I FOUND it unbearably moving on Mothering Sunday to hear the voices of our young choristers played via our cathedral sound system for our gathered congregation, and then out through the ether again to those listening to the service online.
The arduous — or, perhaps, more accurately put, tedious — process of recording lone voices at home as they juggle music, a device to listen to another singer or watch a conductor, and another device to record into, and a set of headphones to mute the click track, has become a feature of life for many choirs for nearly a year, now. All this effort is, of course, to be celebrated; for it shows ongoing levels of commitment and loyalty from our singers, and has turned many a choir trainer or church organist into a talented techie.
The main redeeming feature of the virtual choir is the preparation that we have been able to do in remote rehearsals via Zoom. We have been able to keep in touch with our youngest choristers, and maintain a slow drip of musical education, even though it is a pale imitation of all that goes on in a rehearsal room of 24 lads learning by osmosis through the gathered memory of the most senior boys, or the confidence and example set by the sixth-form girls to our younger girl choristers. That has been a lifeline.
We have managed to maintain our daily round of worship at Portsmouth, with the unstinting support of the Dean and Chapter and with our young team of choral scholars, who have formed a cohesive and well-honed musical unit through two months of unfamiliar repertoire and the welcome immersion in plainsong. That, too, has been a lifeline.
BUT the lifeline is running threadbare. There is an urgency and an understandable impatience about what the next steps are for churches and our choirs.
We were lucky in that our circumstances in Portsmouth Cathedral meant that most of our singers were able to participate in a full choir schedule for most of the Michaelmas Term (though not all, because they come from multiple schools, and some needed to shield). We were the first cathedral choir to broadcast live Choral Evensong on Radio 3 since February 2020.
Many parish choirs have not met, however, for a full year. This has been devastating for so many — especially those who work with children and young people. Many choirs thrive on the pace and energy of regular meeting, rehearsing, and performing. With this lack of rhythm and impetus, many choirs will now falter or fail.
Much energy, debate, and co-operation between partners such as the Royal School of Church Music, the Cathedral Organists’ Association, the Church of England Recovery Group, and Public Health England have delivered thoughtful and appropriate guidelines for sustained musical activity at the onset of lockdowns; and helpful advice on how open up again at appropriate moments in our national effort to beat this pandemic. But it has been a painfully slow and sometimes bewildering process.
THE announcement last Friday that churches and cathedrals could consider using a “small choir’” from Palm Sunday was welcome news, along with the clear message that clergy, lay officers, and musicians must think carefully about their own circumstances before deciding what is “essential” to worship (News Online, 27 March).
We must all be trusted and equipped to make these tricky decisions as we contemplate relaxing lockdowns. Social media have been useful ways to share ideas and information — but it has been a shame when some have donned their keyboard-warrior attire and elected to police every pronouncement on music for Holy Week and Easter.
And, of course, not every choir was ready, willing, or able to come back at such short notice. Those cathedrals without choir schools are still advised not to mix choristers from different schools, along with all those parishes who also maintain this vital ministry to children and young people.
The most recent survey on this matter, in 2018, suggested that there were well over two million people who sing in choirs in the UK. Of 40,000 choirs, more than 33,000 are in churches and in schools.
Yet you would scarcely know of their existence, to read government announcements on how the sports and the leisure industry will open up in April and May. Any notice, thus far, from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on how “the performing arts” will reopen has made no mention of how amateur and professional church musicians will be affected by guidelines, even though they outnumber West End theatre employees a hundredfold.
Choirs who sang last term demonstrated how effective, robust, and thoughtful mitigations can make our choir activities safe for all. Our churches and cathedrals are spacious, roomy, unintentionally well ventilated, and adaptable.
The day beckons when all our choirs will be back in their stalls to sing to the glory of God; and I hope that that day comes very soon, because the clock is ticking.
David Price is the Organist and Master of the Choristers at Portsmouth Cathedral.