17th was good, so nice to be together. Vocally nowhere near our best of course but that didn’t matter one bit. Singing in a mask is weird as is the necessary distancing.”
“It was truly a golden hour to sing together with other like-minded souls and I believe Peter did an outstanding job in the circumstances – he didn’t even check if we had brought pencils so the strain is obviously getting to him”
“It was so nice to be singing again and to see people. Thank you to everyone who made it happen. Great to do some vocal and breathing warm ups as my voice is definitely rather rusty, and then nice to put a piece together in an hour”
“During Lockdown I found it very hard to sing alone. The online things just didn’t appeal and I tried singing along to recordings but that didn’t motivate me either. I think it was the solitary nature of it. I don’t enjoy just hearing myself sing. So I hadn’t sung for months before the 17th and had no idea how it would work. In spite of all the differences from our usual rehearsals there was still enough of a sense of community and shared experience to help me find my voice. I can’t pretend I sang quietly but I sang with feeling and thoroughly enjoyed it. If it happens again I’ll be there!”
“I thought it was lovely for some to get together again, very well organised and socially distanced”.
“Just a belated note to say how fantastic it was to get together last week. I know it was just an hour, but I know how many man hours of work must have gone into making that hour possible, so a huge thanks to the team involved. It felt really safe. Let’s hope it is not too long until we can do it again”
I really appreciate being called ‘an old pro’, because let’s face it, that’s how it is, and thank you for the compliment! I am also struck by the comment about no pencils! Do you know, it hadn’t even occurred to me, I had forgotten, it had ceased to be an important matter. How symbolic! It was certainly lovely just to sing gently and get the old band back together.
Did anyone sing carols at all? I’m sure some of you did, but this year must rank as the leanest for opportunities. I overheard people talking about ‘singing around the village’ and other Christmas celebrations, but overall there must have been fewer renditions per head of the population. I only got one opportunity this year, at Swinbrook Church, two miles from Burford. I mention it, not because the occasion so magnificent that I was temporarily transported to a higher spiritual dimension beyond the toil and strife of this weary world. We were outside in the graveyard, it was raining, cold and my music had turned to papier mache, but we were edging towards that Christmas feeling – carols, readings and a warm community. The highlight of the evening though was being ‘raided’ and shut down by the Thames Valley Police before we could sing the final carol – O come all ye faithful, because the gathering was too large. We were not in Salisbury or Swansea, Sheffield or Stirling, where hoards of young people were probably five deep at the bar in a Weatherspoons, but Swinbrook – population 139. Most churches would give their collective cuspids (eye teeth) to have a congregation large enough to be considered a potential danger to society, I suspect. Anyway we all duly obliged and hummed the descant in the car on the way home. So near, yet so far.
It’s a new year tomorrow and I want to wish all of you a very happy one and all the best for a brighter 2021. Made any resolutions? Good luck if you have. Until we meet again the blogs will continue and in the spirit of moving forward I will aim to stimulate – activities, music links, thought provocation related to singing and less to political commentary perhaps.
As a parting gesture though, I am going to point you towards a very readable retrospective of 2020 called The lost year – how coronavirus changed everything, by Jonathan Freedland. It’s a thoughtful piece about how the pandemic has exposed society’s weaknesses but also illuminated what strengths we have. If you don’t read it, just take in the final paragraphs:
We learned what we are by what we missed. Life without even the possibility of a trip to the pub; a night of laughter at the theatre; tears at the cinema or the thrill of live music; an afternoon of shouting yourself hoarse at the football; a quick chat over a drink or a long meal with friends; a few hours with your parents or your children; or a simple, wordless hug – that kind of life was hollow and hard. We longed to know those pleasures once more.
The pandemic took away so many lives, but it also reminded us what life was for; the simple joy of being with other people, close enough to touch and be touched. Like a magnifying glass placed over each one of us, the pandemic revealed what is our greatest weakness but also our most precious strength: our need for each other.
