Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello everyone, good to be writing to you all again; sorry I’ve been ‘away’ for so long. I last blogged over a month ago, how time flies when you’re still painting a kitchen and having a new boiler fitted – some people will find any excuse! But as predicted, the sun did come, then disappeared over the Bank Holiday. Anyway, it’s good to be here again and I hope everyone is safe and well and anticipating ever more eagerly a return to some singing as the time surely gets closer. I would say that not much has happened since I wrote, but to be frank, it hasn’t really! Covid19 ebbs and flows, causing local lockdown, lifting of lockdown so folks can get away on holiday, changes in quarantine rules so they all have to dash home again. It reminds me of the Pirate shanty chorus: We’re going this way, that way, forwards and backwards, over the Irish sea… Eating out in August was delightful – did you make a point of doing it as the state was treating us?! Socialism at its best. I wonder if this policy could be applied more widely – free university education, more social housing, re-opening youth centres, decently remunerating care workers, HS2 (oops, already doing that!).

I digress.

Significant progress was made over the summer by the DCMS however and their roadmap has been carefully thought through and applied effectively. As they promised, rapid research was carried out to assess the real ‘dangers’ of singing (and playing wind and brass instruments) which reported in mid-August. The exciting news is that singing poses the same risks as talking – not greater, as first supposed. In both cases it is volume which makes a difference to the spread of the virus (more air and energy behind the action, which risks spreading droplets further). This revelation enabled DCMS guidance to move to stage 4 of their 5-stage roadmap, which is that it is now possible for up to 30 people to meet in covid compliant venues to rehearse. It is also permissible to perform to an audience provided they are socially distanced. I believe that more than 30 can gather provided there is space and sufficient management of compliance arrangements. This is what people who talk in such ways might call a ‘game changer’!

I am pleased to say that our excellent committee has kept apace of developments and is crafting the CNCS roadmap. You will have received an email from Nick (Chair) setting out the landscape, and also a brief survey inviting your thoughts/ideas about the route to returning. Sub-committees are considering risk assessments and social engagement, and venues are being researched. From here, it looks like a proper concert at Christmas is unlikely but we will endeavour to ‘perform’ in some way, but nothing is fixed and we are a flexible bunch. Thank you committee – we are indebted to you for your careful planning and attention.

If you did engage with the Beatles’ Here comes the sun and have been practising – how’s it going? I am so looking forward to putting it together. If we are not meeting for a while, I’ll find more challenges for you. I am eagerly anticipating singing again; rehearsals are likely to be shorter and gentler, but no less exciting and I am looking forward to being The man at the front in person!

Now it’s quiz time!

Question: What do we all do about 25,000 times a day? Clue: We do it automatically, but if we paid more attention to it we could significantly improve our health.

Answer: We B-R-E-A-T-H-E

I read a fascinating book called Breath – The new science of a lost art, by James Nestor. It is not specific to singing but to life, really, but of course can be immensely helpful to choirs. To whet your appetites, the cover notes say:

Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance, rejuvenate internal organs, halt snoring, allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease….None of this should be possible, and yet it is….

Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. You will never breathe the same again.

Bold claims and I know I’m easily won over, but I’m not completely gullible – it’s a very convincing read. We are all familiar with the importance of breath control in yoga, meditation, mindfulness or exercise practices, but its potential impact on wider aspects of health are interesting. If you want to delve a little deeper, visit www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath and look at the breath videos, particularly the Buteyko breathing exercise An understanding of the power of how to manage good breathing will support comfortable singing, so we must continue to pay attention to this in our warm ups!

Time for music!

At the beginning of lockdown I posted a musical sideswipe at Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham. Dillie Keane’s enthusiasm got the better of her again on September 1st, as schools were about to return…..

The popular group Voces8 have made a huge impact in singing circles and they have plenty of youtube postings. This splendid performance of Slap that bass caught my eye; a masterclass in brilliant singing and witty choreography. Given the song’s title, if you were the bass singer, you’d look out!

