NEW WRITER

Bum note – does Johnson’s government hate choral singing?

A pre-Covid Heathfield Choral Society concert (credit: HCS)

In the weeks leading up to 17 May, the date of Step 3 in the government’s lockdown easing roadmap, amateur choirs in Sussex and across England were busy preparing for the expected restart of in-person rehearsals. Some even enjoyed their first rehearsal in a long time on the evening of the 17th. Then, a day later, on Tuesday 18 May, the government issued a perplexing backwards step, which was not only given without warning, but was buried in the more detailed Department of Culture guidance for actors, musicians, singers and sportspeople.

These extra guidelines laid out exactly how rehearsals, plays, concerts and other events should be run safely, including for the now-permitted large-scale indoor sporting events with capacities of well over a thousand people. Then came a single devastating sentence: “However, non-professional singing indoors should only take place in a single group of up to 6 people”.

Chris Thompson, Chairman of Heathfield Choral Society recalls the shock and dismay of all his members. “We had everything ready according to the recommendation of government and industry sources,” he says. “Not just a Covid Assessment, use of sanitisers and collecting contact details, we’d also found a venue with excellent ventilation, had a seating plan placing everyone 1.5m apart, temperatures were to be taken on arrival and we would sing wearing masks.”

Choral singing is very popular in East Sussex: Eastbourne & District Choirs Association alone has 11 member choirs, each having between 60 and 100 members.  There are numerous choirs in and around Brighton, and in every part of the county. And these amateur choirs are not just having a casual singsong, they (we) are serious!  Anyone who has seen any of Gareth Malone’s TV programmes will know that it takes weeks of dedicated rehearsal to put on a high standard concert. As Gareth himself said about being such a passionate proponent of amateur choirs, “Singing bonds people together, exercises a range of muscles and makes you feel happy. The camaraderie of communal singing is of benefit to people – you don’t get that when listening to a CD no matter what style of music.”

Celebrated choirmaster Gareth Malone conducting – photo from BBC 2’s The Choir

Amateur choirs are an integral part of the music industry: they employ music professionals to guide, rehearse and conduct them, and pay professional orchestras and soloists to perform with them at their concerts. In addition, they draw large audiences of local music lovers who gladly pay for a high quality concert at more affordable ticket prices.  Also, professional orchestras often use amateur choirs to provide the choral accompaniment to their performance; some have concerts booked which now cannot go ahead.

Singing in groups of up to 30 is permitted outdoors.  However, when it comes to choir rehearsal, acoustics matter. Outside, voices tend to float away on the breeze (or with the recent inclement weather, get drowned out in a stormy downpour) rather than work in harmony, and a decent piano definitely shouldn’t be hauled outside!  Outdoor practise may be fine for a fun singalong but not for serious rehearsal. It is a bit like saying to county level badminton players that they can just as easily practice in their back garden! 

Sebastian Charlesworth is a professional musician and the Musical Director of two Sussex choirs, and says he’s still reeling from the government’s inexplicable decision on disallowing indoor rehearsals for amateur choirs. “I have been knocked sideways and left unable to do my job, once again,” he says. “The hundreds and thousands of amateur singers up and down the country, and the professionals they employ to facilitate their music making, deserve better than such callous treatment.”

Photo of Sabastian Charlesworth, a professional musician and conductor, and the Musical Director of two highly regarded amateur choirs in Sussex
Sebastian Charlesworth, professional musician and Musical Director of the Heathfield Choral Society and the New Sussex Singers chamber choir (photo by: Gavin Stenhouse)

The government decree was not only contrary to all expectations (even Wealden’s Conservative MP Nus Ghani had confirmed that amateur choir rehearsals would start on 17 May ), it also seems to single out and discriminate against singing and music. Many activities that prolong exposure to heavy breathing have been given the go ahead for indoor activity, such as working out at the gym, laughing with mates down the pub or chatting over a meal at a local restaurant, not to mention thousands of fans gathering at a football stadium to watch a game, no doubt doing what fans will – hugging, celebrating, chanting and singing!

Pam White, a singer with Heathfield Choral Society, said, “It has me, literally, crying because of the illogicality of it all. I was in a group class in a leisure centre on Monday, exercising mask-less in a room with 15 other people and then in a busy restaurant last night.  All perfectly OK, apparently – just not amateur singing”.

Science has only shown a very slight increase in the aerosols expelled during singing.  Loud speaking, shouting or laughing pose more of a risk than quiet singing. Science has also shown that singing results in some remarkable physical and mental health benefits; many singing group leaders around the world run ‘singing for wellbeing’ groups, often in hospitals, because of the marked benefits. 

This also comes right after Johnson’s government announced its plans to slash funding for Music education, which would have catastrophic effects on an industry already struggling due to the “double-whammy” adverse effects of Covid and Brexit.

Amateur choirs, their professional leaders and the music loving audiences who enjoy and support them have been badly let down, but there is still no indication when they will be able to rehearse. Is this the beginning of the end for the great, centuries old tradition of English choral singing? Let’s hope not…

Help persuade the government to reverse this decision:

People are being asked to sign a petition urging the government to reconsider and allow non-professional singing indoors in groups of more than six. After just a couple of days it has already got over 30,000 signatures, and counting! To view and sign please go to: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/586559

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