Covid19 and choirs – a letter to the Culture Secretary

To: Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State DCMS

Dear Secretary of State,

Coronavirus: Standing up for amateur choirs and community music groups

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

I was heartened to read in your recent Evening Standard London Indoors interview https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/oliver-dowden-interview-culture-secretary-arts-coronavirus-a4462456.html  that you are passionate about the arts, and are engaging in ‘intricate discussions’ with HM Treasury about supporting the sector to protect its viability. This is welcome news and I wish you luck.

You will be aware of the recent intervention by Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder, making a strong case for the protection of our cultural sector, exposing the potentially bleak landscape for professional musicians in general without some urgent action. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/10/orchestras-might-not-survive-after-coronavirus-pandemic-uk-conductors  I would like to know what strategies you are proposing for amateur musicians to continue making music. Unlike the high-profile organisations, my choral society needs no extra financial support, or to be made a special case, we just require guidance for starting up safely; and this needs to happen quickly.  

The article by Richard Morrison in the Times (Will no one in Government stand up for British choirs? June 4th) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/times2/sing-it-out-will-no-one-in-government-stand-up-for-british-choirs-7nb28sl0q  draws attention to the current plight of British choirs, in particular how inconclusive are the small amount of data for Covid19 infection amongst the singers. What evidence there is suggests that it is not singing per se that spreads the virus, but more likely the social interactions, physical contact and singers standing close together. Further research is essential please. Careful management of safe conditions for a large choir to meet are relatively easy to achieve and groups around the country would relish the challenge as the activity means so much to them, but we need your task force to address this creatively and advise government without delay.

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

Yours sincerely,

Peter Hunt  – on behalf of Chipping Norton Choral Society

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

Continue Reading Covid19 and choirs – a letter to the Culture Secretary

Greetings from The Man At The Front

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

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

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=dominic+cummings+song

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so to music….

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

Chór w czasach zarazy

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

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

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

https://slippedisc.com/2020/06/making-music-with-children-in-a-heartbreak-hospital/

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

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

Cheers. Look after yourselves and take care.

An encore:

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello everyone…. Week nine and counting, although I’m not sure what or who we are counting on! I hope all is well with you and yours. I guess the slight loosening up of ‘lock down’ makes little difference for most of us unless you are a golfer, or play tennis (singles only of course). I have to admit that I’m liking the shopping arrangements at Sainsbury’s Banbury – after queuing (?20 mins) you seem to have the store to yourself – so quiet, and the only thing I have never managed to find is Vanilla Essence – that’s not bad is it?! Each day begins gloomily – reading the papers online – how depressing, must change that habit. The paucity of leaders is frightening. A lovely message: Hannah Cervenka (recent ex-Alto!) sends her greetings to all. She is very much enjoying the Radio 3 sing-along at 8.55 each day and is having timba drumming lessons online and joining in with her Samba group and their ‘pre-recorded groove’ Go Hannah!

WHO IS MORE IMPORTANT? I hope you and your families and loved ones haven’t been hit by changed financial circumstances – know any furloughed fellows? I guess we will all be affected somehow when the country’s bills have to be paid. Concerned about this, a dear friend of mine recently checked a government website to find out how exposed her job is due to Coronavirus. The website didn’t recognise what she put in and prompted her to ‘Please enter a valid job’. She’s an opera singer! Coincidentally she – for ‘tis Natalie – sang solo soprano for us in our May 2003 performance of the Rossini and sings in the English National Opera Chorus. Not being a key worker, she won’t get a clap every Thursday evening, but she might after performing Madam Butterfly at The Coliseum if she does her job properly. Who are the most valuable people in our society? Discuss!

STILL SINGING? Staying cheerful – it’s great to see the online singing things forging ahead, and there is so much good music to catch/keep up with. I hope the CNCS Messiah crew is still at it; performance time is not far away – exciting. I drop into The Sofa Singers online choir occasionally, and spotted that their next song is the Beatles’ Here comes the sun. Great choice, and I recall arranging that song for upper voices a few years ago, which has NEVER BEEN SUNG! So, I am amending it to include tenors & basses and we’ll sing it when together again. We’ve had great weather, and it’s summer, but in many respects these last two months have felt a bit like a “long cold lonely winter” and it would be lovely to see “the smiles returning to their (your!) faces”.