With the prospect of gloom overshadowing many people’s Christmas, I contacted over 50 people in my village, Ascott-under-Wychwood, with the idea of carol-singing from one end of the village to the other. I had a core group of some 20 willing songsters and split them into groups of six, for eight different occasions, mostly in the evening and including two at Sunday lunchtime at the pub. Some people sang on more than one occasion (I did all eight...). It was a great joy to see people come to the door to welcome us. Many joined in with the carols – all jolly ones – and especially rewarding was to see children brought to the door to witness carols for the first time, as well as the elderly who left their cosy front rooms and deep chairs. People were tremendously generous and over the whole period we managed to collect a fabuous £570.00 which has gone to the Oxford University vaccine research department. Bravo!
Needless to say I lost my voice, but it was worth it.
Christmas is coming and yet I seem to be rotund Time to be more serious about the stomach quite prof’und If I haven’t got a clue how to slow the swelling ‘me’ If I cannot find a diet then my feet, I shall not see
I think I’ll blame my dog for the doubling of my size We’re both fed up with the same old walks and it is no surprise That we find all sorts of reasons for putting off the strolls When you can stay at home by AGA-side devouring bacon rolls
And I am one of many that prayed the pubs kept serving To cut my thirst for home-brewed ale with measures quite unnerving And as for slimming recipes whose contents are so vital All mine seem to have some chips embedded in their title
Yet Basso Profundo that I am, I need a resonance box So why not keep it above the belt away from the Christmas socks The financial stake in my sizeable paunch is significant and what’s more It gives me somewhere safe and sound to rest my Messiah score
If I go thin, I’ll have to join the Fivers at the front A depressing thought for a fulsome bass but maybe worth a punt I then could reach some notes so high it would really stretch belief To sound like a slightly nauseous thrush whose stomach needs relief
But these are just the ramblings of a singer most frustrated That he cannot share his love of song – musically castrated The fun, the joy, the shared intent, determination unbending Who misses friends, the challenge, the tunes [but not Belshazzar’s ending!]
So, here’s to you all at this time of year, please keep your voices going To know that we will sing again without the lockdown showing It may be Bach, it might be Brahms, it even could be Mahler [Let’s hope it isn’t Britten again whose rhythms are much harder]
New Year is coming and I seem to be much thinner Time to keep the focus sharp on what I have for dinner For I want to be in perfect shape to start the songs with vigour It’s the only way I can focus on my voice and not my figure
Robert Dean, who led our amazing Belshazzar’s Feast workshop in October last year, shares some thoughts and advice from his experience of the covid crisis and the impact on his students and teaching, with some helpful hints and a link to an excellent resource at the end….
LOCKDOWN! Isn’t this the worst term for any singer to contemplate? It goes against the whole ethos of what we as singers do and what I, as a teacher of 30 years standing have been constantly trying to discourage as the antithesis of the necessary liberation of breath and body if we are to sing with our best tone. The performance of Elijah we gave on February 29th this year was the last live music performance in which I was involved. Looking back now, it seems in some way fitting that it was the story of a good and visionary man (for which read ‘an everyman singer’) who was crushed by those who hated him but who despite adversity, rose once again to even greater glory. Covid the enemy has almost sapped the life blood out of us all and in particular the performing arts. Sadly, singers have come under particular scrutiny, the experts warning that singers pose the greatest of dangers with their droplets being dispersed much more readily in the air whilst singing loudly rather than softly. The answer? We all have to sing quietly! Now we all know how technically difficult this is and how that simply wouldn’t work in a performance of “Elijah”!
