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  • Writer's picturepetermcaleer5

A Zoom Choir is Born! Part 2

A hymn recorded by All Saints Singers, summer 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic

We keep calm and carry on!

We did a lot of recording in the first lockdown, recording items for a virtual Songs of Praise in May and for the regular Sunday services. But we longed for the day when we could all sing together in person and include all those who were not able, for a variety of reasons, to log into the Zoom practices or record themselves at home.

Sumer is icumen in...

Over the early summer months in 2020 the restrictions started to be eased and it was lovely to contemplate being able to get out and about and do more together. After quite a few weeks of doing the zoom choir and lots of recordings, it was time to take a break for the summer holidays, as is our customary practice in normal times. There ensued a summer of “eating out to help out”, barbecues, summer walks and picnics with the grandchildren, all in sweltering heat at times! Life seemed to be returning to a little of the old normality but with still quite significant restrictions. We were able to subscribe to a series of concerts called ‘Live from London’ which saw a variety of singing and instrumental ensembles putting together live concerts. (Professional singers and musicians were given permission to resume their work) We were able to have one or two people join us to watch the concerts in our house and it was amazing to see hundreds of other people from all across the globe watching with us. Inevitably there were some technical issues as there often is with live performance but it gave us hope that we would soon be able to resume some kind of live singing with our Singers, even if congregations would not be able to join in.

The Rule of Six is born

I am not known for being patient and when the schools went back in September, I pressed for a meeting in church to see how we could potentially start to resume our rehearsals in church. We had a good discussion and although there were still a lot of reservations I put together a draft risk assessment and started to plan doing some mid-week rehearsals (to allow time for church cleaning and dispersal of air-born particles). Then it became clear the number of cases in Medway was starting to rise rapidly and the Government imposed the rule of 6 which cast a lot of doubt on whether we could legally meet. Additionally the rapidly rising cases were making people nervous about singing together indoors so I reluctantly pulled back from the idea of resuming in-person rehearsals. But at least we were still able to have our daughters and our organist along (suitably distanced and with lots of ventilation!) on the Zoom calls to give the Singers some support with their parts.

An outdoor anthem

In October a well-loved member of our congregation died, a lovely lady who was a good friend and supporter of the Singers and the music in our church. It had been her wish that the Singers could sing an anthem at her funeral. However the number of people who were allowed to attend funerals had been drastically reduced by the Government and so it looked like it wasn’t going to be possible. We checked around with members of the choir and many wanted so much to honour our friend that we decided to stand in the churchyard, suitably socially distanced from the mourners and each other, and sing for her. It was such a moving occasion and a poignant moment to think that this was the first time in seven months that we had sung together. Even the funeral director was moved to say how beautiful it was.

Finally a rehearsal in church!

It was to be a further few weeks on Zoom and another lock down before we were finally given the go-ahead by our Vicar and churchwardens for a small number of us to meet together after the morning service and record some carols and items for the on-line Christmas services. We had already done some of the carols and items via the usual digital recording method but there were some carols we thought we could record live. I worked hard on finalising the comprehensive risk assessment for the session and wrote a detailed rehearsal/recording plan. On the day, one of the Singers acted as a steward and directed the singers to their places so that people would not be able to mingle. Not everyone felt able to come but we had sufficient to make a good set of recordings for Christmas (& we added on one of our sopranos afterwards via a digital recording). In fact unbeknown to all of us, one of the Singers had contracted Covid the day before the session but our precautions ensured that no-one else got it.

Finally a rehearsal in church!

New Year, no difference!

After Christmas Lockdown 3 meant that we had little choice but to keep rehearsing on Zoom. We worked on items for Good Friday and Easter, some of which we were working on last year before Covid and some were new items. Just to mix it up we had a couple of sectional rehearsals when we were able to focus on specific parts. As January progressed several of our older members received their first Covid vaccination and this gave people a little more confidence that things would get better. The number of Covid infections in Medway and around the country (the Kent variant) was very high but gradually the lockdown and vaccinations seemed to be making a difference and the children started to go back to school.

New hope

At the end of March the government started the first phase of unlocking and church choirs were allowed to have in-person rehearsals provided they could socially-distance each singer and provide good ventilation, sanitise hands, wear masks etc. I had an in-church recording session with our organist to put some reference tracks together for the Easter music and these were sent round to the DigiSingers for their recordings. Despite the fact that many of the Singers had been vaccinated we still did not feel that it was appropriate to sing in church - we could only safely accommodate about six singers in the choir pews and I did not feel it fair to exclude people. And of course the primary function of a church choir is to lead the congregation in the singing of hymns - something which was expressly forbidden at the time! However, after the Government announced Stage 2 of the unlocking in late April, we felt confident enough that it was safe to replicate our Christmas session. On 2nd May after the morning service we recorded several hymns and Rutter’s “For the beauty of the earth” for a forthcoming wedding. On Thursday 13th May we held our first weekday rehearsal in church - our first “normal” rehearsal since 12th March 2020. Of course, it wasn’t really normal but it felt like back to normal. And we agreed a series of in-church rehearsals over the next few weeks, anticipating a greater freedom as we approached the final unlocking on 21st June when all restrictions would be lifted.

The Singers recording in church May 2021 before restrictions were tightened

Hopes dashed

Further unlocking was announced - we could now eat in and drink in pubs and restaurants, six people could meet indoors, outdoor events could go ahead, all shops reopened. It felt like freedom was on its way. Choirs large and small started to arrange their meetings, and some large choirs held first live sessions since March 2020. Then we all noticed the small print that the DCMS had snuck into the unlocking guidance. All professional and amateur music making could now go ahead with the usual precautions in place but amateur singers were limited to 6 singers only indoors. This was a blow and a tightening of the previous guidance rather than an unlocking. Amateur singers and their leaders across England went into overdrive, saying they had been betrayed by the DCMS and calling for this guidance to be changed. But the DCMS would not shift despite there being no science to prove that amateur singing was any more hazardous than professional singing. Some choirs said “this is only guidance, we’re carrying on” and other said “we are amateurs but we are giving a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in a professional setting with professional musicians so this doesn’t apply to us”. Whilst others, including our choir, were bound by their church authorities to abide by the guidance. What a mess! So back to Zoom we go but this time at least I can have my soprano and alto daughters at my house to help out and our organist under the rule of 6!

Nannette McAleer


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