ARE WE AS GOOD AS WE THINK WE ARE? Despite being a popular song with some groovy syncopated rhythms, Here comes the sun is not difficult to sing and won’t take anyone out of their comfort zone, I promise. There is a delicate balance between challenging and stretching a choir to reach beyond their current abilities, and presenting them with the impossible. It’s a calculation that every Person At The Front (or committee, depending on who selects repertoire!) has to make, constantly. Last year was ambitious for CNCS but thoroughly assessed for all risks – manageability, achievement potential, impact on voices and self-esteem in the unlikely event of failure! Know your singers and the commitment they bring to their work has to be a conductor’s mantra. To illustrate this, and provide very brief amusement, I have posted a clip. Labelled ‘The worst choir ever? it’s soon obvious that their Man At The Front is in denial, surely? What’s so sad and makes my blood boil is that nearly 13 million people have viewed this and probably found it hilarious – that’s so unfair. Appropriate repertoire for these singers? I don’t think so, unless anyone wants to suggest they are just under rehearsed, it does happen! I trust that if CNCS ever displayed anything like this, you would ask for my resignation, as I hope they did their Man At The Front, pronto. Credit where it’s due though, some of the basses are trying really hard and I recognise these facial features when I’m casting around on a Wednesday! I bet this ‘worst choir’ sings a moderately challenging church anthem on Sunday with confidence – well done them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItMJtA8vfpw

AM I BEING TOO NICE? Talking of basses (like the segue?!), I am enjoying the thoughtful and frank contributions aired in Members’ News from some Boys In The Back Row, particularly the attempt to connect with other voice sections. Any contributions are welcome – length and subject matter immaterial – it’s just good to stay in touch. As the basses seem a hardy lot, I feel emboldened to share this clip I came across when looking for examples of classic singers. It is the great conductor Toscanini (died 1957), who according to Wikipedia (forgive me) was renowned for his intensity and perfectionism. Here he is laying into the orchestra’s double bass players who are not watching, or following his instructions. I’m sure you can appreciate the irrestibility of including this, and reflect on how fortunate you are…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-1KtSOwLXE

WHAT SHALL WE SING AND WHEN SHALL WE SING IT? Whilst undertaking enough DIY in the last 2 months to qualify as an interior decorator, I have been mulling and musing atop the ladder about our concert programmes. Past glories and treasured moments have kept my thoughts occupied and tempted me to revisit the repertoire list we assembled after the ‘post-it note’ exercise in 2018. New members may not know that every few years we ask everyone to suggest choral pieces the choir could tackle and would like to see in future programmes. Some nominate pieces they have done before, some flag up their favourites or things we’ve never performed. A music committee then selects a programme for each year balancing size of work, ambition, challenge, style/period and cost. The current programme runs until 2023, which is suddenly not that far away! This current season has been somewhat ambushed and as soon as we have a clear idea of when we can safely return, the immediate programme will be reviewed depending on timescale. The Rossini WILL happen sometime! Whilst daydreaming with a paintbrush I fantasised about two works that are always going to be impossible but have been listed in the past. A Mass of Life by Delius (1905) requires 3 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, SIX trumpets, 4 horns 3 trombones + tuba, 2 harps and lots of strings, four soloists and double chorus. That’s a huge orchestra (forget using St Mary’s Banbury!) and the cost prohibitive. Sadly, even if our wonderful committee proposed a plan involving cakes sales, sponsored sing-ins, walking up Everest in the back garden and a ceilidh, this MatF would never do it. There is very little music I claim not to like, but sadly Delius wrote most of it. Another fantasy was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – nicknamed The symphony of a thousand. Why won’t this be possible? Um..it requires huge numbers – you do the maths. This comprises 4 each of the woodwind instruments, 8 trumpets, 8 horns, 7 trombones, 2 harps, piano, celeste, harmonium (Anne Page playing of course), organ, lots of strings and A MANDOLIN!! Not forgetting singers – 8 soloists, 2 choirs, a children’s choir and probably a partridge in a pear tree ‘Nuff said.