Watching the BBC Singers on TV in a live Prom, sing in a socially distanced way in an empty Royal Albert Hall was a dispiriting experience – taking away the joy of performance for the online audience as well, I imagine, as a true sense of ensemble for the singers themselves. If anything needs to be recognised, if the thrill of live music making is to be regained, it is a reminder that the communal act of being together is what makes it so satisfying; which might also mean standing right next to your fellow singer even if they are singing the wrong notes or are sounding terrible! Whilst I am delighted that so many online opportunities in lieu of the real thing have found a place in singers’ lives during this pandemic, it can be nothing more than an inadequate and lonely substitute for doing what human beings do best – social undistancing.
Once I recovered from having the virus myself in March (the finger points to a student at the Guildhall – or was it that workshop I gave on the Brahms Requiem the week before falling ill, where I was encouraging the singers of the choral society to sing lustily but healthily in those fugues?), I was faced in my teaching life with two problems. Firstly, so many of the singers I work with had their work – and as a result their livelihoods – taken away from them overnight; and secondly, the young students I work with at the Guildhall were at a loss as to know how the School was going to continue their musical education. The depression and lack of motivation in the former group was most distressing. All I could offer was to give them their lessons via Skype for free (a surprising number did not take me up on this) and to keep encouraging them by telling them this was not going to last forever. But when work is taken away, and even the future work you have been booked for might not happen, why bother to open a score and learn a role that you may never be required to sing?
In the second group all lessons were moved to online – and something startling began to happen. Without exception, all my young students began to make excellent progress! Without the continual rushing around between classes, and with many of the outside pressures removed, the young singers with my help became their own teachers in their living rooms and bedrooms; and were able to concentrate and learn during the course of a lesson in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Inevitably having to sing continually into a computer screen made them much more self aware of bodily ticks and tensions, and the screen became something of a friend as well as a harsh critic. However much I as a teacher disliked hearing and seeing them electronically (and by the way it is so much more exhausting teaching this way), I could not deny that they embraced the compromise and made it work for them with enthusiasm.
Now, six months down the line we are taking tentative steps to get back to some sort of normality. I have once again opened up my studio to singers replete with a 7 foot perspex screen for them to sing behind and with proper health measures in place on arrival. This week I heard live singing for the first time since March 13th and I was deeply moved but encouraged by the thought that there is nothing quite like it. Even if one listens as I do to recordings of many great singers, nothing can replace the sheer visceral quality of a live singer or singers in full flood, right in front of you – LIVE!
So it seems apposite at this point to give you a pointer to a website, the creator of which – Deborah Miles-Johnson – was my co-director at the Philharmonia Chorus for 10 years, and whose vocal exercises I can heartily recommend; along with some tips on how to keep your voice shipshape for that time when we shall all be back together again, singing our hearts out. “THEN DID ELIJAH THE PROPHET BREAK FORTH AS A FIRE”. Like the Prophet, let’s look to the day when the singers of Oxford Orpheus and of choral societies throughout the land most certainly will be back and now, with the added realisation of what they have been missing, they’ll be singing better than ever and with even greater enthusiasm! https://dmilesjohnson.bandcamp.com/album/vocal-exercises-for-classical-singers
Tips before you use the exercises:
· Remember to breathe before you sing – don’t overfill the lungs, just breathe comfortably and in a natural expanded way, letting the abdominal muscles naturally move outwards but not locking; lifting the soft palette as you breathe gets you into a place of openness at the throat.
· Feel this space as the gateway to your breath and so sense the lift occurring internally whilst making sure your neck, jaw and tongue are relaxed as you take the breath.
· Feel the vocal folds come together as you precisely sing the vowels a – e – i – o – u on a comfortable middle pitch keeping that space, even increasing it as you sing the sequence.
· Use your hand on an inward gesture on each one to help with this. The idea is to invite your voice onto the breath and therefore the body.
· Then try out some of Debbie’s exercises – they are gentle but effective.
Remember to sing every day if you can – the muscles like to be used and become more toned and efficient the more you use them. There is no such thing as lockdown in this way of singing!!
