Sunshine shared by The Man At The Front

‘There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day.

They are absolutely free.

Don’t miss so many of them!’

Greetings all, how goes it? It’s been a while since the last post of June 29th and a fair bit has happened, but I have been busy preparing something special for you to ‘take away’ and get singing. More later!

You would think covid’s been conquered judging by the distances we see between people – including most politicians – and yet we all have to wear masks in shops from Friday. The words horse, stable and bolted spring to mind. Beauty salons are open now – does that include nail bars? I do hope so. As time drags its weary feet, CNCS folk are pondering exactly what proximity to another human being is acceptable to be able to engage in our dubious activities of sharing aerosols and droplets.

Before exploring this, I need to tell you that Chris, our Chap At The Keyboard, has finished a successful (and very weird) term at school and is looking forward to a relaxing break. He has been personally very busy too – but I will leave him to share that with you when next we meet! He sends his love and can’t wait to get rattling the ivories again for us asap. Sticking with pianos for a moment, I have a slightly amusing anecdote from an encounter with my piano tuner. We were having a ‘man chat’ about how the early stages of lockdown resulted in accomplishing dozens of small tasks that have been outstanding for a while (bet you’ve got your own list?). Steve had proudly fixed something that had been irritating him for about 40 years, which when he applied himself, took less than two minutes. Any guesses? It’s something that every DIY enthusiast will relate to. Answer at the end…

So, what developments in our return to the new normal (speech marks not required any longer!). The good news is that the performing arts professionals now have a road map detailing their route back to public performances in theatres and opera houses – hurrah! Sadly for we amateurs, trials and investigations are required before any guidance can be given. What this man at the front can’t fathom, is that surely amateur singers are far less dangerous than the trained ones? Strong consonants are responsible for the ‘fluid burst’ of mucous which potentially spreads the virus through the air according to the science, right? With the greatest of respect to my amateur friends who try really hard with their diction every Wednesday, they are not nearly as threatening as the likes of Pavarotti or ___________ (insert your favourite opera singer). But then, what do I know about singing? Forgive me for being a tad churlish – I completely understand that our professional friends have livelihoods to regain, and that theatres need filling, but we amateurs don’t have careers to resurrect or company bank balances to improve, we just wanna sing and tweak our mental health! Get on with it!

On that note (C# probably), I can bring you the latest update from the DCMS, which is rather encouraging (at least for the pros). It was issued on 15.07.20 – here is an extract:

Non-professionals should currently not engage in singing or playing wind and brass instruments with other people given these activities pose a potentially higher risk of transmission and whilst research is ongoing. DCMS has commissioned further scientific studies to be carried out to develop robust scientific data for these activities. Existing and emerging evidence will be analysed to assist the development of policy and guidelines.

We have developed a five-stage roadmap to bring our performing arts back safely. These five stages of the phased return to performing arts are as follows:

  • Stage One – Rehearsal and training (no audiences)
  • Stage Two – Performances for broadcast and recording purposes
  • Stage Three – Performances outdoors with an audience and pilots for indoor performances with a limited socially-distanced audience
  • Stage Four – Performances allowed indoors and outdoors (but with a limited socially-distanced audience indoors)
  • Stage Five – Performances allowed indoors / outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)

From the 11 July, we will move to Stage Three. This means that performances outdoors with a socially distanced audience can take place in line with this guidance. DCMS will work with sector representative bodies to select a number of pilots for indoor performances with a socially distanced audience. Dance studios can fully reopen from the 25th July, and should follow guidance for providers of grassroots sport and gym/leisure facilities. We expect to say more on a possible date for Stage 4 soon and Stage 5 in due course.

Initial Phase Recommendation that singing and wind and brass playing are carefully controlled and limited to professional contexts only (i.e. for work purposes only as per this guidance). This is the current phase.

You can get a feel for the direction in which this is heading, a gradual loosening up and increase in numbers of performers and audience. My hunch is that a similar trajectory will apply to amateur groups in due course when we know more about the aerosol/droplet distribution science. Again – watch this space.

There is more guidance, and careful reading of this suggests that if small groups aren’t suitable for the artistic outcomes, then larger groups can be considered if appropriate risk assessments are undertaken, so hopefully in time we will be able to interpret the guidance to suit what we need! Read it here:

WHAT ABOUT OUR OWN CNCS ROAD MAP? I hear you cry.

I have written to the committee today based on all this advice and the science and together we will hatch a plan to meet our needs as soon as is practical. Thank you to them. You can see some suggestions I made in the blog of 29.06.20 for reference.

BRING ME SUNSHINE – AT LAST!

I am aware that CNCS has not partaken of any online singing, although I know some of you have engaged with it elsewhere. I thought it would be a nice idea to have a song that you can sing at your leisure and gently practise so that at our first rehearsal we can put it together. Here comes the sun seems appropriate as a metaphor – the ‘long cold lonely winter’ of the pandemic and lockdown has prevented us singing, but a sunrise is on the horizon as we emerge from isolation.

