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]
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.
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
Gloriap19 – 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!
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.
I resisted the temptation to search the World Atlas for an appropriate desert island to escape to, as I realised I hate sand, detest coconuts, am appalled by palm leaf thongs and wouldn’t know where to plug in my record player.........
The impending departure of ‘The Man At The Front’ meant that I would lose the only face you can actually see from the back row although I know Chris cuts a fine lateral visage. It seemed a moment of reflection was required and some decisive action needed to soothe the sorrow despite knowing that the society will remain an immensely strong advocate of all that is good about music and friendship.
When you have run out of rudeness directed at the first basses and especially at the ‘fivers’, you sense it is a time for change and so it is. The view will now not be ‘from the rear’ but ‘of my rear’ as I depart for the warmer climes of Berkshire to be nearer the irascible devils commonly known as grandchildren. I still won’t miss Bernstein, Britten or any other composer who sees amateur singers as fair game and easy prey to disrupted rhythms and tongue-twisting words! Multi-tasking is a big ask for the second basses when you have to sit, stand, look up, turn over a page, scribble with a pencil, rub out with a saliva-covered digit [forgot the rubber] and sing, count, go loud, go quiet, enunciate in a range of languages, all in a space of minutes. ‘Sor foodness gake’ as the grandchildren say.
Yet that awful sense of real loss creeps in. An ever-smiling and un-endingly positive committee; a diverse range of immensely talented, amusing, friendly people [and the ‘fivers’]; a sense of purpose; a sense of real achievement; a sense of musical challenges never beyond our grasp [thanks Peter]; a sense of the value of an HB pencil; a sense of the world of professional musicianship from the willing souls that accompany us; a sense of ‘team’; and above all else a sense of gratitude to all those that have gone before and those that will follow to maintain the wonderful world that is Chipping Norton Choral Society.
My ears forgive the sopranos for everything above top ‘E’; my heart jars arrhythmically at the accuracy of the altos; my disdain for the ‘fivers’ mellows with a secret admiration for their work [and their vocal range!]; my anger softens towards the melodic, harmonious and word-perfect first basses; and my love and affection remains for the double-bass ‘secondo basso’ songbirds who adorn the back row with warmth, humour and occasional accuracy. At your next concert cast your eyes over the assembled masses of the audience. You may spy an ex-second bass, silently humming along; spotting who isn’t looking at the conductor; seeing you all from the front for the first time; and knowing he will never forget his precious times with the choir. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay singing and above all else remember your pencil!
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”.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 email@example.com It will be fun and I am looking forward to seeing you again – there might even be a sing at the end! Thanks to Nicky Smith for setting this up.
I want to thank the whole committee, and Eric’s chairmanship, for the constant attention to choir matters, in particular the R2S plans, and some first tentative considerations about the process of finding a new conductor. This will take a while and everyone will have a voice, but it is essential to start thinking about options soon.
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.
Back to basics – simple sustained humming is very helpful for relaxing and coaxing the voice into action.
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.
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.
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.
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.