Closer to home, I heard a new recording of the Mozart Requiem on Radio 3 recently by The Dunedin Consort. It’s a reconstruction of the first performance, with period instruments and some gutsy singing. Here are the Kyrie and Lacrimosa as tasters and they certainly whet my appetite for including it in a future programme very soon!

MORE BLASTS FROM THE PAST – EXTRACTS FROM LEADING NOTES

A fine feature of the termly newsheet Leading Notes, was the occasional Editorial Mutterings from Peter Barber:

Dog-sitting during the summer holidays at a daughter’s place, I came across three brand new as yet unopened books of songs: traditional American, Welsh and Irish folk melodies. Folding back the new crackling pages of each in turn, lo and behold there were titles familiar from the Dark Ages (i.e. just before and during the 39-45 lot), when as a youngster (teenagers did not exist then – “Mozart was never a teenager” I yell at the radio whenever an announcer perpetrates that solecism) I joined in the family Sunday evening sing-song round an aunt’s piano. ‘Did you sing this?’ I asked W, knowing full well that her family, like many others from Victorian times and earlier, had followed the same weekly ritual. Persuading her to the piano, we spent a nostalgic half hour ‘rendering’ I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, Ash Grove…and so on. Then we came to the American book, and there were the negro spirituals, in simple form, that had inspired Michael Tippett. Very affecting. The last time I had sung those must have been about 1943.  From Issue 14, December 2005

In 2006, CNCS performed Messiah in Chippy Church and Catherine Bott was the soprano soloist. You don’t hear her so much these days but she was big then, also presented on Radio 3 and lived locally. Peter Barber wrote some more Mutterings about Messiah being a staple work of the burgeoning choral music scene in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He also enlightened us about the outcome of the Conference of Sunday School Teachers in 1841 which resulted in a form of musical notation which enabled thousands of working people to access singing together and hence join in with Messiah. More on this in a future blog….

The Messiah Edition of Leading Notes, Winter 2006, featured some personal recollections from choir members about their first or early experiences of singing this masterpiece; here are a few:

About 1960. We had both sung the work earlier during our (separate) student lives. But we remember especially this performance in Walsall Town Hall, or rather the Tuesday evening rehearsals, because of the delicate touch of the 17-year old rehearsal pianist drafted in from the local sixth form – Andrew Parrott, on the threshold of a distinguished musical career.

Wendy and Peter Barber

When singing the chorus ‘Messiah’

The altos’ performance was dire.

The tenors were lower than basses, and slower,

While sopranos sang higher and higher!

Kate Smith

It was 55, or even 56 years ago. My school prospectus brooked no argument. ‘Boys who have any musical ability are expected at least to join the choir’. So I did; and either at the first Christmas concert or the following summer we sang Messiah. I can’t say I fell in love with the music at once. The entire treble section had to sing Rejoice greatly, and a right struggle it was. But I was thrilled the first time I heard The trumpet shall sound. And singing Hallelujah was great – I could easily manage a top G in those days.

Roger Stein

Ah, I remember it so well, for it was all of 42 years ago, because it was one of those rare-as-hen’s-teeth occasions when we sequestered schoolgirls were allowed contact with the male of the species. No amount of stick-on beards or burnt cork moustaches were going to produce an adequacy of tenors or basses in an all-girls boarding school, to say nothing of trumpet players, so joy of joys, we had to link up with the Boys College – and not just boys, masters as well. Heady stuff!

All of a sudden the choir was the place to be and it was amazing how many tone-deaf pubescent nymphettes suddenly started paying attention in Musical Appreciation….We few, we happy few, were let loose on the delights of Going Astray like Sheep (oh yes please)…I will never forget the physical shock of being joined by tenors and basses for the first time. It sent so many prickles down my spine that I could barely get a note out, and it didn’t have much to do with the Glory of the Lord.

But when it came to the performance in the faded splendour of the Winter Gardens, to those soaring Hallelujahs complete with golden trumpets, the occasion transcended banal consideration of teenage hormones. Those peculiar beings in trousers were there, like us, for the music, the whole music, and nothing but the music.

Helene Barratt

Thank you for being here – more next time. Take care and look out for announcements about our return to some choral normality. Regards, TMATF.