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Choristers need support urgently

by
06 August 2020

Their work reduced, paused, or cancelled, many are considering leaving the profession, says Felicity Hayward

istock

IN TIMES of crisis, spirituality and religion offer sanctuary to many, but religious institutions, communities, and workers have not escaped the impact of the pandemic.

This is especially true of choral music. As a regular member of a professional church choir in central London, and a cantor for a synagogue in Harrow, I have deep concerns for its future. There has simply been no adequate response, either from the Government or the Church of England, which addresses our unique position as paid, regular, but self-employed, choristers.

Although we are self-employed by name, the weekly nature of our work means that we often fulfil government criteria as employees, even without formal contracts. Our portfolio careers usually involve a fluctuating mix of employment and self-employment, meaning that, unlike many professionals, our work does not fit into one neat box.

Because of this, many of my colleagues have been ineligible for government support, and, without this, they are now facing the prospect of changing career. I have spoken to recent graduates who are unsure that the music profession is now a viable choice for them: sole-trader owner-directors who could neither furlough themselves nor claim the grant for the self-employed, and performers whose contracts have now been cancelled far into 2021.

Yet with the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and furlough both due to end soon, there will be no further government support for those of us in these situations, even though it seems inevitable that many venues will not be able to open and run profitably for the foreseeable future. This will continue to affect our livelihoods for months and even years to come.

Many of my colleagues have relied heavily on church and synagogue singing during these past few months. Yet, for many, this work has been reduced, paused, or cancelled, and there is no schedule in place for return.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the loss of this strand of work would take many singers out of the profession, and upset an already delicate eco-system of musical training. Besides affecting weekly services, the risk of diminishing the quality of music-making at weddings, funerals, and carol services is also a worry.

 

WHAT we would like to see is clear direction from the highest level which affirms the benefits of the continuing part that we play in worship, and which helps faith communities throughout the country to prioritise it. Our collective concern is to ensure that we are consulted, and that live music is not viewed as a soft touch for cutting costs, especially while the science is not on our side.

While we welcome the establishment of the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund, many of us do not work in cathedrals, and are therefore unlikely to benefit directly from this support. It has been left to our individual workplaces to decide how well (or not) to support their musicians and singers.

I have been treated incredibly well by my church and synagogue: both honoured fees for cancelled work, initially, and have since taken steps to redeploy paid musicians while offering their worship in new ways.

Streaming the vocals for the shabbat morning service from my hallway, using JamKazam to play in real time with a pianist on the other side of London, and broadcasting the results to Zoom for the congregation is not how I thought I would be earning money this year — but it shows what can be achieved with ORM software, an ethernet cable, and a fair amount of trial and error.

My church choir, meanwhile, are producing an anthem and a hymn each week from their own homes, which is broadcast during a live-streamed Sunday mass. It’s not the same as singing together, of course, but I am hugely grateful that we have been allowed to continue, even if we are not all in the same room. It also proves that it is possible to make things work. I hope that others can make use of my positive experience.

Many have not been so fortunate. Some choristers have already lost their jobs, and a co-ordinated group of singers have written to the Bishop of London about this. The Incorporated Society of Musicians, which represents many musicians working in religious settings who are facing job losses, has also called on the Church of England to draw on its considerable resources to support all professional musicians during this stage of the pandemic, and to ensure that their posts will survive.

We know that churches and synagogues face difficult decisions at present. We hope, however, to persuade our community leaders that live music should remain central to the practices of faith communities, not least because it can bring new people in. Current statistics, especially regarding attendance at choral evensong, bear this out.

 

AT THE time of writing, government guidance says that “professional singers can sing outdoors to worshippers and indoors for rehearsal and broadcast subject to the guidance,” and, from 1 August, reduced-capacity live indoor performances have been allowed.

We are, therefore, beginning to limp towards a return; but, for many, it looks far from imminent. Specific concerns about the safety of singing, on which we await further scientific clarification, are another obstacle. I worry that, the longer we are out of our buildings, the harder it will become to persuade some that we were necessary in the first place.

Our present situation risks becoming a watershed moment from which our rich choral tradition may never recover. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, wrote in a diocesan letter on 10 July that “there will be things we need to let go of, and new ways of being that are being discovered.” Musicians across the country hope and pray that live music remains part of that future, and is not condemned to the past.

 

Felicity Hayward is a regular member of a professional church choir in central London, and a cantor for a synagogue in Harrow.

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