You will need the following:

Link to the song on youtube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mc1ta1UMGeo

Copy of the music. This is a full score so you can follow the accompaniment and what the other voices are doing

The Learning Notes! These support you by pointing out some of the musical features and orientating you around the score which should make the task easier.

YOU NEED TO KNOW – Being an arrangement, obviously you won’t hear your part exactly as written (apart from the tune which is always in the soprano and shared with everyone at times) but it’ll be pretty close as the harmonies match the original and the parts shadow the melody rhythms, mostly. Give it a go, have some fun and we’ll rehearse it together in _____________(insert month here!!).

There is also a cool version of Here comes the sun sung by George Harrison and Paul Simon ‘unplugged’ in 1976 (Saturday Night Live)

OUR REGULAR TONIC – QUOTES FROM PAST COPIES OF LEADING NOTES

On the theme of consonants and their newly-discovered hidden dangers for all mankind (um, fluid burst), it seems that over a decade ago, French singers had got this sorted and were playing safe, as Geoff Hunter explained in LN Issue 23, Winter 2009:

The perils of the final consonant – Lesley and I are members of a small choir which goes every few years or so to Vaison la Romaine in Provence to take part in a singing festival. We give an English programme…and take part in the available workshops. On our last visit I decided to join the workshop doing the Rutter Requiem. I was the only Englishman in the group, and since everything is in French at the festival, I thought I would have an easy ride. However, my point of collapse came in an unexpected fashion.

The work contains a gradual crescendo, ending fortissimo, with…’in you O God we put our trust’. This sounds rather innocuous until you realise that the French don’t generally pronounce the final consonant in words, so hearing a hundred or so people offering their surgical supports to God was too much for me. After stifling my giggles, I quietly told the conductor what the problem was. He laughed, told the rest of the choir….they laughed, but they still did it!

I wonder how many choir members reflect on why they sing in the choir? In my collection of Leading Notes (which is sadly not that many) there are a few accounts of people’s background in singing and what it means to them. Here’s an early recollection from Mike Terry in 1997. He was a real character who made no pretence of the fact that he couldn’t read the notes but joined in anyway! I learnt from him a simple approach to sight reading –“the notes either go up, or they go down”. Here’s his account from Issue 2, June 1997:

Confessions of a Bass Fellow –  Len Brigwood said: “Why don’t you come and sing with us? You’d enjoy it”. I said: “But I’ve never sung in a choir and I can’t read music. I wouldn’t have the courage to tackle heavyweight stuff with you lot. I’ve only sung blues with a Fleet Street pick-up group; all you people know what you’re doing and I’d be floundering.”

He said: “Just come with me to our next practice (note his subtle avoidance of frightening technical terms) and stand next to a bass who knows what he’s doing. Take your cue from him and you’ll be fine. Bothering about what the conductor wants will come later.” So I came.

I was terrified. There you all were, gearing up for Bach’s B Minor Mass, no less. But there was Stewart Taylor, guiding, chivvying, making everyone laugh yet never allowing the concentration to relax. There, with equally high standards was Shauni McGregor with her warm smile.

And…. Ah! There was THE SOUND. Slowly I lost my fears and began to enjoy myself. Len had been right. Now, save for illness or holidays, Wednesday nights are sacrosanct. At home in between Wednesdays, my wife Sheila patiently hears the latest pieces played over and over again until musical rote-learning disguises my ignorance.

I had always viewed musicians with awe, but now I have found their beautiful gift brings with it great friendliness and spiritual generosity. Shauni quickly found out I’m not good at counting – but at least I now realise that when the dots climb up so should the voice. And vice-versa. And I’m having a lovely time….

Another thing Mike discovered from his new-found choral experience was that not only do the dots go up and down, but all the instructions are in Italian! We all think we know what they mean, but in truth their translation suggests something more personal and close to home. Here is a selection, unattributed but I suspect it was Peter Barber, from Issue 9, Spring 2003:

Defining moments – allegro molto: see who can get there first (molto belto: basses get there first)

allargando:  slowing down (but take your time about it)

crescendo: from ppp to fff in one bar

diminuendo: as above, normally vice versa

piano: help in trouble times

mezzo forte: fff, but depends on ambient relative humidity

forte: ffff, ditto

da capo: see who’s dozing

rallentando: like allargando but avoid watching Peter

accelerando: leave the room without stacking your chair

unison: discussion with possible subsequent agreement about the melody

legato: sensitivity to composer, or excessive lower body movement during warm up

G.P.: raffle time

andante: walk in late, miss warm up

tutti: join in when the spirit moves

parlando: soprano seminar during warm up

That’s all folks, I’ll be back soon and I really promise to include some more music clips! The last two blogs have been rather issue and data heavy, but understandably given how things are. I hope you enjoy singing along with the arrangement and I look forward to hearing it.

Take care y’all and stay safe.

BTW – Piano tuner Steve’s amazing success after 40 years was to grease his Black & Decker Workmate to stop it squeaking. Incredible.

