‘Singing will be a vital, national therapy for this miserable year’: Gareth Malone’s new virtual choir piece

8 April 2021, 11:00 | Updated: 8 April 2021, 11:31

Gareth Malone on virtual choirs, and the power of the arts in COVID-19 recovery
Gareth Malone on virtual choirs, and the power of the arts in COVID-19 recovery. Picture: PA/Stay At Home Choir

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Britain’s favourite choirmaster talks virtual choirs and the vital role of the arts in a 2021 COVID-19 recovery, as he invites singers to record his new ‘Locus Iste’ setting from their homes.

The world may be showing gradual signs of opening up, but it seems one lockdown phenomenon – the virtual choir – is here to stay.

Last year, choirmaster Gareth Malone launched the Great British Home Chorus, a lockdown choir for amateur vocalists longing for a sing-song.

And now, after a year of not very many concerts but plenty of time to write in his home studio, the English broadcaster has composed a new piece especially for virtual singers – a setting of ‘Locus Iste’, to be performed by the aptly named Stay At Home Choir, which anyone can join. Listen to an exclusive extract in the video below.

“I wanted to write ‘Locus Iste’ because the text is about making a place sacred,” Malone says. “And that’s the thing we haven’t got in our lives – we haven’t got access to these sacred, special places. We’re just stuck here recording in our bathrooms or under duvet covers.

“I also wanted people to be excited about something again. To be part of something new,” Malone adds.

“Being part of something is what music-making is, for so many people – especially amateur musicians. It helps combat loneliness and feelings of isolation being in a choir. And that’s what we’re all missing.”

Read more: 11,000 voices sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ in finale to Gareth Malone’s lockdown choir >

The Swingles sing exclusive extract of Gareth Malone's 'Locus Iste' for Stay At Home Choir

Throughout lockdown, music has been an invaluable tool for those coping with the effects of COVID-19 – from the English National Opera’s breathing programme to help ‘Long Covid’ sufferers reduce breathlessness and anxiety, to the simple act of singing through Zoom with a community of singers.

“There’s a spiritual uplift you get when you’re part of a mass of people and a mass of noise,” Malone says.

“[You feel] part of humanity, part of something timeless and bigger than yourself. It’s very hard to feel something bigger than yourself when you’re stuck in your house the whole time.

“And that feeling you get is more important than we realise. We took the ability to just go and sing somewhere for granted. I will really well up the next time I stand in a room full of 100 people and hearing that sound.”

Can a virtual choir give you access to that too? “Definitely,” Malone says. “I’ve had moments during Zoom rehearsals when I’ve been dancing around this room.

“And I think the place for music in the virtual world is only just starting to be realised.”

Gareth Malone’s Great British Home Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra - You Are My Sunshine

Back in March, most choirs quickly took their rehearsals online and were immediately confronted with the complications of recording virtually.

“A year ago, we were making stuff up,” Malone recalls. “Some people didn’t even know there was a voice recorder on their iPhone. The level of panic was enormous. That’s definitely smoother now. Everyone has got better at editing, working out how to make it sound good.”

But for ‘Locus Iste’, Malone was eager not to overcomplicate his arrangement.

“The piece is conceived of, so that it works for a virtual choir. It’s not complicated, because you can’t pull it off otherwise,” the choirmaster explains.

“You’re essentially trying to make a copy of something that happens so naturally in the real world. If I sing and you’re stood next to me and we try to sing at the same time, it’s so easy, it’s effortless. But try and do it remotely, and it’s much more complicated.”

Virtual mass singalong of Sir Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man | Stay At Home Choir | Classic FM

The Stay At Home Choir, now a global community of classical singers with members stretching from Hungary to New York, started with two people, conductors Victoria Longdon and Jamie Wright.

Together they expanded the community, and now have more than two million views on their videos, stars of whom include Welsh maestro Sir Karl Jenkins and the King’s Singers. The global collaborative opportunities are exciting, and the resistance to making music remotely has almost completely disappeared, Malone enthuses.

Read more: Watch as Sir Karl Jenkins conducts virtual mass singalong of The Armed Man >

“You know, you can have a music lesson now with someone in Aberdeen, and just travel there for the concert. It makes collaboration and working with other people much more possible.”

After more than a year of singing to other tiny squares on a screen, we appear to now be only a matter of months away from singing as a group again. What does Malone think that moment will be like?

“I think there’s going to be an enormous sense of joy and renaissance,” he says. “It will be like the restoration when this all ends. People will want to just put the screens away and come back to the real world.

“The mental health benefits of coming together and singing as a... an almost national therapy, for this miserable shocker we’ve been through, is going to be vital.”

There’s still time to get involved with recording Gareth Malone’s ‘Locus Iste’. Sign up via the Stay At Home Choir’s website.