Late changes to government covid-19 restrictions saw the last-minute cancellation of a major choir’s first in-person rehearsal for 14 months. Now there are genuine fears for the future of amateur music-making and choral singing, reports PETER GILLMAN
After more than a year of abiding by the government’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions, the Croydon Philharmonic Choir was preparing to resume live rehearsals on May 18. They had spent months preparing for this moment in line with government guidelines for amateur choirs.
The choir had conducted a full risk assessment at their usual base, St Matthew’s Church, in tandem with the church authorities. It had organised a queueing and entry and exit system at the church and had spent £100 producing direction signs.
It knew that the choir was limited to 30 people, out of its membership of nearly 100, and had informed which members were listed to attend. It had arranged where they could stand in order to preserve social distancing. They would even sing while wearing masks.
Then it all went wrong.
Late on the very afternoon of the scheduled post-lockdown rehearsal, a choir committee member made a last-minute check on the government website. To his dismay, he discovered, without any warning, that the guidelines had just been changed. Choirs could only meet indoors in groups of up to six.
In other ways, the guidelines appeared more stringent than before. The Association of British Choral Directors called the last-minute change “disappointing, unreasonable and unworkable”.
The Croydon Philharmonic committee went into overdrive in a bid to stop choir members from setting off for the rehearsal. It managed to contact most of them but several still arrived at the church, to be greeted by committee members with the disappointing news.
Meanwhile, the choir’s music director, David Gibson, was on a train from his home in Basingstoke when the choir chair, Jane Castle, called him with the news. He got off the train at the next stop and got the next service home.
The choir was left acutely disappointed that its opportunity to meet in person for the first time in almost 14 months had come to nothing.
For much of that time it has been conducting online rehearsals, led by Gibson, as it worked through a selection of music ranging from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to a delightful setting of Spanish poems by Federico Lorca called Romancero Gitano. “David gives it his all,” said one choir member. “But nothing can really match meeting for real.”
The choir committee has since debated how it should respond. One senior choir figure considered it “ridiculous” that professional choirs were allowed to rehearse inside but not amateurs.
“Unless we get back to live singing soon, the whole future of amateur music-making and choral singing will be put in jeopardy,” they said.
However, the committee concluded – “with the greatest reluctance” – that it had no choice but to conform to the guidelines, at least for the time being.
The choir is lending its weight to the pushback headed by organisations such as the Association of British Choral Directors. Some members have written to local MPs and one had a sympathetic reply from Claire Coutinho, Tory member for East Surrey who said she had received a number of similar letters.
After relaying the “guidance” that amateur choirs were at heightened risk from “transmission through aerosols and droplets”, she added this: “In no way do I underestimate how important singing is to you, and I completely appreciate how disappointing it will be for indoor singing not to have been included in this stage of the roadmap. Accordingly, I will make sure to feed in your strength of feeling to Ministers.”
The choir has now returned to its online rehearsals, with the next one due on Tuesday.
The current hope is that the next scheduled lockdown revision, due on June 21, will allow choirs to rehearse indoors once again.
Meanwhile a second major local choir, the Croydon Male Voice Choir, has been doing its utmost to keep public choral singing alive. For the past month, a select group has been meeting every Friday evening outside the Royal Standard pub in central Croydon, surprising and delighting the assembled drinkers with two hours of singing, drawing on its extensive and eclectic repertoire.
It has now also resumed rehearsals at its base at Sandilands Sports Club, with a larger group singing for an hour outside on each of the past two Saturday mornings.
In line with government guidelines, the group is limited to 30 singers and it reached that number – from a total membership of 60 – on each occasion. On Saturday, the choir was singing as Addiscombe cricketers arrived for a match, winning looks of approval for numbers such as Nessun Dorma and When the Saints go marching in.
One choir member – who also belongs to the Croydon Philharmonic Choir – said: “It was wonderful to team up with fellow members and sing together again. It made you realise what we have been missing for all these months.
“I just hope that the Phil can find a way of doing the same before too long.”
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