Well! Where to start? Being an accompanist can be the most exciting and thrilling experience – and it can also be very occasionally scary! I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying many different groups, from cathedral choirs to solo singers, choral societies to school productions. There are so many nuances that come with the territory, working with musical directors and their differing methods, different instruments and venues to name a few.
My earliest experience of having to accompany anything was when I was 14. I had been having organ lessons for around 6 months, and our local parish church needed someone to play for midnight mass (as the incumbent organist was not keen on being out at night). This was to be my first ever accompanying engagement – only a church full of 150 people, a choir and extra hymns and carols to play for! I was terrified – having to actually play hymns with people singing and keep in time, listen for consonants to work out which verse we were all on, play the fun last verses from the various Carols for Choirs books – and improvise when required. This really was being thrown in at the deep end! I came out elated, unscathed, but exhausted.
This led to several years of playing at various churches on Sunday mornings in and around Peterborough every week – practising my trade, as it were, learning new music, meeting different people. Most of this was me alone at the console, just getting on with it, no choir. I was lucky to be taught by one of the Peterborough Cathedral organists, Mark Duthie. A master of accompanying (and word painting in particular) I picked up some brilliant (if slightly naughty) tricks and habits from him. The hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ has a super line of ‘though he with giants fight’ – this, for me, meant bringing out all the low, trembly, thunderous stops – I distinctly remember being partly ‘told off’ for doing this at one church!
Accompanying isn’t all about playing the right notes all the time (as I’m sure many of you have noticed...), but supporting the music going on elsewhere in the room. Sight reading is one of my favourite things to do, reading lots of lines of music and making sense of where the music is going, and what it is doing. For me, it is about supporting everything that is happening in a rehearsal or concert, predicting what might happen next and then acting on it! Working with different conductors is exciting as well, getting to know mannerisms and movements, and taking the rehearsal, in some sort of ghosted parallel with them. Lots of ‘if this were me, we’d go back to page 5 now, probably with the basses, I better play an F# for them just before he tells them...’. The partnership between conductor and accompanist, I have often thought, can make or break a rehearsal. You must be on the same page/stave and in the same key/note! Sometimes this can take a bit of getting used to, but often becomes a well-oiled machine over time.
The most exhilarating moments of accompanying have been those last-minute changes of plan – perhaps the conductor is ill, and there is no other option than to go it alone. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be working with the King’s Lynn Festival Chorus. One evening, the conductor was delayed (puncture in the car tyre, I think?). We were working on the Mahler’s epic Symphony 8. For those who don’t know, it is a monstrously large work – double-double choir, hundreds in the orchestra, all sorts of peculiar extras like brass bands, mandolins, organ etc. Well...I’m at the piano, surrounded by 130 singers, and I have to rehearse the music with them. 8 different vocal lines on the score, with the solo lines also included, the piano part is a ‘reduction’(?!) of the orchestra, and there are page turns seemingly every 2 seconds! And to make matters worse, I couldn’t sit down, as my vertically challenged nature meant no one would be able to see me! I definitely earned my money that evening. As a side note, my first rehearsal with the choir was with the same piece, and a cat managed to get into the school and within seconds came and sat on the piano and told me which notes weren’t quite purr-fect....I did wonder what I had let myself in for!!
Things don’t always go to plan. My most frustrating and embarrassing moment took place when I was organ scholar at Wakefield Cathedral. There are two organ consoles, with one being in the nave. When this one was used, there was a button which HAD to be pressed on the main console, otherwise you would be unable to reduce the number of stops used. At one of my first carol services playing for the choir, we had completed the opening carol – cathedral full, lots of loud singing, full organ at the end. The next piece was a very quiet, gentle piece for the choristers to sing, which started unaccompanied, before me joining in a bit later. I had to give a quiet chord. I chose a suitable stop on the nave organ, and when indicated I played the simple D major chord. Disaster – I had forgotten the special button. The chord I actually played was a thunderously loud full organ sound – the congregation almost jumped out of their seats, the choir were a mix of shocked, annoyance, and stifled laughter, and the conductor was...well...to put it mildly ‘unimpressed’. Anyway, the choir did start the piece – and I then ran to the other console (quite some distance away), pressed the correct button – but then had no choice but to stay there and accompany, blind, for the remainder of the piece, as I didn’t have time to get back before my next entry. I was not in the good books that day!
