February 28, 2021


Church Music during Lockdown: A Case Study of Chapel Choirs at the University of Oxford

February 28, 2021


Church Music during Lockdown: A Case Study of Chapel Choirs at the University of Oxford

Screenshot of Magdalen College, Oxford's May Morning service in 2020.

Screenshot of Magdalen College, Oxford's May Morning service in 2020.

Introduction from the Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the way church musicians approach their work. In the best-case scenario, choral conductors now must spend hours thinking about how to adapt in-person rehearsals and services to ever-changing government rules. But in many cases where choirs are no longer allowed to physically sing together, directors of music have turned to technology to mimic the experience. Isabelle Allan is an undergraduate music student at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and as part of her degree research undertook the following case study of the activities of various choirs throughout the University.

The University of Oxford is a collegiate university, and all students are members of two institutions: a faculty where they study their major subject, and a college where they often live and participate in social life. Oxford colleges also have chapels which, depending on the college, offer vastly different amounts of programming. Some have only one service per term sung by students who do not read music; on the other extreme, several college chapels offer daily choral evensong led by a combination of professional singers (called lay clerks), choral scholars (undergraduate students), and boys or girls from the college's primary school.



This research documents how chapel choirs in Oxford have responded to the COVID-19 outbreak and adapted through the use of technology to fulfill the needs of both the choir members and the congregation in the early days of the lockdown in England, which primarily affected the University of Oxford's Trinity Term 2020 (April 26–June 20, 2020). This ongoing adaptation not only exposes the aspects of the choir which are prioritized — whether that be engaging with spiritual practices, producing high quality music, or creating a sense of community — but also the aspects of music-making which can be easily continued and assisted by technology. I explored how and why different choirs responded and the diversity of these decisions and consequent output. Perhaps most importantly, this article recognizes and highlights the priorities choirs share throughout Oxford college chapels, and how various adaptations and approaches to their programs reflected these values. The key considerations were well-being, community, and the use of technology.

My primary research consisted of three main parts: preliminary research into the broad diversity of Oxford chapel choirs and what they published during Trinity Term, a questionnaire sent to all choir directors, and eight in-depth interviews with the directors. Every choir director who had a public email address was invited to fill out my questionnaire. Out of 16 directors, I received 14 responses. The questions focused on quantitative aspects of the term: for example, what technology was used, who had access to the recording of services, and if any lockdown rehearsals took place. It is also important to recognize that there were some choirs that decided not to publish anything; the main reasons for this were lack of equipment, time, and technological knowledge; this particularly affected student-led choirs such as Pembroke and Lincoln Colleges, as these student directors running also had end-of-degree exams.

I conducted eight online interviews over the summer vacation and invited choir directors to reflect on the previous term, the content they had created, and their personal reasons for choosing how to approach the choir over the previous months of lockdown. These participants were chosen due to the variety of responses they gave in the questionnaire; for example, the type of choir they lead, the amount of experience they have in directing choirs, and the approach they took during Trinity Term 2020.

Themes which permeated my conversations with choir directors were that participants found the pandemic incredibly challenging, and that choir practice held a great deal of personal importance for them. Decisions made by all of the directors of these university choirs were rooted in the importance of well-being for both the students and the staff, as well as that of the congregation, with directors acknowledging the toll the pandemic has taken on mental and physical health. Choir directors attempted to create a sense of normality by trying to maintain the structure the choir and chapel provided before the pandemic. Additionally, the community and friendship that choirs provide are often central to an individual’s support system; in some cases, life-long friendships are forged through the collective act of singing on a regular basis.1 Choirs provide much-needed support for individuals through the support of friends, and the feeling of belonging to a community going through the same situation together, continuing to make music together despite difficult circumstances.

The well-being needs of the choirs I looked at were approached in two very different ways: they either kept choir running and continued to get choir members to sing regularly, or they reduced all of the choir’s activities and asked as little as possible from the choir members and reduced all pressure to produce new materials. While these are drastically different approaches, the heart of the decision was well-being.

Community is a key reason people join and remain an active member of choirs.2 Singing in a group forms social bonds and provides support through challenging times. The nature of lockdown recordings creates a sense of togetherness even when the participants are alone; as Mark Williams, director of the choir of Magdalen College, notes "seeing a group of people together on a screen creates this sense of togetherness which is not happening physically," which could be very powerful for elderly members of the chapel community.

Some choirs' aim to be an active part of the wider community was reflected by their regular advertising over lockdown. For example, Exeter College and The Queen’s College both utilized their social media presence and had hundreds of listeners, many more than would be able to fit in their respective chapels; additionally, people from all over the world can listen. Currently Queen’s College's video of Geistliches Lied, at the time of writing, has over 1,000 views:

Johannes Brahms: Geistliches Lied, Op. 30, recorded in isolation by The Choir of the Queen's College, Oxford, conducted by Owen Rees.

For choirs, accessible recording technology now found on most smartphones has enabled their members to continue to contribute to the choirs by creating lockdown recordings. These recordings can be edited together, creating the audible illusion of a choir who are physically together, while still being geographically separated. All of the choir directors I interviewed approached Trinity Term differently, but all of them made use of the technologies available. Overall, there were three different approaches: services comprised of pre-recorded material; the production of video and audio tracks created individually and edited together during the lockdown; and finally, hosting live services over videotelephony software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Choirs often used a combined approach; for example, St Edmund Hall released two music videos, as well as their weekly Zoom services.

