Creating an international arts festival during lockdown

Thomas Leech, Director of the Schools Singing Programme at the Diocese of Leeds, gives an insight into running an online choral programme during lockdown.


I should start with a disclaimer. I feel desperately for my many friends, peers and musicians I’ve admired from afar who are struggling in this crisis.

Yet this has been one of the busiest periods of my professional life, with cliffs and canyons of emotion, exhilaration and exhaustion - above all marked by a driving fear that my niche of classical music will retrench and withdraw into an even more dangerously monochrome world than before.

Pre-COVID-19 we were doing pretty well in running a choral programme reaching over 4,500 children a week across some of the most deprived parts of West Yorkshire. Leeds Cathedral may lack dreamy cloisters and expensive chorister education, but somehow there are six choirs and regular national BBC broadcasts. Far more importantly the choirs reflect the diversity of both congregation and city, and over 75% of our choristers are BAME. We had a programme where sustainable musical and financial relationships with over 50 schools laid the foundation for our network of 18 after-school choirs, and where whole-class school singing was at the heart of our work, and then: lockdown.

Our 18 after-school choirs moved online within a week, our Schools Singing Programme moving to daily YouTube singing sessions (now at 23k+ views) and our organ provision shifted to online lessons and concerts. Jobs were reinvented overnight, the sheer joy of hearing the children sing together instantly removed. Our Choral Directors have - like so many people – juggled family and work, smashed mugs (and a phone), shed tears, and fired off cross emails. But all have remained determined to serve the children we work with. Zoom singing and composite recordings give tantalising glimpses of progress, reminding us of talent and hope.

Strangely enough for musicians, it was practice that ensured this started well. Hours trialling online rehearsals with colleagues and friends and making draft singing session videos have been invaluable - proficiency doesn’t happen quickly.

Asking for and accepting feedback has been vital; together with the rapid realisation that teaching might be outstanding in the room, but fall flat on the screen. Inspiration has come from Joe Wicks and Yoga with Adrienne, with new-found admiration of CBBC presenters!

Taking time to attend webinars (the Association of British Choral Directors have run excellent sessions) has linked us with colleagues far and wide, and we’ve shared our practice in the same format. Not everyone finds the technology easy, and for children the digital divide is another huge problem. We have to acknowledge that this is a very real cause of anxiety and find ways of offering support. It’s all new, we’ll make mistakes.We’re about to move from Google Meet to Zoom, we have adjusted rehearsals schedules and repertoire, we have kept information for parents as clear as possible, and chased absences by phone. The list could run on for days.

In the long term, lockdown and the longer-term impact of COVID-19 might devastate our work. I wonder how many cathedral choirs will return, but as a charity first and foremost we cannot ‘mothball’ need. We see the reports of the loss of ten years’ progress in narrowing the achievement gap in education, and this will have an acute impact on access to choral music, already far behind the progress towards equality of opportunity made by other arts. This frightens me: I’m a product of that monochrome world; we know we can never do enough for the children we work with, but do we sit back too much on compelling pictures of diversity? Do we think enough about how we prepare these wonderful young people for a musical world that feels less safe than the environment we provide?

I’m not looking for people to say we’re doing well, I’d rather our work acts as a call to arms for music educators and the professional performers in our field; that the new skills and resilience we have learnt over this period benefit children for generations to come. The easy option is to mourn lost work and fight for the concert platform, but the real battle is surely securing the foundations of a music education open and safe for all. In 2030 I want to be reading ISM blogs written by our current choristers, not me.

Thomas Leech
Director of the Schools Singing Programme at Diocese of Leeds

www.dioceseofleedsmusic.org.uk

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