There have been lots of funny moments at the piano. One of the most bizarre I can recall was at a school concert back in Norfolk around 10 years ago. All the department buildings had their own alarms, rather than one centralised one. We were halfway through a solo performance evening when we heard the distinct sound of the burglar alarm in the technology block. Jokingly, my boss suggested out loud to the audience ‘It’s OK, Mr Brown will just improvise something that fits’. Challenge accepted! For several minutes the audience were ‘entertained’ with various tunes, including (but not limited to) Thomas the Tank Engine, Beethoven 5th, EastEnders, Postman Pat, some of the pieces already played that evening (but in a lounge piano style), O come all ye faithful...it was very, very silly!
I’m sure there are many other anecdotes I could include, but maybe they can wait for another day.
Stay safe everyone, take care, and hope to see you soon.
It’s been a while, but here we are and our covid lives look set to get bleaker, if that were possible. I do hope everyone is keeping their spirits up after the slight ‘respite’ (I guess) over the summer months. Substantial and carefully considered plans are being prepared for those of you desperate to sing together again in St Mary’s Church and I can’t wait to get going.
I am involved in planning for the North Cotswold Chamber Choir to sing a concert at St Kenelm’s Church Enstone, on December 5. Sarah Tenant Flowers will be conducting a 60-minute programme of carols with readings reflecting on the Christmas story, possibly twice in succession if audience numbers demand and even live streaming if we can. This is perfectly permissible within the guidelines, at the moment, and like CNCS, a detailed Risk Assessment with substantial mitigations has been prepared. It could all come to nothing of course and might possibly end in tiers (ha ha), but they are hopeful. Fingers crossed that we can make our return to singing work too – please join the joy.
FACING UP TO FACE MASKS
Despite being pretty comfortable with wearing face masks routinely now, people’s opinions and feelings are divided about doing so for singing. I don’t like the idea much, but all the advice suggests it is essential, both to help protect yourself and those around you. I found this interesting perspective from a singer posted on the Making Music website on October 16.
Opinion: In praise of face masks?
When face masks were first introduced, I was not happy.
I struggle with hearing, so a mask makes it even harder for me and cuts out the possibility of lip-reading. I didn’t even realise how much I was relying on lip-reading until masks became widespread. I now find myself constantly apologising in shops, as I have to double check everything a shop assistant is saying to me if they’re wearing a mask.
And I was not thrilled about having to wear one, especially for any length of time, finding them suffocating and hot. So when I was told I had to for choir rehearsals, I was totally dismayed. Perhaps I wasn’t that keen on in-person rehearsals after all? Or maybe we could just turn up in a mask and then take it off? That hope was dashed when the choir committee issued dire warnings about not wearing one, with penalties, like we were back at school.
But now, a few weeks down the line, I’ve changed my tune (pun intended) and consider myself a new fan!
We’ve just been told that complacency is one of the biggest risks for a second wave of coronavirus: people not following the rules, either because they don’t think it’s necessary or (far more likely in my view, judging from my own experience!) because they forget. When you’re out and about, life can feel quite normal and so you automatically start behaving as such, often walking too close to people in the process.
But face masks are the perfect unmissable reminder on everyone’s face that life is not normal, that we are still in the middle of a pandemic, and that we need to be careful, all the time.
And one more thing: wearing one shows respect. It says, ‘I take fellow human beings/choir members’ wellbeing seriously, so I’m doing what I can.’ It’s about respect for others’ anxiety, as much as for their physical health. It is not really about me.
