Virtual choirs give choral singers a voice during COVID-19

Roland Graham

One of the saddest losses of the forced isolation of COVID-19 has been group music making. For musicians and music lovers alike, the inability to share their experience with peers and the community is a deprivation with detrimental mental health and other negative outcomes.

Much has been said about the necessity of direct physical proximity for effective music making, in which the closely assembled can all feel the same vibrations, follow the same minute nuances unique to each musical concert or rehearsal and share in the joy and sorrow of the experience with peers.

Nothing can replace it, and it’s how many thrive.

There is value in solitude, however, and solitude is for many strangely absent in modern life. When we’re not dashing from one person or group to another, we busy ourselves with an endless stream of digital interactions. This constant “activity” deprives us of time to ponder, to compose, to self-reflect.

If this sudden, unanticipated, involuntary isolation has one silver lining, it’s the accompanying opportunity to develop our skills of introspection, to explore silence and to deepen our relationship with ourselves. Making music alone can be part of this, and there’s certainly no shortage of music – to say nothing of literature and artwork generally – that was conceived in isolation.

While a realistic, virtual, interactive, live-music experience may be some way off, current technology does offer a means of combining voices and instruments digitally, making phenomena such as “virtual choirs” a new thing.

The process is simple, and it’s something most groups can accomplish. A video of the conductor leading the music with piano accompaniment for harmonic support is sent to participants, who each in turn record themselves singing or playing along. Individuals’ tracks are mixed together, and voilà, a virtual performance is achieved.

The activity serves to connect people and provide motivation to work on something independently but with a common goal shared by peers. Apart from suitable devices (a smart phone will do), people only need a little time and patience to successfully contribute their own singing to a multi-voiced final cut.

They prepare by practising following the cues in the conductor video, focusing on the rhythm and breathing and working out wrinkles in any difficult passages, then record themselves singing when ready. Some groups rehearse virtually as well, through Zoom or other online meeting platforms.

The work involved isn’t entirely different from attending a lesson or rehearsal and following a leader’s guidance toward deeper confidence and understanding of a musical piece.

The major difference is that individuals must be their own teachers and critics, following a process that promotes self-awareness and independent thinking in ways that traditional community choral singing does not.

Numerous choral ensembles in Ottawa and beyond, in response to the cessation of rehearsals and performances, have taken to the Internet to sing together remotely in this way. A few of these groups – the Southminster Church Choir, Rideau Chorale and the Winter Choral Workshop Choir – recently presented a virtual concert of 12 numbers recorded remotely. The live-streamed event reached hundreds of people and remains available for viewing on Facebook (search “Music to fill the void: a virtual concert,” or write to the email address below to request the link) for the next few weeks.

The concert, which was all about providing spiritual nourishment and community, raised money for the Ottawa Food Bank, which addresses the need for physical nourishment for many in our community.

Plans are underway for future choral workshops this summer and fall. They will include online rehearsal sessions, small group work (5 to 10 people in a large rehearsal space with ample social distancing measures and totally optional for all), voice coaching and step-by-step guidance through the recording process. As of this writing, details are still taking shape. Write to OttawaChoralWorkshops@gmail.com for more information.

While most long to return to singing together (and being together) “for real,” the business of living carries on – we adapt, and in some ways we may emerge the better for it.

Roland Graham is music director of Southminster United Church, conductor of the Rideau Chorale, and instructor in Ottawa Choral Workshops.

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