John Stainer: God So Loved the World from The Crucifixion, recorded in isolation by St Edmund Hall Chapel Choir, conducted by James Whitbourn. Edited using Adobe Premiere Pro.

The new expectation for chapels to be creative and innovative in their use of technology during lockdown has created newfound pressures for directors (and to a lesser extent choir members) to have an impressive technological knowledge and ability to use many different types of musical and video software. This required many directors to learn and adapt quickly, developing the technological skills required during term time while also managing their academic commitments.

The use of technology within these sacred spaces and for spiritual purposes continues to be highly contested. As Mark Williams argued when discussing lockdown projects such as Magdalen College's May Morning video service, "it is all just technological brilliance, but it has no real musical value in my opinion."

Excerpt of the May Morning 2020 service, recorded in isolation by The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, conducted by Mark Williams. Edited using Adobe Premiere Pro.

What role do these technologies have in creating something musically beautiful? Can there be musical value in technical brilliance? Furthermore, many aesthetic and moral questions came up during interviews regarding the role of sound editing, such as how much should be done? How perfect should the director try to make it? Is it still an "authentic" performance? What does it mean for the choir when the director silences your voice without your knowledge?

One view that stood out to me was that of Christopher Holman, who directs the the Choir of Exeter College; for him, the standard of editing was not only linked to the aesthetic musical result, but it was representative of something wider and more profound. He felt it was about creating something representative of the time, which includes its hardship: "[Choir members are] recording all over the world in isolation, and that's a reality that I think the recording should reflect. I wanted to go for something which in some ways represented reality, but also made use of technology in a way that made it palatable." For him, it was about creating something together, and therefore in his eyes everyone’s voice should be included, regardless of ability, timing or tuning.

Charles Villiers Stanford: Jubilate Deo in B-flat Major, Op. 10, recorded in isolation by The Choir of the Exeter College, Oxford, directed by Christopher Holman. Edited using Audacity.

Will Dawes, director of Somerville College Choir, took a different stance, placing the priority on the morale of the singers above all else; this was in part possible because the College Chapel has no religious affiliation, and therefore the needs of chapel-goers are different. Dawes's goal was to create something which sounded as good as possible, which would subsequently be something the singers could be proud of, irrespective of how uncomfortable they may have found the process of recording in isolation. Thanks to pitch correction software, Dawes was able to emphasize to his singers that excellent rhythm was more important than outstanding pitch, which helped to alleviate some of the pressure singers felt when recording. While the editing approach of Holman and Dawes are very different, it is clear that at the heart of aesthetic decisions is the welfare of the people the choir provides for, both the congregation and the members themselves.

Imogen Heap: Hide and Seek, arranged by Jamie Powe and Will Dawes, recorded in isolation by The Choir of the Somerville College, Oxford, directed by Will Dawes.

The approach St Edmund Hall took centered around a live experience, one where there was a fleeting shared temporal space. Director James Whitbourn argues "we all appreciate recordings, but there's something particular about actual performance acoustically in a particular space. But if you can't have that, there's still something important about keeping the temporal element of that live performance sacrosanct." Consequently, liveness "was a kind of important guiding principle, and so the repertoire choices then followed from that decision." While they filmed two lockdown videos which were released online, the main body of the music they produced was heard on a Sunday evening over Zoom to a congregation which logged in at the right time to hear it. For Whitbourn, music is a temporal art form, and because it is contained within a specific time frame which is shared with others listening to music at the same time as you, it becomes a communal experience. It also provided religious and temporal structure, as the regularity of fixed service times continued while most other live events stopped. By producing services over Zoom, this live experience is recreated at home. This way of thinking is supported by philosopher Theodore Gracyk, who notes "it seems relatively obvious that audiences for musical recordings do not actually hear the performance. They hear an imitation or representation of the sonic dimension of that performance."3

People have chosen to respond differently depending on the ethos of the choir, an ethos which is shaped both by the choir members, the college, and in some part the reputation they wish to uphold. For some choirs the resources available determined what could be published during the term, but their reasons to keep producing new material reflected their personal views on the importance of choirs and remaining an active part of that community. All choir directors understood the tangible effect choirs have on the people who sing in them and the audience who listens, particularly at a time which was difficult for everyone.

"In a place like St Edmund Hall it's about creating moments of beauty, moments of spirituality, moments of nourishment really within the community, and I think there are lots of contributors to those moments of nourishment, but I think the choir is certainly one of them."

My hope is that this research will bring these decision-making processes to the forefront of directors’ minds as they move forward and continue to navigate the circumstances pandemic restrictions bring worldwide. These decisions are entwined with the nature of a choir itself, its composition, its relationship to its institution, wider community and its individual members, and the personal views held by its director.



1. Nick Alan Joseph Stewart and Adam Jonathan Lonsdale, "It’s Better Together: The Psychological Benefits of Singing in a Choir," Psychology of Music 44, no. 6: 1240–1254. Available here. Return to text.

2. ibid. Return to text.

3. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music, edited by Theodore Gracyk and Andrew Kania (London: Routledge, 2011), 85. Return to text.


Isabelle Allan is in her final year of undergraduate music studies at Oxford University. Throughout her final year she has focused on virtual choirs and how they have both continued and thrived in a virtual environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a soprano in Exeter College Choir and is active in numerous other vocal groups. She also interns with Soundabout, helping to run their virtual Inclusive Choirs.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.