So now I own half a dozen snazzy face coverings and have worked out the most comfortable ones for singing in. And you know what? Wearing one really is a very small price to pay for the joy of singing together again.
Plus: that’s Christmas stocking fillers sorted for everyone this year, right?
How do YOU feel?
I’m sure you have found something comfortable which stays in place. I bought one with a clear plastic patch over the mouth which makes lip reading sort of possible for the hard of hearing, thinking that might help singers at a distance from me stand more chance of engaging – at least that was the sales hype! It cost £15 plus p&p – and is rubbish. It’s poorly made, uncomfortable and the plastic window steams up – of course it does! Buyer beware.
If you fancy some simple, delightful and reflective singing crafted online, you might like this simple song written by the most energetic song writer and community musician I know – Gitika Partington. I like its message and inspiration and even if we are in different boats or trains, driving on different roads and walking other paths – we are all in the same storm and under the same sky. Here’s the link, and the words below:
SINGLE SKY by Gitika Partington and Andy McCrorie-Shand
The Dialing Tone Chorus released their 5th Virtual Choir Video on 24th October 2020 to coincide with UN Day and the clocks going back. On October 24, 1945, 51 countries came together to create the United Nations. Its purpose was to promote peace and cooperation around the world. … The event was to be observed by all member countries. United Nations Day continues to be celebrated globally, as part of United Nations Week. Reminding us there is a Single Sky.
1. We’re on the same boat, crossing the same sea. Oh woh
We’re on the same road, walking the same street. Oh woh……
2. We’re on the same train, rolling the same lines. Oh Woh
We’re on the same flight, crossing the same times. Oh woh…
LEAVING DARKNESS PASSING BY, SHARING STARS UNDER A SINGLE SKY
LEAVING CLOUDS YOU TELL ME WHY, SHARING LIFE UNDER A SINGLE SKY
3. We’re on the same train, rolling the same lines. Oh Woh..
We know the same songs, we’re singing the same rhymes. Oh woh…
Everyone tells us, it’s gonna work out fine They say it’ll turn out in the end All we know is we share a single sky (In love in faith in hope my friend x2) (leaving darkness passing by single sky leaving clouds you tell me why single sky x2) Way oh ..single sky
And finally to this edition’s selection from the Leading Notes newsheet of spring 2011, no. 26. A pretty regular feature each term was some kind of quiz, often related to the forthcoming concert or music in general. The upcoming programme (April 16th) was Bach’s St John Passion in Deddington Church (oh yummy, if only!). This rather clever little programme note played with the theme of translating composers’ (and one conductor’s) names into English. The text gives clues – see how you get on, good luck. Answers a bit further down in very small text!
You will certainly be familiar with Joe Brook (1) who spent his life writing church music for wealthy patrons. Freddy Trade (2) was in much the same line of business, but in addition wrote music for hooty horns celebrating a right Royal Thames Barge Festival. Later, this chap called Dick Coachbuilder (3) built himself a wooden theatre for the performance of his long music dramas, with uncomfortable seating to discourage inattention. A waltz-king was Joey Ostrich (4), whereas Dick Ostrich (5 and no relation) was in the opera business and is well known for a sexy one about a rose-queen. Further south, Joe Green (6) packed the opera houses year after year on into his old age, Shakespeare inspiring his take on the one about the Moor of Venice. At the beginning of his reign, Peter Jagd (7) inspired valiant CNCS troops to tackle a performance of the great and early Evening Service by Claud Greenhill (8).
