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All Lent and no Easter for workless professional musicians

06 April 2020

Lockdown is serious economic blow for the self-employed

Jason Bryant

Singers who share a house in Vicar’s Close, Wells, have been serenading residents, as the Close Quarters Choral Scholars

Singers who share a house in Vicar’s Close, Wells, have been serenading residents, as the Close Quarters Choral Scholars

FREELANCE church musicians are set to lose thousands of pounds in income during Holy Week and Easter, owing to the coronavirus lockdown.

While directors of music, organists, and some singers in cathedrals and larger churches are on salaried contracts, most other church musicians are treated as self-employed.

Mhairi Ellis, who is a chorister at St Mary’s, Bourne Street, in London, a freelance musician, and a church administrator, said: “This is a time of year when church musicians can reasonably expect a bulge in income with Passiontide, Holy Week, and Easter services, and related concerts and Passion performances; so many people will have lost a greater amount of expected income than at some other times of year.

“I have heard of one tenor who regularly sings the part of Evangelist in the Passions who lost about £30,000 worth of work overnight with the cancellation of a Passion tour, and this will be repeated throughout all the touring groups. I have also heard of singers’ being unable to pay their rent and having to give up their rented accommodation. This has affected both students who are also church singers and even some international stars.

“In church, this pattern can be repeated where some churches have laid off their choir members completely, while others continue to pay a retainer or similar, or have been able to offer some ongoing financial support.”

One church singer who performs with a touring group spoke of losing £4300 from concerts and recording work that had been lined up for between April and July.

A church organist who also teaches and tours overseas said: “I haven’t dared to add together how much ‘day job’ work has been cancelled — school teaching, choir rehearsals, weddings, and funerals — but it will be several thousand pounds’ worth between now and July.

“If I add in one-off gigs, including foreign concert tours, then that figure, sadly, runs to tens of thousands. It’s hard to know when it will end, of course; I’ve just had the first cancellations for October.”

Another church organist, who also conducts, accompanies, and records, estimates a loss of £2600 of income from church work between March and June, and £3350 for other work, including rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions — all of which would have taken place in churches.

“I’d have expected to pick up a great deal of extra work around Easter and after,” the organist said.

Although some musicians are also employed as international organ or vocal recitalists, music teachers, opera singers, or musical directors, or other non-musical professions, these are generally part of a freelance package.

A church musician, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous, was driven to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. He explained: “Self-employed freelance work makes up 85 per cent of my total income. Not only have I lost over £1200 in cancelled work since 12 March, my opportunity to earn money has completely vanished due to social distancing measures — the necessity of which I do not dispute.

“Like most musicians, my work takes place in live situations, often in group settings, none of which are able to continue for the foreseeable future. As a result, my ‘salary’ has dropped from above £30,000 to just over £4000 — effectively overnight. My story is repeated again and again across the country. We could not have planned for this. . .

“Many self-employed people are not entitled to any benefits because we live with partners or spouses whose income must be taken into account when calculating benefits. The massive irony here, of course, is that our rents or mortgages and other financial commitments are based on a household with two salaries.”

DIOCESE OF LEICESTERFour musician friends living in lockdown in Leicester have recorded a lively version of Psalm 151 on YouTube, as the Quarantine Choir

Since the Government announced its self-employment income support scheme, the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) has also written to the Chancellor to ask for an urgent revision to provide better support for 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 of the ISM, Deborah Annetts, said this week: “Many musicians, including those who work within a church setting, have lost a significant amount of work, owing to the Covid-19 crisis.

“While we are grateful that 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. We have written to the Chancellor outlining the issues raised, and how the Government can revise its measures to ensure no musicians fall through the cracks.”

Cathedrals and larger churches have also had to furlough musicians during the coronavirus lockdown, while finding new ways to provide music for private worship at home. Under the Government’s new scheme, these employees may be able to claim up to 80 per cent of their salaries at a future date.

The Director of Music at Bath Abbey, Huw Williams, said: “It is a very emotional and difficult time, especially as we approach Holy Week and Easter. While schools were still in operation, we managed to record a few items, and there is an anthem for the day broadcast alongside the daily thought for the day, which is proving to be popular with the Abbey community and congregation.

“All the Abbey musicians have been furloughed. I have sent newsletters and copies of anthems and solos for the choristers to learn, and hope during this period that they can keep their love of singing going. I have even suggested we might have a concert after the lockdown, when we perform the items we have all learnt.”

The Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral, Adrian Partington, said: “The sudden cessation of music-making in churches and cathedrals a few weeks ago was a shock to all of us here, as it was to everybody involved in the church-music world. We could all be in this current situation for many months.

“Against a background of changing medical and political news, we are staying in close touch with all of those involved in the music at Gloucester Cathedral, and forming plans which will be the best for all concerned.”

The Precentor of Norwich Cathedral, Canon Aidan Platten, said: “As with all cathedrals, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on life at Norwich, and we hold in our prayers all those who are affected by this coronavirus.

“We continue to be in close contact with all of our musicians through this difficult time. Those who are unable to sing in the cathedral under the current restrictions are supported, either through the furlough scheme or their continued scholarship. We very much look forward to welcoming them back to the cathedral as soon as is safe and sensible.”

Virtual hymn singalongs, video collages of choristers singing at home, and broadcasts of pre-recorded choral anthems and organ recitals are some of the means by which directors of music are continuing their practice and supporting congregations at home.

The Director of Music at Derby Cathedral, Alexander Binns, said: “Every chorister in the cathedral choir has been asked to record various pieces, so that we can make a video collage of the whole choir singing together, but from their individual homes.

“We have also asked choristers to select a recording of their favourite piece of seasonal choral music, and we’re putting their thoughts, together with their choice, alongside the recording on our Facebook page every few days, in what we are calling #choristerschoice.”

The choir is also undertaking virtual repertoire learning, warm-ups, and preparations for the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) Voice for Life awards (News, 3 April).

On Maundy Thursday, Mr Binns plans to lead a virtual hymn singalong live on the cathedral Facebook page from his music room at home.

“It is hoped that our congregation and many others from far and wide will tune in to be taken through some Passiontide favourites,” he said.

“Before the lockdown came into effect, our organists and lay clerks recorded as much music as they were able, and this can be heard on our website and social-media pages, alongside recordings of our cathedral choir from the past.”

The director of music at Bradford Cathedral, Alex Berry, is holding virtual auditions for new choristers using the Zoom conferencing app. “We know there are lots of children across Bradford who might be interested in singing and are particularly talented, and because we can’t visit every school in the district every year, these voice trials are an excellent opportunity for more to audition to become part of our cathedral choir.”

King’s College, Cambridge, is releasing a recording of a choral service at 5.30 p.m. every day until July, in place of the choral services that would have taken place in the Chapel. The webcasts are taken from its archive of recordings dating back to 2013, when it first began broadcasting services of Evensong, Matins, and Eucharist, as well as other events in the Chapel.

The Dean, the Very Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, said: “Our primary ministry is to the community of students, academics, and staff that make up the College today, together with our school. But over the last century, we’ve found that what we offer to God as an expression of our collegiate life has the capacity to encourage, educate, and inspire many people far beyond the confines of our rather small College community.”

Music staff at Durham Cathedral had also been busy compiling Easter worship to be shared online, the Dean, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett, said.

This includes CD recordings of the adults of the cathedral choir and organ voluntaries that the Master of the Choristers and Organist of Durham Cathedral, Daniel Cook, and Sub-Organist, Joseph Beech, have recorded at home on practice organs to complement Holy Week and Easter services.

Mr Cook will also be giving a live organ recital from his home on Easter Day. He said on Wednesday: “In terms of choir practice, I am hoping to rehearse with the children of the choir online after the Easter break, and I am exploring options for digital recordings for use online.”

Westminster Abbey has also moved all of its Easter services online.

On Monday, the RSCM announced plans for a “big Easter evensong” in which choirs and individuals can enjoy singing and listening to Passiontide music from their homes. The service, which will be led by a former Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, who is also the chair of RSCM, will be livestreamed at 6 p.m. on Easter Day. Anyone can view the service at home for free.

The music will be led by a selection of choirs who have assembled virtual performances. This week, choir leaders are invited to download the order of service, accompanying music, and rehearsal files to share with their choir and join in the service through its YouTube channel.

The director of RSCM, Hugh Morris, said: “We know that choirs up and down the country can’t come together this Easter. But in the life of the church, Easter is still a major cause for celebration, and so we want choirs of all kinds, large or small, to join us in this special Festival Service.”

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