Saturday 2 September 2017

Today, I've launched my latest pet project, an online resource called 'Nine Lessons and Carols'.

What happened was this... Last year I was planning the carol service at my church, St Mary the Virgin, Dover, England. It was about the millionth time I'd had to put together a service of lessons and carols, and I was getting a bit bored with all the Adam lay y-boundens and Sussex Carols we churned out every year.

I headed online to look for some inspiration, hoping to find something like, well... this. Amazingly enough, despite there being - no doubt - hundreds of choir leaders and worship planners in my exact same position, nothing like Nine Lessons and Carols appeared to exist on the web. And so it came to pass....

The first thing I did was contact all my friends and customers in the church and cathedral music world and ask them to send me the 2016 orders of service for their Nine Lessons and Carols. This gave me a solid foundation of new and interesting ideas on which to build the website. Then I contacted the amazing and talented Chris Tutthill at Whyte Studio, and asked him to put together a framework and design.

After we got that looking as we wanted it, the only thing remaining was to populate the website with ideas, and believe me, that has given me the most Christmassy July and August I've ever had. With the number of carols I've listened to, I could have planned my next Lessons and Carols about a hundred times over!

It's a pretty straightforward concept, such that I can't really believe no-one has done it before. There is a page for each lesson, the lesson introduction and text, and suggestions for carols that relate to that particular text. With each carol, where available, there is a YouTube link, a Spotify link and a link to buy the printed music from Forwoods ScoreStore at discounted prices. Simple as that!

I have to say, some of the YouTube recordings are better than others, and generally the Spotify ones are better engineered. Nevertheless, it gives you an idea of how each piece sounds.

I know there are some limitations to Nine Lessons and Carols as it stands at the moment. In particular, I'm aware that it is very SATB oriented. There are not many carols listed on there for upper voice choirs nor for male voice choirs. Of course, many of the carols that appear are also available in different versions, but it's not always easy to find YouTube or Spotify recordings of them. Please do send me a message via the online contact form if there's something particular you want. The online content will be developed, both between now and Christmas, and also into 2018.

Lastly, a note to composers and publishers... Please don't feel aggrieved if your work doesn't appear on here. If your work is a/ available for sale in the UK through a mainstream music publisher, and b/ exists on YouTube or Spotify in a decent recording, then tell me about it, and I'll add it.

Well, I hope you find it useful. It has been something of a labour of love. Enjoy listening to all these lovely Christmas pieces - I have!

Monday 1 May 2017

On the Passing of a Gentleman (2)

You may remember my post (On the Passing of a Gentleman) of August 2014, written in response to the death of my father-in-law. Well, bereavement has once again forced me to take solace in language, and attempt to express in print my feelings on the death of my father, John Yarrow, on 30th April 2017.

This entry will be a little different though, as it will focus more on the difficult hours after Dad's passing, than those leading up to it. It has been tough to write, and is not the thing to read if you need a pick me up!

John Yarrow had been a choral singer all his life, and at Easter 2015 celebrated 70 years of singing in church choirs, first as a nine-year-old at St Andrew's, Buckland-in-Dover, and latterly at St Mary's Dover, where for the past seventeen years it has been my privilege to serve as Director of Music. A bricklayer by trade, he spent most of his working life in local government, retiring at the age of 57 from Kent County Council, where had been responsible for waste disposal management across East Kent.

In retirement, he looked after the fabric of St Mary's Church, earning the respect of the church architect and the Diocesan authorities for the professional way he ran affairs. A keen sportsman in his youth, selected for cricket teams not for his batting or bowling but for his athleticism in the field, in later years he took to the bowling green, where his formidably competitive nature ensured a highly decorated career, serving also as Chairman of Kearsney Bowling Club for over 25 years.

Two days after the Easter anniversary mentioned above, Dad was taken ill, and so began the relentless decline which culminated in his death in the early hours of Sunday morning. Suffering from Parkinson's Disease and cancer, he was cared for at home, chiefly by my sister Debbie, with wonderful support from Inchwater Care (if you need them, use them, they will never let you down), Dad was eventually admitted to Pilgrims' Hospice, Canterbury, on Friday evening. Helplessly frail, that once athletic frame, reduced to almost complete immobility.