Continue Reading Sunshine shared by The Man At The Front

Aerosol update from The Man At The Front

Afternoon all – how goes it with you? My last blog required a lot of reading and I hope you found it informative and encouraging, despite the lack of consensus about the science. Basically all that floats between us getting back together or continuing in isolation is understanding the difference between singing and shouting. It’s that simple (almost).

Quite by chance last Saturday lunchtime I listened to Music Matters on Radio 3. The programme examined how music can return, with a focus on singing and pleasingly attention was paid to amateurs as well as trained singers. There is a link below and the whole programme is worth a listen, but the relevant item starts at about 13’30” in and lasts eight minutes. Tom Service interviewed a laryngologist/teacher and a scientist who were keen to dispel the myth that ‘singing caused covid clusters all over the world’. They also question why it is we accept loud speaking but not singing, as we know that the aerosol behaviour is the same, and why we aren’t treating them with equivalence. The science still isn’t there yet, but the good news at the end of the item was that research into this issue would start on Monday (July 6) and that hopefully results would be available in weeks rather than months!! This is most encouraging and should keep our spirits up for a while longer.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000kmyx

I have just read that the World Health Organisation (who?) is acknowledging emerging evidence of airborne coronavirus spread. Welcome to the party guys! Read it here:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/08/who-says-evidence-emerging-of-airborne-coronavirus-spread

The other fantastic news recently is the £1.57 billion for the Creative sector to open up theatres, concert halls, museums etc. Although making no difference to us directly, it at least acknowledges the importance of the arts to the nation (er… and the economy) and keeps the issue centre stage which is helpful for our cause too.

This news is like a ray of sunshine piercing the temporary gloom of CNCS’s non-singing world. To cheer us all up I had an idea which I will share with you, hence the weak link. Here comes the sun (Beatles, Abbey Road Album 1969) is a perfect song to lift morale and celebrate the return of hope, happiness and wellbeing. Wouldn’t it be lovely to make this the first song we sing together again, whenever that is? In my next blog (soon, I promise) I will attach a copy of my arrangement which you can practise by singing along with the original – it all fits, nothing too fancy! Like an astronomer, watch this space.

Leading on….In my recent tribute to Peter Barber I promised that I would include some gems from past editions of the news-sheet Leading Notes which he edited for years. It’s especially poignant to include a reminiscence from Wendy. Savour and enjoy.

Quotes and Notes (from LN Issue 12, Autumn/Winter 2004)

A Christmas card form the Grosvenor Library of Recorder Music in York, prints Choir Rules in the Good Old Days, circa 1915 and offers the following:

‘The Tenors shall consist of many fair gentlemen who do not mind straining their voices. All gentlemen left over shall sing bass.’

The choir meets for the following purposes:

‘To discuss politics, tennis, scandal and/or church affairs….and of course, to flirt.’

‘No notice shall be taken of the conductor. He is always pleased to receive advice from individual members. He likes to have….suggestions as to tempo and expression, and is delighted to be instructed in the elements of musical grammar’.

Your Man At The Front notes the comments about taking no notice of the conductor and considers that little has changed in 105 years! However, modern choirs are far more sophisticated and express their collective opinion about tempo and expression through their singing, usually slower and louder than the conductor would like!

Advert spotted in a Victorian magazine at an exhibition in the Bodleian, from Issue 22, Spring 2009:

A private choral society is being formed consisting solely of amateurs occupying good social positions. There will be none of the elements of the ordinary choral society.

A lovely personal contribution from Wendy Barber, written for Issue 21, Winter 2008:

‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’

As a penniless student the chance to earn some extra cash was attractive, but to be paid to take part and sing in a Hitchcock film was irresistible. Alfred H, who was shooting the climax of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in the Royal Albert Hall and needing singing extras, sent across the road (to the Royal College of Music) for students to fill the role.

The filming was scheduled for the end of the Spring Holiday and was almost scuppered by a national rail strike; however, after a very tedious journey on Easter Sunday from my native Worcestershire, I was at the Albert Hall in good time for the first rehearsal. This being a Hitchcock affair, there was a huge chorus and the orchestra, if my memory serves me well, was the LSO. After hours of singing, hanging around, being issued with costumes resembling shapeless nightwear, we were ready for the drama.

The stars arrived! James Stewart and Doris Day (‘Che sera, sera’) were involved in a heroic plot thwarting an assassination intended to happen as the Arthur Benjamin score reached its fff climax. It was for me an exhausting three days – chorally a unique experience. Seeing the film occasionally since, I scan along the second to back row, five from the end – but, how well have I remembered? However I clearly remember how rich I felt with £15 in my pocket.

A friend sent me a link to an amazing new show called The Contagion Cabaret created by Chipping Norton Theatre, which some of you may have seen. It’s wonderful and very entertaining. I hope they don’t mind me sharing it with you. They said: “Last week we released The Contagion Cabaret, a collaboration between The Theatre Chipping Norton and Oxford University. It is a unique alternative take on the pandemic, featuring literature, songs and short talks.”

https://www.contagioncabaret.co.uk/

Continue Reading Aerosol update from The Man At The Front

Peter Barber remembered by The Man At The Front

Most of you will have caught up with the very sad news that Peter Barber, one of our basses, died last week. The choir has sent condolences to Wendy and his family and our thoughts and prayers are with them. Peter last sang with us in Cheltenham Town Hall and he and Wendy have been members of the choir for twenty plus years.

