Bringing a bit of Oxford to the east coast of the USA

Map of tour places

So our crowdfunding campaign was a success! This July, we all bundled ourselves onto a plane, armed with folders of music and wide-eyed excitement. I'm so grateful to everyone that donated and spread the word about our campaign.

We started out in Washington, with concerts in the city church and in the cathedral. Washington Cathedral, it turns out, has a gargoyle on the outside shaped like Darth Vader, and a stained glass window with an honest-to-goodness moon rock in it. The White House, the senate, the Lincoln memorial, the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences were all super close to each other, so we managed to do some sight-seeing despite the sweltering weather.

To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature's laws, eternal guide to truth.

The ceiling at the National Academy of Sciences. It reads: "To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature's laws, eternal guide to truth."

In Wilmington, after we were fed enormous amounts of food by the audience, we were kindly welcomed into the home of the Saads, whose daughter Alexa is a super-awesome singer, and whose son is distressingly good at board games. Then in Northampton our new host families threw a fourth of July party for us, and with the help of two small girls we dressed up the bass section in sparkly ball gowns.

The next day we sang in the church next to Smith College, and by a truly amazing stroke of luck, a few of us were shown around the university bell tower, and even got to ring the bells!

All in all, I had a wonderful time, met amazing people, sang beautiful music and saw utterly unique sights. Again, you guys, I am so grateful.


Crowdfunding to help a plucky young choir make it to America

Edit: we did it, you guys! Thanks so much to all of our sponsors.

Somerville College Choir rehearsing at Douai Abbey

The choir I'm currently in are trying to get together enough money to go out to Washington and Boston to sing this July. We're quite unusual as Oxford college choirs go - Somerville College was one of the first women's colleges to open, but it's actually one of the newer colleges, because women weren't allowed into Oxford until 1920. It's not particularly famous or well-funded, and it doesn't have much of a choral tradition.

Our singers come from a lot of different backgrounds, and for most of us, this is our first opportunity to travel so far afield.

We're trying to raise part of the money for our tour through gifts from our friends and family. If you'd be willing to consider helping us reach our goal (I'd be really grateful!), you can donate at .

Alternatively, you could buy a copy of our excellently Christmassy second album "Advent Calendar".

If you can't make a financial contribution to our project, it'd be great if you could spread the word about what we're trying to do to anyone who you think might be interested.


Religious passion: a handy guide for the awkward atheist chorister.

XKCD - Beauty

Like many people, I'm an atheist that loves to sing. Throughout my life I've been lucky enough to sing a lot of really gorgeous music with a lot of incredibly talented people. I feel like a really important part of singing is to take the emotions behind a piece of music and try to express them in your voice, which is all very well and good, until you come across something like:

Glória in excélsis Deo
et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.

...which to me carries about the same amount of meaning as:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,
consectetur adipisicing elit

That is to say, very little. It doesn't help that much of the liturgical music I've come across reads like very strange alternate universe bible fanfiction. Take this line from "Out of your Sleep" by Richard Rodney Bennett:

Blessed be God this game is begun
And his mother the Empress of hell.

I don't remember that from my RE lessons. And since when has Jesus Christ been an apple tree?

I find it helpful to try to a) suspend my disbelief and b) relate religious texts back to emotions that I've felt in everyday life. Anything that rhapsodises about the beauty and wonder of the world around us is an easy pass for me, as a biologist. I just think back to the first time I read The Selfish Gene or The Music of Life, or turned an E. coli colony a funny colour.

Songs that draw on the kind of quiet despair that comes of being in a truly desperate situation, like Elgar's The Shower, or Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb speak to me. Granted, Christopher Smart wrote the text to Rejoice in the Lamb while he was incarcerated inside a mental asylum, and the most wretched situation I've ever been in was the time I managed to get a paper cut on top of another paper cut, but I can summon sufficient emotion to empathise.

Christmas songs are often another easy pass, since so many of them are largely about how nice this new baby is. I get that - babies are great! Carols that describe Mary singing to her newborn son like Along the Little Road to Bethlehem and Bethlehem Down are some of my favourites for the same reason I love the Seal Lullaby: I can imagine them happening over a pram on the bus in the way into Oxford. Lovely.

My main problem has always been with attempting to summon up some enthusiasm for an all-powerful, omnipotent, sometimes vengeful deity. It's not something that I have much of a conception of - and frankly, I'm more likely to find it terrifying than wonderful.

So I thought, and I thought, and nothing came. Then one day, I opened up my hymn book and started singing Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven:

Angels, help us to adore him;
Ye behold him face to face;
Sun and moon, bow down before him,
Dwellers all in time and space:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Praise with us the God of grace.

Something about that verse struck me. Was it the part about the angels? Was it the reference to time and space? Perhaps I will never know, but into my head at that moment came the perfect metaphor. A character who I could empathise with utterly, who held unknowable power, who was just and kind and loving but also could wipe out entire continents or blow up worlds.

Doctor Who

So there we have it: a simple method for faking your way through the vast majority of religious music. Fantastic.

In other news, if you're feeling like a bit of choral Christmas cheer, my very wonderful college choir have released our second CD Advent Calendar which would make an excellent Christmas present, or a very disappointing doorstop.