The future for Choirs on-going discussion

This week I decided to take some action on the future for my choirs. As my name is not Boris Johnson I was limited in my scope. I sent out a One-question survey to the East Sussex Community Choir (100 members); Lewes Chamber Choir (31 members) and Brighton Singers (32 members).

Assuming it is within Government guidelines for Choirs to meet again in September, and assuming we meet as we normally do in Lewes, please say how likely you are to return to (named) Choir in September 2020. On a scale of 1-4, 1 being least likely, 4 being most likely, how do you stand?

I wanted to keep it very simple, and slightly ‘academic’, with no suggestion that I would be acting on the result, to encourage people to think beyond practicalities inc. social distancing and legalities. It is my intention to send out the very same survey in a month’s time and again in August to see how members’ thinking develops as we approach a new choral season.

To my very great surprise, all three surveys (a separate survey to each choir) returned similar results displaying a certain hutzpah I thought.

65% are 4. Most likely to return; 10% 3. less likely; and the remaining 25% chose 1 or 2.

As the country begins to come out of lockdown, we all being encouraged to go and shop and even soon go to pubs and restaurants, but there is little mention by the government of churches or music and entertainment – well apart from the British Grand Prix and Premier League football of course! There is talk and the beginnings of action regarding music, but most of that is focussed on professional instrumental music making. Not much is being said about choirs, so it was good to see two letters in the national press. Firstly, on 4 June, Richard Morrison in The Times. If you haven’t read this, I recommend it – in fact I think what he says is so good, here it is in full:

Richard Morrison in The Times Thursday 4 June 2020

Until 12 weeks ago Britain was a choral powerhouse. Two million people sang in 70,000 choirs. Some were highly professional and world-famous. Think of the Sixteen and the Monteverdi Choir, or the magnificent opera choruses of London, Cardiff and Leeds, or the incredible eight-shows-a-week ensembles sustaining West End musicals. That’s thousands of highly trained singers now facing financial ruin. Then think of the millions who sang for fun. True, those people haven’t lost their livelihoods, but for many the weekly choir rehearsal was what kept them ticking along — culturally, spiritually, physically and socially.

Few singers dispute that choirs needed to stop temporarily because of coronavirus. What is starting to irritate, however, is the lack of official guidance as to when and how they might safely resume. Instead of scientific research, anecdotal horror stories swirl around, instilling a fear that choral singing is so dangerous it might be permanently banned.

Let’s deal first with those horror stories. In early March, before social distancing was a thing, people became infected with the virus after singing with a handful of choirs across the world. Sensational headlines created the illusion that all choirs were death traps. In fact, thousands of choirs were still rehearsing without any precautions in March. Only five reported illnesses afterwards. The affected choirs rehearsed in tightly packed rooms. They greeted each other with hugs. They shared refreshments. Yes, the singing might have transmitted coronavirus, but equally the socialising might have done. We need proper research before jumping to conclusions.That’s the problem. Little research has been done, and none in Britain. However, two fluid-mechanics scientists at Bundeswehr University Munich conducted experiments to see how far singers project emissions. Their findings are encouraging. Although the World Health Organisation’s guidelines (echoed by Public Health England) say that Covid-19 is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets and contact routes rather than aerosols (airborne transmission, which carries farther), the Munich scientists tested for both. They found that “at a distance of around 0.5m [from the singer], almost no air movement can be detected, regardless of how loud the sound was and what pitch was sung”.

Therefore, they concluded that it is “unlikely that the virus could spread beyond this limit via the air flow created during singing”. Add an extra metre to minimise risk even more, and it seems that — if the Munich findings are accurate — choirs might operate reasonably safely with singers placed 1.5m apart and configured in one big semi-circle.That’s good and bad news. It’s good for smallish groups who stay in one place while they sing. Cathedral choirs clearly won’t be able to use their traditional double-ranked, inward-facing choirstalls, but given their buildings’ size, they could easily spread out in a semi-circle (as German choirs are doing). For big choral societies, that formation isn’t practical. They may have to break into smaller units. The real challenge, however, would be getting the choruses for operas and musicals safely back in business in productions where they need to move around the stage.

Other factors hinder progress. One is the ultra-cautious approach of the Church of England, which controls (the word is not too strong) the vast majority of England’s sacred choirs. Its bishops seem so spooked by those early horror stories that they appear reluctant to allow any singing at all, even when services resume. That hugely endangers a cathedral tradition that relies on boy and girl choristers maintaining extraordinary musical skills through daily training and performance. An enforced break of a year, coinciding with cash-strapped cathedrals closing their choir schools (as York Minster is doing), would be the biggest catastrophe for church music since Oliver Cromwell.

How to overturn the negativity? One piece of German research, however convincing, won’t be enough. Britain’s singers need clear British guidelines, but the government’s response is (surprise, surprise) lamentable. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has set up a task force to “help reopen cultural life”, but it seems to have no musicians or scientists sitting on it. The same is true of a separate task force set up by the Ministry of Housing to get churches reopened. And although Public Health England could muster the requisite scientific expertise, nobody seems to have asked it to advise on how to restart choirs.

Singing in a choir will never be entirely risk-free, but neither will shopping. In Germany and Scandinavia guidelines have been agreed and choirs are confidently reopening. Here, it’s just muddle. Our choirs deserve better. Is there not a single minister in Boris Johnson’s cabinet who cares enough about Britain’s glorious choral tradition to fight for its survival?

More recently, a letter in the Guardian this week from John Rutter and other co-authors, prompted by a letter from Simon Rattle and Mark Elder which, while drawing attention to the plight of our professional orchestras, failed to mention our choirs in specific terms. Actually both letters are excellent and I’ve put them at the bottom of this blog.

Many of you will have heard reference to some academic research done in Germany regarding Covid-19 and Music performance including singing. I’m grateful to Jane Peckham (Brighton Singers) for bringing this to my attention. It’s lengthy and academic, but in case you’re interested I’ve put that at the bottom as well.

This week’s listening

Yesterday, I listened to Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress on Youtube. This is a 1997 recording of the music (not staged) conducted by John Eliot Gardner. I chose to listen to this rather than watch the stage recording from the Aix-en-Provence Festival because the diction is so clear with Ian Bostridge singing the lead role. I was able to find a vocal score to follow along with which, personally, I found increased my enjoyment.

Finally, the garden. I’m secretly hoping to be spotted as the future Monty Don, and my dahlias are in danger of becoming internet stars. First off, however, Mrs H is in charge of almost all the veg, and we’re looking forward to becoming self-sufficient in peas, courgettes, tomatoes and french beans in the coming weeks.


French beans – can you spot the curly one?

Tromboncino courgettes – they look a bit rude. They’re a climbing variety. 

Tomatoes – we’ve got quite a number of tomato plants. My Mum used to say I’d look like a tomato given how much I liked them.

and this week, I think I might see a dahlia in flower!


Well that’s more than enough for one blogpost. Have a nice week, and don’t forget, the letters and academic paper are below.


Elder and Rattle letter 10 June 2020

Letter in Guardian 16 June 2020

link to the pdf of German research

1 Comment

  1. Today I sang in 3 part harmony with real people for the first time since the Ides of March! It was wonderful, I just fear I shall now miss it all the more! We were the small all female Hastings based group Las Rosas, run by Ariane Prussner, singing mostly Sephardic songs, and in fact various factors meant that only 6 turned up so that was okay then, two to a part and sensibly distanced in the open air. We tried various venues to try and counter the rather gusty sou’westerly,and obviously not everything was perfect, but the experience was, we all left with beatific smiles on our faces. Roll on more choral singing….

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