[As an aside, when they were raising funds for the building of the original Hospice in 1981, Dad organised a performance of Messiah at St Andrew's Church. How prescient of him!]

His stay there, though short, was surrounded by love and the finest care from the staff, both for him and for his family, who kept vigil throughout Saturday. Through the marvel which is smart phone technology, we were able to play him his favourite pieces of choral music. In Zadok the Priest, at 'God save the King' his body seemed to brace itself for the entry, his eyebrows lifted. Singer to the core.

At around 6pm we thought we were losing him, but by mid-evening he appeared to stabilise. Mum, who has Alzheimer's, was so tired we decided to take her home rather than expect her to sit through the night. By 11.30, Debbie and my brother Mark concluded, too, that he was stable, and headed for home.

At midnight we were summoned back, but to our everlasting regret we were just too late, as Dad slipped away at 12.10, with the nurses holding his hands. He will have liked that.

It was typically stubborn of him, to do things on his own terms.

Mum was asleep at home. We decided not to wake her, and agreed to meet at 8.30am to break the news. And so it was that we appeared on her doorstep yesterday morning, which is really, despite everything you have already read, where this article begins.

It was, of course, the most difficult thing that any of us has ever done. Her devastation at the initial news was compounded by the discovery that none of the family had been with him. In the backs of our minds had been the suspicion that, due to her condition, the news would not sink in, but we hoped, perversely, that it would be such a seismic shock that she would retain it. By lunchtime all was calm, so that we were able to raid the supermarket for provisions and have a quick bite to eat. A friend of the family arrived with flowers and hugs, and all - notwithstanding the circumstances - seemed well.

Then it happened.

"Can you just remind me where Dad is?"

And at once we knew how the ensuing hours, days and possibly months would go. Having had to break the news that her beloved husband of 58 years had died, we would have to brace ourselves and go through the same agonising routine time and again. We decided to edit the narrative. Version 2.0, as it became known, had Mark & Debbie at Dad's bedside as he died. Forgive us our little white lie. It made her feel just a tiny bit better. Still, Mum was upset she had not been there. Perhaps there would have to be a Version 3.0 later.

One or other of us was with her all day, up until late evening. Was it seven or eight times we had to repeat the news? We lost count eventually. Mum has been struggling with gradual memory loss for many years. It's hard to believe the lady we see before us now was a Churchwarden for fourteen years.

The loss of our father John has, of course, been devastating for us all, but the nature of his ailments mean we have been preparing for this day for a couple of years. What became clearer yesterday was the extent to which Mum's Alzheimer's mean she is already partly lost to us. When I had to break the news for the third time I was alone with her. I had to bring down an emotional shutter, to tell myself that I was speaking through her illness in an attempt to reach my mother within. With each telling of the news, it became just a little bit easier, but sleep very often tends to reset her mind, so who knows where we will start from on Day 2.

It was an exhausting, awful day, cheered by some laughs among the tears, and uplifted by the prayers, goodwill messages and love of friends. Just a few days before I had sat with Dad and listened to some favourite hymns and psalms. How he loved singing the psalms, in particular! Included were these words:

I will hold the Christlight for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I'll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow,
till we've seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven,
we shall find such harmony,
born of all we've known together
of Christ's love and agony.

Let us see what Monday brings.

John Yarrow
b. 28th August 1935
Promoted from St Mary's Dover branch to HQ, 30th April 2017

Saturday 23 August 2014

On the Passing of a Gentleman

When I asked Barry Smith for his daughter's hand in marriage, he offered me all three as a job lot. Tempting though the offer undoubtedly was (they're a good-looking bunch), I have always been known more for my discretion than my valour, so I made do with just the one.