I shall miss Peter a lot. Although unwell for some time he doggedly attended rehearsals and gave his all, and as his hearing deteriorated, he would cup a hand behind one ear to try and catch my rabbiting in case it was important. This always reminded me to improve my delivery. More recently he asked me to wear a clip on microphone in rehearsal and we enjoyed a unique relationship of direct communication; he only had to wave occasionally to remind me to turn it on!

Peter was a kind man, and between the singing made a quiet contribution to the choir community in many ways. The most significant, and remembered fondly by many members, was as Editor of Leading Notes. This was a termly ‘newsheet’ as he called it, with many contributions from members of the choir. It featured Chairman’s Ramblings from Roger, Chairman’s Chunterings from Toby and Sarah’s Scribblings, concert and festival reviews, programme notes and miscellaneous musings about the next concert, soloists’ biographies, plenty of short reminiscences and reflections by members with heaps of amusing anecdotes, tall stories and puzzles. Occasionally there would be Editorial mumblings from Peter himself, often written on holiday in France or imploring people to contribute to copy! There are two lovely extracts below. Incidentally, all of this came for just £1 a throw – a healthy contribution to choir funds.

The patience and dedication required to pull each edition together and present Leading Notes so well was part of Peter’s commitment to the choir and we were all the richer for it, so a heartfelt posthumous ‘thank you’ from us all Mr Editor.

As a tribute to Peter and in his memory, I will be quoting something from past editions of LN in my forthcoming blogs, and as you read them spare a thought for the contributors (who might still be in the choir!) and the man who kept it all together.

Extracts from Leading Notes. Here Peter reflects on an amateur music experience in France and makes a gentle political point:

Missing a rehearsal, black mark, I was in France last week, and one evening, with glass in hand was talking with the mayor of a small town near Mayenne. We were at a buffet following a concert in which we heard English amateur string groups playing at the close of a week’s course (Wendy was playing, I was hanger-on). Then it was the turn of a large group of local people present, between 20-30 of them, ages from about thirteen upwards. Stands were set up, flutes, clarinets, some brass and percussion, were put in place and careful tuning followed…..They played delightfully and musically….There was a strong local musical tradition the mayor explained and many of the youngsters had lessons at the town’s School of Music. Once upon a time the lessons had been free, but that had changed now and families had to pay. Oh tell me about it, just like home. The Venezuelan youth musicians who, rightly, have been accorded an ecstatic welcome wherever they have performed, are the products of an enlightened system of fostering talent in urban and rural communities regardless of origin or parental financial status…..But did we not have our own sistema, called county peripatetic services and serving the whole population excellently, until poleaxed by political shenanigans? Leading Notes Issue 22, Spring 2009

Peter considers how music soothes and challenges us:

Sops, challenges and barbed wire:

Music as emollient: Classic FM makes much of playing ‘easy listening’ selections as a background wash to persuade us to put up our feet after a busy day. Fine. After all, who needs a challenge when you have end-of-the-month accounts/preparation of tomorrow’s lessons/children’s bedtime on your mind? Indeed recent press articles have reported on the therapeutic value of music played in clinics and hospitals. Mozart’s name seems often to recur in this context too. A very successful enterprise, according to these reports. If music be the food of love….. Baby therapy too – Mention of children’s bedtime reminds me of the popularity of a DVD called Baby Mozart with certain very small people of my acquaintance. Teddy bears cavort, toy trains loop-the-loop to Mozart minuets and marches engagingly played on what sounds like a glockenspiel, and the audience goes quiet.

But music as challenge: As amateur choristers we are conscious of performance challenge, but listeners get challenged too. From the beginning composers have thrown down the ever-evolving ‘sound worlds’. Notes that fall discordantly on the ear of one generation can become sweet music to the next. To lend an engaged ear to as wide a spectrum of sound as possible can be a stimulating antidote to sugar overdose. (Will A Child of our Time prove a double challenge?!

Then how about music as barbed wire?

Mozart (again!), piped to doorways and to open exterior areas of department stores or malls to repel ‘up-to-no-good’ likely lads who gather there after closing time. Music as therapy OK – but oh! – please not the aversion type. Leading Notes Issue 12, Autumn/Winter 2004

Thank you Peter, it was good knowing you. Go well.

