Pandemic has ‘ripped apart’ church choirs

01 April 2020

Organists and other musicians are also suffering, says RSCM

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Organs, if not played regularly, will deteriorate, the Royal College of Organists has said

Organs, if not played regularly, will deteriorate, the Royal College of Organists has said

THE coronavirus lockdown is having a savage impact on church musicians, member organisations have said. Choristers, classical musicians, and organists who are unable to meet or practice must be offered imaginative solutions, they say.

The director of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), Hugh Morris, said on Tuesday: “Coronavirus has had a devastating effect on church musicians, since it has literally ripped apart the many close-knit groups of singers and instrumentalists who spend significant amounts of time together in joint effort. . .

“For church musicians paid by the service, it is also a really difficult situation. We have been advising them to speak to their vicar and churchwardens in the first instance, since openness and honesty from both sides is a really important part of supporting each other.

“With so many local situations, there is no magic wand to be waved, and so the generosity of spirit that all Christians should surely be encouraged to display becomes more important than ever. The spirit of compromise might also have to underpin such conversations. What is really important is that the musicians continue to feel valued and supported.”

The RSCM, a charity that provides education and resources for all forms of church music, is working to keep choirs going during the lockdown. Its recently launched app Showbie — through which choristers of all ages and experience can complete its established Voices for Life & Singing training and awards programme — is now free to use.

A statement on the RSCM website explains: “This will include, for each level, some pieces which choristers can learn from the syllabuses by following the teaching videos which will appear shortly. In the current situation, we will ensure that this remains free of charge.”

Last Friday, the RSCM livestreamed its first public webinar for remote choir training, hosted on Zoom. This and all future webinars can be downloaded from its website for £5 each. Topics include organ studies, aural skills, and choral conductor training.

Mr Morris said: “We have tried to respond quickly and positively to the current situation so that we can continue to support both the Church and church musicians. It has required a lot of imaginative thinking.”

The RSCM has provided a range of resources to allow people to continue worshipping through music. On its YouTube channel each day, a new pre-recorded hymn is posted with lyrics so that people can sing along in their homes. A daily vocal warm-ups video — a short session for singers and others to keep bodies and voices in shape — is to be added.

On Sundays, also on its YouTube channel, the RSCM posts a “Sunday Self-Service” — a short service including hymns, readings, and prayers, accompanied by an order of service. Specific resources for Holy Week and Easter will be released in the coming days.

It also gives information on how to obtain a licence to stream copyrighted music for churches which are offering livestreamed or pre-recorded services.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Organists (RCO) has warned that the suspension of public services and gatherings, and the closure of churches, has meant that organists — many of whom are self-employed — are both losing income and unable to practice.

The chief executive of the RCO, Sir Andrew Parmley, said on Friday: “We recognise the hardship that the Covid-19 response is causing so many in our society, and, as freelance musicians, teachers, and performers, organists are certainly no exception.

“As well as making available as much information and as many learning opportunities as possible to help organists fill the enforced downtime they now have, we are also making urgent representations to the Government on both income and access to instruments.”

The Government announced last Thursday that self-employed people could apply for up to £2500 a month for the next three months if they had lost money from the effects of the coronavirus. Shortly before, the chair of the RCO, Lord Glenarthur, had written to the Chancellor urging him to enhance support for freelance workers.

Covid-19 was having a “devastating effect” on members and organists throughout the country, Lord Glenarthur wrote. “In addition to the sudden loss of livelihood that many have suffered, virtually every organist now has no or restricted access to their instruments in churches and other public buildings.

“Unlike other musicians who keep their instruments at home, organists are, in the main, reliant on using instruments in public buildings for the vital practice which enables them to maintain their hard-earned skills.

“Furthermore, the strict current rules about access to churches and other normally accessible organs means that these complex and enormously expensive instruments, which need regular playing to ensure that the fragile technical components are kept in good working order, are not accessible. Failure to use them regularly may well result in considerable damage and substantial cost.”

The RCO is supporting organists by making its full online learning platform iRCO available to guest as well as member accounts. Guest accounts are free to create, meaning that any organist worldwide can gain access to its library of hundreds of videos, audio files, papers, articles, and other learning materials.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is offering legal assistance to its members and more general advice to musicians who are unable to work in the current climate. This includes guidance posted on its website on the right to be paid, and advice about contract termination and postponement.

It points to the recent government announcement that self-employed people can now access Universal Credit “in full” at a rate equivalent to Statutory Sick Pay for employees. The standard Universal Credit allowance has also been increased universally by £20 per week.

The ISM has also written to the Chancellor to ask for an urgent revision of the self-employment Income Support Scheme to better support freelance musicians. This includes lowering the threshold of income from 50 to 25 per cent; removing the £50,000 cap; and making the Universal Credit system more responsive.

The chief executive, Deborah Annetts, explained on Tuesday: “While we are grateful the Government has listened to the music sector, many musicians have raised concerns about how, in particular, the package announced for the self-employed will not provide them with adequate financial support. Many musicians, including 93 per cent of the ISM membership, undertake work which is both self-employed and employed.”

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