…..AND SO TO MUSIC I have selected a few more music extracts for pleasure rather than illustrative purposes this time. The first is The Phoenix Choir from Vancouver, with a spoof on Billy Joel’s For the longest time which works quite well. They must have had some fun putting this together.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpAKcQufacc

Samuel Barber wrote his Adagio for Strings in 1936, adapting the second movement of a string quartet. In 1967 he turned it into a choral piece, setting the Latin text Agnus dei. Set aside 7’36” minutes and turn up the volume – the piece is one long crescendo and packs a punch at the climax, around 5 mins in. I have a set of copies if anyone is interested in performing it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRL447oDId4

Continuing the contemplative and tranquil theme, John Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God was composed in 1985 in memory of his mother. Performed here by Tenebrae, probably the best chamber choir on the planet right now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E_rKYkjSC4

And for something completely different – Walking back to happiness sung by Helen Shapiro in 1961. I am hoping that this is how we will all feel just before our next rehearsal!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWWDyCkpsiw

BIRD NEWS There is a blackbird nesting nearby whose song is the first eight notes of Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ (Got myself a walkin’ talkin’….).

Love and best wishes, take care and stay safe.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Saturday Doggerel

There have been signs of rift and division between our regularly placid and harmonious basses played out on this blog under the suggestion of ‘banter’. Does one detect the stirring hand of a certain alto in fomenting such unaccustomed discord for the sake of driving content?

Surely this cannot be borne without eliciting some response.

De Profundis (from the back row)

Your Soprano is a wondrous thing,
Inhabiting where the air is thin,
Spiralling above where mortals play
A foot-off-the-ground girl (*) one might say

They trill and thrill in equal measure
And rarely to a stave are tethered –
And never should be coaxed below
A slightly diminished fortissimo!

Too flighty for me! With ne’er an adieu
Soaring skywards they will go
And thus released from worldly ties
Serenade the gods who there abide!

No, give me an Alto any day –
Theirs is not the will to stray
Into such strange imagined realms
As aevum(**) where the angels dwell.. 

An Alto is dependable,
(No madam – I did NOT say dull!)
The beating heart of a loyal crew.
O’erlooked by some composers, who

Clearly fail to understand
The subtlety at their command –
If twenty-four bars of a single note
is food for a bass, why not for those?

And yet – such creatures confound reason:
These are such things as dreams are made on –
Sopranos sparkle and weave their spell
But that Alto sound is hot as Hell.

B
(*) Stevie Smith
(**) an imagined realm between eternity and temporality
. You probably knew that.

Continue Reading Saturday Doggerel

Views from the Rear

Is that banter I read from the first basses? Our normal interaction with them is the receipt of a withering ‘over the shoulder’ look of rebuke as we stumble on our note, or our diction, or our entry, or our key, or our inevitable loss of our trusted pencil or water bottle that have inexplicably wandered towards the tenors?

Was there a tenderness and sympathy in their script or did the words belie a hostility based on our observations of their rhythmic, unshaven ear hair?

Surely voices that often share words and notes should feel a sense of camaraderie even if the sticks on their notes sometimes point upwards and they cannot aspire (or is it ‘despire’) to the depths of our singing? There is only one thing lower than a rattlesnake’s fundament and that is second basses on a bottom ‘E’!

And in all that is canine about our character the comparison to a spaniel is a deeply misguided response. We resound as Basso Profondo in our guise as Dogue de Bordeaux, not the Labradoodle or Poodle style of those that sit before us.

And do not insult our intelligence. Everyone knows a smorzando is a Swedish sausage unless of course it is a description of the art of being a second bass? Dying away I believe?

But there is never hostility from our ranks. We treasure the cover provided for us by the firsts both physically and musically and would never deliberately sing more quietly in the passages they are struggling with.

We have after all not only a clear view from the rear but also one of rears. Treat us not as windmills but as gentle giants. Introverted we may be but never ask us to come out of our shells. Try saying that to a snail.

Just saying…………………………….

chippingnortonjonnie

Continue Reading Views from the Rear

Singing Together Alone

Another Friday night approaches and with it the happy prospect of another bass rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah with the Self Isolation Choir. Alongside, I am glad to say, other members of our eager troupe of second bass chappies joining in on the chat and no doubt singing with their usual gusto and aplomb (despite the slanderous picture Jon has painted of us – I don’t know what those naughty boys get up to at his end of the row). Even the satisfaction of discovering last week, one bar that I have always sung wrong, through four performances!

