Churches and leisure-time music groups have much in common: despite the one usually having striking architectural features punctuating the landscape and the other making quite a lot of noise, both are frequently not noticed as they go about their daily business.
It is only when you are looking for a place to rehearse your orchestra, band or choir that you suddenly see churches everywhere. And only when searching for a choir or an event near you that you realise how much is happening musically right on your doorstep.
So do these two surprisingly invisible giants of all communities know and help each other become more visible? We believe they do.
'We' are Making Music, the UK association for leisure-time music, with over 3,600 music groups in membership, comprising around 200,000 hobby musicians. Impressive numbers, but the (limited) data suggests we only represent about 26% of all adult music groups in the UK.
Making Music offers its members practical support for running their group. Most are small charities managed by a committee of volunteers. We help them navigate everything from writing safeguarding policies to claiming Gift Aid, designing effective posters to setting up a Twitter account, recruiting new participants or finding a leader for their choir. There are artistic development opportunities, such as our Adopt a Music Creator project.
We also connect groups to each other, to relevant experts, services and suppliers, and to new potential audiences and participants. And as the largest leisure-time music organisation, we act as a voice for the sector.
58% of concerts will take place in churches
Around 60% are choirs; 30% instrumental groups – from brass bands to amateur orchestras, ukulele groups to handbell ringers – and the other 10% are amateur promoters, that is, they present professional soloists or small ensembles in concert, but they are doing so as volunteers, not to earn a living.
These groups usually operate all year round, offering a wide range of music, from pop to classical music, folk to jazz, world music to brass band repertoire.
The amateur promoters will host an average of seven concerts a year (so for those in our membership, a total of about 6,000 events annually), to audiences of around 385,000. 58% of their concerts will take place in churches.Our performing groups – vocal or instrumental – will also stage concerts, an average of 3.8 a year; including other kinds of events (e.g. Come and Sing Days or workshops) that totals around 24,000 annually. Their concert audiences are around 1.5 million people a year and 70% of their events take place in churches.
But our performing groups' main activity is their regular rehearsal, usually weekly. Public events give these rehearsals a focus or goal, but the practising together in itself is of great benefit to participants and for many a highlight of their weekly routine, as I can personally attest: having started learning the trumpet three years ago for a fundraising challenge, I then joined a brass band. Concentrating for 90 minutes on playing the right notes melts away the stresses of the day and there is almost physical comfort in the harmonies we create and experience together. How did I cope before band?
Here's some of the reasons churches are so popular as rehearsal or performance spaces with our music groups.
- There is one in every community! Being geographically accessible is really important – you want to be able to get quickly to your weekly music fix and enjoy it with people who live nearby.
- Churches are large! There are not many buildings spacious enough to accommodate a 200 strong community choir or a full-size (usually about 85 people) amateur symphony orchestra, including large instruments such as percussion, harps or double basses.
- Churches are affordable! Other similarly large spaces would be far too expensive for these music groups: theyfund themselves mostly by subscriptions from their own members, subscriptions they want to keep low in order to enable anyone and everyone to join. This 'public benefit' thinking chimes well ethically with churches' focus on supporting their communities.
- Churches are beautiful! Many people no longer visit them for religious worship, but nonetheless cherish the buildings and want to experience, admire and support them – for example by paying weekly rent for music rehearsals or buying a ticket for a concert.
- Many churches having been built well before the microphone was an affordable accessory to all, they alsotend to have great acoustics.
There are a few potential improvements suggested by groups now and then...
Ventilation, in Covid-times, might be A Good Thing, but it's hard to enjoy music or a practise session in a draft and without heating.
Toilets. Are there any? Or enough? A rehearsal session or concert will be 1.5 to 2 hours long, and the organisers will arrive earlier and leave later, so facilities are essential. A lack of them can be off putting for audiences, especially as around two-thirds of them are aged 50+; intervals can be difficult to manage.
Is your building accessible to all kinds of people of all ages or disabilities? 18% of the population, that's 12 million people, have a disability, and over state pension age it is one in two people. Making your building welcoming to music groups and their audiences also means your congregation and wider community are able to join in with worship and the many other activities you may be hosting throughout a week. Music groups have long cherished churches as spaces for rehearsal and performance, and churches have found that this regular activity contributes significantly to their income and perhaps also enriches their summer fêtes, and accompanies their weddings, baptisms or funerals.
A match made on earth – we hope you continue to support each other and flourish as the architectural and musicalcornerstones of your communities.
Barbara Eifler has extensive experience of running arts membership organisations, including the StageManagement Association, of which she was Executive Director for 12 years. An amateur musician herself, and with 25 years of experience in arts-related charities, Barbara is well versed in the issues facing voluntary musicians and music groups.