Tribute to NHS and key workers

Cottontown Chorus made this video as a tribute to NHS and key workers

We are also remembering fellow member, singer, and dear friend, Dr John Kelly, who will be greatly missed. He died as a result of coronavirus in the week before the video was made.

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I am a member of Cottontown Chorus. We have won the British Barbershop Championship seven times and currently have the European bronze medal. Last year we also won a gold medal as a mixed chorus when we combined with Amersham A Cappella.

Before lockdown we had been working hard to fight again for the Championship, in May. Obviously that isn’t going to happen and we have to wait until next year. We are missing our singing.

Barbershop is the most extreme form of close harmony singing. It is made up of four different parts which all need to blend together to produce the barbershop chords. This isn’t easy when we are all in the same room. It is nigh on impossible over the internet. Nevertheless, we wanted to try to keep going so rehearsals went online at the start of lockdown.

We have several members who are excellent singers but certainly not tech-savvy. The first week was ‘interesting’, to say the least. We were using Zoom. Trying to get everyone in the same ‘room’, at the same time, was challenging but eventually we managed. The organisation got easier as the weeks went by.

When we heard about the BBC Big Night In to raise money for Children in Need and Comic Relief we decided to make a video. One suggestion was that we should sing one of the songs from our rock set. This group of mostly middle-aged men love an excuse to get dressed up in their rock gear!

Rock Set

We have an extensive repertoire. We wanted to make a tribute to the NHS and key workers so chose God Only Knows (what I’d be without you). Coincidentally, we also sang this in our last public performance before lockdown, at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester.

Poor quality photo taken with a phone March 7, 2020 – and we’re dressed in our ‘Charleston’ gear

There are about 70 people in the competition chorus. 42 took part in the video, which proved to be a very good number because it created a nice 6 x 7 grid. Some of our members are key workers themselves and couldn’t take part because they were working.

The first stage was relatively simple. Many barbershoppers learn their own part from teach tracks, and everyone is very familiar with using them. We all have access to the tracks so we each recorded our own voice, listening to our track, so that we all got the same timing. Obviously, the recordings varied, depending on the equipment that had been used. A small group of people balanced them so nobody was singing too loudly.

For many members getting organised for the visual part was more demanding. We thought we needed to be dressed appropriately for a Beach Boys song. (Are you noticing a theme here?) I, for one, don’t have any beach attire. Pat cannot be exposed to sunlight so we just don’t do holidays with sun, sand and sea. We searched the house but didn’t find anything garish enough. Pat is ‘shielded’ for 12 weeks but I am allowed out for essential shopping. Fortunately, our nearest supermarket is Asda, which happens to sell clothes. A flowery shirt is not an essential but I was able to get one at the same time as buying food. I guess others faced similar challenges and probably had to borrow from members of their household.

We also wanted to make the backgrounds appropriate. Zoom makes this easy because it has a ‘green screen’ feature that lets you use your own picture as the background. It will work, but is not perfect, if your background is just a plain wall. We have a big house so it’s not that difficult to find a wall space but I decided to experiment further.

I probably wouldn’t have even thought about trying to make a real green screen but, on the same day, a local person put out an appeal for fabric to make drawstring bags for nurses to put their clothes in so they can put everything in the washing machine at one go without touching anything. We have masses of fabric from the days when I used to do screen printing. We sorted through a big pile of fabric and kept anything green.

Most green screens are very bright, almost fluorescent, and nothing was quite that colour. I read on the internet that any shade of green will work, as will red, blue, etc. Apparently red can be tricky as faces are sometimes seen as being the same colour as the background. The biggest problem with ordinary fabric is that it is difficult to get completely flat. I had enough clips, bars, hangers, etc. to be able to fasten it up but, even after ironing, the slightest crease is picked up as a different shade.

I fixed up a screen and soon discovered that you have to be fairly close to it otherwise the camera also sees the walls at the side of it and that messes things up. Two or three feet away from the wall is far enough. This meant moving the laptop and microphone across the room so that everything would fit in. The green screen wasn’t a great success. I had to shave off most of my beard because the camera seemed to think it was green and my background picture showed through. In the end I settled for using the plain white wall which was just as good.

I was lucky that I had plenty of space and somewhere to do this uninterrupted. This wasn’t the case for everyone. Some people had to lock up their dogs, silence their children and turn off everything that could make a noise.

The filming took place on my birthday, Saturday, April 18. Everyone was miming to the recording and being filmed by their own laptop, phone, tablet, whatever. It took a while to get started. There were some who confused themselves because they were logged in on more than one device. Others couldn’t understand why they could not see themselves, only to discover they were using the wrong camera on a phone. We had the inevitable lost connections, dropped phones, and other minor problems. We also needed to remind people to move as little as possible so that the overall effect would not be distracting. This didn’t stop Chris entering into the spirit of his location and bringing his cocktail with him.

It took three attempts to get it right. The first failed because it wasn’t recording. Someone disappeared part way through the second attempt. Third time lucky!

We hope you enjoy it

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Cottontown Chorus


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