Many of you will no doubt have joined at least one virtual choir and experienced that strange sensation of performing live alongside a large group of fellow singers – in my case banned to my office shed in the garden – without being able to hear any of the other participants. Of course, as a bass this is not unfamiliar territory, given how often we have been stuck at the back during concerts unable to listen to any of the other parts or to one another! Even though spending time online in conference calls is a fairly regular part of my job, with microphones muted this is very different – a solo one-to-one session shared with a hundred people. 

And thinking – oh how much do I miss our wonderful altos!

Despite the keenly felt absence of familiar faces, Peter’s warm-ups and the feeling of communal satisfaction when – yes even second basses – we do nail it, there are some advantages to this singing together at home lark…

Not rushing to rehearsals directly from London feeling stressed and dehydrated from playing sardines on the tube. Not discovering I’ve forgotten the bifocals now sadly necessary to see both the score and the conductor. The welcome presence of a soothing glass of wine on hand to help warm the throat and ease through the higher notes.. and the chance to go over the recording to catch up a lost session.

Although somehow, despite the intervening technology, playing the stream at a later date is not the same. The knowledge that everyone is singing, in their homes around the world, all together at the same time, still creates a real sense of a shared experience even in isolation.   

How quickly all of this came about! Whilst politicians and businesses floundered, within the very first few days of lockdown I had been invited by colleagues from all around the world to join in a sudden surge of online groups dedicated to drinking, conversing and singing. It was an immediate response: even as we were drawing up leaflets for the village on where to find help, organizing resources to fetch and distribute medicines and linking up volunteers to look after neighbours, people were setting up virtual choirs.

If this teaches us anything, it is that singing together is a deep human need in times of crisis. 

Why should this be? We know from archaeological evidence that the sharing and making of music is hard-wired into what makes us all human. The oldest instruments discovered to date are around 45,000 years old – but these already betray a sophistication that points to music making being far, far older than that and we can assume the act of singing is as ancient as the human voice. The evolutionary changes that made possible our range of tones go back some 500,000 years based on current evidence. Some believe these adaptations could date right back to 1.8 million. 

The role of music in evolution is still one of the great discussions between archaeologists of prehistory. Some suggest that music making set our branch of the human family apart from our otherwise more sophisticated and physically stronger Neanderthal cousins and contributed to our success as a species, binding our ancestors together as a community and allowing them to survive. Others point to ‘motherese’, the sing-song pre-language communication between mother and baby as an essential adaptation: unlike apes, new-born human babies cannot cling to their mothers and so the sound of the voice is what identifies and comforts. From our earliest days the very first sounds we come to recognize and treasure are those of song.

Whatever is the reality, music – and especially singing – is where we turn to be together and virtual choirs are a welcome opportunity to let rip, if only from the relative comfort of your own shed and without worrying about the neighbours.

Of course, humans are not alone in music making. Many other species sing – and over the past weeks with the traffic stilled the village is awash with the lovely sounds of birdsong. But – unlike our aforementioned altos – for all the beauty of their calls, I’m not convinced that birds smile when they sing.

Continue Reading Singing Together Alone

Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello there! How are you? I hope everyone is still keeping well, with spirits as high as possible given the circumstances. Are you singing at all? Obviously we don’t know when we can get together again, but we will grab every opportunity so to do, even if social distancing is still required. How’s about singing in a field through megaphones?! Traffic cones work well too. There’s always a way!

Following the last blog’s consideration of martial metaphors employed to address this pandemic, it was timely of the Prime Minister on returning to work, to nuance this approach by describing coronavirus as a ‘physical assailant’ and ‘an unexpected and invisible mugger’.  His advice that we ‘wrestle (coronavirus) to the floor’ is helpful, but worrying given that many of our front line workers have to attempt this unarmed. Please clap loudly on Thursday at 8.00 to show your appreciation for what they have to do. And let’s also give a thought to anyone we know suffering from Covid19 or families/friends who might have lost loved ones.

This morning I was alerted to the news that in Germany, bans on religious gatherings have now extended TO SINGING!! Here is an extract from The Guardian online 30.04.20:

……Communal singing has reportedly proved to be a particular sticking point in the discussions, despite repeated warnings by leading epidemiologists that singing is as dangerous as coughing for spreading the virus.