Today, we mourn his passing at the age of 75, a former Flying Officer in the RAF, schoolmaster (in the truest and best sense of the word), and family man, who became a great-grandfather just four months ago. A man 'whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe', as the hymnwriter would have it.

The phrase 'father-in-law' so inadequately describes such a relationship in so many cases. To be truthful, I was something of a usurper of said daughter's previous suitor, and my arrival on the scene could have been awkward, were it not for the loving and open welcome afforded to me by Barry and Jan. I was worried that we had little in common - I knew nothing of aeroplanes, model-making or John Wayne - but he was thrilled about this. They were his toys, and he was happy not to have to share them with me. I still don't get John Wayne, and he always knew it. One of the few things on which we consistently disagreed.

It was enough that I was in love with his daughter, and I jolly well knew I was expected to take good care of her. He even gave the father of the bride's speech with his shotgun slung over his shoulder.

How many homes do you imagine there are in Folkestone and Dover with cupboards and shelves built by young husbands and fathers, taught their practical skills by Mr Smith at Harvey Grammar School and Astor Secondary (as it was then)? Hundreds, I would wager.

Barry was an incredibly athletic young man, who survived a serious motorcycle accident at the age of 18 in which he suffered a triple skull fracture, which contributed to dark episodes of depression later in life. He took early retirement through ill-health at the age of 53, and I think if you had told him then that he would live to 75 he would have accepted it gladly. This week, we learned that the heart condition which was diagnosed 15 years ago had an average life expectancy of 5 years. Add in chronic and crippling arthritis, and you might suggest that we've been lucky to have his company for so long, as indeed we have.

That, of course, doesn't ease the pain of loss one iota. And yet, if there can be such a thing as a good death, I believe this was it. Having spent several weeks in hospital, he came home to be with his family. The care he received from Dr Wright and her colleagues at Lydden Surgery, from District Nurses, and from Pilgrims' Hospice nurses in the last few days absolutely gives the lie to the notion that the medical profession has somehow lost its caring touch. We could not have asked for more.

The greater devotion, though, was shown by his wife of 52 years, my beloved mother-in-law Jan, whose care and attention shone as a beacon in our darkest hours, proving (as we already knew) that she is the most loving, giving, and Christian lady on Planet Earth.

Well, all three of those daughters were with him today, and it was an honour and a privilege to be there too as Barry slipped peacefully from this world to the next. Can the passing of a loved one be both painful and achingly beautiful? I'm not sure it can, but the wonders of modern medicine meant that he was not in pain. We knew the end was near, and read him extracts from his favourite book, Watership Down.

In the final paragraph, leaving his friends and 'no-longer needed body' behind, Hazel departs Watership Down with the spirit-guide, "running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom."

Barry Arthur Smith, 1938-2014
"May he rest in peace, and rise in glory."

Wednesday 28 March 2012

A Canterbury Tale

I saw Canterbury today.

I used to see her everyday.

I worked in the city for fifteen years and got to know her very well, but she and I fell out of love. The grasping hand of our landlords, the crowds of foreign schoolchildren, the snarling city traffic that meant one had to be at work before 8.00am and leave after 7.00pm to avoid sitting in a jam - these began as little niggles that a young man could overlook, but gnawed away inside until the relationship became unsustainable, and I had to walk away.

Since I moved my business out of the city ten years ago, I have barely been back, although I'm only fifteen miles away. Save for the odd trip to deliver my son to University - a journey which only skirts the city - or the occasional service at the Cathedral, I have visited Canterbury maybe two or three times a year.

It's fair to say, I've got along pretty well without her.

Well, I saw her again today.

We met coincidentally, as old flames often do. I shouldn't have seen her at all. I was engaged to accompany some singing exams which, in the usual scheme of things, would have been taken in Dover, but due to a clash of dates were held in the Dominican Priory in Canterbury.

Do you know the Dominican Priory? My goodness, there is an extraordinary building! Nestling in the shadow of the new Marlowe Theatre, separated from it only by a rather charmless pathway, it is a relic from a bygone age. The walls are plastered with newspaper cuttings, photographs, paintings, scouts and guides memorabilia - a miniature museum of Canterbury life!

