The organising of the Annual Ripon Rural Cluster Carol Service normally begins in the Summer Term. With school’s not operating the same as normal, due to Lockdown restrictions of Covid-19, it was apparent that the usual organisation of the Carol Service could not go ahead as planned. Following a very upbeat and enthusiastic meeting with Sally Cowling (Headteacher at Bishop Monkton C. E. Primary School) early in the autumn term of 2020, the go ahead was given to take the Carol Service online using Zoom.

The project had been extremely successful in the Autumn Term of 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and Andrew Roberts, of Winzer Music, had been approached to lead the project again. He had lots of experience of organising these events before and although the 2020 Ripon Rural Cluster Carol Service would look very different from previous years, it was an exciting challenge and opportunity to work with the schools again, albeit in a very different way due to Covid-19.

The Mukherjee Trust were extremely impressed with the quality of the performances at previous Carol Services. With the ethos of the project involving so many small village schools, they were delighted to have been approached to fund the project again in 2020.

In early October, Andrew began to research suitable music and songs that the children would be singing as a ‘massed voices choir’ albeit virtually! He put together backing tracks with piano and vocal tracks as well as Powerpoint slides that could be left with the schools. For the first time, ’teaching videos’ of all the songs were recorded in order that the children and teachers could learn the songs without a face to face rehearsal.

Sign language had been used successfully in previous years, so it was exciting for the children to learn the signs for ‘Only a Babe’, ‘Twelve Days of Christmas – School version’ and ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’.

Initial information was sent out to the Cluster Heads in October to gain feedback on the proposal of having a virtual Carol service. After much deliberation, five schools came back to say they would like to be part of the 2020 Online Carol Service Project. The schools who would be involved were: Bishop Monkton, Burton Leonard, Kirby Hill (for the first time), Markington and North Stainley. Children from both Key Stage 1 and 2 would be taking part.

Each school gave the name and contact details of the member of staff who would be working closely alongside Andrew on the project. It was wonderful to work with teachers and teaching assistants who had been involved in the project before. The cluster had grown since the last Carol Service Project and so it was wonderful to work with Emma Lowe, Headteacher at Kirby Hill C. E. Primary school, for the first time.

Information emails were soon sent out outlining the slightly different way of delivering the project for 2020. It was arranged to put together an information pack containing a USB memory stick with everything needed to rehearse in school and this was dropped off at each school before the half term break.

A Zoom meeting was arranged shortly after the October Half Term to gain feedback from the schools and to begin planning the running order and finalising the format of the Online Carol Service. It was really useful to speak to the members of staff from each school and to hear how the children were getting on with learning the songs. Although face to face rehearsals were not able to take place, it was clear that the children were really enjoying learning all the songs and carols. They particularly found it useful having the Singing Tutorial Videos. A number of schools even uploaded these onto their school student portals so that further learning could take place at home! The added advantage of having all the singing tutorial videos and the signing videos in school was they could be used at any time during the school day. Word sheets were also made by the teachers for the children to learn from memory all the songs that would involve using ‘sign language

It has been a firm favourite with all those taking part to listen to items from each school which are then interspersed between the traditional Christmas Carols and the joint items.

Each Class were encouraged to record a video of a poem, song or reading for everyone to enjoy on the Zoom platform. It was wonderful to receive the videos and to weave them into the running order of the Carol Service.

The school logo, together with the title of their item, was put on the shared screen on Zoom before each school video was played.

Bishop Monkton C of E Primary School sang a beautiful Christmas song called ‘Child in a Manger Born’, written by Mark and Helen Johnson from ‘Out of the Ark’. Each of the children really worked hard on learning the words and brought alive the wonderful story of the song.

Burton Leonard C of E Primary School treated us to ‘Christmas Poem’ where each of the class dressed up as part of the nativity story. Every member of the class spoke really clearly. Eventually, the whole class made up a ‘tableau’ of the Christmas Story.

Kirby Hill C of E Primary School Choir gave us a super rendition of ‘Christmas Dinner’. The song had a lively tempo and the words were really clear. It was great fun to hear how much the children enjoyed performing their song.

