Convey the message clearly

penny black

Prior to 1840, most people expected to get quite a few birthday cards.  The custom of sending greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, who exchanged messages of good will to celebrate the New Year, and to the early Egyptians, who conveyed their greetings on papyrus scrolls. By the early 15th century, handmade paper greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe.  Best of all, in the UK you could send as many cards as you liked and it was completely free.

Before the introduction of postage stamps, mail in the UK was paid for by the recipient, and this caused a bit of a problem.  The costs of delivering mail were not recoverable by the postal service when recipients were unable or unwilling to pay for delivered items.  Moreover, senders had no incentive to restrict the number, size, or weight of items sent, as it often didn’t matter too much to them whether it was ultimately paid for.

This dilemma was passed to Sir Rowland Hill who was a teacher at Hazelwood School near Birmingham.  One day he put on his top hat and went for a walk around leafy Edgbaston, which at that time was under the control of the Gough-Calthorpe family.  The Gough-Calthorpe’s had refused to allow factories or warehouses to be built in favour of open green spaces.  This made for a very pleasing afternoon stroll until Sir Rowland came across a young woman sobbing because she was too poor to redeem a letter sent to her by her fiancé.

As a married man, Sir Rowland saw this was an issue and immediately sent some proposals to the government which resulted in his 1837 pamphlet Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability.  Three years later his vision lead directly to the introduction of the Penny Black with its elegant engraving of the young Queen Victoria. This was to become the first adhesive postal stamp in the world.

All of which brings me on to a recent video I saw on Facebook.  It seems everyone now is setting up choirs under the premise that everybody can sing.  That of course is a debate for another time.  Technically everyone can sing. Whether they make a pleasing sound that fits with other voices, is sometimes a matter for debate. Nevertheless there seem to be an almost endless stream of people wanting to join these new choirs. The issue is not so much the singers as the self appointed musical directors.

The model for most new contemporary choirs seems to involve playing a backing track for a popular song so that everyone can sing along.  Arguably for most of these songs performed in such a manner you don’t even need a conductor.  But what you also certainly don’t need, is someone who is merely jigging up and down and waving a bit vaguely in time with the music.  It almost implies the singers are all deaf and cannot hear the drumbeat!

Even ignoring the ineffectiveness of this method, conducting is not just about beating time. A good conductor should convey the music to their choir, who, in turn, will convey the music to the audience. Yes, I agree singers need a clear lead and a strong downbeat.  But if you truly want to get the best from your choir then, as a conductor, you need to help them tell the story through their singing.

Most songs are, at some level, about love.  In the same way that Rowland Hill helped generations of penniless young girls to receive love messages from their sweethearts, it is therefore the job of a musical director to ensure that choirs sing from the heart and convey the true meaning of the song they are singing.


Jules Addison is a Music Producer and Choirmaster who runs a number of choirs in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, none of which sing to backing tracks.