Continue Reading Peter Barber remembered by The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello everyone. I hope you are well and starting to spread your wings a little in a responsible fashion, whether at 2m or 1m with mitigation. Isn’t it so good to even be thinking about meeting family and friends and I hope you enjoy getting out, or staying in if that’s preferable! Some rum things happening around the place which are disappointing and rather worrying, shaking one’s faith in human behaviour, but we’ll not dwell. I promise in today’s blog, to avoid all political references and any temptation to make pointed remarks about leadership qualities (offer limited to one week only!). Heartening to see our ‘High Streets’ opening gradually, despite some contrary advice, but I deeply regret that Nail Bars are not included. How am I to lecture a devoted crowd on a point of music theory or the merits of pencil ownership?  Good luck getting a hair appointment, if that matters to you. I have not been near a pair of scissors since before our Christmas concert, which will probably matter to everyone except me! Owing to the sheer amount of material to share this time, the music clips are limited. There are a couple at the end, but the next blog can feature more music and less chat perhaps.

So, to business: I am delighted to be in a position to update you on progress and developments towards CNCS being able to get together again – hurrah! Like the regular (and now much lamented) daily government briefings I will of course over promise and under deliver, just to comfort you with a false sense of security (oops, hint of sarcasm, apologies).

In the blog of 12 June I included my letter to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, drawing the department’s attention to the needs of amateur music groups and encouraging the DCMS to consider when we can function again. His department responded this week:

Dear Mr Hunt,                                                                                 June 23

Thank you for your correspondence of 11th June to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, regarding your concerns over local choirs during the current pandemic. I am responding as a member of the Ministerial Support Team. This has been an unprecedented time for the arts and culture sector, and the department is fully aware of the difficulties many singing groups are currently facing. The government recognises the huge contribution the cultural sector makes, not only to the economy and international reputation of the United Kingdom, but also to the wellbeing and enrichment of its people. Local choirs are vital to the lives of so many people across the UK, providing a creative outlet and strong sense of community for choir members and excellent entertainment for those that attend their performances. The government published its COVID-19 recovery strategy on 11 May, which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-governmentscovid-19-recovery-strategy.

I appreciate the difficulty the pandemic is creating for community arts groups, particularly for singing groups. For now, practicing (sic – ed.) in a virtual setting is the best option for choirs. The current published guidance suggests that activities such as group singing should not restart yet, and this position will not be revised until a future review of restrictions indicates that it is safe to do so. The guidance can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/furtherbusinesses-and-premises-to-close/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close-guidance.

The department’s priority is to work with the arts and cultural sectors to address the challenges of reopening, as and when it will be possible to do so. From the information we have been receiving from various organisations and professionals, we know that the picture is nuanced across the country, with different organisations facing different challenges when it comes to the question of reopening. The government recently announced that representatives from the arts, cultural and sporting worlds will be joining a new taskforce aimed at helping to get the country’s recreation and leisure sector up and running again. The Entertainment and Events working group, which is one of the eight working groups that will support the government’s Recreation and Leisure Taskforce will include Arts Council England and other organisations from the arts and culture sector. Community arts will be one of many issues discussed. Alongside this working group, the department has had ongoing engagement with a number of organisations and individuals who represent the hugely diverse nature of the cultural sector, including representatives of voluntary and community arts. This is of course a fast changing area of work, and so we would advise that the best way for you to keep up to date with the situation would be to subscribe to our weekly bulletin capturing recent government announcements associated with the arts and cultural sectors and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Please sign up by emailing the following email address: arts-and-libraries-covid19@culture.gov.uk.

Yours sincerely, Ministerial Support Team Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

This is the kind of reply I expected and is as encouraging as it’s possible for them to be right now, but they do need to consider more carefully the evidence relating to singing and possible viral contamination, and be flexible in their interpretation. The advice to practise (see sic) virtually is limited but there are online opportunities to keep singing going this way. This hasn’t floated our boat so far, but it’s an option. I have signed up to their weekly bulletin to keep us informed.

Since I wrote, there have been more letters to the DCMS – from John Rutter et al and two significant interventions under the banner Singing Network UK which represents 27 organisations involved with singing in choirs. This network connects with pretty much every singing group in the UK and has the authority and clout to represent us very strongly. They make the case well and this higher profile is going to help the process:

Making Music (to whom we re affiliated)

https://naturalvoice.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/letter-from-Making-Music-to-Oliver-Dowden-MP.pdf

Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD)

https://www.abcd.org.uk/news/2020/06/Voicing_our_support_of_the_performing_arts

The ABCD submission includes an excellent research paper by Martin Ashley (Editor in chief of ABCD Choral Directions Research) called Where have all the singers gone and when will they return?  It wasprepared during the Covid-19 lockdown and contains extensive references to recent publications and research relating to virus transmission and infection rates etc, shedding light on the science which is influencing the strategic decisions which will produce the policies for safe return. It is very informative and well worth reading and highlights many contradictions about air-borne virus transmission. The full report is 31 pages long; I have provided links to the conclusions and an information sheet for the fainthearted!

