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  • Martin Castle

"Singing, it's like loving somebody, it's a supreme emotional and physical experience".

I have been much vexed over the last couple of days by issues around musicians and their ability to continue their art. I have to admit more than a passing interest as George is a professional musician in the world of church music; Katayoun sings in a local community choir and there are a plethora of such in NN - almost one in every village; members of my extended family sing for fun and I've worked with and supported a number of choirs over the years. You may remember I urged people to download or stream music to give musicians an income. Well, did a little more research into payments to musicians from online streaming - YouTube’s average per-stream rate has been put at a princely 0.13p, and that Spotify is reckoned to pay artists an average of 0.26p per listen. In a recent Guardian article by John Harris, he noted that a band's payments from Spotify (arriving every six months) and considering that some songs had amassed close to a million plays each, only totaled about £600 - so not a way to riches on its own, especially for ensemble performers such as professional choirs.

Unashamedly, I copy the following article from The Times by Richard Morrison from Thursday June 4th.

Until 12 weeks ago Britain was a choral powerhouse. Two million people sang in 70,000 choirs. Some were highly professional and world-famous. Think of the Sixteen and the Monteverdi Choir, or the magnificent opera choruses of London, Cardiff and Leeds, or the incredible eight-shows-a-week ensembles sustaining West End musicals. That’s thousands of highly trained singers now facing financial ruin. Then think of the millions who sang for fun. True, those people haven’t lost their livelihoods, but for many the weekly choir rehearsal was what kept them ticking along — culturally, spiritually, physically and socially. Few singers dispute that choirs needed to stop temporarily because of coronavirus. What is starting to irritate, however, is the lack of official guidance as to when and how they might safely resume. Instead of scientific research, anecdotal horror stories swirl around, instilling a fear that choral singing is so dangerous it might be permanently banned.

Let’s deal first with those horror stories. In early March, before social distancing was a thing, people became infected with the virus after singing with a handful of choirs across the world. Sensational headlines created the illusion that all choirs were death traps. In fact, thousands of choirs were still rehearsing without any precautions in March. Only five reported illnesses afterwards. The affected choirs rehearsed in tightly packed rooms. They greeted each other with hugs. They shared refreshments. Yes, the singing might have transmitted coronavirus, but equally the socialising might have done. We need proper research before jumping to conclusions. That’s the problem. Little research has been done, and none in Britain.

However, two fluid-mechanics scientists at Bundeswehr University Munich conducted experiments to see how far singers project emissions. Their findings are encouraging. Although the World Health Organisation’s guidelines (echoed by Public Health England) say that Covid-19 is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets and contact routes rather than aerosols (airborne transmission, which carries farther), the Munich scientists tested for both. They found that “at a distance of around 0.5m [from the singer], almost no air movement can be detected, regardless of how loud the sound was and what pitch was sung”. Therefore, they concluded that it is “unlikely that the virus could spread beyond this limit via the air flow created during singing”. Add an extra metre to minimise risk even more, and it seems that — if the Munich findings are accurate — choirs might operate reasonably safely with singers placed 1.5m apart and configured in one big semi-circle.

That’s good and bad news. It’s good for smallish groups who stay in one place while they sing. Cathedral choirs clearly won’t be able to use their traditional double-ranked, inward-facing choir stalls, but given their buildings’ size, they could easily spread out in a semi-circle (as German choirs are doing). For big choral societies, that formation isn’t practical. They may have to break into smaller units. The real challenge, however, would be getting the choruses for operas and musicals safely back in business in productions where they need to move around the stage.

Other factors hinder progress. One is the ultra-cautious approach of the Church of England, which controls (the word is not too strong) the vast majority of England’s sacred choirs. Its bishops seem so spooked by those early horror stories that they appear reluctant to allow any singing at all, even when services resume. That hugely endangers a cathedral tradition that relies on boy and girl choristers maintaining extraordinary musical skills through daily training and performance. An enforced break of a year, coinciding with cash-strapped cathedrals closing their choir schools (as York Minster is doing), would be the biggest catastrophe for church music since Oliver Cromwell.