Markington C of E Primary School performed their own version of the Christmas story entitled ‘A Covid Nativity’. All the children had recorded each part of the poem in pairs in the school library. The individual videos were woven together to form the full version of ‘A Covid Nativity’.

North Stainley recorded a Christmas Poem complete with Christmas sound effects. We all enjoyed watching the children taking it in turns to read their part of the poem. Each member of the class had learnt their part really well and it was great to hear all about different aspects of Christmas.

Finally, the day of the Carol Service on Zoom arrived. Each school had a ‘tech rehearsal’ in the morning to double check that the set up was working. The PowerPoint presentation was also checked and final adjustments for playing the audio tracks and individual school videos were made. The Live Zoom Meeting would be run by Andrew Roberts, Musical Director and Project Coordinator, from his music studio based in Ripon. A variety of equipment had been set up to run the Zoom Carol Service, including Laptop and Digital Piano.

At 1pm, all was set, and the Zoom Meeting for the 2020 Ripon Rural Cluster Online Carol Service went ‘live’. It was wonderful to see all the children in their classrooms or school halls, one school was even in the local village hall! Matt Davies joined us from Holy Trinity Church and Sally Cowling from her headteacher’s office in Bishop Monkton.

At 1.30pm the Carol service began in earnest. Everyone was extremely excited, although all the adults were hoping that the technology would work without any hitches! Matt Davies, Children’s and Youth Minister, welcomed everyone and the children were really enthusiastic waving at each other. Soon the children were singing their hearts out to the audio tracks coming over Zoom.

Using Zoom for the individual school videos worked reasonably well although, from time to time, the internet speed and signal did not allow for all the videos to run smoothly. This was slightly frustrating, however, it was wonderful for each school to see what had been recorded and rehearsed. A real treat for everyone to share their hard work and enthusiasm for the project!

In keeping with the tradition of previous Carol Services, we had a good mix of traditional Christmas Carols and other Christmas songs. A first this year was to sing ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ to the rather impressive Yorkshire tune, ‘On Ilkla Moor Bah’t tat’ This was the only music that was played ‘live’ on the Yamaha Stage Piano. Andrew sang the words to the Carol whilst playing so that the children could hear how the words fitted in. This will certainly become a firm favourite along with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O little town of Bethlehem’.

Singing and ‘Signing’ a number of the Christmas Songs was again enjoyed by everyone. The children had rehearsed tirelessly learning the ‘signs’ to ‘Only a Babe’, ‘In School Before Christmas’ (our very own take on the twelve days of Christmas!) and the fast and furious ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’. This year, rather than having a live piano accompaniment from the wonderful and gifted Helen Johnson (piano teacher at Prima Musica) we were using audio recordings from previous Carol services. John Housley from Holy Trinity Church put together the audio tracks which were then played over Zoom so that everyone could sing along. It really encouraged us all to sing with gusto having the voices of children and adults, as well as the piano and organ accompaniment, coming over the speakers!

The finale to our online Carol Service was ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ complete with signs. The children gave a fabulous rendition from their classrooms, school or village halls and even the adults all managed to keep up with the lively tempo too!

After the event, lots of wonderful comments came from the schools. ‘We had a fabulous afternoon! It was lovely to be part of something as a collective as we have really missed that in school.’ ‘Thank you once again for all your hard work with this year’s Carol Concert and in particular for coping with the challenges going online brought with it! ‘It is a lovely opportunity for the children to unite with their peers from local schools and share joy in collective singing.’ ‘Dear Mr Roberts, thank you so much for organising the carol concert!’

The Carol service project 2020 has been a great success! Although we had to make major changes due to the restrictions brought about by Coronavirus, it was felt by all the schools taking part that it was indeed a very enjoyable event and well worth the changes that had to me made taking it online.

Village primary schools greatly value that chance to be part of something bigger and it is again thanks to the generosity of the Mukherjee Trust that this could go ahead in the Autumn Term of 2020. It has been an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with the dedicated and enthusiastic staff and their wonderful children. (Andrew Roberts - Winzer Music)