A chorus is all about gatherings—people in very close proximity, breathing together and joining their voices in song. Gatherings are how the art form is produced and experienced. So in March, an eerie quiet fell upon local choruses as the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 began wreaking havoc on life as we know it.
With tight restrictions on gatherings, choral groups such as VOENA Children’s Choir, Solano Community College (SCC) Chorus, and Vallejo Choral Society faced the painful decision to cancel rehearsals, concerts, and entire seasons.
But there’s something else that defines a choir—community—and that has not been silenced. Choral groups are finding innovative ways to keep their communities intact and their musical bonds strong, thanks to their determined and resourceful directors and stewards.
The Pandemic’s Toll on Performing Arts Organizations
This spring, VOENA would have debuted “Voices of Love,” a concert about all aspects of love—relationships, friendships, self-love, hardships, and loss, according to Annabelle Marie, VOENA Founder and Director. “The kids were so excited for this concert! Now with this social distancing, our theme of love has taken on new meaning.”
VOENA singers are missing the ensemble, that irreplaceable in-person musical experience of singing together. “Music is especially important to bridge that emotional connection they so desperately need right now,” Marie explained. “They are lonely and isolated and missing each other. This worries me, as for many of these kids, VOENA is the highlight of their week and their sanctuary. We have a special connectedness with these kids and they have a connection with each other. For some, it’s becoming a huge void that is leading to depression.”
Canceling rehearsals and concerts is not only heartbreaking for the singers and disappointing for audiences, it takes a financial toll on performing arts organizations, which already operate on narrow margins. No doubt, the loss of concert revenue and membership will be financially devastating for many.
“We are very nervous right now and trying to have a hopeful attitude that it all will work out,” Annabelle Marie said. In addition to the support for VOENA’s operations and scholarships, funding for its workshops in the Benicia schools is also jeopardized.
Sharing similar concerns, a first order of business for the Vallejo Choral Society board of directors’ March meeting was to ensure its two staff would be paid in full through the remainder of this season. “We felt that especially important, knowing, as musicians, their other gigs had dried up,” said Board President Laura Pyles. She added that the organization is looking at various scenarios for returning next season to work within as-yet-unknown budget constraints. “We are working on a program for December performances that we can adjust in scale, if need be. Putting on artistic productions is always a challenge, so we are game to do what it takes.”
Taking Choir Online
As weeks in quarantine turn to months, choral groups are becoming increasingly tech-savvy. Many are making use of online tools such as the popular Zoom video-conferencing app, even though the technology is cursed with an inherent lag issue that precludes singing together in real-time.
“You really can’t have that choral experience,” said Michael Reilly, Artistic Director of Solano Community College Chorus and other Bay Area ensembles, “but what we can do is provide a balm for social isolation.” One of Reilly’s guiding principles when leading his online gatherings is acknowledging that everyone is experiencing real grief, the loss of our normal lives.
“So we come together on Zoom, and it’s kind of a free-for-all. I don’t want to mute anybody, so it’s kind of messy, but people are able to talk. And then we go into breakout groups of 4 to 5 people. Sometimes I give a prompt, such as ‘share one thing you’re doing every day to help you stay sane.’ Then we come together at the end, and I’ve just been picking simple songs for us to sing. For that I have to mute everybody due to the lag, but people are still making music together, and they have enjoyed that. It’s not perfect, but I do think keeping that sense of community going is really important.”
“Sheltering in place has slowed us down, but it has not stopped us,” Pyles said of Vallejo Choral Society. “We have about 75% of our members joining Zoom sessions each week. The first week, we mastered the app’s mute function to sing along with our Artistic Director, Derek Tam, as he led us through familiar folk and spiritual songs. Since then we’ve explored compositional insights on Vaughan Williams’ cantata Dona nobis pacem (which would have been the centerpiece of our season-finale concerts), covered some vocal technique, and are now venturing to learn another piece from our May repertoire with plans to record and mix. Perhaps the best part of our weekly gathering is getting to see everyone. I know I break out in a smile seeing dear friends altogether, even if on my laptop screen looking like a big Brady Bunch.”
As for VOENA, Marie turned to making videos that sequence the learning she had already planned. “I make videos every week to have available on our members’ website for the kids to practice with to maintain their forward momentum in preparing their music. This is including sectionals whereby I make separate videos for each part as if I was with them—altos, sopranos, melody, tenors.”
In the meantime, to give her singers an avenue for performance, she has assembled “virtual choir” pieces on YouTube. Singers record and submit a video of themselves singing their part with an accompaniment track, and then the individual videos are synchronized and combined into one single piece to create the virtual-choir performance.
“The kids feel good that we are working so hard to keep them in the loop of their VOENA experience as best we can.” To help sustain the connection, VOENA sends out newsletters with announcements and information about new videos for rehearsal, sight-singing, and drumming lessons. The resounding message is, “VOENA is still here and on-going for all of you and expecting each of you to continue learning your music on your own during this worldwide health mandated circumstance, and we’re looking forward to seeing each other in person soon.”
Even when singers can’t be physically together, maintaining connections virtually helps them all feel cared for, seen, and uplifted. “Everybody needs support and understanding in this unprecedented moment,” Reilly said. “I think we may have taken for granted just being able to be in a room together and sing. We never thought this was a luxury until now, when that’s been taken away from us. We’re going to be so happy to just come together again.”
Taking their programs online and leveraging technology is working to keep these communities intact until that day comes when they can gather together again. In the words of VCS’s Pyles, “It’s all a grand experiment.”