How to overturn the negativity? One piece of German research, however convincing, won’t be enough. Britain’s singers need clear British guidelines, but the government’s response is (surprise, surprise) lamentable. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has set up a task force to “help reopen cultural life”, but it seems to have no musicians or scientists sitting on it. The same is true of a separate task force set up by the Ministry of Housing to get churches reopened. And although Public Health England could muster the requisite scientific expertise, nobody seems to have asked it to advise on how to restart choirs. Singing in a choir will never be entirely risk-free, but neither will shopping. In Germany and Scandinavia guidelines have been agreed and choirs are confidently reopening. Here, it’s just muddle. Our choirs deserve better. Is there not a single minister in Boris Johnson’s cabinet who cares enough about Britain’s glorious choral tradition to fight for its survival?

Grigoraș Ionică Dinicu (1889 -1949) was a Romanian violin virtuoso and composer of Roma ethnicity. He is most famous for his often-played virtuoso violin showpiece "Hora staccato" (1906)

Inspired by the top brass The venerable Royal Philharmonic Society, which once commissioned Beethoven, has moved with the times. It is revamping its awards to include a new category, nominated by the public, for “the most inspirational musical achievements during lockdown”. You have until August 26 to make your mind up (see for details), but I already have my candidate. The composer Andrew Wainwright had the brilliant idea of pulling together the world’s top brass-band players for an online performance, and his Virtual All-Star Band’s scintillating romp through Grigoras Dinicu’s "Hora staccato" was released this week on YouTube in aid of the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 relief fund. Britain’s brass bands, like our choirs, have been silenced by the pandemic. I grew up playing second trombone in a band conducted by my dad, and know how much pride and joy brass bands bring to communities going through grim times. Let’s hope it’s only a few months before the fabulous musicians of such legendary bands as Black Dyke, Cory, Grimethorpe Colliery, and Brighouse and Rastrick can shake the rafters in the same room again.


Taking up the Romanian link, here's a lovely sweet treat.

Papanasi - Romanian Cheese Doughnuts

Makes: 8


500g/2 ¼ cups cottage cheese

2 eggs

A few drops rum

75g/2.6 oz/1⅓ tbsp granulated sugar

1 sachet vanilla sugar

250g/about 2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

Cooking oil for frying the doughnuts

250g/ about 1 cup of crème fraiche to serve

Whole fruit runny blueberry jam to serve (or sour cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant jam etc)


1. Drain the excess water from the cottage cheese and place a bowl. Add the eggs and the rum, the granulated and vanilla sugar and blend the ingredients until you obtain a rough paste. The cottage cheese should not be turned into a smooth paste, just blended a little bit in order to make the cheese balls a little finer.

2. Mix about 230g/8oz of the flour and the baking powder and add to the cheese mixture. Mix with a spoon.

3. Flour the working surface and your hands generously. Turn the dough onto the floured surface and knead it lightly to form a ball. The dough should still be somewhat sticky, yet manageable. Add the remaining flour only if absolutely necessary, only if the dough sticks so much that you will not be able to work it at all.

4. Divide the dough into 9 balls. Roll 8 of the balls into thick sausages and unite the sausage ends to get a circle with a hole in the middle. Use the last ball to make 8 little balls, which will be used to top the papanasi.

5. In the meantime, heat the oil in a pot. Use enough oil to have about 10 cm/ 4 inches of it in the pot. To check if the oil has reached the right temperature, insert a toothpick in the oil, if there are blisters forming around the toothpick, you can start frying the papanasi.

6. Only fry two or three papanasi at a time, depending on the size of your pan, do not overcrowd the pan, the papanasi should be able to move around freely. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Turn the doughnuts with a slotted spoon a few times in between and fry until the papanasi are golden brown - about 5 to 7 minutes for one batch, but keep a close look and take them out as soon as they have a nice golden colour. Leave them longer if necessary. The little balls will need less time, about 3-4 minutes or so.

7. Place them on plates lined with kitchen paper and pat them dry in order to absorb some of the excess oil.

8. Serve warm topped with crème fraiche and blueberry jam. Place the little balls on top and top them with a little crème fraiche and jam as well.

Word of the Day is ...

"Auroral" - of or like the dawn; pertaining to the aurora borealis or aurora australis.

ps: the quote of the title is by Janis Joplin


"Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less." - Marie Curie
"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Jun 11, 2020

Hear, hear! I read the article about the German research two days ago. But there needs to be someone in the Cabinet, indeed within Dean and Chapter bodies who actually care enough to try to find a way to guide their choirs back into operation. It is a terrible situation to be robbed of this rich tapestry of music, for both the musicians and the audience/congregations.

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