Choirs became one of the first groups advised to stop meeting in person when the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread across Europe in February and March 2020. Singing was – and still is – deemed to be one of the easiest ways for the novel coronavirus to spread.
But one choir which has continued to rehearse and perform – albeit in a completely different way – is the Irish Doctors Choir.
Members of the Irish Doctors Choir say that since February, the online rehearsals and virtual performances have given them a cultural relief and a social outlet from the stresses of working in healthcare during a global pandemic.
Dr Barbara Loftus is a consultant pathologist at Tallaght University Hospital.
“In the first lockdown, I really appreciated the sense of community, although I found the tech side of things quite difficult. I am enjoying it a lot more now and I love the feeling of togetherness and being part of something meaningful,” she says.
Dr Jane Holland, senior lecturer in anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has been part of the choir since it started in 2017.
“All my face to face choirs stood down due to Covid-19 related distancing requirements so it is wonderful to have this weekly musical outlet to decompress.”
Dr Neil Black, an endocrinologist at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry says that he finds it odd, standing alone singing into a screen when nobody can hear you.
“But I really appreciate seeing others there and connecting with them,” he adds. Dr Black has been working on frontline Covid care since February.
“I moved to shift work. There was unpredictable demand and it was stressful worrying about the patients in our specialities that we couldn’t see.”
During rehearsals, the Irish Doctors Choir musical director Brian Mackay prepares a backing track with a solo singer which members listen to while singing with the mute button on their screens. Musical scores are sent to each singer in advance or put up on the screen during rehearsals.
Dr Katie Maher, a GP in Clane, Co Kildare is a recent member of the Irish Doctors Choir.
“There is a sense of community and unity singing along in your kitchen. Nothing replaces singing in person but it has kept our sanity during busy times,” she says.
As a GP, she had a lot of patients with Covid-19 when Kildare experienced a rise in community transmission and was in lockdown in August.
“The choir practices gave me a break and was a distraction from work then,” she adds.
Prof Pascal McKeown, head of the school of Dentistry & Biomedical Sciences at Queen's University Belfast and consultant cardiology at the Belfast Trust says the music "is so wonderfully therapeutic. We all needed a distraction from the news about Covid-19 and the challenges it posed. Singing helps to recharge my batteries and I always look forward to the next rehearsal".
Dr Desmond O’Neill, a geriatrician at Tallaght University Hospital and member of the Irish Doctors Choir says that the 90-minute rehearsals with the choir master have been “a bright spot in the week” during the pandemic.
“I came quite late to choral singing but it has been a brilliant extra discipline to having to learn the pieces and sing on my own.”
Dr O’Neill has also enjoyed the “Unmuted Arms” half hour when members meet in virtual break-out rooms after rehearsals.
“We chat with a glass of refreshment in our hands. There is a mixture of talk about the impact of Covid but we all want to share in life outside Covid too. I’ve got to know more people in the choir than I knew before,” he says.
As a geriatrician, he feels that following an intense earlier period dealing with Covid-19, infection control has now been incorporated into routine.
The last time the Irish Doctors Choir met in person was at a workshop in Dublin in January, 2020. Although many of them were aware of the risks and knew that restrictions were soon to be imposed, it was before anyone, even health professionals working in hospitals, was advised to wear masks.
Looking back now, Dr Neil Black says that the fact that many local choirs ceased activities gave the Irish Doctors Choir an opportunity to do something online on a more regular basis.
“Usually, we convene a couple of workshops a year and rehearsals over the weekend of a concert with pop up events in healthcare settings. These are planned well in advance so they don’t interfere with people’s professional or personal lives but since February, we have had weekly rehearsals online with new members joining,” he explains.
The group includes medical students and doctors working in France, Germany, Scotland, England and Finland, some of whom joined rehearsals in advance of the group's first live performance with the European Doctors Orchestra's concert of Mahler's Symphony No 2 at the Ulster Hall in Belfast in November, 2017.
Currently, there are almost 200 members of the Irish Doctors Choir of which 25-45 join the online rehearsals. These members have already sent the recordings of themselves singing their parts to Mackay who will bring them together for their virtual concert on Sunday, November 29th.
The Irish Doctors Choir pre-recorded virtual concert to raise funds for the Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) Covid-19 Crisis Fund will be live streamed next Sunday at 7.30pm. The programme includes the Kyrie based on the Adagio of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, O Clap Your Hands by Orlando Gibbons and the last three movements of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure.
The concert will also feature videos of MSF's work and interviews with MSF medics and choir members. Tickets may be purchased through eventbrite.