The news was full of heartbreaking images of overrun hospitals and desperate medics in Italy. As Trustees, we suddenly had an awesome responsibility for the safety of our singers. We talked for several days about what we should do in order to manage the risk for our more vulnerable members. It was March 2020 and the decisions we had to make seemed existential to the life of our Chorus.

We followed the government guidance and put in measures to protect singers during rehearsals. Some members had already decided that the risk was too great for them and the number not coming to rehearsals increased. In the end there was no alternative to suspending activities when the venue for our next concert cancelled future events and the school where we rehearse shut their doors to external groups. 

We are, in common with most amateur choirs, strongly skewed to the older end of the spectrum and also have a number of people who are immunocompromised. I am the Chair of the Council and admit to lying awake for many nights worrying about the enormity of the decision. Getting it wrong could have catastrophic consequences. How could I live with myself if any of our members caught Covid-19 at a rehearsal and were very sick or worse, died?

I am so glad we stopped when we did. News emerged of other choirs, both local and overseas who had carried on a little longer. Some paid the price with numerous cases of Covid-19 and, tragically, some deaths. Even now I shiver when I think what might have happened.

Adjusting to lockdown

Lockdown pushed us into a new world. We had to unpick all the concerts already arranged for the season and this has taken a lot of time and effort. A large Chorus like ours is really a small business, turning over close to £100,000 each year. We have all the corporate, legal and accounting responsibilities of a business and regularly manage contracts with our Musical Director and Accompanist, venues, soloists and orchestras. We have to conform to the strict rules of the Charities Commission. They require us to have comprehensive policies dealing with such things as Health and Safety and Safeguarding.

Council is used to dealing with a lot of admin and we generally run a pretty tight ship. We are all volunteers who dedicate a huge amount of time to the management of the Chorus. We have to organise rehearsals and book venues and professionals. We have to arrange and  publicise our concerts, manage engagements to sing with other promoters and look after our membership. We are passionate about our music and are dedicated to producing top quality results.

This, however, was a new and terrifying situation and there were a lot of contractual and financial arrangements to sort out. Once that was under control we had to decide what to do next. What do you do with choral singers who can’t meet up to sing together? The music is vital but singing is also an important contributor to our mental and physical well-being. For many of us, our social lives revolve around the Chorus and the loss of singing has left us feeling rather empty.

Support of the musical community

There were people who could help. We have been lucky in the amateur music world to have the support of Making Music. This organisation provides insurance services and resources for amateur music groups throughout the country. They have been a fantastic source of guidance and comfort during the crisis and run several online meetings a month to allow groups to chat and share information on how to deal with problems. There is a wealth of resources available to members that provides guidance on a range of issues. They have also devoted a lot of effort to lobbying Government to ensure that the voice of our sector has been heard and their advice on digital skills has been very helpful.

Over 2 million people in the UK play or sing in leisure time music groups. and other organisations also benefit from amateur music making. It may seem to be ‘just a hobby’ but music groups turn over £100m annually. They spend £19m on professional artists and music publishers benefit to the tune of £2m in music hire. There are 12,000 concerts every year, so many venues make most of their hire fees from groups like ours. Many local businesses profit from advertising and printing.

New skills

Singing is deemed to be a high-risk activity and will probably be the last thing allowed to resume. This has huge consequences for us. While we can’t sing together, we have had to swiftly acquire some new skills. We turned our weekly rehearsal time into online meetings for those who wanted to keep in touch. We have had online rehearsals, singing to a computer screen while muted. Our eminent Music Director, David Temple MBE, conducts us and shares wise and funny words on the music and composers.

We have run quizzes and had break out chats and everyone who has joined in has loved it. It isn’t for everyone and there are lots of members who spend most days online for work. They don’t really want yet another online meeting so we have found other ways to communicate. One of our members has run a ‘Letters from Lockdown’ service publishing contributions from members every couple of weeks. We have also launched a ‘Hertfordshire Chorus Lockdown TV channel’ on YouTube. This features David Temple interviewing people associated with the Chorus about their musical life and experiences. We are also commissioning an exciting new piece of music we hope to perform in 2022.

For us, the most important thing is to ensure that the Chorus survives intact and comes back fighting. It is vital that we help our professional colleagues ride out the storm and stay close to us. To that end we are fund raising to help pay them retainers while we wait to start up again. An online survey of members to gauge how they felt about the situation showed us how passionately they want us to survive. They told us how much the Chorus means to them and that they are prepared to contribute. Reading their answers made me cry.

Our own digital talents have had to ramp up to cope. Members of the Chorus have contributed many ideas and have picked up new skills to help us stay together. We have honed our management and communication skills to a high degree and have worked hard to maintain our good relationships with venues, music professionals and others in our industry, as well as developing new links with other organisations. Collaborative working is now second nature and we run efficient, time-boxed online meetings that can be called at a moment’s notice. Crisis management drives good behaviours and we work well as a team and get things done.

Looking to the future

I am delighted to say that despite the continuing uncertainty we continue to engage our members and are planning for whatever Covid-19 throws at us next. We know that the future of the Chorus is bright.

Lesley Blankfield
Chair, Hertfordshire Chorus

For more information on Making Music click here