Where have all the singers gone? – full paper

https://www.abcd.org.uk/storage/Choral_Directions_Research/Where_have_all_the_singers_gone_publication_version.pdf

Here is a single page of conclusions. I’m not a researcher but they read more like reflections and thoughts to me. Helpful all the same

https://www.abcd.org.uk/storage/Choral_leader_resources/ABCD_Where_have_all_the_singers_gone_-_conclusions.pdf

The full report has a lot to say about aerosols and droplets. It’s looking like the future of group singing is coming down to our understanding of the risk level posed by air-borne particles and how to mitigate their impact! This is a clear and useful summary.

https://www.abcd.org.uk/storage/Choral_Directions_Research/Aerosol_Information_Sheet.pdf

Still with me? To break the intensity for a moment here is a quiz question, to which you will know the answer if you have read the full research!

Q: When was the first time that (as now) choirs were silenced totally?

A: The English Civil War! Recruitment of singers was banned and there were no sung services from 1652 to 1660.

Interesting facts: Neither of the world wars silenced choirs in England. The King’s College Cambridge Nine Lessons service was broadcast despite all the stained glass and heating having been removed from the chapel. During WW1, the boys singing matins at St Paul’s were disturbed by the sound of anti-aircraft fire and a bomb landing 150yds from the cathedral. They continued singing and were commended for their ‘calmness under fire’. Plucky eh?

What are the immediate challenges for us?

Any activity contains risk. We need to assess the risks of singing together, take a considered view (‘wisdom and judgement must step in at the limit of knowledge’) and set out clear guidelines for activity and behaviour from what we’ve learnt, that enable us to function effectively, whilst minimising these risks to our health. Statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but it’s important that the route map to the new normal meets our needs and enables us to enjoy what we do. There is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. We need to be proactive, hence this analysis of the research to keep us informed, close monitoring of the campaign, and  beginning to sketch out a plan. I hope the govt can be persuaded that our type of activity needs assessing separately from the professional arts (theatres etc) as the considerations are very different. If we are in a queue behind the West End it could take a while!

What does the research tell us?

There is much uncertainty about the nature of immunity from Covid-19. Breathing and speech can carry viruses, likewise singing. The action of speaking, shouting and singing are the same – mucous lining the lungs and vocal tract ‘ bursts’  and moisture particles are released and travel through the air (see aerosol info sheet above). Opinion is divided about particle size and the extent of the virus carried, but aerosol particles (the smallest) are likely to travel furthest and linger longer, particularly in enclosed spaces. Currents of air circulate in random directions, so if aerosol particles DO carry virus, and DO ‘remain active in the rehearsal room for at least an hour’ then a closely spaced choir is at risk of infection.  The louder you sing and the more you project then ‘singing would appear to be at least as harmful in this respect as loud speech or shouting, possibly more so.’

Some research and reports have declared singing to be safe, but this evidence is less robust (sample size), and ‘most authors with relevant knowledge, but whose work has not been peer-reviewed, have declared singing to be unsafe’. One paper stressed the significance of asymptomatic transmission and that the danger posed by this meant ‘there are at present no conditions under which choirs could safely resume rehearsal.’

Masks? Where do we stand?

There is insufficient evidence to make a recommendation on the use of masks to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory virus. One review revealed evidence that ‘the retention properties of masks used during deep breathing in vigorous exercise can lead to infections that would not happen without the masks’. Masks might also contribute to difficulty in breathing, particularly for older people. Experts are divided on this but the consensus seems to be that any protection could make a contribution to limiting infection spread, so: ‘Recently, due to the lack of clear evidence….the use of masks has been promoted due to applying the ‘precautionary principle’’ . The jury is out on this, but if masks are to be used, they must be proper surgical ones and not ‘homemade fashion statements’! Wearing masks in rehearsal would be challenging for singers and would compromise the results, but if we consider it worthwhile/essential we could manage this with the way we rehearse (e.g. not always singing the words)

The certainty of Social distancing (which I prefer to call ‘physical distancing’ as socially we are all still very close – but there you are!) seem unequivocal and was set at 2 metres for the UK which is regarded as a minimum by many researchers. Two reports conclude that ‘any environment that is enclosed, with poor circulation and high density of people spells trouble’ and that ‘social distance guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces’. There is support for the view that contagion can be mitigated when singing indoors by keeping the air as fresh as possible (open windows/doors) and limiting numbers so that spacing can be adequate with no singers facing each other.

The European Choral Association (ECA) represents choirs in Europe (and beyond) and has been studying and surveying the effect of the pandemic on choirs and singing. I have only dipped into their report but found much useful information about what European countries (+ others) are doing, consideration of the issues and some fun musical clips. Worth looking at sections 2.1.3, 2.1.4 and 2.1.5 if nothing else. Two German women model a very practical face mask (see last item at 2.1.5)!

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QHhJbirrbPWQ6CFxbj-uy_3QwjNvXlPptchFvVoLlHg/edit#heading=h.tfh434q70g2s

Where to next?

We need a route map ready for our journey out of lockdown once approval is given. We know the likely challenges, so armed with information presented here and available widely, it’s possible to lay the foundations for a swift start.

The following are my suggestions for our planning. The committee is responsible for final decisions.

