Choral Singing in the Age of a Pandemic, by Jenny Clarke

It’s hard to comprehend how a music genre that unites people through music in a seemingly harmless and collaborative way has suddenly become one of the most dangerous activities a group of  people can engage in.

Recent reports emphasize that the close proximity of singers to each other and the force with which they project their voices and particles of moisture along with them make communal singing a potential source of devastating contagion. So where does that leave the estimated 43 million choral singers in America alone?

When the virus exploded in New York in Mid-March, Cynthia Powell, Artistic Director, Melodia’s Board of Directors, and I  decided quickly, though reluctantly, to cancel all rehearsals and upcoming concerts, uncertain when we would meet again. Like many other groups, we immediately turned to the Internet with the thought of continuing to rehearse online, only to find that Zoom and other videoconferencing programs were completely inadequate for real-time group music sharing because of latency (delay) issues. Choirs, arts service organizations, chamber ensembles and orchestras have searched tirelessly for that overlooked program allowing people in different locations to make music together in real-time, all without success.

As subscriptions to Zoom sky-rocketed, Melodia started meeting every week to check in and engage in a musical activity. While we could not sing together, we found ways to engage in music by having intense warm-ups, learning music by muting ourselves or having one singer sing lines, and incorporating a music learning experience. The Zoom learning curve was steep as we quickly grasped how to make the meetings fun and engaging and continue to nurture our sense of community.

Melodia members were excited about the prospect of putting together a Virtual Choir project of one 

ofthe pieces from our spring program, although the idea seemed daunting at first. In this process, singers record themselves on a mobile device and then all recordings are edited together to make a choral whole. Our collaborative pianist, Taisiya Pushkar, recorded the piano part, choir member Larissa Flint McDowall recorded each of the voice parts for all singers to listen to, and another choir member, Julia Pugachevsky stepped forward to organize and edit the video. Melodia’s first very Virtual Choir project, a recording of John Rutter’s Gaelic Blessing, was born.

As our May concert dates passed, we collectively missed not singing great music to our audience. To commiserate, we watched a video from our concert the same time last year, Gloria, Lifting the Veil On Vivaldi’s Masterpiece, vowing that we would come back strong when the danger has passed.

As uncertainty of singing safely in the fall season looms, we will find alternative ways to draw on our creativity and keep singing together as best we can, waiting for better times ahead.

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