Many of our members picked up on the recent article by Richard Morrison in The Times, asking why government was not standing up for choirs and helping them re-open as the coronavirus lockdown eases. And many got in touch with Making Music about this, intending to write to MPs and other contacts, to try and get government to focus on the problems facing music groups planning to meet again.
Making Music has been feeding into the various Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) consultations, via the Association of British Orchestras, Music Network UK, Voluntary Arts (which does a lot of lobbying on behalf of music and many other kind of community-run groups) and Arts Council England. We are assured the leisure-time music sector has not been forgotten, but in terms of public government announcements you’d certainly think it had been.
Over the last few weeks, Making Music has also been talking to many members - over 12% of our total 3,700+ strong membership - in Zoom meetings and workshops. So when we came to make a submission to the DCMS parliamentary committee inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on the sector, we felt we had a strong handle on the main issues facing groups.
So what are the main issues?
Many members have been asking for research into the transmission of Covid-19, as they are concerned after reading sensationalist articles, especially in the US press, about entire choirs falling ill. Indeed, there is no research underway in the UK at present (one proposal so far), but luckily in Germany, Austria and Norway they have been undertaking research already.
And what’s even better is that they have put together practical risk assessments and guidance, which in Norway, was signed off by their public health authority and you can read on the Norwegian Music Council website (use Google Translate). Apparently, nearly all choirs are back rehearsing there now, 50% started more than a month ago and the rest were only held back by venues still being closed at the time. Many started meeting in multi-storey car parks – excellent for social distancing and acoustics, apparently.
For a summary of current research and practical tips it is really worth looking, too, at the risk assessment put together by the University of Freiburg.
So from the available research and re-openings in Europe (I heard from choir directors in Italy and France this week enjoying their first post-lockdown rehearsals), we can put together a risk assessment and risk management measures, and our planning resource for members should help with that.
What we do need government help with are these issues.
- Permission to meet again in a group and technical guidance on what government would expect of us.
- Venues. It’s all very well having guidelines, but if your rehearsal space remains closed or is now too small or not suitable (cleaning, handwashing facilities, entry/exit points, travel routes), then you will still not be able to meet. And that’s before you find out that all that extra space and cleaning will cost you twice as much as before for each rehearsal, making the space too expensive for your budget.
- Musicians! We all rely on professionals in our groups – as conductors, musical directors, soloists, section leaders, arrangers, etc. At the moment these fantastic creative individuals are staring financial ruin in the face and may well decide to retrain as accountants, and who would blame them. But where would that leave us?
What Making Music has been asking for
- Technical guidance on music groups rehearsing.
- Extended financial support for venues and spaces of all kinds, so they don’t go bankrupt before they can earn an income again; so they can adapt if necessary (extra toilets, ventilation); so that they can remain affordable to music groups.
- Extended financial support for freelance musicians. The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme is currently due to expire at the end of August, when probably musicians will not be fully able to return to work as before until 2021.
- Reduction of social distancing from 2m to 1.5m. Only two other countries have the 2m rule, a handful enforce 1.5m, and most follow the WHO recommendation of 1m. A reduction from 2m to 1.5m would make it easier for groups to find venues and get back to rehearsing, as well as making it better musically, for hearing each other.
- Access to good broadband and digital training for all. Groups may be getting back into one space from September, but maybe not all of your members will be able to rejoin immediately. There are probably also positive elements from the lockdown experience that groups will want to carry on with (Zoom workshops when you are snowed in in winter, online committee meetings instead of venturing out on dark nights, etc.), but in order to do so, everyone needs access to good internet connection. And: everyone needs to be able, trained and confident in getting online.
What can you do?
Now is the moment to write to your MP and ask them for help with these issues. There was a time when leisure-time music may not have been a suitable topic to raise, when the nation’s thoughts were focussed on daily deaths and overstretched keyworkers, but it's now time to act.
Now that things are improving, those of us who have lived experience of the enormous benefits singing and playing together bring us have a duty, almost, to make sure that groups are able to come together again soon, to heal the souls of our members – and of the nation which has been joining virtual choirs and learning the ukulele while confined to their homes.
Not sure where to start with your letter? Making Music members can in touch with us and we will send you more information about our submission.