Last month marked a tentative return to the Abbey church by the Schola. This is perhaps our most eagerly anticipated return following the nationwide restrictions on musical performances and music within liturgy being eased. Over the last couple of weeks of preparation, I’ve been reflecting on how this period of imposed silence has affected us and how we rebuild from here. 

The world over, Covid-19 has caused performances to grind to a halt, services to be suspended and moved online, and dire warnings about aerosol transmission from singers and instrumentalists have meant that even rehearsals have been shut down. Whilst this has been rightly imposed to minimise risk and as part of a wider fight against this terrible disease, the effect on live music has been devastating and the survival of music performance at all levels hangs in the balance.  

I attended a funeral last Autumn. I recall looking through the order of service and momentarily getting excited at the prospect of singing a hymn. Of course, we did not sing the hymn but instead, we listened to a recording of it being sung. Hearing this recording was as if it were an artefact from a past life. It was a museum piece, showing how things used to be in pre-covid world; once part of everyday life and a living tradition but now placed into recorded history – look but don’t touch (or in this case, sing)! I recall also the pared down Last Night of the Proms last Summer and more recently, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral; a remarkable feat but also a glimpse of what could be if we don’t safeguard our Arts institutions and our musicians. 

There can be such fragility in any musical enterprise. On a practical level, even the shortest break in regular rehearsals will have a knock-on effect of months or even years of progress. So, we look now to the future and the rebuilding task before us. At Ampleforth we’ve been lucky. Firstly, we have fantastic musicians amongst the students who have given so much in continuing to make music of the highest quality even in the most trying of circumstances - I can’t thank them and our brilliant music teachers enough! We quickly made the department Covid safe with a plethora of mitigating measures including aerosol shields, moisture guards and drip pads (!), as well as utilising the great space we have in both our Music Schools. Whilst we’ve missed out on our usual live audience of friendly and appreciative faces, we have been able to prepare full concerts and regular short recitals and bring them to your homes, the Schola has provided recorded music for House Masses, our fantastic Visiting Music Teachers have continued all instrumental lessons, and graded exams have still taken place. As I write two students are even preparing for diplomas and three have been awarded Choral Scholarships at Oxford, Cambridge and Portsmouth Cathedral.  

However, even we have some rebuilding. The necessity of bubbled rehearsals has meant that the quantity of music usually rehearsed in a week is much smaller. Not having older, experienced musicians supporting the younger ones in rehearsals has made ‘osmosis learning’ non-existent, and, despite still having performances, not having a real live public has meant students often find it difficult to understand why they’re doing this. Our return to the Abbey church for the College Confirmations and our recent Masterclass and Recital by celebrated guitarist Elena Zucchini however, was a watershed moment. It was something of a renewal for me personally and also, I am sure, for the singers and congregants at confirmation and the audience members and performers at the recital. To re-engage with and have an understanding of the ‘why we do this’ is fundamental in reviving music in all its forms. Performance, whether in liturgy or in recitals gives our music a deeper purpose and ensures its survival. I have no doubt that Ampleforth will continue to serve as an example of musical excellence as the nation rediscovers its voice. 

I will sing with the Spirit, I will sing with the understanding also 

1 Corinthians, 14:15 

Edward Seymour
Director of Music