All performing arts organizations are facing the daunting challenge of surviving during the current quarantine, because their budgets depend on large numbers of people attending and paying to experience their live performances. Most performing organizations, however, are able to see a light at the end of the tunnel, when the authorities will deem it safe for audiences to assemble again in concert halls and theaters.
But choral groups see no such light at the moment. The preparation of choral music requires extensive rehearsal time singing together in an enclosed rehearsal room. And nearly all performance venues require equally close contact formations. According to the best current medical science, the very act of singing, as well as loud speech (think public speaking), propels the coronavirus further and more forcefully than mere conversation. So the traditional practices of choral rehearsal and performance will not become safe again until medical science comes up with appropriate therapy to deal with the Covid19, whether that is a vaccine for prevention or medication to successfully treat those afflicted with the virus—or perhaps a combination of these approaches.
[Readers who want to delve into the analyses of singing and spreading the virus can look into a recent webinar put together by the American Choral Directors Association, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the Performing Arts Medical Association:
Today, May 26, 2020, at 2:00 p.m. another webinar under the same sponsorship will consider the topic Singing: What CAN We do.
“It’s in our nature to turn to singing with others at particularly momentous times—good or bad—and that very outlet is taken away from us now, when we need it most,” observed Carol Manifold, founder of San Diego’s Choral Consortium, an umbrella organization for San Diego County’s choral groups. “The lack of that very important forum for connection with others adds an even deeper level of loss, along with the musical, financial, and logistical disruptions we are all experiencing,” Manifold added.
Facing this challenge, many local choral directors have resorted to using the virtual choir, a model devised in 2009 by the popular, prolific American composer Eric Whitacre to allow singers from across the globe to sing his music together by recording their respective vocal parts according to a prescribed template and then merging all of these individual recordings into a single mass recording.
“Although the opportunity to collaborate in some form is a positive aspect of the virtual choir, compared to the rich experience of choral singers making music together in each other’s presence, the virtual choir is a poor substitute,” observed Juan Carlos Acosta, Artistic Director of Sacra/Profana, one of San Diego’s premier professional choirs.
In a Zoom call a week ago involving nearly 100 San Diego choral directors and singers, Tasha Koontz, Music Director of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar, described the process of making music with her virtual choir for use in the services her church makes available online.
“I carefully edit the recorded tracks the choir’s section leaders send to the singers in their section, and then I edit together all of the singers’ vocal parts that they have recorded on their cell phones. This final procedure is very labor intensive. And because the post-production is so time-consuming, I can only produce music for church services every other week.”
Carol Manifold noted, “Many choir members find making a solo recording of their part for the virtual choir intimidating, but in spite of this insecurity many of us are learning new things in choral music.”
“The end result of making a virtual choir recording may be satisfying for those who listen to it,” said San Diego Children’s Choir Artistic Director Ruthie Millgard, “but the actual recording process is not that satisfying.” Acosta pointed out that the Chorus America organization has resources available for virtual choirs to use both to improve their musicianship and strengthen their ability to work together online.
Community choirs that do not have the challenge of providing performance ready music on a weekly schedule are using online time together to improve basic musicianship skills such as sight-singing—the ability to look at a line of new music and correctly sing it without first hearing someone else sing or play it on an instrument—and to improve vocal technique.
Some directors have invited composers to join them online to learn more about compositions their choirs have recently performed or are learning. On the earlier Zoom call, composers Sarah Rimkus and Amy Gordon expressed their enthusiasm to be able to engage choir members and answer questions about their compositions. Rimkus was the winner of Sacra/Profana’s 2019 composition competition, and the choir presented her winning opus “The Devil’s Tower” in concerts last spring.
Acosta explained that he has members of his church choir at the Village Community Church of Rancho Santa Fe write short essays on why they sing in the choir, including the spiritual grounding singing in worship provides. Other choral directors have made interviews of individual choir members to share with their colleagues that develop themes of commitment and the value of choral singing.
Another compromise is to hold rehearsals outdoors, an option now under consideration for The San Diego Children’s Choir. “We recently conducted a parent survey about this Spring’s distance learning,” said Millgard. “ And we learned that the majority of our families feel that in-person singing is an essential component of the San Diego Children’s Choir experience. We are therefore exploring rehearsal options for our upcoming season that allow singers to rehearse in-person while still observing sufficient safety measures. This will likely involve singing outside in some capacity.”
Acosta and other colleagues are worried, however, that without actual rehearsal and performance together, over time choir members will give up in frustration and not come back when choirs are eventually allowed to regroup. In a KPBS-FM news broadcast over the past weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, commented on a promising vaccine for Covid19 that was in the earliest stages of testing, saying that the most optimistic prediction of when such a vaccine would be commercially available would be early in 2021.
“If the light at the end of the tunnel is January of 2021, then I believe our choirs can make it,” Acosta said. “Keeping our choirs alive in virtual mode until 2022 would be very hard. But in the end, I hope that the hunger for real choral singing will be greater than our disappointment of not being able to eat out in restaurants.”