EASY Cheese – better than real cheese!

The first time I toured in America I went into a supermarket to buy some supplies for my hotel room fridge and was amused to find a product called “EASY Cheese,” with the immortal strap line “Better than real cheese!” I strongly doubted that and quickly headed for the next aisle. Now, twenty something years on from that moment, I’m occasionally hearing people say that rehearsing a choir via Zoom and making split screen choir videos could almost be as good as rehearsing in the same room and performing actual concerts. These people have clearly never sung in a choir or attempted to make a spilt-screen choir video. (Perhaps they also believe that easy cheese really is better than real cheese, who knows?) As someone who has been rehearsing a choir via zoom during lockdown and who has taken part in a many a split-screen video, I thought I’d try to explain to anyone who might be in doubt about the difference between this and the real thing what it’s really like. Thank you for listening.
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From: Management
To: The Teams
Date: 24 June 2020

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Due to the current Covid-19 crisis, we are unable to resume our normal schedule of training sessions and matches. Until we have word from the Association that we can resume, we will be following the new training guidelines.

Please read these instructions carefully:

  1. Find a quiet space outside, preferably on grass but tarmac will do.
  2. Make sure you are not going to be interrupted for the duration of your training.
  3. Bring everything you’ll need to play your game  – e.g. balls, racquets, stumps etc. – and wear your usual games kit.
  4. Set up your iphone on a tripod (if you don’t have a tripod, pile up tables, chairs etc until the phone is the same height as your face).
  5. Important: make sure that the device is set to landscape, not portrait.
  6. Start the video and practise playing your sport in front of the camera, being sure not to go out of the frame at any point.
  7. Stop the video and watch it to make sure that you are staying with the frame.
  8. Also, check that the light is right. (Too much light and the video will be over-exposed; if the light is behind you, you might be silhouetted; if there’s not enough light, we won’t be able to see you clearly.) Experiment with different angles and settings until this is correct.
  9. Now you’re ready to make your video.
  10. Set the video running and play your sport for 3 minutes, uninterrupted. N.B. In order for the video to look convincing, you will need to make it seem as if you are training with someone.
  11. After 3 minutes, stop the video and watch it all the way through to verify that you are staying within the frame, that the light is correct and that there are no unwanted background noises or interruptions.
  12. Repeat steps 10 and 11 as many times as is necessary until you are satisfied that your video meets all of the above requirements.
  13. Once you are satisfied with your video, simply put it in the dropbox (link below). N.B. You will need a strong wifi connection for this.

Once all of the players have submitted their training videos, Management will assemble them into one film which will be shared via Facebook at a later stage. If this proves as successful as we anticipate, it could eventually replace actual training.

Good luck!!

Management

What exactly is the point of International Women’s Day?

