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.

Continue Reading Greetings from The Man At The Front

‘Life Without’ by Keith Ravenhill

Life Without …….

The barriers are up to keep us safe and free
From an enemy we cannot see
We make plans to finish jobs started some time ago,
Anything to fill the time on our hands
But it’s not the same as it was only yesterday
What is missing, what is the gap that needs to be filled?
Why do I feel lost, what is on my mind diverting it from the job at hand?
Searching for an answer I look to see where can I find a clue
Another view
A path to enlighten my mind that is stuck in empty space
Maybe there is something new, something exciting
In the society website perhaps someone has been writing?
With a sense of purpose I enter the internet to see
Is there something to grab my thoughts with glee?
I find that “The man At The Front” has something to say
Words of wisdom that points the way
Interesting thoughts that lets me know
About Hemiola, wow that’s new to me
I count to three
Then two, I try clapping, I’m hooked
It’s music and singing that is missing.
My voice has lost its chords, it’s grumpy and growls
It’s angry with me for not trying to fill the gap
Then I find the links to funny songs, beautiful groups singing
I have to clap
Wonderful sounds
Virtual singing groups a great idea, what a boon
Roll out Zoom
But oh dear, fun with meetings with everyone talking
Then all stopping, being polite, silence, then some starting
Confusion, we need a “Man At The Front” to bring in voices
Who’s next?
Can’t wait to meet again, not just voices
People, friends and fellow singers
The joy, pure pleasure to be one of many
With one aim – to sing as best you can.

Continue Reading ‘Life Without’ by Keith Ravenhill

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

We welcome your blog contributions

Your Committee welcomes contributions to the blog* from the choir and these will be posted in Members’ News. These can be in any form and should be informative or entertaining – ideally both. As a guide, they should be around one-and-a-half pages of A4 and can be prose or poetry. You might like to copy a link to something relevant or a piece of music (see Peter’s blog of 20 May).

Contributions should be as Word documents or pdf if you prefer and should be emailed to our secretary Julie Harris (jules2harris@outlook.com). A small sub-group of the Committee will act as editors in order to ensure the blog hits the right notes in terms of tone and suitability. The blog will then be posted under the contributors’ name or under a nom-de-plume as they prefer. Blogs will be reviewed annually just to keep the site refreshed. Your contributions, musings and meanderings are warmly invited!

*We are using the generic term, which is an abbreviation of the rather awkward neologism “weblog,” literally “a log of activities that you make available on the web.”

Continue Reading We welcome your blog contributions

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

Views from the Rear – chippingnortonjonnie

Just when you think all our energies must be focused forward on the junior basses and their partners in crime, the Fivers (clearly their real value), up pipes a confused and befuddled second bass who doesn’t realise we spend our whole time in a distinct and permanent feeling of self-isolation. Why does he think we are placed at the back near the exits?

Apart from mistakenly identifying the source of ‘slander’ (don’t shoot the accordion player – he doesn’t even live in Chippie!), words are then used such as ‘gusto’ and ‘aplomb’ when surely ‘windy’ and ‘gaucheness’ are more accurate descriptors? We are the Sancho Panza on a donkey to the Don Quixote on Rocinante in the serried ranks before us.

Are we now the political spectrum of the choir with naughty boys to the right and accomplished singers to the left? The Bullingdon Club versus Momentum? No, my friend. How can anyone be part of the second basses when they only get ‘one bar wrong’ consistently? Have we ever ‘nailed’ anything apart from our Oscar-winning performance (once) at the Chipping Norton Music Festival?

I await significant [and I trust anonymous] input from the ‘other’ sections. Fake news used to trump [!] banter from the second basses always welcome.

Just saying…………………………….

chippingnortonjonnie

Continue Reading Views from the Rear – chippingnortonjonnie

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

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