Singing in the time of COVID

rehearsing Elaine Agnew’s An Island Sings with Viva Voce choir, Cork

Exploring Choral singing in the time of Covid

On March 12th, Ireland entered in to the beginning of a period of “lockdown”. Workers scrambled to organise their work from home – juggling commitments of childcare, caring for older / vulnerable relative, work duties with a necessity all the time to upskill in various type of unfamiliar technology to allow remote working. There was no way of knowing how long this period would last for, and many people struggled to deal with these enormous changes to their accustomed ways of life.

Many choirs took the decision to cease choral rehearsals for a period. Some took the rehearsals to an online format (either immediately or after a period of weeks), with a varying level of success. As the country enters a new phase of opening up various sectors, with still no clear timeframe on discovery of a vaccine or treatment or COVID 19, it is vital for amateur choirs to plan how they can operate within the current restrictions.

why do we sing in choirs

Choirs are a vital part of the community in Ireland and many people are members of one if not more choirs. It is long acknowledged that there are health benefits of singing for both mental and physical wellbeing. In 2017 Sing Ireland were part of a report “Sing Yourself Better”. Irish singers surveyed reported an “overwhelmingly positive response in terms of physical and physiological / emotions benefits and spiritual benefits. The participants were from a wide range of ages, and included people with a wide variety of choral experience. The benefits mentioned were: increased social connection, improved respiratory health, cognitive stimulation, improved mental health and alleviation from everyday worries and pain. (for more see: https://www.singireland.ie/participation/benefits-of-singing)

Can online choir work?

In discussions with choral conductor colleagues and members of various choirs, there has been a lot of talk of the complete loss of choir with the restrictions brought in limiting social meeting of large numbers and in particular the extra restrictions regarding spacing of choirs (1 line if possible, 2.5 metres apart and all wearing masks). People say that, “online choir isn’t the same thing – we can’t sing at the same time.”. I’ve heard people say “I’m on zoom for work, and I have zoom fatigue, I can’t bear it! – so many meetings go on and on.”. People say that don’t imagine that choirs will be able to operate, it’ll be too difficult or impossible to replicate the normal rehearsal. However, there is so much of the “side benefits” to being in a choir that is possible online. All of the key benefits mentioned in the Sing Ireland report are still available online. While it is not currently possible to sing together on Zoom with microphones on, research is ongoing in this area.

To my way of thinking there is much about weekly choir rehearsals that has always been seen as “just” an added benefit to the singing: companionship, shared purpose, achieving skills once thought impossible or lost, a regular routine away from stressful parts of life, being introduced to music people may be unfamiliar with, being part of creating a bigger project that relies on your voice without your voice being necessarily heard or highlighted. I think that this feeling that the purpose of weekly rehearsals is as a tool to learn the music to allow the choir to do concerts has perhaps always been a narrow focus. As a choral community we have an opportunity now to treasure these “subsidiary” aspects of choir, to nurture our membership. Choirs need support to continue. Many have built up over a number of years, I really fear the future of the sector if another year begins with no plans for how choirs can operate in an era with necessarily varying levels of restrictions to in-person rehearsals.

tips to run online choir rehearsals

I think it is really necessary and important to keep choirs alive so that they will be there to come back to, when live group singing is happening, and I would love to share some success stories here over the next few months. I have designed a way of working with two of my workplace choirs:

  • every week I produce a 10-15 minute video with a vocal / movement warm-up and go through a section of the music.
    • This is not a line tape.
    • I teach the line, focussing attention on details that are so important to a choir’s success
      • attention to maintaining vowel integrity through a long note
      • correct placement of consonants
      • attention to the shape of the phrasing
  • every week we have a 30-40 minute Zoom session, which I design to be as interactive as possible
    • we have some chat the beginning and end finding out how people are getting on.
    • a physical and vocal warmup get the participants out of their chairs and connected with their body and their breath
    • some musical games designed to maintain and learn new choral skills and challenge the participants (and myself of course!)
    • we unmute every 5-6 minutes and have a quick check in with everyone as to how they are getting on
    • I have some pre-recorded tracks of me singing so we have been able to sing some rounds together, and participants can choose if they want to join me live or come in at one of the alternative places
    • the final third of each zoom session at least will be singing through of the music that was prepared in the zoom video. I can clarify anything that was unclear. With hand signs I can see that the singers are in fact counting and paying attention to the musical detail
  • As a conductor it is quite a challenge to have this level of trust in my own ability to communicate effectively with the singers what is required, and also without the feedback of sound from the singers, to know how they are engaging with the musical detail itself.

There is a real sense of joy at returning to singing, and a feeling of achievement in the first steps of our learning together. It has been great to see the sense of community rebuilding and also to feel that these Zoom meetings are quite different from a meeting about targets. Choral singing has been a joyful routine in people’s lives and they are so pleased to be back with the choir as it allows them to recharge, and take some time in the day solely looking after themselves.

Embracing the new normal

At the moment, rules are liable to change. The NPHET have to be able to look at the country’s statistics and advise government on necessary restrictions. As leaders of choirs we have to be ready for short-notice on potential lockdowns and ready with a way of providing an optimal choral experience within whatever limitations are imposed. With the recent publication of the 5 stage plan, it is vital to create a structure that will ensure the continuing flourishing of our choral community and in this way provide much-needed support, routine, opportunity for creativity, connection with others to the many choral singers in the country.

I would be very interested in hearing how your choir is getting on. Please get in touch below if you would like to chat to me about any of this. If there is interest, I would be very interested in hosting a discussion for choral conductors so that we can learn from each other.

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