Joanna Forbes L'EstrangeI imagine I’m not alone in my longing to live in a society in which sexual preference, skin colour and gender are as irrelevant as coffee preference, eye colour and shoe size when it comes to appreciating good music. The label “woman composer” doesn’t sit well with me; it sounds, at best, like a justification and, at worst, a warning: we’ve programmed this piece not because it’s any good but because it’s by a woman and we felt obliged to keep our quota up. This piece is by a woman but, don’t worry, it’s actually quite good. The piece of music you’re about to hear was composed by a woman; you have been warned. Imagine the equivalent: delighted to announce a brand new choral piece by the man composer [insert name].
I’m confident, though, that we’ll be able one day to drop this “woman” prefix just as, somewhere along the way, we stopped saying WPC for female police officers and typing “www” before website addresses. When the World Wide Web was a new concept, “double u double u double u” was a necessary mouthful of words for us all to struggle through but now that most of us can barely, if at all, remember life before the internet it’s no longer needed. Precisely when this change will happen no one knows, of course, but I suspect it will either coincide with a time when it’s no longer a novelty to see women’s names on church music lists and concert programmes or when we all agree that gender isn’t an either/or situation anyway. In the pop music industry nobody feels the need to say or write “the woman song-writer Joni Mitchell”. Who cares if a song on the radio was written by a man or a woman? Can you imagine tuning into Radio 2 on March 8th and hearing a presenter say “today, as it’s International Women’s Day, we’re featuring songs written by women song-writers from Carole King to Annie Lennox, not because the songs are any good, you understand, haha, but because it’s IWD and we need to be seen to be championing songs written by women.”
So, why should the pop music industry be so ahead of the game when considering the relevance of naming writers as being male or female? Well, the most obvious explanation is pop music’s seven decades of existence compared with classical music’s ten centuries. Until the twentieth century, composing music was seen very much as a man’s world which is why Hildegarde of Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ethel Smythe and the like were regarded as pioneers for having bravely entered a profession entirely dominated by men. Fanny will forever be in the shadow of her better-known composer brother, under whose name many of her songs were published, and Clara’s music only began to receive attention in the 1970s, the surname Schumann having until then only meant Robert. I like to imagine that, had she had any choice in the matter, Clara might have adopted Wieck-Schumann as her professional name in order to distinguish herself both from her pianist father and her composer husband. The ubiquitous “woman” prefix denotes the novelty element because, even now in 2020, it’s still something of a surprise to hear music by female composers, particularly within the realm of choral evensong. By contrast, it’s as easy to name female pop song writers from each decade since the 1950s as it is male, so much so that the distinction becomes wholly irrelevant; if the song is great who cares? I hope I live to see the day when the classical music industry reaches this point.
Earlier this week, my man publisher at the RSCM posted on Facebook’s Choral Evensong Appreciation Society group the music list for his church’s Choral Evensong for International Women’s Day: pieces by Margaret Rizza, Amy Summers and me. Moments later, he was perplexed to read under his post the following comment from a man:
“If I were a woman I think I’d find this quite offensive actually. I’m really not meaning to be provocative, but just think about it.”
At his suggestion, I have been thinking about it, asking myself why this man should have been offended on behalf of women, (and whether I should be offended), and have concluded that he must have felt that the post implied that these pieces had only been chosen because they were written by women and not for their musical merit. However, it’s a curious practice to put oneself in another’s shoes and imagine how they must feel. A few years ago, a vicar somewhere in the south east of England announced that he would be boycotting a performance in his church of Alexander’s Zimbe! Come, sing the songs of Africa! because the cover image on the vocal score was offensive to black women. Quite a bold claim for white man to have made especially when you consider that the piece had by that point already received 250 performances worldwide, including in Kenya, and we’d never received any negative comments; nor have we since. Far from being offended by my publisher’s post about IWD I was reassured that people in the music business are using International Women’s Day for the purpose for which it was established, namely as a global platform from which to celebrate ‘the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.’  With the aid of this annual reminder, we inch slowly towards equality; without it, the process would be even slower or grind to a halt altogether. The idea is not that our music is heard one day a year, any more than we only love our partners on February 14th or our mothers on the 4th Sunday of Lent; rather it is that, by celebrating women on this day each year, we come to a greater awareness generally of the achievements of women in all walks of life. In the music business, the hope is that this will lead to a greater likelihood of our music being heard throughout the rest of the year too.
As part of my Oxford music degree in the early 1990s, I had to study for two papers on the History of Western Music from 1600 to 1970, an ambitiously broad remit with a syllabus entirely devoid of any mention of female composers. My tutor and my tutorial partner for those three years were both man composers and, as the daughter of a man composer and, at 21, soon-to-be-wife of another, I’m ashamed to admit that I regarded composition as an entirely male area of expertise. Even my grandfather wrote hundreds of published arrangements of music for viola. The first piece I wrote was in 1999 when I’d just taken on the role of Musical Director of The Swingles: an arrangement of Amazing Grace for the four female voices of the group. It irked me that our repertoire contained a few arrangements for the two tenors and two basses but none for just the women. One of my man colleagues offered this explanation:
“a piece just for sopranos and altos wouldn’t sound any good because the vocal range would be too small and you’d miss the bass line”
I’m indebted to him for this comment because it was all the incentive I needed to go ahead and prove him wrong. By the way,  if you want to hear a whole concert of beautiful music for just women’s voices, please come to Cambridge tomorrow evening and hear my all-female a cappella group Aquila.
In their eagerness to address the gender imbalance, many choir directors have in the last couple of years made private or public pledges to include pieces by female composers in every concert/service which, in turn, has necessitated new commissions. I for one am grateful for this because, without such commissions, I’m not sure it would necessarily have occurred to me to compose my own settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the Communion Service, Preces and Responses and so on. This year I was invited to set a Psalm and a hymn, both of which are to receive their first outings today and, far from being offended, I couldn’t be more delighted. My 11-year-old son is a published composer now too: his Mum has been composing music all his life and, as such, it’s as normal for him as the fact that his Dad does most of the cooking. With any luck, their generation will never feel the need to say or write “woman composer.” Happy International Women’s Day, everyone.
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Upcoming performances of music by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange:
Today: 8am, BBC Radio 4’s Daily Service: The Lord’s Prayer; 6pm, St Mary Magdalene Church, Richmond, King’s Voices (conductor Ben Parry): Magnificat from King’s College Service and a new hymn tune, “Cherry Tree”; 6.30pm, St Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge: Preces and Responses and Psalm 135 chant.
Tomorrow: 8pm, The Old Divinity School, St John’s College, Cambridge: We will remember them, The three wise women, A woman (wearing bloomers) on a wheel and Twenty-first-century Woman.
March 11th: the US premiere of Freedom! The power of song, written in collaboration with Alexander L’Estrange
April 10th (Good Friday): first performances in various churches of new Easter anthem, Words from the cross (pre-publication perusal copy now available)
April 18th: NYCOS, Central Halls, Edinburgh: Give us grace
May 22nd: The Oriel Singers (conductor Ben Sawyer), Winchcombe: first performance of Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (pre-publication perusal copy now available)
Proceeds from downloads of Joanna’s charity single recording of Twenty-first-century Woman (recorded at Abbey Road on St Cecilia’s Day 2018 and released on IWD 2019) go to the charity Her Future Coalition.
Watch the video which features famous and influential women from across the globe

