Don’t sing so close to me: Choirs in the Covid era

Once a communal activity, choral singing has been a high-risk one during the pandemic

Christopher Bell

Christopher Bell

 

Cast your mind back to the start of the year. The World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern in January. On Wednesday, March 11th, the emergency was upgraded to a pandemic. And two days later Ireland went into the first stages of lockdown.

In the northwest of the US, a 122-member choir, the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington, had held its weekly two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals on March 3rd and 10th. Those rehearsals led the choir to become well-known for all the wrong reasons. The gatherings were superspreading events for Covid-19.

In May the US’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) published a report on the fate of the choir. Its blunt verdict was that “Following a 2.5-hour choir practice attended by 61 persons, including a symptomatic index patient, 32 confirmed and 20 probable secondary COVID-19 cases occurred (attack rate was 53.3 per cent to 86.7 per cent); three patients were hospitalised, and two died. Transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within 6 feet) during practice and augmented by the act of singing.”

With its multiplicity of voices in close physical proximity, choral singing has shifted from being a life-affirming communal activity and a staple of the musical calendar, and become a high-risk activity in a world still trying to figure out how to live with Covid-19. As an academic paper published in August put it: “Choral singing has become a major risk during the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic due to high infection rates.” You can even watch videos showing how far droplets and aerosols can be projected in the act of singing.

On December 11th, 2019, in a world still oblivious to the arrival of the new virus, the Cork International Choral Festival announced the appointment of Peter Stobart as its new artistic director. He is just the fourth person to head up the festival, following Aloys Fleischmann, who founded the event in 1954, Geoffrey Spratt, and John Fitzpatrick, who had been in charge for 26 years.

Peter Stobart
Peter Stobart

Stobart took up his new position on January 1st and two-and-a-half months later found himself in the unenviable position of presiding over the cancellation of the 2020 festival. Cork Choral would have drawn more than 5,000 singers, 800 of them from abroad, to Cork at the end of April. The risk was unconscionably large.

When I catch up with him and ask him about his choral activities in the world of Covid-19 he talks first about his other job, as director of music at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork. During the first lockdown, between March and July, “ I was singing to myself with a priest for that period of time. Just the two of us in the building. But, because we managed to instal a camera, we were broadcasting through churchservices.tv”.

It’s been up and down since, with their children’s choirs subdividing because of social distancing and extra sung services added to accommodate the extra groups before lockdown hit again. Online rehearsing proved so unproductive that he’s moved instead to music theory, and talks on church architecture and “the church’s calendar, the church year.”

His work takes him to schools, too, where solutions have included singing outside, although, he says, “Most of the schools do have a large enough space, or indeed a small enough set of children, to do it safely.” Christmas remains the big unknown.

At the choral festival, “I had two months of planning and personal learning, finding out what was going to be happening in the festival. Then it didn’t happen at all. We just kind of shut down, really, and tried to clear up refunding people and that sort of thing.”

Amateur choirs

He’s had to let go of the prospect of having a normal festival next year. Given that amateur choirs rehearse over a period of months, the variables are simply too unpredictable. He would love to have live events with audience, but the festival is “putting the technology in place to enable a non-live event to go out online at least, so that if the worst comes to the worst we have something that we can put on, even if it is the dreaded online concert.”

When I bring up the imponderability of the readiness of audiences to go to concerts, he says “I don’t think we’re at that stage yet. I think just having a rehearsal would be nice.”

Belfast-born conductor Christopher Bell is the artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland (Nycos), chorus director of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, outgoing artistic director of the Washington Chorus and former chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival chorus (2008-18).

“I haven’t stood in front of a choir since March 10th,” he says. That was in Washington where he decided to stay, because he was sharing a house. “We were a bubble, and I had 10 weeks of good companionship, cooking meals, watching films, listening to music.”

