On Trinity Sunday, we welcome Sheffield’s ‘Steel City Choristers’ to the Cathedral as our next visiting choir. Ahead of their arrival further west in Yorkshire, we spoke to Director of Music Eleanor Jarvis and Kate Caroe – Chair of Trustees and the choir’s junior choristers lead – to find out more about what to expect on Sunday 4th June. We started by asking for an introduction to the choir.
Eleanor: The Steel City Choristers came out of the old Sheffield Cathedral Choir. When that choir shut down, Kate and others reformed into the Steel City Choristers.
We’re a choir of kids and adults who are formed in the English choral tradition, and we sing for churches all round the diocese as well as going into schools to do workshops, and things in lots of different communities and venues. We’re really a choir for the community.
We sing for different churches of various denominations around the city and the surrounding area; and we go into secular spaces as well and trying to help more people connect with the English choral tradition. We take cathedral music out and about and share it around the city to wider audiences.
Since then, how was membership been going?
Kate: We started off in September 2020 with the majority of the cathedral choir, which was quite small at the time, and since then a few have moved on, so there’s five left who were part of the cathedral choir. We’ve got about 32 choristers now, so we’re almost at capacity. And this includes five teenage boys with changing voices, who would have had to have left the cathedral choir as their voices broke, but we thought it was important to help them still feel part of the community, and so they have carried on and they’re singing in the back row with our Clerks.
Why are choirs so important, particularly in Sheffield?
Eleanor: We believe passionately in the value of music and really its power to change lives, whether that’s through music in worship or in other walks of life. There’s something very powerful about music and it has a transcendental quality that can meet people emotionally or spiritually and meet whatever needs they have wherever it’s heard.
For me personally, I have a great passion in sharing choral music with more people who wouldn’t normally hear choral music or music sung by choirs. That’s why I think it’s important to go and sing services and concerts and go into schools here, there and everywhere – wherever we’re invited!
We’ve sung in churches of all denominations, and at secular events like at the Magna steel works, and we’ve sung at science careers fairs and Gulliver’s Valley Theme Park, and Cutlers’ Hall. I think singing in places like that is just as important as singing in the big cathedrals, because it just brings such amazing, powerful choral music to more people and makes it more accessible, and really helps to diversify that choral music.
The English choral tradition is really, really precious, and it is under threat, as many churches are struggling to keep their choir going and find people, especially young people, interested in singing, especially religious music. I guess we’re trying to pioneer a new model, that our choir belongs to the city rather than an individual church or specific religious belief system. That’s why we go into schools and do workshops, to give them a musical education alongside maybe helping them find a love of singing!
Kate: I think singing brings a lot of joy and it builds community. Schools don’t do as much singing as they used to and so children are missing out. We want to give the children the opportunity to access a choir like ours, because we sing to a really high standard which is so satisfying; they learn such a lot. Our kind of all age choir is built upon years and years of rolling membership – younger children are apprenticed by the older children who learn from the experienced adults – and it’s easier to maintain a high standard of singing in the choir like that than it would be to start to start from scratch.
I think the arts are really important in all sorts of walks of life, in terms of people expressing emotions, and building up communities. Singing happens in in major national events like the King’s Coronation or at football matches, or when anybody has a birthday. It’s something that’s really integral to being human: people love to sing together as it builds bonds. It helps you celebrate the highs and lows of life, like singing at weddings or at funerals. It’s part of being human and we all should do more of it!
Does singing at places like Magna help keep things fresh for you as a choir and also bring your music to new or different audiences?
Kate: It’s fun, because one of the things we’re trying to do is to be friendly as a choir and take this music – that some people might feel that isn’t for them – and show that actually it’s really beautiful, it’s really cool, and that we all enjoy it – we all have fun. We don’t take our cassocks and surplices when we sing at places like that – we’ve got polo shirts that we wear – but we will still take some of our religious music and mix it up with other fun music.
We sang at North Star science careers fair with Brian Cox, and the idea was to choose music that was about looking after the world and our environment, and how you’ve got to be aware of these issues while you’re thinking about your career in science, that we’ve all got a responsibility to look after each other and after the world. We sang ‘Mr Blue Sky’ and ‘What A Wonderful World’, but we also sang Tallis – ‘If Ye Love Me’. I’ve never sang it so loud in order to be heard! But it was effective. Those audiences may never have listened to choral music before and it’s nice being able to sing this kind of repertoire to people who would have never considered coming into a cathedral or a church for Evensong.
Eleanor: Definitely. We love doing those events: it’s just so vibrant and so exciting, and I guess you don’t normally hear traditional choral music in those settings. It can introduce that type of music to new communities, and new people who may not be from a religious background or have been in a religious venue. Through our choir, they’ve had the chance to hear that music and to experience the beauty of it.
It also enables the choir to sing non-religious repertoire. We have these super fun arrangements of modern popular pieces. I love that variety of having the capability to one week sing in a church and the next week sing on a pirate ship for a science fair. You meet really amazing people and people who maybe haven’t even heard a choir before. When we sang in Magna there was obviously lots and lots of school children there and during one of our sets there were some boys who were kind of looking at the choir and seemed quite intrigued by it. We had a chat with them and they seemed quite interested, but it was quite clear that they weren’t used to hearing that type of thing, or seeing a choir before. I don’t know what they went away thinking about the choir, but I like to think that, in that interaction that we had, that they left feeling more positive about choir singing and hearing us sing those different songs. I’d like to think that those interactions that we have – or even if someone was listening from afar – that they’ll leave with a more positive view towards singing and how music can impact them.
