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Petri-dish research helps to put choirs back in service

11 September 2020

Two lay vicars take part in scientific trials


Lay vicars of Salisbury Cathedral, Richard Hooper (left) and Jonathan Woodhouse, in aerosol-dispersal trials conducted by Public Health England

Lay vicars of Salisbury Cathedral, Richard Hooper (left) and Jonathan Woodhouse, in aerosol-dispersal trials conducted by Public Health England

TWO lay vicars from Salisbury Cathedral have helped to further the gradual return to choral singing in churches and cathedrals across the country. The return follows new government guidelines that enable both professional and non-professional singers and musicians to perform individually or in small groups inside and outside of buildings (News, 21 August).

The lay vicars, Jonathan Woodhouse and Richard Hooper, took part in rigorous individual trials at Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence’s Science and Technology Laboratory (News, 10 July). Aerosol droplets were collected according to their size as they sang, spoke, coughed, and breathed in various directions and at various distances. These were cultivated in petri dishes to allow bacteria to grow, and then analysed. The trials took place in a compression chamber, and the air was cleaned between each stage of the experiment.

It had felt a bit bizarre, Mr Woodhouse, a counter-tenor, acknowledged. “I’d no idea what to expect; so it was very odd. But the way they conducted it was fantastic, and I’m really glad I did it and was able to contribute to the efforts for getting singing back as soon as possible,” he said on Sunday. The stages included first speaking, then singing, all four verses of “O come, all ye faithful”, and the performance of a song of his choice, Purcell’s “If music be the food of love”.

Mr Hooper, a bass, was asked to sing in German also. He chose a Lied by Schubert, along with “a bit of Messiah. Audience was small but very appreciative,” he said.

These and other scientific experiments, notably those conducted by the ear, nose, and throat surgeon Declan Costello, have concluded that, with mitigations, singing may be no more dangerous than speaking. “The preliminary impression is that it matters more who is in the room than what they are actually doing,” Mr Hooper said.

Salisbury Cathedral has 40 choristers, with both boys’ and girls’ choirs. Lay vicars sang the first choral evensong last Friday, and full-choir services resumed the next day. The Director of Music, David Halls, said that the lockdown had posed a serious threat to the future of many choirs.

“Each year, our cathedral choir evolves through the admission of new young choristers, but we also lose the older and more experienced choristers as they move on to new schools. It is, therefore, a huge relief that we are able to resume both rehearsals and services, so that this heritage can continue to be passed down.”

Young choristers — Rory, Alex, Zeeshan, Isabel, Emma, Daniel, and Alice — were excited to be back at Salisbury. Although some admitted to having “liked the break”, they had kept their voices in trim by practising hymns, psalms, and introits at home, they said on Sunday; and they had grown used to working on Zoom.

Jason BryantChoristers at Wells Cathedral on Sunday

“But that’s been weird, because we’re not with everyone else, and you can only hear yourself,” Rory said. “It doesn’t sound like the real choir until it all gets put together.” With everyone on mute, it had been about “watching each other mouth the words”, Isabel said, while Alex thought that having a congregation present had been the really nice thing. “They care about you and what you’re singing, and you’re kind of helping them worship God,” he said.

Salisbury was fortunate in that all the choristers attended the choir school and were therefore able to sing in “bubbles”, allowing them to stand next to each other, the Assistant Director of Music, John Challenger, said. He acknowledged that it would be much harder for choirs where that was not the case. Risk assessments and safety measures for the resumption of choral rehearsals and services have been months in the planning at Salisbury, and include newly dry-cleaned robes now hung in separate laundry bags.

The choir of Wells Cathedral returned on Sunday, with a choral evensong to celebrate the beginning of the choir’s year. It was appreciated by a large, masked, and socially distanced congregation; a collection was taken for the cathedral’s Bounce Back Appeal, launched to raise urgently needed funds. “During lockdown, 70,000 people have not been able to come to the cathedral, and the financial impact continues to be far-reaching,” the Dean, the Very Revd Dr John Davies, said.

At York Minster, the resumption of choral singing is being celebrated with the world premières of three specially commissioned anthems sung by the adults in the choir: “O sing unto the Lord a new song”, by the Cornish composer Becky McGlade; “Now cheer our hearts this eventide, Lord Jesus Christ”, by Philip Moore, Organist Emeritus at the Minster; and “After this, we will return”, by Sarah Macdonald, Director of Music of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir.

Boy and girl choristers will return to services at the Minster this month. As in other places of worship, a reservation system is in place to maintain social distancing at the most popular services: “just one more adaptation that we have to make in order to enjoy Sunday worship in a safe manner, as we welcome choral music back to the Minster,” the director of visitor experience, Patricia Dunlop, said.

A choir of ten singers returned to the eucharist last Sunday at Bath Abbey. The Director of Music, Huw Williams, said: “It was a very joyful moment to be part of this. We are gradually opening the choirs, with rehearsals and services in smaller groups at present, and it is wonderful to see the boys, girls, and lay clerks returning to working together.

“During the lockdown, we have been sharing videos online and have received many comments and messages of grateful thanks for the music. In turn, we would like to thank everyone for their lovely messages, patience, and continued support of our choir.”

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