Large venue – e.g. School hall, Town Hall, Church or other. It is unlikely that at start-up all +/- 80 singers could meet so we could consider splitting the choir in half (2 lots of SATB) and meet on two nights each week.  Crucial to the venue is plenty of space and ventilation. Sadly the music room is too small to allow for the appropriate distancing

Hygiene – If required, a small squad of volunteers could wipe down surfaces such as hand rails, door handles etc and check loos prior to use. Hand sanitizer on entry. Venues with two entrances (e.g. school hall and TH) could have separate in & out.  

Spacing – Each singer would have a 2m square, with chair; no physical contact allowed

Masks in rehearsal – Preferably not (because of the effect on singing quality and audibility), but it would be an individual choice

Activity – Until we know the likelihood of being able to perform a concert, rehearsals would consist of singing a range of varied repertoire for fun and engagement to get back into the habit of singing. Once we have our future programmes agreed we can start work as appropriate. Warm ups would be based on our usual approach without compromising the health risks, e.g. gentle movement/stretching, humming, avoiding high volume and explosive consonants. Particular attention will be given to limiting the mobility of tongues and lips (!).

Rehearsal length – Possibly 7.30 – 9.00 with short ‘comfort breaks’. If necessary we could consider some online learning aids too

Attendance – Once underway, regular attendance would be expected; anyone unwell should not attend

Future programmes – Re-establishing our meeting again is the priority. Performances/concerts present another layer of risk assessment and management, and in this regard we are more closely aligned to public venues generally and will have to wait for a steer on that. If our Christmas concert can proceed we could for example make it short and offer two or three ‘sittings’, late pm into evening. It is unlikely that the Rossini will be possible in October as rescheduled so will be considered for the spring, or later.

If you are still here – thank you for reading!

I’m sure the committee will be happy to hear your thoughts and I encourage you to keep abreast of developments. Any decisions are OURS, but in line with national expectations.

I have included links to some additional articles for those with time to spare!

This is fascinating but quite technical and a tad more yawn worthy, about aerosol emissions during human speech:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-38808-z

From Australia this is a gentle read with some interesting ideas, including a video of two tenors singing behind plastic spit shields. Absolutely NO WAY will we be going down this road……

https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-06-14/how-can-we-resume-choir-practice-without-spreading-coronavirus/12344812

A little light music. We have all seen many examples of online choruses which have painstakingly constructed performances from individual voices. This one captures the challenges in ‘The Birth of the virtual choir’

How can I keep from singing? This traditional song has been given a nice groove and really lifts the spirits.

I hope you are managing to sing somehow, and if you are having to ‘keep from singing’, be patient and keep the faith – it won’t be long now.

Best wishes to you all.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

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

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

Greetings from The Man At The Front

14 April 2020

Hello everyone! I hope all is well with you and yours as we enter week four of ‘lock down’.  I have been struck by how much this epidemic is being referred to in military terms, with no opposing troops or territory to be recaptured in sight, and slightly confused battle plans. We are ‘waging war’ on this ‘enemy’ and are definitely going to ‘defeat it’ – just a pity our troops are so poorly equipped with no prospect of ammunition arriving any time soon. The best support we can give to our ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ is to stay at home and clap hard every Thursday at 8.00. I find hitting a small saucepan with a wooden spoon very effective – try it!

All this war talk reminds me of the congratulatory letter I wrote to members of the choir in June 2004 after our stunning performance of Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time in St. Mary’s Church Banbury. Naturally, and more appropriately, it invoked many a military metaphor (but little alliteration!).  I would like to share it with you; a dip into history will make an interesting read and will stir some fine memories for those who took part in the concert. It’s a bit of a laugh, but at heart it is praising a stunning performance of what was in 2004 our toughest challenge. Thanking everyone for having the courage to tackle this music and working hard with such enthusiasm is an oft-repeated mantra these days – a credit to our ambitiousness and the joy we seek in singing. How little has changed!

Some context before you read: A Child of our Time is a couple of rungs below Belshazzar’s Feast on the ladder of choral challenges. Very dramatic and closer to home than the story of Biblical Belshazzar, it was inspired by the horror of Kristallnacht, which Tippett portrayed as the experience of all oppressed people, and first performed in 1944 as a pacifist message. Like BF it is a beautiful beast – hard to rehearse, rhythmically difficult and tonally unsettling  – doesn’t stay in any key for very long! Unlike BF it has moments of musical respite from the drama in the settings of some of the most well-known Spirituals. These are harmonically much more stable, expressive and very moving in the context of the whole, equal to the Chorales in Bach’s Passions – familiar music which everyone knows. We were accompanied by the Cheltenham Chamber Orchestra on this occasion too.

You need to know that ‘Lieutenant Toby’ refers to Toby Blundell who was our Nick/Julie/Brian/Keith person at the time and also that we rehearsed in the church on the Friday night before the concert, and we were anxious about it! Happy reading…..

“Now you can all relax…..”