Singing pop songs is always fun because you can have so many different options when arranging them. We can work with different arrangers and have different styles and different voices coming through. I think being able to sing pop songs and more religious music, just opens the door to so many more opportunities and reaching so many different people. I guess you could argue that pop music is a lot more accessible nowadays than religious music – people are probably more used to hearing things like ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ than they are Tallis – but I also think it’s quite interesting pairing modern music with music that has traditions spanning hundreds of years, connecting the two different kind of time periods in musical history.
Before this interview I was scrolling through Instagram and saw VOCES8 have released their programme for the Proms and they’re doing a piece by Radiohead alongside a mixture of pieces from the contemporary choral repertoire, with works by Eric Whitacre, Ola Gjeilo and Caroline Shaw etc and I think that’s so fun and fresh and exciting. We’re beginning to see mixtures of repertoire with modern music for choirs sung alongside traditional older sacred music such as pieces by Tallis, Byrd or Gibbons. I think it is definitely a very exciting and fresh and vibrant and innovative way of doing things – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
You are coming to us on Trinity Sunday as our next visiting choir. What can we expect from your programme?
Eleanor: We’re doing Charles Villiers Stanford’s Mass setting in C and F, which I’m very excited for. And then we’re doing some Orlando Gibbons – ‘Almighty and Everlasting God’, which I think is really, really important and interesting: to have a piece of a lot older than Stanford, having that style of music paired with something slightly more modern.
For evensong, We’re doing the Kenneth Leighton responses, so again even more modern, and the canticles we’re going to be doing are Basil Harwood’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis in a-flat and then the anthem is Charles Wood’s ‘O Thou, The Central Orb’, which is an Anthem that I really love.
I think it’s so much fun, not only for the choristers (and me!) but for the organist as well, which is always a thing in the back of my mind, especially for a cathedral and the great organ that you have at Bradford. It’ll be a lovely piece to sing, especially in such an amazing acoustic.
I’d like to think we’ve got a range of exciting pieces there; probably things that people in the congregation have heard before, but music that’s really exciting and powerful to listen to, and I think the choristers will really enjoy singing them as well.
It’s music that works really, really well in such an amazing cathedral acoustic that Bradford has.
You have various cassock colours. What’s the story behind that?
Kate: When we first set up there was a church in Sheffield that offered us cassocks that they rarely used, and then another church on the south coast were getting rid of their cassocks that had been in storage for years, and they got in touch with one of our former choir mums. They sent them all up and they were blue and the ones from the other church in Sheffield were purple, and I think there were a few red ones mixed in with theirs as well. And the surplices were different lengths as well!
But we’re on a shoestring so it was fine: we just wanted to sing together.
Then we needed more for the clerks because there were only three at Sheffield Cathedral when they closed but we’ve got a back row of about 12, and so I put on Facebook ‘has anybody got any cassocks?’. Southwell Minster and St. George’s in New Mills contacted us – so that was green and red and blue – and then another church here in Sheffield contacted us and said that they were getting rid of their cassocks and that was a darker red and a black, so we just accepted anything that people were offering us, and they’re all multi-coloured!
And do these different colours reflect the diversity of your members?
Kate: I think it reflects the support that we’ve had from all around the country and the diversity of where and what we sing.
We’ve got our choir CARE values: C-A-R-E: Community, Ambition, Resilience, and Enjoyment. I think that’s the most important thing. We haven’t got the money; we haven’t got a big institution behind us; there are lots of things that we’re just having to make do with, but it doesn’t matter as long as we’re caring about what we do and about each other and having fun. I think the cassocks are quite a symbol of diversity and fun, and also about how we’ve been able to keep singing together with our limited resources, thanks to help from others.
Finally, if you could sum up what to expect from your services when you visit, what would you say?
Eleanor: It’ll be a really lovely experience, and we’re going to hear a group of people who really, really love singing, and are passionate about the music that they sing, and singing together as a choir.
We all believe in that power of music and bringing music and people together. We really believe in the power of that and allowing people to hear this beauty that we feel really passionate about. So hopefully they’ll come along and hear it when the kids stand up and sing, and the adults are singing at full pelt, and having a great time.
I hope that they see our passion and love for the music that we’re singing in the services, so hopefully they’ll come along and let us serenade them!
Kate: Choral services offer quite a kind of inclusive and contemplative space for people, so even if people wouldn’t normally go to church, they can always come to the cathedral as it belongs to the whole city. A choral service – where the music forms the main part of the service – is a place where people can get a bit of peace and quiet and time to reflect. Nothing’s required of them. I think it’s a lovely space to be in, where everybody can sit with their own thoughts and prayers, and there’s no expectations: they just they can just enjoy the gift that music is.
I think if people have never been to a cathedral service before, the building could feel intimidating; they might feel like they don’t know what to do. I think there’s more that we can do to kind of demystify and help people feel more welcome, because once they’re in there, a choral service is a mindful thing; it’s a reflective space; it’s a tradition that’s been going for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s a tradition that happens all around the globe. I feel that more people would really enjoy it if they if they thought about coming in: they could find it quite beautiful!
You can hear the Steel City Choristers leading our services on Trinity Sunday, 4th June 2023: we have a Choral Eucharist at 10:30am, and Evensong at 3:30pm. You can find out about the choir at steelcitychoristers.org.uk