Twenty-first-century Woman: the feminist male

HeForShe logoEmma Watson hit the nail on the head with her HeForShe speech to the United Nations in 2014 when she said that, from her research, one of the problems people have with feminism isn’t the concept but the word ‘feminist’. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that it sounds a bit yucky, too much like racist or misogynist or sexist. I remember the first time a girl friend told me she was a feminist; it sounded like she was owning up to something awful or embarrassing or that she hated men. “But I love men!”, I thought to myself. “Does this mean I can’t be a feminist?” (I was very young, please forgive me.) Weirdly, when a male friend told me years later that he was a feminist, I thought “How cool is that? A feminist man!”

“For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”

Emma Watson, HeForShe speech, 2014

I hope that there are very few people left in the world who believe that men deserve to have rights and opportunities that aren’t afforded to women just by virtue of the fact that they are male. Yet I know lots of people who prefer to say “I believe in gender equality” to “I’m a feminist”. It just sounds less shouty, less aggressive, more acceptable. The HeForShe campaign about which Emma was speaking invites more men to get on board with feminism as, let’s face it, it’s not just up to women to fight for women’s rights any more than it’s solely up to LGBT, BAME or other socially marginalised people to fight for their own rights. I like to think that, had the ball been on the other foot and men had been disadvantaged from birth because of their gender, we women would be proud to call ourselves masculist and fight for equality.

It’s a wonderful thing when men, especially those who are in the public eye, stand up and say “I’m a feminist”. When Andy Murray did it, he turned into a global icon just like that. I find it interesting, having had a scroll through the internet for other celebrity men who identify as feminists, that many of them, Andy Murray included, cite the strong women in their lives, often their mothers, as the reason they became feminists in the first place. Boys who are brought up by strong women seems more likely to become champions for gender equality themselves.  As a mother of two boys, I consequently feel an enormous responsibility to get this bit right. Yikes.

Mrs and Mr L'Estrange
In January this year I received a hand-written letter from my 10-year-old son. Each new year the pupils at his school are set the task of writing letters to their parents/guardians thanking them for all they’ve done to make Christmas special. It’s a clever assignment: they think they’re just writing a nice letter to their parents; we know it’s designed to encourage them a) to recall their favourite moments b) to find interesting ways in which to describe them and c) to practise their best hand-writing! I opened the envelope, read his beautiful letter, had a little weep and folded it back into its envelope for safe-keeping. Only at this point did I notice something unusual about the address: he’d written Mrs and Mr L’Estrange instead of the more conventional Mr and Mrs. When I saw him later that day, I mentioned this and his response was

“I did it on purpose because you’re always telling us to challenge the status quo and so I thought why should it always be Mr and Mrs? Why not Mrs and Mr?”

It was a moment I’ll never forget and that envelope will be pinned to the noticeboard in my study forever more as a little encouragement to myself every time I worry that I’m not getting the “mummy thing” right.