(Stand at ease)

The summer moves on, and we are all relatively relaxed, convalescing well, as the Tippett trauma becomes a distant memory, but I can still recall what a triumphant occasion June 4th really was. Like a war veteran, I hazily recall our comradeship and tenacity in the face of a stern enemy, our resourcefulness when required to do so much, with so little, and our stoicism in predicting victory when defeat seemed guaranteed. As D-Day approached, the only certainty was that Lieutenant Toby would have prepared the trenches, called in extra

stretcher-bearers, and despatched route maps to the reinforcements of the Cheltenham Regiment, who were not only heavily armed when they arrived, but gave unstinting and valiant support in a common endeavour. A minor skirmish in our new barracks on the Friday night, and the anxiety that perhaps the battle plan had not been rehearsed tightly enough, demoralised the troops a little, but this was nerves prior to the big push, and only served to strengthen everyone’s resolve to meet the foe head on when battle finally commenced. The intense training paid off; well-drilled tactics enabled most of us to stay together and fight as a unit. We ended the assault having captured an astounding amount of territory, raising the flag of victory with pride, and giving thanks that there were so few casualties.

  Telegrams from the War Office trumpeted such phrases as “Certainly members of the audience I knew thought it was quite a moving experience”; “Well done everyone!”; “I admitted to being sceptical at the start…but now I really understand why you said everyone should sing it once”. A retired RAF pilot was impressed with our risk-taking and team effort that resulted in “…..getting us all to fly together – marvellous!”. The battle strategy was admired from as far away as Hook Norton, prompting the observation “A total master stroke to have copies down for the spirituals. Such direct and passionate communication as a result.” Ammunition might have been useful though. Finally, a retired General with a passion for giving the enemy a good pasting, and no stranger to choral conflict, was ecstatic: “It must have been years since I heard a live performance of that piece, and I don’t remember enjoying it half as much as the one last night.”

I’m sure we did our little bit for world peace, if only in our hearts, and as Commanding Officer I certainly rate this achievement amongst our finest. I heard many people say ‘I don’t normally like Tippett, but that was fantastic’. To me that’s progress, and is evidence if any were needed, that it’s so important to keep one’s mind open. I would like to thank everyone for their faith in the project, and for working so hard; it was truly an unforgettable experience.

PH 21 July 2005

Love and best wishes from The Man At The Front (how appropriate).

I will be sharing a couple of poems next time. Take care and stay well.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

Greetings from The Man in the Front

How is everyone doing ‘out there’? I hope you’re keeping body and soul together and adjusting to the change of pace and (lack of) activities demanded of us at this awful time. I’m keeping busy, but it would be SO nice to leave the house and do something in addition to shopping, walking the dog and exercising! I have been cycling, and the kayak is out of storage ready to launch on the canal – I can’t really complain. I would look for teddy bears but there are none to be found in Cropredy, unlike Ascott and Stourton! To help Brian’s list of titles with ‘bear’ puns, I googled ‘best songs with bear in the title’. Out of 67, the most worthy was the recitative from the Messiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” Really?! Still, a tenuous link for those of you learning Messiah for May, eh?

I am thinking of you all, particularly when Wednesday evenings hove into view and especially this week as it was to be our concert on Saturday 😔. I wonder how the Rossini would have gone? Brilliantly of course! We would have loved the quirkiness of the harmonium and marvelled at Anne Pages amazing playing. We would have given Stewart Taylor (piano) a hero’s welcome as he was The Man in the Front until 1997 and probably noticed, as he feared, that his DJ is now a bit on the tight side. We’d have been overwhelmed by the brilliant soloists – so good and so young! You would all have been wowed by your success and just how confident you felt compared with Belshazzar’ Feast, and definitely hungry for more. My prognostications lead me to suspect that post concert, apart from ‘congratulations’, I would be saying: The Kyrie opening really set the standard, with amazing dynamics, the cum sancto was great but not as taut as in the music festival and the Et vitam on page 150 just ripped along with a crazy ‘Amens’ at the end. The Agnus dei was to die for, so expressive, and pages 209/10 were definitely the gratification so long deferred from the beginning, well done.
Let’s keep this script for October, or whenever the concert happens. It will feel all the more exciting as our lives will have seemed so impoverished, and occupying a beautiful church with hundreds other people, some closer than 2m (keep selling those tix eh?!) will feel surreal.

I am delighted to hear that quite a few members are participating in some of the online singing opportunities, that’s great. I know a few are involved in The Messiah. Although it must feel odd to be singing on your own and not to hear the rest of the choir (some might think this a good thing!), it can be quite moving to know that you are connecting in a shared endeavour with others and part of something bigger. Keeping that spirit alive is so important; good luck to everyone involved. I have been dipping into Gareth Malone’s sessions – interesting. They may not challenge you in ways you are used to but The Quarantine Choir and the Sofa Singers might. One significant advantage of this online collective singing of course is that you develop a very different relationship with the The Man in the Front. Someone pointed out that they find one of the new conductors to be wonderful because “he never tells us off for not looking….and he never tells the basses off for getting behind” . Touché – let’s call that 15 all!

I’d like to leave you with this delightful Irish Blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man in the Front

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