Reports around the globe including in Los Angeles, where three-quarters of the members of one choir fell ill and two died, and in Berlin, where 59 out of 78 singers from the choir of Berlin’s Protestant cathedral went down with the virus – have offered plenty of anecdotal evidence that singing in choirs has contributed to the spread of coronavirus in some communities.

Lothar Wieler, the head of the German government’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, specifically warned on Tuesday that singing was ill-advised. “Evidence shows that during singing, the virus drops appear to fly particularly far,” he said.

Virologists also believe singers could absorb many more particles as they tend to breathe deeper into their diaphragms than they would during normal breathing.

A draft bans both communal singing and wind instruments from services over the “amplified precipitation of potentially infectious drops” and while it has been backed in principle by Protestant leaders, who nevertheless wish to draw a distinction between roomy cathedrals and small village churches, Catholic heads are opposed.

“If the distance rules are abided by, there is no reason why singing should be refrained from altogether,” the German Bishops Conference has said in its own position paper. A spokesman added: “We believe quiet singing and praying should be possible…….”

When we reconvene then I will be recommending shallow breathing, humming and very quiet singing – mezzo piano at most!

Now for something to amuse and entertain you. I thought you might like some poems for a change and a selection of youtube clips taking a quirky look at music. First, I ran a day’s workshop for a mixed adult choir in Royston, Cambridgeshire, for a friend in 2016. With us for the day was a poet in residence who reflected some of the day’s work in verse. As part of the warm up and ice-breaker I took singers through the usual vocal and physical stuff including My bonny lies over the oceanoh bring back my bonny to me, which requires actions throughout and a lot of concentration! You may recall that you have to stand up/sit down alternately on each word beginning with letter ‘B’. Very easy to get confused and always ends in chaos, with much laughter. This is the result of Jude’s experience in verse:

Bring back my body to me

My body’s gone AWOL, I can’t quite tell why.

I brought it this morning, all buttoned up, shy

And cautious, expecting to stay nicely hid,

But Peter said “wiggle” and (goodness me!) wiggle it did!!

I brought it this morning, all buttoned up, shy

And cautious, expecting to stay nicely hid,

But Peter said “wiggle” and (goodness me!) wiggle it did!!

We started constricted, cold and uptight

But the warm-up was ruthless, arms stretched and eyes bright,

Well I got so relaxed; I just let it go,

Now my body’s gone somewhere that I don’t know.

Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my body to me… to me…

Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my body to me!

Bring back my body before it’s too late –

It’s leaning when I’m meaning it to sit straight,

Flailing and failing, detached from my brain.

I send it a message, the message comes back again,

Saying that body’s no longer there –

I tell it to freeze and it jumps in the air.

It’s twisting and listing.  What’s it doing now?

Is it bowling a ball or unfolding a cloud?

When I try to stretch it, it bends like a B,

Is it over the ocean, or under the middle C?

Sitting down when I tell it to stand

And when we started gesturing… well, it got right out of hand

Now it waves, sways, refuses to cower –

From chair bound to air bound in less than an hour…

Bring back my body, I’m asking you please

Bring back my body; I’m down on my knees…

when I thought I was sitting up, straight-backed and British.

How could this body so quickly get skittish?

Maybe it’s gone out to look for the loos.

Maybe it’s gone to get its blue shoes … glued.

I blame it on Peter – I met him and soon,

My body connected with notes, tones and tune,

The pitch got me twitching, the phrases, the flows,

And all of a sudden my body was touching its toes…with its elbows!

No! Don’t bring back my body.  Let it go free –

It’s nobody’s fault, it’s the music you see,

The legs that loosen, the arms that start swinging,

I don’t blame it on Peter.  I blame it on singing…

Jude Simpson October 2016

The power of singing eh?!

This next poem just makes me smile, and amidst the savagery of coronavirus, it’s lovely to refer to ‘infection’ in a positive way. This would be a pandemic without a cure and from which no protection is required. Happily no scientists would get funding for vaccine research.

Smiling Is Infectious
by Jez Alborough (often att. to Spike Milligan)

Smiling is infectious,
you catch it like the flu,
When someone smiled at me today,
I started smiling too.


