Singing in the pandemic

Members of Rideau Chorale finally get together (if distantly) in September at Venturing Hills Equestrian Farm to sing in person for the first time since the pandemic hit.   Photo: Elizabeth Tromp

By Janice Manchee

Singing releases those feel-good endorphins. It exercises your lungs and tones your abs, intercostal muscles and the diaphragm. It makes you feel energized and uplifted. Singing is an all-round great thing. Not that you have to tell that to members of Rideau Chorale.

Singing in choirs is also a very Canadian thing. Choral Canada reported that 3.5 million people sang in choirs in 2017. Three times more children sang in choirs than played hockey, and there were 50 per cent more adult choral singers than adult hockey players. We’re keeners, eh?

As the pandemic tightened its grip earlier this year, the Rideau Chorale Board wasn’t sure we’d be able to continue this great Canadian activity. We were deep into Bach’s very challenging Mass in B Minor with the intent of performing it in May. Clearly that was not going to happen.

Particularly worrisome were the reports of illness and deaths in choirs around the world. Mount Vernon’s Skagit Valley Chorale reported 52 of 61 members ill and two dead by mid-March. That same month, the Amsterdam Mixed Choir reported 103 of 130 members had fallen ill and a number had died.

What were we to do? Stop singing? No. Like most of our fellow choirs, we figured out how we could continue to make music safely.

After a brief shut down, our practices resumed via Facebook Live, which only allows live-streamed presentation. It is not interactive. Rideau Chorale director Roland Graham led warmups and then talked us through various pieces from our repertoire, allowing time for us to try out various segments in the privacy of our home.

Our goal was for each member to submit an individual recording of their part by early May. These would then be mixed together by a sound engineer to create a virtual performance.

Some members faced technological challenges. To ensure your part fit with everyone else’s, each member had to play a pre-recorded accompaniment through headphones from one piece of equipment while recording on another.

What a humbling experience that was. Choirs are designed to help members strengthen and support one another. A bit off the note? Someone else will pull you back on. Slowing down? Someone else will help you keep up. Doing it on your own? Every mistake and weakness are recorded for posterity.

To top it all off, none of us had hair and makeup people, and there were no filters to soften our often fiercely concentrated looks.

But we did it and if you’d like to hear the result, it’s available on our website.

We’ve since moved to Zoom, which is a more interactive platform. We can see and hear each other. We can chat and ask questions. But we still can’t sing together. Everyone has different systems, providers and connections, so the feeds are not in sync. It would just be cacophony.

But our practices still have moments where they feel like rehearsals. Imagine a screen filled with individual tiles of singers. Each person stares intently off screen, likely at their music. Brows furrow, heads nod, mouths flap – usually in time.

We still plan to perform the Bach Mass at a later date but for our fall season, we’ve turned our attention to A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms. Like Bach’s Mass, the Requiem was written over Brahms’ lifetime. His grief over the deaths of fellow composer Robert Schumann in 1856 and of his mother in 1865 inspired a number of pieces.

The Requiem itself demonstrates Brahms’ skill in counterpoint and rhythm. Some commentators have been surprised by the lack of Christian content in the Requiem, but others note that Brahms saw this as a humanist rather than a Christian work.

In mid-September, a group of members met at the Venturing Hills Farm in Luskville. This beautiful equestrian park nestles below the Gatineau escarpment and is owned by the family of Rideau Chorale accompanist Carson Becke.

We self-distanced and worked on the Requiem, then spent some time joining our voices together in song. To our amusement, several horses frequently joined in with huffs and whinnies.

Rideau Chorale’s vision is to promote and present beautiful pieces of music to the community while we work together to develop our musical abilities. We intend to stay true to this vision for however long we must remain distant from one another.

Janice Manchee sings tenor with Rideau Chorale. Information about Rideau Chorale and its virtual and upcoming performances can be found at rideauchorale.org

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