Amateur choirs decline to fall silent over restrictive rule change

TA Smile: Tom Appleton, Co-Founder of the Come and Sing Company. Credit: Wellington College

Tom Appleton, artistic director of the Come and Sing Company and Director of Music for Aldeburgh Music Club - Credit: Archant

A growing number of amateur choir leaders have shared their bemusement at the sudden tightening of rules around singing indoors only a day after the government relaxed restrictions under step three of its roadmap out of lockdown.

A rule restricting gatherings of amateur singers to just six appeared on updated online guidance from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) a day after the reopening of indoor venues, including pubs, cafés and restaurants.

The government said it made decision based on the advice of public health experts, but local choir leaders have been left scratching their heads at the prospect of tighter guidelines than those in place last autumn, when infection rates were higher and none of their members had been vaccinated. 

Tom Appleton, Director of Music for Aldeburgh Music Club, founded in 1952 by Benjamin Britten, and artistic director of the Come and Sing Company, drew attention to footage of fans attending the darts at Milton Keynes last Monday night.

Tom Appleton

Tom Appleton's Come and Sing Company has been planning to stage an outdoor production of Noye's Fludde on Aldeburgh Beach this August - Credit: Alice the Camera

"The walk-on music was being conducted by one of the players and hundreds of people were singing along without masks on," he said.

"Meanwhile, we're being asked to limit ourselves to a point even worse than last autumn."

Mr Appleton said he was unaware of any further scientific research since the DCMS-commissioned PERFORM study found that singing emitted similar quantities of aerosols as loud talking, and suggested that choirs could safely return under the right conditions, like social distancing and proper ventilation.

"As far as anyone is aware, there has been no further research post-the reform study, which wasn't ideal, but was at least workable and sensible," he added. 

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"Not only that, but our membership is now invariably vaccinated."

Mr Appleton said he had "major concerns" about the composition of 'step four', and whether or not the further lifting of restrictions proposed for June 21 would include unworkable limitations on activities. 

His Come and Sing Company has been planning to stage an outdoor production of Noye's Fludde on Aldeburgh Beach this August, providing 234 days of work for local freelance based artists, and involving 300 local amateur musicians and 100 local children.

"I know of organisations that are already having to scale back plans for performances in the autumn and up to Christmas," he said.

"I realise that singing activity is potentially more dangerous than staying at home, but there are measures that can make it workable.

"It seems like someone in Whitehall has said can we just put the brakes on somewhere."

Andrew Leach, conductor of Woodbridge Choral Society, said: "We were told by the DCMS that all non-professional and amateur music can recommence indoors from step three.

Andrew Leach, conductor of Woodbridge Choral Society

Woodbridge Choral Society conductor, Andrew Leach - Credit: Andrew Leach

"However, a day after step three arrived, this promise was broken, making it impossible for choirs to rehearse indoors. 

"An amateur choir of six just doesn't work.

"What new evidence is there that singing in a choir of 30, two metres apart in a Covid-secure environment, is more harmful than talking loudly in a crowded pub, or doing a workout in a gym?

Woodbridge Choral Society performing Britten's War Requiem at Snape Maltings

Woodbridge Choral Society performing Britten's War Requiem at Snape Maltings in November 2018 - Credit: Edward Morgan/

"Choirs love to sing because of the sense of community and belonging it offers them, as well as the physical and mental health benefits that it brings."

The DCMS said the Covid context had changed with the emergence of more transmissible strains since the REFORM study.

A Government spokesperson said: "We must take a cautious and phased approach in easing restrictions. 

"Changes in step three in line with wider social contact rules mean an amateur choir or performance group of up to six people or two households can now sing indoors, and outdoors in groups of up to 30.

"We understand this is disappointing but are taking decisions based on the advice of our public health experts."

Last Wednesday, South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge said on Twitter that he had written to Secretary of State Oliver Dowden to share the concerns of constituents about restrictions on amateur choirs.