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Uncertainty and fear are having a devastating impact on choral singing

The Cloisters at Westminster Abbey London | Alamy

3 min read

Tuesday 17 March 2020. I knew this would be the last service the Abbey Choir would sing for some while.

I decided to tell the boys after the service. One of the lay vicars (adult singers) was to retire a few weeks hence after 40 years, so we held an impromptu, inadequate farewell. In the event the next choral service in the Abbey was not to be until five months later.

Most of the nation’s choirs will have their own version of this story. Whether they sing daily, weekly, or in tandem with a calendar of engagements, they depend on a rhythm of work. As with most cathedral choirs, the Choir of Westminster Abbey has sung services nearly every day during term for centuries with little interruption. Before that, the Benedictine monks sang at least seven times every day. Singing is part of the Abbey’s DNA.

The past 14 months have been traumatic for, as it says in the Book of Common Prayer: “quires and places where they sing,” as well as for the arts in general. The crucial rhythms of work have been dislocated. Many groups have struggled to stay in business; some may not have succeeded. More than two million people in the UK participate in non-professional choral singing, almost all of which has come to a standstill. Uncertainty has led some professional musicians to abandon their careers. The nation’s cultural landscape has changed. The economic impact has been devastating.

Choral singing has become something of a bête noire; a high-risk activity. Despite some encouraging scientific research, the choral situation remains precarious and the guidance inconsistent. Online rehearsals are a poor substitute for the real thing. A non-professional group last week managed its first “real” rehearsal in more than a year until new guidance issued the very next day put paid to further gatherings for the foreseeable future. This stop-start situation is frustrating and demoralising. How can one plan?

Like other such choirs, the Abbey Choir has a strong educational focus. Our residential choir school is, uniquely in this country, dedicated solely to the boy choristers whose curriculum is founded on choral singing and music. The Abbey is also a major arts employer. In addition to 12 lay vicars and some 200 supernumerary professional singers, the music department, which I lead, includes four full-time musicians and two administrative staff. The Abbey demands consistently excellent music to enrich worship, be it a quiet Evensong in November attended by 200 or a spectacular Royal wedding before a global TV audience of two billion.

We have tried our best to keep the rhythm of choral singing going. It has been challenging to veer between no choral music at all one month and suddenly something closer to a “normal” schedule the next. Finances are a major worry. The Abbey’s income from (mainly international) tourism has all but dried up. In order to guarantee the future of our priceless musical tradition we must somehow reduce our operating costs without compromising on the standards which in turn depend so much on the rhythm of our work. We have had to curtail our schedule and forces. This too is profoundly challenging.

We choirs now need to feel anew the warmth of the government’s embrace; its awareness, energy, support and, not least, continued financial backing for cultural recovery, including choirs. Up to now we have felt rather overlooked. We must urgently bring the guidance on choral singing more into line with that for other activities, based on scientific evidence, and help choirs start up again. I hope recovery is possible, but we will need all the help we can get.

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