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Leader comment: Music — a new crisis looms

03 May 2024

FOUR years ago, the UK was in the surreal early stages of the Covid pandemic. For those working on the front line and unable to avoid contact with others, the experience was both terrifying and exhausting. For the rest, obedience to lockdown rules meant that too many families suffered heartbreak when loved ones died alone. At the time, it seemed churlish to complain about the loss of habitual social activities such as drinks with friends, or sharing a meal — or singing. Singing was, effectively, banned — and banned on the strength of science that turned out to be unsound. As early as June 2020, new evidence from Germany was casting doubt on the claim that communal singing constituted a high-risk activity, although it wasn’t until halfway through the following year that it was deemed to be safe again.

The ban hurt because singing is healthy. There is a solid body of academic research that demonstrates its physiological and psychological benefits. Singing can lower the heart rate and blood pressure, relieve muscle tension, help with the management of pain, and ease depression and anxiety by triggering endorphins. For many, singing in a choir is an essential source of emotional well-being and positive mental health. It is a powerful expression of communal life, and is thus intrinsic to Christian worship of all traditions. Sung words, more easily memorable, are here combined with tunes that connect with emotions that are beyond words.

Congregations in the UK are fortunate to enjoy a rich musical heritage. Cathedral choirs are world-class; and music-making in many parish churches is not far behind. It was to celebrate this tradition — and to encourage and inspire those who faithfully lead music in more challenging environments — that the Church Times held the first Festival of Faith and Music in York last weekend, in partnership with the Royal School of Church Music. Participants spoke of their appreciation of a mixture of talks, discussions, and practical workshops. Inspiration was on offer from the glorious choir of York Minster, together with other talented musicians, generous with their wise advice.

During the Covid years, this unique musical heritage teetered on the brink of disaster. Thankfully, musicians have since picked up the pieces, and music-making is well on the road to recovery. Yet, several times over the weekend, panellists and speakers spoke, unprompted, of another present threat: the parlous state of music in schools. In spite of the Department for Education’s 2022 National Plan for Music Education, the reality is that the majority of children are too often deprived of anything meaningful. The teacher shortage and a lack of funds are exacerbated by a utilitarian view of education. We are in the age of maths — but is there no one in the Department who can do a simple sum? Add the health benefits of singing, and take away at least some of the mental-health problems that are now at pandemic level in young people. The lack of music is as dire a risk to the next generation as any, and must be resisted soundly.

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