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With Choirs Restricted, Singers Raise Their Voices Online

How choruses have gone digital in the COVID-19 era

The San Diego Women's Chorus sings "Circle Chant" during a virtual performance.

En español | Meg and Chuck Smith met as freshmen when the two joined the Oberlin College Choir.

Now in their 60s, singing remains a key part of life for the couple, who have been members of the choir at Plymouth Church in Des Moines, Iowa, since 1978.

But with in-person religious services, rehearsals and performances on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, countless choirs across the country have been forced to go virtual, quickly adapting to digital rehearsals and video performances in order to keep members singing — and audiences listening — from afar.

For the Smiths and the Plymouth Church choir, the switch to socially distant singing included creating a video rendition of the song the group would normally sing at the end of services on Sunday.

The resulting video, which features clips recorded at home by individual singers — including some from non-choir congregation members who also wanted to join in — now closes out the digital services the church broadcasts each week.

"I don't think that I was really ready for what an emotional experience it was, to see all of those faces and hear those voices singing together,” Meg says of watching the video for the first time. “That's what we've been missing, and it's hard to recreate that.”

Rethinking risk

Concert choirs have also had to rethink their seasons in light of the risks posed by in-person rehearsals, which have the potential to become coronavirus “superspreader” events because of the aerosols — tiny respiratory droplets — generated when singers breathe deeply and project their voices. One study from a choir practice in Skagit County, Washington, in March found that 53 out of 61 singers were infected with COVID-19 by one person. Two people died.

Singers never expected their practices to become high-risk events.

"In a way it caught everybody off guard,” says Linda Morrow, 66, a retired physician and member of the San Diego Women's Chorus, an LGBT-affiliated choir (Morrow is also the president of the chorus board of directors). “I don't think any of us expected that singing was going to be the absolute best possible way to transmit the virus, but in retrospect, because I'm a physician, I think yes, of course” it makes sense.

Though the group's spring in-person performances and events, including a highly anticipated LGBT choral festival in Minneapolis, have been canceled, Morrow says they've been hard at work putting together a new roster of digital performances, including a rendition of the national anthem for San Diego Pride in mid-July.

The London-based choir Camden Voices performs "True Colors."

Looking ahead

For Gretchen Kuhrmann, founder and artistic director of the Falls Church, Virginia-based classical choir Choralis, planning for the fall season is already well underway.

The group, which meets for rehearsals on Tuesday nights over the videoconferencing platform Zoom, is gearing up for several digital events, including a “Best of Choralis” concert (featuring footage from past performances) and a virtual sing-along to Handel's Messiah, with proceeds going to charity.

Mosaic-style videos, the ones where singers appear individually in what Kuhrmann calls “Brady Bunch boxes,” are mesmerizing to watch but labor-intensive to produce, she says, requiring the right video editing software and sound engineering to successfully combine dozens of solo recordings into a seamless finished product.

Smaller singing groups without adequate funding or access to technology “might get lost in the shuffle,” she says. However, many videoconferencing platforms feature a “record” option that allow singers to create a basic digital recording of their performances.


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Staying connected

Prerecorded performances aren't the only way for choirs to stay active during the pandemic.

Kuhrmann is planning to use rehearsals to feature guest speakers and discuss topics the group doesn't usually have time for, like music theory and history. And in Iowa, the Smiths meet with their fellow choir members over Zoom for about an hour each week, even though summer is usually their rehearsal off-season.

With many groups still planning on auditions for new members going forward (video submissions will likely replace in-person tryouts), Kuhrmann says the coming choral season could be the perfect opportunity for someone who wants to join a chorus but has held back, either because they are self-conscious about having others hear them sing in real time (recording your own video clips eliminates that pressure) or due to logistical constraints.

"I think it's a great time for people who are otherwise unable to attend rehearsal, either because of the time commitment or because they are physically unable to get there,” she says. “We don't want to close the doors at all.”

Thinking about joining a virtual choir? Here's how to rehearse and record like a pro:

  • Choose your device. Smartphones, tablets and computers (with a built-in camera or webcam) can be used to record video clips or join rehearsals on platforms like Zoom.

  • Find a quiet spot. Avoid appliances, like air conditioning units and refrigerators, that create background noise. Make sure that your device's microphone and speakers are unobstructed, particularly if you're using a tripod or other mounting tool.

  • Do a test run. Before joining a virtual rehearsal, go over the basics of the platform you'll be using to get familiar with controls like the mute button. If recording a video, it's a good idea to create a test clip to check for sound quality before your final take — and to make sure you know how to save and export footage.

  • Be flexible. Different choirs may have different requirements — for instance, asking that members mute themselves during digital rehearsals to avoid audio overlap, send audio files in a specific format, or wear a certain color during performances.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2020. Article was updated to reflect a change in subject's last names from Joneses to Smiths.

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