Two weeks today it will be International Women’s Day and I and some wonderful female colleagues will be releasing a charity single called ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ to help raise money for girls’ education globally. I’ve got between now and then to drum up some support with the help of social media. With this in mind, I hereby challenge all of my male friends, colleagues and family members and any other men who may be reading this blog to post a photo of themselves on facebook, twitter or instagram with the following hashtags:

Male Feminist

Alexander L’Estrange – composer

#weare
#feminists
#twentyfirstcenturywomansong

That middle word is a tricky one – I get it, really I do. But it’s the only one we’ve got and so I’m afraid we’re stuck with it. Alexander (pictured) has set the ball rolling. Who else is in?

 

 

Pre-order ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ and help it climb the charts.
All proceeds from downloads will go to charities supporting girls’ education globally.

Twenty-first-century Woman: girls can’t be choristers

Alexander L'Estrange as a chorister at New College, Oxford

Alexander L’Estrange as a chorister at
New College, Oxford

There’s something unique about the sound of a boy’s unbroken, treble singing voice. Theirs has been the soaring top line in cathedrals the length and breadth of the UK since the middle ages and long may it continue for another millennium and beyond. Nowadays a boy chorister not only has the joyous and incomparable experience of being trained to sing from as young as 7 within the context of a professional choir, but the scholarships offered by many choir schools also enable him to have a world-class education at a fraction of the price. I know this because my sons are currently benefiting from this system (St John’s College, Cambridge) as did my brother (Guildford Cathedral), my husband and my brother-in-law (New College, Oxford) and, last time I counted, at least 90% of my male singing colleagues. My nephews (St Albans Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral) and my father and uncle (Hampstead Parish Church) also had the experience of being choristers; my father says that he learnt all he knows about music – this is a lot – from Martindale Sidwell, the then director of music at Hampstead.

My husband, when invited by the Choir Schools Association a few years ago to write a sentence about the impact his chorister experience had had on his life, wrote
My years as a chorister at New College, Oxford, have informed everything I have done since, both musically and otherwise.
Harry L'Estrange with Tasmin Little

Harry L’Estrange with Tasmin Little

For him, it wasn’t just the professional singing training, the coaching in different languages (Latin, German, Russian, French, Mandarin…), the foreign tours and CD recordings, it was the prep school education that went with it that made it all so worthwhile: the team sports, the drama productions, the trips, the subsidised instrumental lessons and on it goes. Our son Harry plays the violin and, through being a chorister, has had the opportunity to have masterclasses with world-renowned violinists Jack Liebeck and Tasmin Little. He also took part in the CSA chorister composition competition this year and was joint winner. He’s still only 10! What a lucky boy. (And, don’t you worry, he knows it.)

If only their voices had the same unique beauty, I’m certain that girls would have been given the same opportunities for the past 1,000 years. And if women had only been clever enough they’d have been doing all of the jobs which men have been doing for centuries too. Hm. The fact of the matter is rather that boys’ choirs were borne out of the male-only monastic establishments of the medieval age where boys were given music lessons and also a rudimentary education by the choir master and, once their voices had broken, they became the singing men of the next generation (not to mention the priests, lay vicars etc) and so and so on. Since girls weren’t allowed anywhere near those medieval monasteries, they weren’t on the scene when choir schools were founded and choral scholarships established and, consequently, were forgotten about.
Nobody thought to question this until, in 1966, on the morning of a planned BBC broadcast of evensong from St Davids Cathedral in Wales, the organist suddenly found that he had no choristers – they were all off sick. So he brought in the all-girls choir of a neighbouring grammar school to save the day and, shock horror, they were pretty good! Three months later, the cathedral formally admitted girls to the choir and set the ball rolling. St Mary’s Cathedral in Scotland followed suit by admitting girls to their choir in 1978. England joined the party when the brand new girls’ choir at Salisbury Cathedral sang its first evensong on October 7th 1991* [see footnote]. I remember it well as I had just arrived for my second year as a music undergraduate at Oxford when news filtered through. I recall having conflicting emotions: while I was delighted for those girl choristers I also felt somewhat cheated out of an experience for which I’d have given anything as a child. When I’d asked if I could be a chorister I’d received the response “girls can’t be choristers.” Until the age of 18, my sole experience of choral singing had been in my little village church choir where my younger sister and I helped to bring down the average age by several decades. My foster father, Richard, loves to tell the story of how I had recently declared myself “too old for Sunday school” – I was 7 – and so he thought I could join the choir instead. I am eternally grateful to him for this decision; cathedral-standard we certainly were not, but there I learnt to sing Psalms, hymns and, most crucially of all, to sightread, a skill which got me successfully through an otherwise terrifying audition for Schola Cantorum of Oxford in my first term as a student and set me on course for 25 years (and counting) of singing in professional choirs.
Peterborough Choir Tweet

