Choristers are returning to Exeter Cathedral for the first time since England’s coronavirus lockdown began in March, and are rehearsing in preparation for their first public appearance at the Cathedral on Monday 28 September.
The return of Choristers, a group of 40 girls and boys from Exeter Cathedral School, comes after weeks of meticulous planning to ensure all aspects of Public Health England’s Covid-19 precautions are met. As Timothy Noon, the Cathedral’s Director of Music, explains:
“Now that we are back, we have moved the girl Choristers from their relatively small song school into the well ventilated and lofty space of the north transept. Both girls and boys are functioning as ‘cross-year’ distinct bubbles, which reduces the need for them to distance socially from each other, although they still stay two metres away from the directors and the choir’s adult singers. Hand sanitiser is very much the order of the day.”
For the Revd Canon James Mustard, Canon Precentor of Exeter Cathedral, the Chorister’s return is a huge boost to the Cathedral community, despite the continuing restrictions.
“Inevitably, the pandemic brings changes to the way in which our Choristers can rehearse and perform. But we’ve just endured the longest period without any Choristers at all since the English Civil War and Commonwealth, so simply bringing the children back into Cathedral life is a really exciting step forward.”
Exeter Cathedral School headteacher James Featherstone believes the return of the Choristers restores an essential element of the school’s identity.
“We are so pleased to have our Choristers back doing what they love. We’ve been educating musicians for 841 years, so music and performance are in the walls and in the blood. Everyone sings here, whether as an enthusiastic chorus member or as an elite performer, and our Choristers are a key part of the school’s identity.”
However, the six-month absence did encourage creative new ways of maintaining voices while at home, as Mr Noon explains: “Although lockdown prevented us from being together in the same physical space, with help from our Choristers’ parents we did still meet for rehearsals via Zoom, with each chorister singing from her or his own home. To help maintain focus, we also recorded several items. Each child sang their own piece from home, then the individual recordings were combined digitally to give the impression of a group performance.”
While grateful for the benefits of digital technology, Mr Featherstone emphasises that such ‘virtual’ performances can never truly replace the experience of singing together in the same space:
“Our lockdown rehearsals worked really well, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. It is a real boost to the whole school – and we hope to the county and beyond – that our Choristers are now back in earnest. Everyone has missed the daily singing – none more so than the Choristers themselves!”
It is a sentiment echoed by Phoebe, a Year 7 Chorister at the school:
“I am very excited to be back at choir. The first rehearsal was quite emotional but I really enjoyed it. It was okay doing virtual choir rehearsals, but I’m so much happier to be back and doing the real thing.”
The Choristers’ first public appearance at Exeter Cathedral is for the Choral Evensong service on Monday 28 September at 5.30pm. The service is free to attend, but advance booking is essential to ensure safe physical distancing. Tickets are available on the Exeter Cathedral website from 4pm on Tuesday 22 September.