Choir reflections

Truro cathedral's director of music Christopher Gray

The glorious acoustic we take for granted in Truro Cathedral no longer resounds with the voices of our 19 boy choristers and 18 girl choristers, nor of our 12 altos, tenors and basses. The Father Willis organ has also fallen silent and we have strict instructions not to play it even privately - we are all in this together and even organists are not exempt!

When thinking about how Covid-19 affects our choir community, we must bear in mind the wider context: so many families will be and are being touched by illness and bereavement; others have had their lives and their livelihoods turned upside down; and still others are suffering from anxiety, loneliness and depression in the present lockdown. But it would be wrong to brush under the carpet completely the significance of these strangest of times for the boys, girls and adults who serve the cathedral’s music, and their families.

Schools closed on Friday 20th March and the choristers have not met since then. The back row (the 12 adults of the choir) finished the Sunday before that. On that Friday, all of the boys and girls who were not self-isolating came to the cathedral (with the building closed to the public and the choir stalls disinfected) to film five short acts of worship which will be posted online by the cathedral, one each day, from Monday to Friday of Holy Week (6th to 10th April). The recording sessions were subdued but focused, with the boys and girls showing the full extent of their professionalism and skill, suppressing anxiety in a way that was truly moving. The atmosphere was serene but emotional. Our Choir Assistants were self-isolating so we were kindly joined by Martin Palmer and Annabel Gregory from Truro School, as well as our own Lois Bush, to be there for pastoral support and supervision. And chorister parents Andrew Gemmill, Damien Lyall and Jonathan Brown kindly came to carry out the filming (Andrew has taken on the huge task of editing it all together for us).

I found it upsetting to see the choristers I see most days of the week so visibly anxious, and bordering on distressed in some cases. It’s hard not to pick up on and mirror such heightened emotional states. Writing this is bringing back the upset vividly.

As well as a general fear of the unknown in terms of when they would see their friends again and how coronavirus might affect them, the situation weighed particularly heavily on the three girls and four boys in their final year: these seven outstanding choristers have worked hard for the past four and a half years to develop the skills to lead the choir. They had no preparation for having their final months (which would have included the special services in Holy Week and Easter, a CD recording with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, two broadcasts, and their valediction) taken from them. I think we must be open in acknowledging the sense of loss these young people are experiencing, notwithstanding the need to put it in the grave context of society as a whole at the moment. My heart goes out to them all.

Spare a thought, too, for our Choir Assistants and Lay Vicars to whose lives the almost daily services are of central importance; and for our choral scholars, organ scholar and Assistant Director of Music who are all having the second half of their year here taken from them.

Although we’re all confined to home at the moment it doesn’t mean that we are totally isolated from each other. I have been using Zoom to check-in online with the choristers, one year group at a time, and we are managing to do some singing within the limits of the technology. We are also getting everyone together for a Zoom online quiz on Friday – wish me luck with that! The hope is to provide a little support, to keep them engaged, and to try not to let their specialist high-level skills diminish too much in the coming months.

We must find opportunities amid the angst. For the cathedral, these could lie in better use of the internet for its communication and ministry in the future; and a greater care for each other as we focus on protecting all that ultimately truly matters in life.