Tweet from February 2019

Happily, most of the UK’s cathedrals now have girls’ choirs as well as boys’ and some are admitting female altos too. Things are definitely looking up. Not all of the girls’ choirs get to sing an equal number of services a week to the boys’ choirs but at least girls now do have the opportunity to have the chorister experience. Peterborough Cathedral this week tweeted that one of their girl choristers was going to be conducting an anthem during evensong; what an absolutely brilliant experience for her. Who knows? That may well be a defining moment in her career as a choral conductor. Within the Oxbridge collegiate and choir school system the wheels of change turn more slowly but they are turning: ten years ago St Catharine’s College in Cambridge blazed the trail for collegiate girls’ choirs and, in September 2018, Pembroke College in Cambridge launched its girls’ choir, directed by the brilliant Anna Lapwood. As an organist, she is also an important role model for any girls who may still be wondering if “girls can’t be organists”. Oxford has been slower to catch up but, in 2014, a group of forward-thinking parents helped to set up Frideswide Voices which gives girls the opportunity to sing evensongs in Oxford college chapels and, two years later, Merton College set up its girls’ choir.

This is all well and good but anyone in the UK choral scene knows full well the boys’ choirs continue to dominate. Since 1928, when ‘Carols from King’s’ was first broadcast, it has been a mainstay of Christmas and now millions are able to listen to it across the world. For girl choristers, there are still no scholarships or other financial incentives towards their education which are equivalent to those offered to boys. The good news is that people have started to notice the inequality; the bad news is that polemical articles, designed to sell newspapers rather than to effect change, do more damage than good because they risk alienating or even vilifying the very people we need to get on side. As someone who spends a lot of time in Cambridge, attending evensongs at St John’s, conducting my all-female a cappella group Aquila and coaching the choir of Trinity College in their jazz repertoire, I can confirm that there is genuine fear that introducing girl choral scholarships will somehow dilute or spoil the boys’ experience or, even worse, kill it off completely. Don’t forget that in state primary schools it’s near on impossible to get boys to sing at all, hence the need for the brilliant initiative Sing Up , and so we must tread carefully (and get our facts straight). What we need, if girls in Oxford and Cambridge are ever going to be offered a chorister experience which is on a par with that afforded to boys, is a level-headed, well thought through, properly organised and brilliantly executed plan. Plans are afoot and nobody need worry. The future is bright. Watch this space.

* It has been pointed out to me since the publication of this article that there were other girls’ choirs in England before 1991, including at Leicester Cathedral in 1978. However, Salisbury Cathedral was, I believe, the first to form a separate girls’ foundation. Thank you for your comments.
I welcome any comments which are helpful to the discussion from people who understand the complexity of this matter better than I do. The more informed we are, the better chance we stand of finding a solution which is good for boys and girls. Thank you.

• King’s College Service (RSCM) world premiere is on 4 March 2019 at King’s College, Cambridge, as part of their celebration of women composers for International Women’s Day.
Twenty-first-century Woman is available to download from all music platforms on 8 March 2019, International Women’s Day, raising money for girls’ education globally.
A place for us maids world premiere is on 28 April 2019 at Trinity College, Cambridge, celebrating 40 years of women being admitted as undergraduates at Trinity. 

Twenty-first-century Woman: in a man’s world

Making history at Abbey Road Studios
In my 22 years of being a London-based freelance musician, I have worked with singers (men and women), orchestral musicians (men and women), jazz instrumentalists (all male), organists (male with one or two exceptions), conductors (all male apart from one concert in which I was conducted by the wonderful Marin Alsop) and composers (all male apart from the BAFTA-winning Jessica Curry.) I’ve been wondering about the gender disparity; if, a fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, there is such an uneven ratio of men to women in my profession alone, what is it like in other professions?