I passed around the corner
and someone saw my grin.
When he smiled I realized
I’d passed it on to him.


I thought about that smile,
then I realized its worth.
A single smile, just like mine
could travel round the earth.


So, if you feel a smile begin,
don’t leave it undetected.
Let’s start an epidemic quick,
and get the world infected!

And so to some music…..

Let’s start by considering THE VOICE, but not singing as we know it (Jim). Using sounds and effects only, Beardyman – whose background is Beatboxing – demonstrates creating an aural cake!

Ever wondered if a whole choir could do the same thing, creating a soundscape vocally? Yes they can, and in May 2006 Honda launched their latest Civic model with a TV advert.

Recently there have been many online ‘quarantine’ or ‘isolation’ singing opportunities available and technology has been put to good use, as many of you are experiencing. The first ‘massed online choir’ to hit the scene was in 2010 when American composer Eric Whitacre (a bit of a Stateside Bob Chilcott!!) put together a performance of his piece Lux Arumque by collecting recordings from 185 singers and mixing them together. A brilliant first appearance, which not only created awe and wonder in the singing world, but was excellent promotion and publicity for Mr EW himself!! And why not? This was followed by Sleep which brought together over 2000 singers. There is now a lot of similar stuff on youtube and ere long, the technology will exist to be able to assemble this stuff in real time, I’m sure.

A very talented and musical young man, Jacob Collier, has been wowing the music world with his incredibly complex arrangements in which he sings and plays virtually every part! He recently had a Prom concert to himself. The techniques are similar to the Whitacre, layering up many different parts/voices and Collier uses much more advanced technology too. This is one of his simpler efforts, released last year, and I love its youthful enthusiasm and sheer fun – musical ‘messing about’ with friends in the garden. It is Here comes the sun by the Beatles, chosen because at the end of the tunnel we are in at the moment, the sun is shining….

Whatever is happening to us, we can to a certain degree, choose to be happy – or at least try and find what makes us so. I was drawn to this cover of Happy by Pharrell Williams’ (2013) – how to be musically inventive in a small space. Note that this features a kazoo!

And finally, bang up to date and using the techniques now familiar to us all as a result of lock down, I am proud to share a version of With a little help from my friends assembled by The Quarantine Collective – all performers and groups from the Banbury area. The first singer, with the surgical mask is Richard who has decorated the outside of our house!

The message of this song – We all need someone to love, and we get by with help from our friends. You might feel inspired to make a donation to The Horton Hospital.

Happy listening and take care. More musical gems to follow in the next blog.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

View from near the Rear

“It is perhaps hard to realise the immense strain that the second basses are under…” (Views from the Rear – chippingnortonjonnie, Sun 19 April).

Though recently posted, Chippingnortonjonnie wrote his observations on the plight of second basses in an age that we will learn to refer to as BC(2), when there was an appetite for whimsy. These are tricky times and of course we have more to stress about, but I think we need to keep whimsy alive, perhaps by wearing T-shirts – ‘Save the Whimsy 1’.

So it is in this vein that I say to second basses, staying on a single note and counting to more than 10 whilst holding a score, it’s a big ask. We first basses feel your pain. We Too.

It’s never a bad time to be kind, to reflect on what we feel but too rarely say; so now’s the time to sing it loud. They are good people these second basses; a little introverted, but thoughtful and always considerate. They may growl, but like a pet spaniel, it’s all show. Deep down, which is their natural milieu, their tails are, as it were, always wagging. And just because they greet each other with nothing more elaborate than a barely perceptible movement of the head, it doesn’t mean they are without extravagance. They are just cautious about showing it, possibly as a result of something that happened in their adolescence. Who knows…..deep as they are.

And as for their sensitive voice boxes, well wouldn’t yours be?

The wee lambs.

They overheat. Don’t we all, but that’s not why they open the back door – don’t be taken in. They want to open the back door because, in truth, they would rather be outside. It’s their happy place, where they can gather in their own way, discussing a recent smorzando in bar 127 and engaging in some mutual grooming, perhaps picking a bit of fluff of one another’s collar. Happy.

In the words of another:

How do you tell an extrovert second bass?

They look at your shoes when they’re talking to you

Just saying….

Don Quixote

Continue Reading View from near the Rear

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