Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

The government is strangling choirs, but the evidence just isn’t there

The government is strangling choirs, but the evidence just isn't there
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A brief but sharp twist of the knife was felt across the world of our gagged choral musicians on Friday evening, when the Times Science Correspondent Tom Whipple tweeted ‘It’s not good news’ about the future of choral singing. Sage documents had ‘dropped’, he wrote, containing the ominous statement, ‘There is some evidence to suggest that singing can produce more aerosols than normal talking or breathing; it may be more akin to a cough.’ And ‘Singing for any appreciable amount of time therefore may present a risk for the creation of infectious aerosols and allow for infection transmission.’

Were these the long-awaited Porton Down findings? They weren’t. In fact, as Declan Costello, the ear, nose and throat surgeon who’s conducting singing experiments alongside the Porton Down ones, reassured me when I got in touch with him in a panicky way, those comments are ‘unattributed, unverified and not supported by any scientific data. We need to see a complete document before rushing to any judgements.’

It’s a dress rehearsal, though, for what will surely happen when the real results come out in a couple of weeks’ time. We know scientists. They’re almost certain to come out with some non-committal but warningly negative ‘results’ – ‘there is some evidence to suggest that singing may…’ – that will spread the message that it’s dangerous to sing. The government, suddenly bloodthirsty in its clamping-down zeal, will clamp down on the joyous small steps that are just starting to happen – such as a live – yes, live! – choral evensong broadcast from St Martin-in-the-Fields last Wednesday, infinitely more moving and powerful than any pre-recorded service.

It seemed like a good idea to let the scientists loose on the contents of singers’ breath; but don’t you remember how science experiments at school, even ones conducted by the chemistry master himself, never quite came out as they were supposed to, and came out slightly differently if he did it twice? Will these findings, that will be slavishly acted on by the government, really be allowed to kill off one of the miraculous art forms of humanity?

It’s not just cathedral, college and concert choirs who are suffering, although they are, terribly. Two million people in this country belong to a total of 70,000 choirs; singing is a pivotal part of many people’s lives, from the very young to the very old, across the social spectrum. It’s a natural human instinct and urge to sing communally. The mental health benefits are well known. I spoke to Simon Berridge, a tenor in The Sixteen, who conducts a community choir in his Bedfordshire village. ‘For the older members, the choir is a lifeline socially. Half of them haven’t got to grips with the technology of Zoom rehearsals, so they’ve been left isolated.’

Just another of the million effects of the new reign of dismalness that has taken hold of this country, causing untold loneliness and desolation. Meanwhile, the bottom has dropped out of professional singers’ and choral conductors’ livelihoods. For example, the recording producer Adrian Peacock tells me that a longed-for socially distanced recording session that the Academy of Ancient Music was booked to do at the end of August has just been cancelled, with great regret, by the Board, due to the lingering but unverified fears that singing spreads the virus.

Young freelance adults, musical geniuses who rely on this work, can’t pay the rent. One person who sings in one of the country’s most prestigious choirs has had to get a job at Ocado. You may laugh. But singing is these people’s vocation. It is what they were born and trained to do. Forbidding them to sing is like forbidding Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson to be politicians. The raison d’être is pulled from under you – and for how long? As for politicians, aren’t the daily slogans voiced at high-decibel level from Mr Johnson’s lectern also ‘akin to a cough’?

It seems galling to our silenced musicians that people are allowed to gather in pubs to watch football matches on television and sing ‘We will follow the Chelsea, over land and sea’ to the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, but singers aren’t allowed to gather in churches or concert halls. The obvious flaw in the ‘akin to a cough’ argument is that when you cough, you’re already ill so coughing out germs, but when you sing, you aren’t. Moreover, no one in a choir has ever sung straight into anyone else’s face.

You might guess from the triple-whammy that’s now strangling our choirs – the lack of cathedral funds caused by the lockdown; masks becoming ‘mandatory’ in places of worship from 8th August, making a mockery of the whole idea of a church service; and fears about ‘the science’ – that there was an anti-choir agenda from on high, as in a Communist state. I don’t think that is the case; we might have suspected some kind of anti-privilege agenda if Jeremy Corbyn had been in charge. For that at least we must at least be grateful. But it’s certainly true that musicians are not nearly as high on the priorities of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as they should be.

Has the government forgotten, in its zeal to impose endless rules against doing things, that there are two sides to the equation? On one side is the health and safety of the population; on the other is the sheer enjoyment and merriment of life –the things that actually make it worth living. This is less quantifiable, but it is a relevant concern. Choral singing is one of those unquantifiable joys that lift us out of drabness. Without such joys, what will be the point of living to 87?

Today is Golden Sunday: the final Sunday in the foreseeable future when we will be able to go a church or cathedral service and see full faces. From next Sunday onwards, it’s masked clergy, masked organists, masked vergers, masked congregations: a massive advertisement not for science but for muffled silence. The bitter irony in the opening words of the preces, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’, ‘And our mouths shall show forth thy praise’, will not be lost on us.