There’s an excellent video on YouTube called Inspiring The Future: Redraw The Balance in which a primary school teacher asks her pupils (girls and boys) to draw a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. They set about drawing their pictures, colouring them in, giving them characteristics, names and so on. Without exception, every child draws only men. When they’ve completed the task, their teacher asks “would you like to meet these people?” and, following a resounding “yes!”, into the classroom walk a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. As they remove their helmets/masks the cameras close in on the children gasping, mouths gaped, eyes wide in astonishment as they come face to face with three women. It’s a brilliant way to show that education about equality must begin at primary school level (ideally before that) before the gender stereotypes set in. In order for girls to grow up believing that they can be whomever they want to be, they need female rôle models; however, in order for there to be rôle models, there need to be women represented fairly in all professions, especially those which are traditionally solely male or male-dominated, but how can that ever be if those women in turn didn’t have rôle models when they were growing up? We need to be educating our girls (and our boys) to know that being female should no longer prevent anyone from following their dreams. In our modern age where gender fluidity is slowly replacing the old binary perception, hopefully one day it won’t even cross our minds to discriminate according to gender. You want to be an astronaut? Here’s what you need to do. You want to start your own company? Show me your business plan. It’s the polar opposite of what I was told as a child, growing up in the 1970s, but at least I was able to go to school. There are still some countries in the world where girls don’t even have access to education.

It is this fact that prompted me to write Twenty-first-century Woman (that and Oprah Winfrey’s extraordinary call-to-arms speech at the Golden Globes last March) and, with it, raise awareness of women’s roles in the world as well as money for charities supporting girls’ education worldwide.  When I wrote the lyrics to the song it was the chorus that came to me first. I wanted to list many of the ways in which women make a positive contribution to society, both professionally and personally. “We are doctors, politicians, we’re conductors, musicians; we are poets, we are writers, we are even firefighters” and so it went on until I realised I’d reached thirty-seven on my “we are” list. When we recorded the song at Abbey Road Studios last November, I invited a team which was 100% women: 14 sopranos and altos, 1 girl singer, 4 band members, a sound engineer, a producer and me conducting. Everyone gave their time for nothing in support of the project

Twenty-first-century Woman: production crew

Twenty-first-century Woman: production crew in the control room, Abbey Road Studio 3

and we made history by being the first ever all-female recording session at Abbey Road.

During that amazing day, I asked one of the assistant sound engineers, in her final year studying on the UK’s prestigious sound engineering degree course, the Tonmeister at Surrey University, what the average male/female ratio is on that course – she replied “This year, out of 24 people, there are 4 women” which the others agreed was actually better than in previous years. During the same discussion, it was pointed out that until recording artists and their management start specifically requesting female sound engineers and producers, studios won’t necessarily think to hire any. It’s an interesting thesis. I felt pleased that our engineering/production team members are now able to write on their CVs that they’ve recorded a track at the famous Abbey Road Studios.

Like the primary school pupils in the YouTube video, I wanted to meet the firefighter, the surgeon and all of the other inspirational women I’d written into the chorus of my song. Since recording the single, I’ve been busy tracking down and filming women from all walks of life to appear in the Twenty-first-century Woman music video. It’s been a fascinating and somewhat humbling experience.

#weare #surgeons Dr Rachel Evans

#weare #surgeons
Dr Rachel Evans

Dr Rachel Evans, a colorectal surgeon at London’s University College Hospital, agreed to appear for “we are surgeons”. Having donned my raspberry scrubs [see pic], I was shown around the operating theatres and had the chance to ask Rachel what it was like being a female surgeon. Looking me straight in the eye she replied “you need titanium balls!”  She told me that, in her experience, women in the medical profession tend to choose nursing or anaesthesiology over being a doctor or a surgeon. Interestingly, when I filmed Azra Jivraj for “we’re opticians” she said that her profession had a higher proportion of women than men.

Until this year, women’s rugby has been a part-time only career so when I met English Rugby union players Vickii Cornborough, Leanne Riley and Shaunagh Brown just before Christmas they told me about their other careers. Shaunagh Brown has been a hammer thrower at the Commonwealth Games, a boxer, a gas engineer, a commercial diver and……a firefighter – now, that’s a twenty-first-century woman for you! During our meeting, she picked me up and threw me onto her shoulders, quick to point out that it wasn’t a fireman’s lift but a firefighter’s lift. It’s clear that

Firefighter's lift from Shaunagh Brown, England Rugby player

Firefighter’s lift from Shaunagh Brown,
England Rugby player

our language habits need to change too. This month, due to new ruling, Shaunagh and her rugby colleagues have finally been able to fulfil their dreams by becoming full-time rugby players and I couldn’t be happier for them.

