Choral singing in the time of Covid
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Director of the Diocese of Leeds Schools Singing Programme Thomas Leech reflects on their Royal Philharmonic Society Inspiration Award and their work during lockdown
Things that didn’t feature in my teenage dreams of musical success:
- Squinting at my ageing computer struggling to remove shouting siblings from choristers’ phone recordings of Tudor polyphony.
- Trying to pin a banana costume into a better fit for a YouTube video.
- Panic-buying bread and crisps while delivering a keyboard to an isolating colleague.
- The sheer, tear-inducing joy of being in front of a choir as they sang together in person for the first time in months.
Yesterday evening a more obvious dream of recognition from one of the industry’s most prestigious bodies did come to pass, with the Diocese of Leeds Schools Singing Programme winning a Royal Philharmonic Society Inspiration Award for our work during lockdown. Who’d have thought that sitting at home attending an award ceremony with my wonderful colleagues via a Zoom call would feel so normal?
In early March the tight spaces and cramped rehearsal rooms of Leeds Cathedral echoed with simultaneous choir rehearsals, often competing aurally with piano, organ and singing lessons. Our team of Choral Directors flew between over 50 schools delivering whole class singing sessions to over 4500 children a week, then racing to after-school choirs in Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Pontefract and Wakefield. We’d enjoyed the glow of a successful autumn term, with our wonderful Bradford Catholic Youth Choir touring to Rome and singing for BBC One’s Christmas Day Mass and we were looking forward to some wonderful projects, including taking part in the Gabrieli Consort’s ROAR programme.
How little we knew…
As lockdown hit, with the support and enthusiasm of the Diocese we decided to maintain our full schedule and find a way to deliver this online. Aiming to produce daily singing sessions for schools, a crash course in video and audio editing followed; without much prior experience this was certainly a bumpy ride. We’re all familiar with the existential horror of hearing our own speaking voices; watching hours of ourselves on screen was a similar experience! As we racked up the views, lovely feedback came in from parents and schools; the opportunity to observe so much of colleagues’ work was inspirational, and as we became more confident musical and editing ingenuity crept into the sessions. Meanwhile, we moved all 18 of our after-school choirs onto live online rehearsals - at the time I don’t think we realised the social impact on the children, otherwise receiving very little face to face tuition or activity.
Despite the limitations of the platforms, we were determined to keep these sessions musically productive, producing virtual choir recordings for focus and adapting our pedagogy to replicate the precious sense of shared endeavour and community. In particular we had to adapt to ensure the youngest members of the choirs – so often relying on older members for musical modelling and support – remained engaged. Small group sessions, informal individual performances, quizzes, treasure hunts and a predictably disastrous attempt at allowing them to annotate music shared on screen made sure that online rehearsal wasn’t a one-way process. Our Keyboard Studies Programme was similarly busy, running over 50 organ, piano and accordion lessons every week to choir members and producing Leeds International Organ Festival’s virtual recital series.
The diversity, inclusion and ultimately outstanding standards that our programme strives to achieve come from building the widest possible foundations; without sustained work in inner-city state primary schools our reach and impact would be hugely reduced. As I assembled Taverner’s motet Quemadmodum from 30 or so individual phone recordings I could reflect on the musical journey these choristers have made, from taking part in whole class singing sessions, then joining our Children’s and Junior Choirs, before moving on to the Senior Cathedral Choirs. This realisation of potential, trust in the ability of children, has to be served by excellence during this crisis – that many of the children we work with would have had little or no access to music during lockdown pushed us through the late nights, the tears and frustrations. Gramophone readers will enjoy the highest standards of choral music – it’s our job to make sure the opportunities to create this are open to as many young people as possible.
Find out more about the Diocese of Leeds Schools Singing Programme