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Chorister crisis is pressing, say musicians

24 September 2020

Novel solutions to be sought to save the non-cathedral choirs

St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

The choir of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

The choir of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

THE recruitment and retention of choristers is a crisis that must be addressed if the voluntary choral tradition is to remain an essential and beloved part of the liturgy, clergy and musicians from some of the country’s largest parish churches warned this week.

Incumbents and directors of music from the Major Churches Network (formerly Greater Churches) met on Monday and have set up a task group to explore what can be done, after six months of restrictions that have left churches powerless to recruit.

The vice-chairman of the network, Canon Dan Tyndall, Vicar of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, said: “Here, in Redcliffe, we were becoming increasingly concerned not only about the number of boys whose voices were changing during lockdown, but also our total inability to recruit new choristers. We put this concern to some of our colleagues across the network, and soon found we were not alone.”

The churches seek to deliver a paper outlining both tried and tested methods of recruitment and “novel and innovative” ideas, not only for churches with a traditional choral heritage, but for all those wishing to engage children and young people in church music-making.

“This approach should not be seen as coming from the shadow of the massive difficulties of our colleagues and other churches where the professional choral tradition is under huge stress,” Canon Tyndall emphasised. “We are very well aware of the pressures they face, and are delighted they are getting some support.

“However, the voluntary choral tradition, based in parish churches, large and small, is also under extreme pressure, and we want to ensure that it survives and thrives through and beyond Covid-19.”

St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, has informed ten choirs and orchestras that have regularly given concerts in the church that it plans to bring its music offering in-house. The move has been described by the ensembles as “unchristian behaviour” at a time when freelance musicians are “on their knees”.

The church’s director of music, Dr Andrew Earis, said that St Martin’s needed to evolve with the times to ensure its long-term artistic and financial sustainability. “We want St Martin’s to be at the heart of London’s musical life and a place musicians and audience members call home,” he said in a statement.

“Throughout the pandemic we have endeavoured to support the musicians who make up St St Martin’s in-house ensembles by continuing our choral-music online services and other remote recordings. Through these exciting changes to how we operate our music, we will be able to provide a greater breadth of programming for our music.”

The Vicar, Canon Sam Wells, said: “This initiative is about St Martin’s not just hosting the harmonies of others but finding its own voice. Out of this period of desolation for the creative arts, we are seeking to generate energy, life, and inspiration for emerging performances, stellar ensembles, and eager audiences alike.”

The ensembles, which say that they were in effect “summarily dismissed” by email, have called on people of all faiths and none to to support their appeal to the senior management at St Martin’s to reverse its decision immediately. “[It] will cause severe hardship for hundreds of our musicians in numerous orchestras and choirs,” a statement says.

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