Some of the people I’ve met have been the first women in the UK to hold a particular position. In 2007, after 22 years in the British army, Moira Cameron became the first female Yeoman warder (AKA Beefeater) at the Tower of London. Sadly, she wasn’t permitted to wear her fabulous uniform when I filmed her for the music video so I urge you to google her – it’s awesome! Reverend Lucy Winkett was the first female priest to join the clergy of St Paul’s cathedral. Also a professional singer, she was happy to sing (rather than speak or mime) her line “we are preachers”. In May last year, the Right Reverend Dame Sarah Mullally was installed as the first female Bishop of London. We met on a cold weekday morning in January amidst the busy London rush-hour as she was on her way to work. In the same section of the song, we also have the inimitable Sister Cristina Scuccia winner of The Voice of Italy in 2014 singing “we are nuns”. She lives in Italy so I didn’t get to meet her in person but her video clip is a moment worth waiting for!

Meeting Rev Lucy Winkett and Bishop Sarah Mullally put me in mind of a line by the poet Wendy Cope (a recent castaway on Desert Island Discs) who, in 2004 on the tenth anniversary of women being ordained into the church of England, wrote:

‘Good Christian men and women, let us raise a joyful shout:
The C of E is treating us as equals. Just about.’

I’ve felt very privileged to have been invited into the homes of many of the women who appear in the music video. I have sat in Wendy Cope’s sitting room sharing memories of Oxford University and being school music teachers, chatted about mindfulness and mental health awareness to Ruby Wax in her writing room and sat with Dame Jenni Murray (#weare #cancersurvivors) at her kitchen table while her adorable, tiny dogs jumped around me. Ruby was unwell with Delhi-belly, having recently returned from a trip to India; before we filmed her, she slightly caught me off-guard by asking, “Should I go put some make-up on?” to which I replied, “Yes, I think that would be good.” While we waited for her to return all I could think was, “OMG, I just told Ruby Wax OBE to put on some make-up!”

I admit to having been ever-so-slightly intimidated by the prospect of meeting so many illustrious women with OBEs, CBEs, MBEs and DBEs after their names but they were all utterly delightful and very personable. Even the unsuspecting Joanna Lumley and Prue Leith, whom I accosted out of the blue at a Christmas party, willingly allowed me to film them for the video. Thank you, ladies. I am in awe of you all.

Help us to raise awareness of this project by joining the #weare campaign on social media by posting a picture of yourself with the hashtags #weare # ???   #twentyfirstcenturywomansong Keep it positive!
Twenty-first-century Woman
 will be released on all music platforms on International Women’s Day (March 8th). All money from downloads goes to charities supporting girls’ education globally.

Twenty-first-century Woman: a true story

On a freezing cold January morning, two friends stood by the Pret kiosk outside King’s Cross station, wrapped up against the cold, waiting to meet a Very Important Person. They’d been told that she’d be wearing a black suit under a dark grey coat and that they should meet her at 8.30am on her way to work. It was all very James Bond (only without the Russian accents). The women had arrived early, just to be sure, and skulked around, excited in anticipation. As the appointed time drew near, they started looking among the morning commuters for the Very Important Person, in case she too had arrived early. Suddenly one of the women grabbed the other’s arm.
“There she is”, she whispered, pointing to a woman who’d just joined the coffee queue.
“Are you sure it’s her?” the other whispered back.
“No, but it looks like her and she’s wearing a black suit…and she’s got the right glasses”, the first woman replied. “You wait here, I’ll go and introduce myself”.

“Excuse me, but are you the Bishop of London?”said the woman with a confident smile.

A confused woman (who apparently wasn’t the Bishop of London) looked at her with an expression which clearly said “you are mad” and, grabbing her coffee off the counter, hurried away in the opposite direction, whereupon the two friends clutched one another, silently laughing and cringing with shame. Just then, a bespectacled woman wearing a black suit under a dark grey coat approached them and asked “excuse me, but are you Joanna?” 

Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London, is one of an illustrious cast of women appearing in the ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ YouTube video OUT on International Women’s Day (March 8th)

The Bishop of London

#weare #bishops
#twentyfirstcenturywomansong

Twenty-first-century Woman, recording session at Abbey Road Studios

Twenty-first-century Woman: Don’t get ideas above your station

Twenty-first-century Woman by Joanna Forbes L'Estrange

Twenty-first-century Woman by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange

Don’t get ideas above your station. This was a piece of genuine advice given to me when, at the age of 9, I expressed a desire to be a Blue Peter presenter when I grew up. At the time I felt sad that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my dream but what shocks me far more now, looking back, is that it didn’t even occur to me at the time to question the wisdom of the person who’d said it to me because, after all, as a grown-up, she clearly knew what she was talking about. Still, it was upsetting; my junk-modelling skills were (and still are) pretty impressive – I never threw away a rice crispies packet or a loo roll tube, just in case – and, every week without fail, would copy Sarah Greene’s model in real time, double-sided sticky tape at the ready. Having grown up in foster homes, I’d also had plenty of practice working with children, plus someone had told me that you had to be interviewed whilst bouncing on a trampoline. I could certainly have done that (although, post giving birth to two rather large babies, I fear it would have rather less desirable consequences now, perhaps best not to go into here.)