From there he shaped the new look of Nycos, which, in addition to its main choir has a national boys’ choir and a national girls’ choir, and a further 15 satellite choirs. All the activity was pivoted online.

“The faults and failings of Zoom are well known,” he says, mentioning the time lag caused by “latency issues” and the fact that “the pitch that I sing at is not the pitch that you will hear”, unless you change the default settings, which are optimised for speech, not music. Rehearsals, he said, were “basically a lecture/recital”.

He’s now back in his home in Edinburgh, and “the idea of bringing people from the four corners of the country to have a day’s singing, normally considered a triumph, is being viewed by most people as a very foolhardy thing to do. Long story short, the singing is not happening.”

Nycos has actually been very busy, with, for example, “a daily activity for primary schoolchildren, with different presenters leading a five-minute daily activity online” and Nycos TV, which includes interviews with composers James MacMillan and Eric Whitacre, and conductor Donald Runnicles. You can access everything on the choir’s website, www.nycos.co.uk.

Yet, he says, “I cannot believe how much my body aches to be standing and working with a choir again. To be standing in front of an orchestra. To be doing the things that I’ve done and taken for granted for years.”

Getting back in running

His greatest fear is that the youth choir will become something “that took 25 years to build and 25 weeks to destroy. That we will have to start again. And that the stigma that’s built up that singing is bad, that it carries illnesses, is something we’re all going to have to fight.”

He becomes emotional when I ask about his greatest hope, and there’s a tremor in his voice as he says, “to walk into a room with a choir in front of me, and for us all to look at each other and realise that it’s going to be okay to sing again.”

Majella Hollywood is the CEO of the 16-voice Chamber Choir Ireland, Ireland’s top professional choir. The choir took part in a National Concert Hall Livestream of Fauré’s Requiem in July, and another Livestream early in November under title A Sad Song for These Distracted Times (presenting an Arvo Pärt in a programme named after Thomas Tomkins’s Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times, composed after the execution of King Charles I in 1649).

They will also perform Handel’s Messiah with the Irish Baroque Orchestra on Thursday, December 3rd, again at the NCH. The hall began its streaming in May, and she says she learnt a lot from seeing how the NCH backstage crew managed the health and safety issues during the rehearsals and performance of the Fauré.

Majella Hollywood
Majella Hollywood

Performances for broadcast and digital dissemination are allowable under current regulations. But, she says, “Rehearsing and performing is tougher with social distancing. And masks are mandatory for rehearsals though not for performances. The planning is much more difficult, not least finding enough space to be able to rehearse. A lot of places we would normally hire are closed, and there’s the last-minute nature of so much of it as well.”

She sees it as “important for a professional choir to try and find a way back”. But that way back involves significant changes. The choir’s British-based members can no longer travel to Ireland without quarantining, and their artistic director Paul Hillier, who is based in Denmark, had to hand the mostly Arvo Pärt programme over to the Dublin-based David Brophy.

“Everyone is struggling, and our audience are missing hearing us. It’s been very touching to be contacted so regularly by members of the audience to say how much they miss the performances.”

Through contacts in Tenso, the European network for professional chamber choirs, she realises that Ireland has been “probably the most restricted country in terms of what we are allowed to do in the performing arts.”

On the other hand, “I don’t underestimate the fortune we’ve had. Our Arts Council funding has continued, so we have been able to pay the singers in full for the cancelled work since March.”

But the singers don’t get full-time salaries, “so it’s been really tough on them. And they really want to get back working again.” She worries, too, about amateur choral societies in a situation where there’s no end in sight, but she doesn’t see ways yet for large choirs to come back together.

She strikes a positive note about the “blended” future. “We didn’t really have much online. But, given that touring is going to be a problem for quite a long time, both within Ireland and internationally, it gives us an opportunity.

“If we can get the singers together and perform and record really high quality video, it does give us an opportunity to develop our audience. People who can never get to our concerts will be able to hear us, albeit in an online way.”

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