With me today was my daughter Libby, who was taking her first - and, she insists, her last - singing exam. We arrived somewhat early so we decided to wander into the city.

The riverside gardens were busy with denizens dining al fresco in the glorious spring sunshine. Daffodils nodded in the gentle breeze, and tourists relaxed as their boats were gently coaxed up-river towards The Weavers by handsome young gentlemen.

Walking up the High Street, some of those old feelings of resentment started coming back to me. The thronging masses made it impossible to walk in a straight line, and there are still too many unruly European youths for my liking, but there were also plenty of delightful young ladies, the finest fruits of Canterbury's loins, and eager young men in their sharp suits, bustling along in their lunch hours, or en route to their next appointment.

The Cathedral clock rang out its unchanging melody - one day I shall have to compose something using those chimes, rather as Bernard Rose employed the chimes of the Magdalen clock in his Preces & Responses - and Bell Harry Tower rose magnificently as ever above the city skyline.

It was a fleeting visit, to be sure, a chance encounter with a past love that is probably best forgotten. To flirt with her again would be dangerous and almost certainly ultimately meaningless. But it is difficult to escape the feeling that, after seeing Canterbury at her absolute finest, wrapping herself in the yellow and green robe of spring, something stirred within me.

It's too early to say for sure, but between you and me, I think I may have fallen in love with her again.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Music Retail Declared Dead by Publishers

As a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, Abba and Anglican Chant, I often feel like a dinosaur. Even so, the announcement by Faber Music of the launch of, has left me gasping in disbelief.

Ever since the first music publisher sold the first piece of music direct to the end-user rather than through a music shop, the music retail trade has been insidiously yet relentlessly undermined by its own suppliers. As a consequence, traditional music shops have been closing at an alarming and accelerating tempo, and most major towns and cities in the United Kingdom are now bereft of such establishments.

Where they do still exist, such as in York or Norwich, they are largely owned and managed by Music Sales under the brand, and the buying power accorded to the managers is severely restricted. When I last went into Banks Music (aka Musicroom York) they had seven vocal scores of a a Wagner opera (a Schirmer/Music Sales publication), but couldn't buy stock from other publishers because the budget was exhausted. I'm not being funny, but how many opera companies are there in York performing Wagner? Seems odd to me.

Well, now Faber Music has taken the bold step of declaring the music retail trade officially dead. With the launch of they have abandoned all pretence at supporting their dealers and are making the boldest of pitches at the end-user, the choir director. How long will it be before, and hit the online high street, and where will all this leave those remaining dealers struggling in an already difficult economic climate?

These publishers, who have built their businesses and made their profits on the backs of professional, knowledgeable and dedicated retailers are now investing those profits into a web-shaped two-finger salute to the trade. "Thanks guys, for your assistance in building our brands, but now we have the internet your services are no longer required".

There are a few notable exceptions. Barenreiter have a website every bit as good (if not better) than Faber - the search facility is certainly more reliable - but at the point of checkout the customer is asked to select a retailer through whom to place their order. This continues to support a nationwide network of retailers who pay high rents and rates to provide shelf space to display new releases and keep building the printed music industry, to the benefit of all the stakeholders, publishers, retailers and musicians alike. But these exceptions are rare - the trend seems to be toward cutting out the middle man. Rake in the maximum profits and stuff the retailers who helped us get where we are today.

Ten years ago, we began to adapt the way we did business. We closed our Canterbury shop of 55 years and moved over to an entirely mail order operation. We were accused by some at the time of wanton corporate vandalism. Now it seems we were setting a trend which others have followed. Yet our customers still tell us after all this time how much they miss the ability to browse through our products. There is simply no substitute for holding the product in your hand and assessing its suitability for your student or choir. We have had to compromise and adapt, and will continue to do so in order to survive.

But it seems to me we shall be surviving despite music publishersbest  efforts, and not because of them. That seems to me to be a particularly graceless way of doing business.