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Civil Service Choirmaster Stephen hits the right note

Blog posted by: , 30 August 2022 – Categories: A Modern Civil ServiceA Skilled Civil ServiceAn Ambitious Civil ServiceAn Innovative Civil Service.

Stephen Hall, CS choirmaster

Since founding the Civil Service Choir in 2009, Stephen Hall OBE has conducted in iconic venues and built the choir’s reputation for remarkable performances. Interview by Lorraine McBride

I joined the Civil Service some 30 years ago as a Fast Stream statistician and I work in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

My family wasn’t at all musical but at primary school, some instruments were brought in and if you could produce a note, you were allowed music lessons. I picked up a cornet and made a respectable noise. As well as having lessons, I joined a village junior band and quickly progressed to the main band. Unfortunately, music at my secondary school was a discouraging experience and on arriving at a different school for the sixth form, I’d effectively given up on making music. 

Stephen Hall, DEFRA13My sixth form was an ex-grammar school, and it maintained a range of competitive activities including a House Music competition. I was having none of it, but a friend told the house recruiters that I played the cornet, and I was told I was in the house brass ensemble, non-negotiable!


On the assumption I could sing, I was made to join the house choir but having never sung before, that wasn’t for me either. When I didn’t turn up at rehearsals, I was pulled from class to explain myself with the threat of going to see the housemaster. I agreed to bring my cornet the next day and, to my surprise, hugely enjoyed the rehearsal. I also found myself in a choir for the first time, aged 16, and discovered that I could sing! I then got involved in lots of music-making, probably at the expense of my A levels.

Civil Service Choir2

Leaping forward several years, the beginnings of the Civil Service Choir were four of us singing in a basement club room, and two months later, a choir of 25 giving a debut concert. I had limited conducting experience and told the singers, “Look, you don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t know what I’m doing - let’s learn together!”

Conductor development

More than 140 performances later, and with a choir of 150 singers, I like to think I do know what I’m doing. However, I never want to be the reason why the choir can’t do anything, so I’ve taken my conductor development seriously and have done various forms of training in my free time. When learning a piece of music, I prepare by listening to a variety of performances of the same piece with different conductors. I went to a lot of BBC proms concerts last year, and whereas most people look at the players, I spent 80% of my time watching the conductor!

The choir’s membership is across all grades and departments and from those who’ve just joined the Civil Service to those who’ve come out the other end as retirees but still want to sing with us.

Our repertoire is very broad. Our mainstream activity leans towards large-scale works, regularly performing at St John’s Smith Square accompanied by an orchestra.  We also sing at events in government departments; at the recent Civil Service Awards, we sang Abba and A-ha. We have performed in the London Jazz Festival.

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