What was my “station”, anyway? Audre Lorde said “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” In a similar vein, until every girl in the world is able to gain access to the same standard of education and opportunities as any boy, thereby enabling her to grow up to be who she wants to be, we can’t say that we have properly achieved equality. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have ended up doing something I love for a living; I may not have become a Blue Peter presenter but singing, writing and conducting music certainly works for me. Whether or not being a freelance musician constitutes having got “ideas above my station”, I’ll leave for you to decide (but please don’t feel obliged to tell me!)

During 2018, with so much media attention focused on the 100th anniversary of some women achieving the vote, I found myself pondering what I could do to join the feminist cause. I’d written a song, as part of a larger choral piece ‘Freedom! The Power of Song’, called Twenty-first-century Woman. Inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s now-famous Golden Globes acceptance speech which begins “A new day is on the horizon”, the lyrics present a vision of a future world in which“every girl can grow up to be who she wants to be”. I had an idea to record the song and release it as a charity single to raise money for charities supporting girls in education. Then I had a better idea: I would hire Studio 3 at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios and invite some of my singing colleagues to record the song with me. I was amazed by the response: I’d asked stars of the West End stage, internationally-acclaimed concert and recording artists with decades of experience, pop backing vocalists for some of the top names in the music business, gospel singers and singer-songwriters. They all said yes. So then I thought, “how about we have an all-female band too?” and then “and an all-female production crew!” Once the seed had taken root in my head, there was no stopping it from growing. The universe was with me the day I phoned Abbey Road Studios – they told me they’d been looking for a project for IWD and that this sounded like the perfect thing. ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ was born and little did I know then that we would make history by being the first all-female recording session to have happened at Abbey Road Studios. Ever.

Twenty-first-century Woman by Joanna Forbes L'Estrange

‘Twenty-First-century Women’ making history at Abbey Road Studios the day they recorded ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’

On a cold St Cecilia’s Day last November, a group of twenty-one singers, band musicians and sound engineers spent their afternoon break walking over the famous zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios many times, in an attempt to get a good photo with all of us in it. It’s usually the tourists holding up the traffic but this time it was us! We managed it eventually but I couldn’t help thinking it must have been easier when The Beatles set the trend 50 years ago…

The atmosphere in Studio 3 was electric that day. Alicia Marsden (11), daughter of Louise Marshall, was first up – she recorded the girl solo at the end of the song like a true pro, ably coached by her Aunty Melanie (Marshall). After that, the rest of us sang and played our hearts out until we had enough takes to call it a wrap. A few promo photos later, Alice Fearn (AKA Elphaba from Wicked) had to hot-foot it to Apollo Victoria Theatre to be covered in green make-up whilst Gina Beck (AKA Miss Honey from Matilda) made her way across town to the Cambridge Theatre to don her wig, specs and cardy to become the world’s best teacher. The brilliant Sophie Alloway packed up her drum kit, Andrea Vicari closed the lid on the Yamaha grand, Rosie Frater-Taylor packed away her guitar and Inga Eichler her bass. We had done it!

Twenty-first-century Woman: production crew

Twenty-first-century Woman: production crew

The rest of us hung around in the Studio 3 lounge and drank a celebratory glass or three of champagne while Isabel Gracefield and her brilliant team of sound engineers started to build the first comp of the track. Suddenly a voice said “Hey, let’s do some more singing!” (I genuinely adore my colleagues) and a bunch of us, all former members of The Swingles, guaranteed always to leave the party last, ran back into the studio and improvised soul-sister vocals over the top of what we’d recorded earlier. Sara Brimer Davey was astonishing and we all gaped in awe and left her to it. What a voice.

Since then, I have had the privilege to meet and film some of the most inspiring women imaginable: Dames, OBEs, MBEs, CBEs, surgeons, bishops, cancer survivors…. They are all appearing in the YouTube video which will be released along with the song. Watch this space.

Twenty-first-century Woman will be available to download from all music platforms on March 8th 2019, International Women’s Day. All proceeds will go to charities supporting girls’ education.