Opinion: we need new ways of creating a fulfilling choral experience that singers can engage in from home during the current restrictions

By Kathleen CronieUniversity of Aberdeen

There are an estimated 10,000 choral singers in Ireland and a further 2.14 million in the UK. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, none of these singers can currently gather together to sing, chat or support each other in person. So what do you do as a choir when you can't meet to rehearse?

You may have seen videos of tiled rows of singers performing from their own homes stitched into one choral video. These are "virtual choirs" and they're beautiful and entertaining. They are also however hugely time consuming (and sometimes costly) to produce, necessitating audio/video editing skills and software, which the vast majority of choral conductors simply don’t possess. Virtual choirs also don’t take account of things singers won’t get from recording their voice alone at home, such as social interaction and the experience of singing live in harmony.

Some high-profile conductors such as Gareth Malone have responded to this by creating new "at-home choirs", offering live streaming videos to sing along with. These projects are extremely popular and provide great entertainment for home-singers. But choral conductors who have pre-existing choir communities to look after (not to mention self-employed contracts to save!) need to keep their existing choirs rehearsing through the lockdown restrictions and these opportunistic projects won’t sustain choral communities after the pandemic has passed.

It seems then that we need new ways of creating a fulfilling choral experience that singers can engage in from home during the lockdown period. During my research, I asked over 1,000 singers to describe exactly what they expected their conductor to provide during choral singing. The responses suggested that conductors have four key areas of responsibility to their choirs

Co-ordination

One of the main responsibilities for a conductor is co-ordination, keeping the choir together musically. Due to lag times on videoconferencing, conductors can’t beat time for the group as they usually would, and singers can’t sing together in harmony (although the results when they try are hilarious).

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This is not insurmountable though: it is still possible to give singers the opportunity to sing along to guide tracks, simulating a choral rehearsal at home and providing the missing harmony. Free software such as Audacity allows the conductor to play multiple harmony parts simultaneously, and even adjust the balance levels to give more/less support to certain singers. Singers can therefore sit at home and sing among harmony, almost as they would in a traditional rehearsal.

Vision and purpose

Singers need conductors to carefully consider the purpose of their choir. Do they meet to perform high quality, technically difficult music? Or does the choir favour providing support, entertainment or a safe space over musical goals? Whatever the answer, the chances are that singers’ motivations for singing with the group haven’t changed during the lockdown.

If the choir’s primary ethos is an inclusive community experience, conductors could add non-singing sessions to their schedule. Hosting an online book club or coffee meeting could help to keep singers in touch with each other. If a choir focuses more on sight-reading and performing complex music, they could meet to sing this music online, discussing and fixing problem areas, and use the individual singers’ expertise to improve the group’s singing and performance skills.

Playlist Virtual Choir perform the late Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Support 

One of the most striking results of my research was the extent to which choirs want conductors to support them, both vocally and personally. Singers come to choir for a variety of reasons, but most respondents preferred conductors who take time to chat and get to know them, or those who spend time teaching vocal skills to enhance and protect singers’ voices.

During online rehearsals, conductors can still teach good vocal practice. Equally, videoconferencing software such as Zoom allows choirs to split into breakout rooms to chat in smaller groups. Conductors can use this to give singers quality time with each other as they might during a tea-break at a regular rehearsal. Conductors should remember that even online, singers still need to be safeguarded and supported through the choral experience.

Teaching

Singers reported that they looked to conductors as teachers, seeking both vocal tutoring and general musical education about the repertoire they are rehearsing. Right now, all levels of the education sector are responding to a need for online educational activities and it's widely accepted that online teaching is a totally different ballgame to face-to-face classes. It is also possible however to look at this as an opportunity to expose singers to experts from all over the world and bring in guest tutors that they couldn’t usually access. Conductors could show YouTube tutorials from singing teachers or invite choral specialists to give guest seminars on their area of expertise to the choir.

Group facilitators of all types could use this period of disruption to reflect on what their participants get out of their meetings

The Covid-19 lockdown has been challenging for choirs and conductors, but this is also an opportunity to reflect on what makes people engage in activities such as choral singing, and what facilitators of these groups should be providing. Virtual choirs are exciting projects, but they're not a sustainable way of keeping singers engaged in choral singing. Group facilitators of all types, including exercise class coaches, art class tutors and wine-enthusiast group leaders, could use this period of disruption to reflect on what their participants get out of their meetings. When we return to meeting face-to-face, they can make sure they’re providing the right type of support, entertainment and coaching that their community needs.

Kathleen Cronie is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen who is researching using leadership theory to explore the role of choral conductors. She is the musical director of Loud & Proud, Scotland's LGBT+ choir, and teaches voice at the North East of Scotland Music School


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