Hello everyone, good to be writing to you all again; sorry I’ve been ‘away’ for so long. I last blogged over a month ago, how time flies when you’re still painting a kitchen and having a new boiler fitted – some people will find any excuse! But as predicted, the sun did come, then disappeared over the Bank Holiday. Anyway, it’s good to be here again and I hope everyone is safe and well and anticipating ever more eagerly a return to some singing as the time surely gets closer. I would say that not much has happened since I wrote, but to be frank, it hasn’t really! Covid19 ebbs and flows, causing local lockdown, lifting of lockdown so folks can get away on holiday, changes in quarantine rules so they all have to dash home again. It reminds me of the Pirate shanty chorus: We’re going this way, that way, forwards and backwards, over the Irish sea… Eating out in August was delightful – did you make a point of doing it as the state was treating us?! Socialism at its best. I wonder if this policy could be applied more widely – free university education, more social housing, re-opening youth centres, decently remunerating care workers, HS2 (oops, already doing that!).
Significant progress was made over the summer by the DCMS however and their roadmap has been carefully thought through and applied effectively. As they promised, rapid research was carried out to assess the real ‘dangers’ of singing (and playing wind and brass instruments) which reported in mid-August. The exciting news is that singing poses the same risks as talking – not greater, as first supposed. In both cases it is volume which makes a difference to the spread of the virus (more air and energy behind the action, which risks spreading droplets further). This revelation enabled DCMS guidance to move to stage 4 of their 5-stage roadmap, which is that it is now possible for up to 30 people to meet in covid compliant venues to rehearse. It is also permissible to perform to an audience provided they are socially distanced. I believe that more than 30 can gather provided there is space and sufficient management of compliance arrangements. This is what people who talk in such ways might call a ‘game changer’!
I am pleased to say that our excellent committee has kept apace of developments and is crafting the CNCS roadmap. You will have received an email from Nick (Chair) setting out the landscape, and also a brief survey inviting your thoughts/ideas about the route to returning. Sub-committees are considering risk assessments and social engagement, and venues are being researched. From here, it looks like a proper concert at Christmas is unlikely but we will endeavour to ‘perform’ in some way, but nothing is fixed and we are a flexible bunch. Thank you committee – we are indebted to you for your careful planning and attention.
If you did engage with the Beatles’ Here comes the sun and have been practising – how’s it going? I am so looking forward to putting it together. If we are not meeting for a while, I’ll find more challenges for you. I am eagerly anticipating singing again; rehearsals are likely to be shorter and gentler, but no less exciting and I am looking forward to being The man at the front in person!
Now it’s quiz time!
Question: What do we all do about 25,000 times a day? Clue: We do it automatically, but if we paid more attention to it we could significantly improve our health.
Answer: We B-R-E-A-T-H-E
I read a fascinating book called Breath – The new science of a lost art, by James Nestor. It is not specific to singing but to life, really, but of course can be immensely helpful to choirs. To whet your appetites, the cover notes say:
Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance, rejuvenate internal organs, halt snoring, allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease….None of this should be possible, and yet it is….
Breathturns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. You will never breathe the same again.
Bold claims and I know I’m easily won over, but I’m not completely gullible – it’s a very convincing read. We are all familiar with the importance of breath control in yoga, meditation, mindfulness or exercise practices, but its potential impact on wider aspects of health are interesting. If you want to delve a little deeper, visit www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath and look at the breath videos, particularly the Buteyko breathing exercise An understanding of the power of how to manage good breathing will support comfortable singing, so we must continue to pay attention to this in our warm ups!
Time for music!
At the beginning of lockdown I posted a musical sideswipe at Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham. Dillie Keane’s enthusiasm got the better of her again on September 1st, as schools were about to return…..
The popular group Voces8 have made a huge impact in singing circles and they have plenty of youtube postings. This splendid performance of Slap that bass caught my eye; a masterclass in brilliant singing and witty choreography. Given the song’s title, if you were the bass singer, you’d look out!
Closer to home, I heard a new recording of the Mozart Requiemon Radio 3 recently by The Dunedin Consort. It’s a reconstruction of the first performance, with period instruments and some gutsy singing. Here are the Kyrie and Lacrimosa as tasters and they certainly whet my appetite for including it in a future programme very soon!
