Peterborough’s Cathedral choir in lockdown

Peterborough Cathedral has a choir with a very unique history. Singing has taken place within worship at the Cathedral for hundreds of years and each year the choir, which comprises girl and boy choristers and adult professional singers, sings for over 300 services a year.

Saturday, 13th March 2021, 3:00 pm
Peterborough Cathedral choristers on Zoom

Tansy Castledine, Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral writes: Each of the three terms within the year has its own flavour and natural rhythms, accelerating to the high points of Christmas, Easter, and St Peter’s day in the summer.

It is many hundreds of years since churches have been obliged to close their doors for public worship, but since the first Covid Lockdown in March 2020 choristers and musicians have made sure that the regular pattern of worship (known as the Opus Dei) remains at the centre of their work. They have had to adapt in many different ways so that their music can continue to inspire those who enjoy the beauty of their choral singing, whether in person or online.

Although the cathedral itself may have fallen temporarily silent, the music rings on as a result of the dedicated work of the choir.

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Choristers inside Peterborough Cathedral

The choristers are a group of over 50 children who come from all across the city of Peterborough and beyond, and lockdown-life has not stopped them from singing with full heart and voice. Singing frames almost every day of the week for a Cathedral chorister, with choir sessions before and after school.

Singing at Cathedral services and events is the culmination of this intense daily training, and the years of musical and vocal experience they gain through being in the choir.

The choir moved fully online at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the choristers’ response to this has been very positive. Perhaps one of the key differences is just how focused singing is now on individual chorister development and achievement, rather than the corporate music-making and the regular gift to others of singing at services. Their extraordinary dedication and commitment as a group has enabled progress to continue and the children to remain active choristers during this time.

The ability to connect via the internet has been vital in helping the choristers not just to keep up with the training but also to be socially connected too. Alongside their individual training and singing lessons, group rehearsals, recordings and a small number of services and events, the children have also been using their wider skills to continue with their sense of team and aspiration.

Tansy Castledine, Peterborough Cathedral Director of Music

It’s been wonderful to see the choristers in their wider contexts during lockdown. Usually attired in school uniform underneath their choir robes, they have instead enjoyed different colour dress codes reflecting different aspects of the world around us. 

There have been competitions and activities such as making Lego models of the Cathedral, learning to recite all 66 books of the Bible, drawing pictures and creating reinterpretations of the Christmas and Epiphany scenes, introducing us to family pets, new cooking recipes, books, and dance routines! They have designed and played board games, flipped pancakes, taken part in the BBC Musicals: The Greatest Show, taken music exams with great success, made virtual recordings to contribute to the Cathedral’s online services, and several have also had the opportunity to take part in some national video recordings. It has been truly inspiring to see the resilience that this group of 7 to 12 year old children have all have shown towards each other and these projects.

Anyone who sings in a choir knows that nothing makes up for the deep connections that choral groups have together - the singing of texts that are hundreds of years old, expressing emotions through melodic lines which fit together perfectly and soar around the building’s fine architecture; the break times, after concert treats, or on a rollercoaster on tour. These are all part of a choir’s make-up and corporate identity. The choristers’ (of all ages!) enthusiasm for when we can come back and sing together in person is palpable and, with the roadmap in place, we hope there isn’t long to wait now. I look forward to being able to answer some of those daily questions – “when will we do this piece”, “who will sing the solo in this?”, “when can we sing together again?”, “where will we stand?”, “can we learn another new piece by her?”.

There will be things that the arts world, and in particular choirs and those based in churches, will take forward from the pandemic into our new era. The ability to spread our mission further afield has been most enthusiastically welcomed, with our services more accessible than ever through live streaming via the web. These new connections will continue and enable us to bring together those who might not otherwise be touched by the work of our distinctive worship offering.

The benefits of singing are widely known but perhaps during lockdown they have become more apparent, in part because of their absence whilst our singing is mostly online. That ‘performer’s high’ upon completion of a massive concert, or the spine-tingling sensation at the high notes in a service of Evensong in the Cathedral has been missed and longed for, and the prospect of those elements of our musical lives returning is eagerly awaited. The release of endorphins that singing provides and the choir’s structured routine will return. Anyone who already sings will know these are vital for well-being, and indeed medical professionals continue to strongly endorse singing as a helpful tool in maintaining a positive mind-set.

As I write, a partnership between English National Opera and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is building an integrated social prescribing programme of singing, breathing and wellbeing, to provide support to people recovering from Covid-19. Bringing together musical and medical expertise will build on techniques used by singers in their daily work, to help patients in managing breathlessness and associated anxiety that this can produce.

In the summer term our Year 1 Singing Club launches so all 5-year-old noisemakers are welcome!

Children will use their voices to gain in confidence, develop social skills and musicianship, and improve their singing skills. Having spent much of the last year in lockdown, it is perhaps social skill development that will be one of the most crucial elements of development for many of this tender age in the coming months.

We will also be beginning our search for nine new children to join the Cathedral Choir as choristers in September 2022. If you know a child that will move into Year 3 at that stage, perhaps they would like the chance to sing in that beautiful building every day and enjoy the special musical education that comes alongside that? More details are on our website here

The Cathedral launches a new community choir in the Autumn 2021 for anyone and everyone in the city who wants to sing. This is a group particularly suitably for those new to singing in a group or in parts, who would like to enjoy exploring group repertoire such as folk songs, popular songs, jazz pieces and choral music from around the world. No experience is required for this choir – just a sense of humour and lots of enthusiasm! For adults with experience of singing in a choir already, and who would like to sing in a chamber choir focussing on sacred music that sings in Cathedral services and concerts, there is our existing Festival Chorus.

Peterborough Cathedral lies at the heart of a vibrant city and as the cultural life here begins to rebuild, now is your chance to become involved in one of our choral groups and enjoy outstanding personal rewards for you as a singer, be that musical, social, or health and lifestyle. No one can say for certain how the next year or two will pan out across the choral world, and more broadly, the arts.

There is no denying that they too have been through great upheaval and turbulence and there is still much challenge to come as we rebuild and return. What is certain though is that the act of singing together in person once again will continue to bring great glory and comfort to congregations and audiences. You can be a part of that too, whether child or adult, through the Cathedral’s singing programme. If you’d like any more information about any aspect of music making at the Cathedral please be in touch. Getting involved with our distinguished artistic heritage is easy and there are plenty of ways to participate, contribute, or support financially the choral activities, so please – come and take centre stage!

If you are able to support the life and work of the Cathedral Choir and help secure its future for the coming generations, please contact the Director of Music, Tansy Castledine directly to discuss

opportunities. Email [email protected]