NYCGB Fellow Ella Rainbird-Early. Photo: Ben Tomlin


Life of an NYCGB Fellow in Lock-down by Ella Rainbird-Earley


The past few months have flown by in a flurry of universal despair and general panicked confusion. For us Fellows, every event for the remainder of the academic year has been cancelled. The recordings, the residencies, the performances, all halted for the foreseeable future. But what could have been a complete tragedy has been turned, in true artistic fashion, into a new culture of online music making and collaboration. From Zoom calls to ‘individual group’ recordings, the Fellowship has been transferred to the online world, continuing to learn and lead musically from afar.

One of the first losses we faced was our Snape Malting residency: three days in sunny Snape singing MacMillan’s Stabat Mater and doing workshops with Dominic Ellis-Peckham and Kevin Fox. Though the MacMillan had to be grounded, we were keen to try our hand at online workshops using the business conferencing app Zoom. In all, the endeavours were a great success, leaving us both a little drained and greatly inspired. Dominic Ellis-Peckham worked us through his workshopping methods in the morning: how to engage a group of strangers; how to incorporate movement and rhythm and then sound into the routine; and how to do so with confidence and humour. In the afternoon, esteemed ex-Swingle Kevin Fox got us recording and experimenting with genre and sound individually. The end result of his workshop was a recording of Rihanna’s Diamonds, recorded on our phones in our living rooms. This showed us, almost more than anything, that virtual music making could and would work for the Fellows.

This kickstarted a series of recording projects for the Fellowship designed to replace our cancelled recording sessions, originally set for the end of March. Starting with Tallis’ If Ye Love Me to test the waters, we then started to move onto harder works, Elgar’s bitonal There Is Sweet Music for example (we are also in the process of putting together a new work by our boss, Mr Parry, himself!). Recording by ourselves has proved an interesting challenge. Not only is it counterintuitive to sing choral music alone and metronomically, but it is also a struggle of lonely perfectionism. Living next to a busy road doesn’t help recording at home either, we have found. However, the recordings are coming together well and we are proud of our swift move to the virtual world.

The crux of our virtual learning journey, however, was National Youth Choirs’ first dive into online courses, run via Zoom. The courses, set over the same weeks in the Easter Holidays they were meant to occupy, were run for the Training and National Youth Choirs. The goal was to be a set of recordings, something tangible to show for four days of intense music making from home, instead of a concert. Tackling one piece a day, we set to work. Each day began with 15 minutes of dancercise with ex-Fellow Ben “Snakehips” Munden, followed by a vocal warm up with our beloved singing teacher Nicky Kennedy. Following this was our first full rehearsal, during which we worked through the outline of one of our three pieces – Makaroff’s Kaikki Maat, te riemuitkaatte, Whitacre’s A Boy and a Girl, and Musgrave’s By the River, commissioned for our cancelled tour to New Zealand. It was our job as Fellows to then teach our sections the music in more detail in a 45-minute sectional. I won’t be the first to say that teaching over Zoom is a bizarre and often disarming experience in which you give your all but receive nothing back (save for the muted moving faces of your section). However, the choir rose to the challenge wonderfully, and learned the music with an amazing efficiency considering the conditions.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the course was the daily lunchtime forum, featuring people in the general music world who could offer advice to the choir members. We were joined by John Rutter CBE, President of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and a prolific composer, the current Young Composers, Daniel Spreadbury of the Dorico publishing software (Product Marketing Manager, Steinberg), and The Swingles, who need no introduction. In these forums, we learned about composer’s roots, what inspires these professional musicians, the basics of arranging, and why Dorico is the ultimate music publishing software, but I digress. To finish off each day, we returned after our afternoon break to a Zoom social hosted by the choir’s gorgeous social secretaries with social events ranging from Guess Who and Bingo to making fresh pasta. In all, though a strange and exhausting experience at times, being able to reconnect with old friends and to actually sing with some purpose was a wonderfully refreshing thing. Though our first venture into the life of National Youth Choir courses wasn’t quite what we expected, the Fellows overall enjoyed our week of online music making.

But what lies ahead for the Fellows? We won’t have another course with the National Youth Choir until the Summer, be it online or in person, and the majority of our recordings are now finished. Enter our lovely new Young Composers: Nathan, Amy, Joe, and Lisa (you should check out their blog if you haven’t already!) We’ve had several meetings with the composers, discussing the repertoire they could write for us and their existing choral music that we could prepare for them. I think I can safely say that we are grateful for their drive and determination to get music made as they have already come up with some incredible suggestions for collaborations. I’m sure more will follow on that note in the near distant future!

And so, in this strange time, we have been forced to embrace new methods of communication and interaction, as the rest of the working world has, and with an overall great success. We’re slowly getting our heads around the best places in our houses to record, the cosiest corners to sit and edit, and how to stay sane when alone for days on end with only your own voice for company. We are so thankful to still be able to work and collaborate in this liminal, turbulent spring, and to sing with each other, even if at opposite ends of the country. Finally, thank you Zoom! You’ve been a dream.


The NYCGB Fellowship Programme is supported by Principal Programme Supporter ABRSM with additional generous support from the Ofenheim Trust, and by programme partners Making Music and AOTOS (Association of Teachers of Singing).