MORE BLASTS FROM THE PAST – EXTRACTS FROM LEADING NOTES
A fine feature of the termly newsheet Leading Notes, was the occasional Editorial Mutterings from Peter Barber:
Dog-sitting during the summer holidays at a daughter’s place, I came across three brand new as yet unopened books of songs: traditional American, Welsh and Irish folk melodies. Folding back the new crackling pages of each in turn, lo and behold there were titles familiar from the Dark Ages (i.e. just before and during the 39-45 lot), when as a youngster (teenagers did not exist then – “Mozart was never a teenager” I yell at the radio whenever an announcer perpetrates that solecism) I joined in the family Sunday evening sing-song round an aunt’s piano. ‘Did you sing this?’ I asked W, knowing full well that her family, like many others from Victorian times and earlier, had followed the same weekly ritual. Persuading her to the piano, we spent a nostalgic half hour ‘rendering’ I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, Ash Grove…and so on. Then we came to the American book, and there were the negro spirituals, in simple form, that had inspired Michael Tippett. Very affecting. The last time I had sung those must have been about 1943. From Issue 14, December 2005
In 2006, CNCS performed Messiah in Chippy Church and Catherine Bott was the soprano soloist. You don’t hear her so much these days but she was big then, also presented on Radio 3 and lived locally. Peter Barber wrote some more Mutterings about Messiah being a staple work of the burgeoning choral music scene in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He also enlightened us about the outcome of the Conference of Sunday School Teachers in 1841 which resulted in a form of musical notation which enabled thousands of working people to access singing together and hence join in with Messiah. More on this in a future blog….
The Messiah Edition of Leading Notes, Winter 2006, featured some personal recollections from choir members about their first or early experiences of singing this masterpiece; here are a few:
About 1960. We had both sung the work earlier during our (separate) student lives. But we remember especially this performance in Walsall Town Hall, or rather the Tuesday evening rehearsals, because of the delicate touch of the 17-year old rehearsal pianist drafted in from the local sixth form – Andrew Parrott, on the threshold of a distinguished musical career.
Wendy and Peter Barber
When singing the chorus ‘Messiah’
The altos’ performance was dire.
The tenors were lower than basses, and slower,
While sopranos sang higher and higher!
It was 55, or even 56 years ago. My school prospectus brooked no argument. ‘Boys who have any musical ability are expected at least to join the choir’. So I did; and either at the first Christmas concert or the following summer we sang Messiah. I can’t say I fell in love with the music at once. The entire treble section had to sing Rejoice greatly, and a right struggle it was. But I was thrilled the first time I heard The trumpet shall sound. And singing Hallelujah was great – I could easily manage a top G in those days.
Ah, I remember it so well, for it was all of 42 years ago, because it was one of those rare-as-hen’s-teeth occasions when we sequestered schoolgirls were allowed contact with the male of the species. No amount of stick-on beards or burnt cork moustaches were going to produce an adequacy of tenors or basses in an all-girls boarding school, to say nothing of trumpet players, so joy of joys, we had to link up with the Boys College – and not just boys, masters as well. Heady stuff!
All of a sudden the choir was the place to be and it was amazing how many tone-deaf pubescent nymphettes suddenly started paying attention in Musical Appreciation….We few, we happy few, were let loose on the delights of Going Astray like Sheep (oh yes please)…I will never forget the physical shock of being joined by tenors and basses for the first time. It sent so many prickles down my spine that I could barely get a note out, and it didn’t have much to do with the Glory of the Lord.
But when it came to the performance in the faded splendour of the Winter Gardens, to those soaring Hallelujahs complete with golden trumpets, the occasion transcended banal consideration of teenage hormones. Those peculiar beings in trousers were there, like us, for the music, the whole music, and nothing but the music.
Thank you for being here – more next time. Take care and look out for announcements about our return to some choral normality. Regards, TMATF.