Eight-year-old Emily Grills was looking forward to turning singing teacher this month, drilling her parents on the songs she has been singing with her children’s choir in Bristol.
“Lockdown has been lonely,” she said. “But singing makes me happy and so teaching my parents to sing means we can do it together even when it’s not my lesson time – although my mummy doesn’t sing very well yet.”
Encouraging even their youngest members, such as Emily, to become “singing ambassadors” who help plan and lead lessons, is just one of the new and positive ways that the pandemic has forced Bristol Beacon choir to innovate.
Bristol Beacon is one of the biggest children’s choirs in the UK, engaging with 5,000 children across the city every year. Instead of responding to lockdown by simply replicating live rehearsals online, David Ogden, the head of the Choral Centre at Bristol Beacon, said the choir has treated the crisis as the positive inspiration for a whole new future direction.
“Our plan is to use the necessity for innovation due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic as a springboard for training in the future,” he said.
“The model of singing ambassadors has been developed so that they can teach songs to younger singers in the future, training them to have the confidence as they progress through the choir to become the ‘singing workshop leaders’ of the future in schools and in choirs,” said Ogden. “These skills can also feed into such schemes as the Duke of Edinburgh award where leadership skills are assessed.”
Bristol Beacon is not alone in mounting a positive reinvention of itself in the face of pandemic-shaped adversity: the National Youth Choirs of Scotland (NYCOS) have also developed ingenious techniques to keep their young singers engaged.
“The pandemic has made us be even more creative with our methods,” said Mairi Leggatt, the director of the NYCOS Dundee Choir. “Now we are singing from home we are able to be creative with wooden spoons for drumsticks, plastic cups as percussion or a rolled-up pair of socks if you can’t find a ball.
“The social aspect of NYCOS plays an important part for all our members – this week we played musical Pictionary online and we had a Dundee emoji quiz,” she added. “We have other things up our sleeves too – scavenger hunts and treasure trails, anything we can come up with to allow the choir to continue to grow and develop, both musically and as young people.”
The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (NYCGB) has created an innovative calendar of events for their online holiday courses, including guest artists Anthony Trecek-King in the US, Sofi Jeannin from France and Anders Edenroth in Sweden.
“Moving online has afforded unique opportunities to connect our members with a diverse range of inspirational international artists,” said Anne Besford, NYCGB chief executive. “It would have been impossible to bring together this prestigious roster in person and we are excited about the potential of future international collaborations.”
Julian Forbes from the London Youth Choirs, said that the big difference for them about this spring concert is that they have “embraced the fact of it needing to being virtual from the start”.
Their spring concert – which will involve around 300 young people aged seven to 24 from 30 London boroughs – will be a fully planned, professional event, offering home-made concert snack parcels delivered to families’ doorsteps to enjoy with the concert.
But some choirs are managing to maintain the old, pre-pandemic ways. The Primrose Hill Children’s Choir is holding a real life, live concert later in the spring, featuring uplifting favourites including Monty Python’s Always Look On the Bright Side of Life and lockdown-themed songs such as Born Free and Busy Doing Nothing.
Though Matthew Watts, musical director, said there would be “Covid-19 precautions as long as your arm.”
Watts believes that nothing can replicate the experience of performing live. “Performing in front of a real audience, largely made up of family and friends, there is a real sense of interaction between the choirs and audience, which cannot be recreated online,” he said.
“Has community music making ever felt more precious?” he asked. “As one parent said to me, thank you for providing some joy in our children’s lives in these dark times.”