Choirs under Covid-19

Choirs under Covid

As most people know, stage one in the grieving process is Denial. Unwilling to accept that the person you have lost is really gone, you talk about them in the present tense, you dream of them turning up to explain there’s been some mistake and they never really left. I think we’re currently still at this stage in the choral community, as the Covid-19 pandemic keeps us from rehearsals, causes cancelled performances and sends us all scurrying to learn how to edit virtual choir videos. We eagerly read news stories suggesting that choral singing is not a high-risk activity. We talk about when our choirs “restart”, assuming that we once things go back to “normal” we can pick up where we left off.

Well, as someone once asked, do you want the good news first, or the bad? The good news is that societies around the world are beginning to return to normal daily life. Researchers are creating vaccines and antibody tests, working out who’s most susceptible, investigating how the virus spreads – we may not know when, but one day the virus will be conquered, and we will return to singing and playing together.

The bad news? Deep down, you already know the bad news – we have no idea when this will be. Vaccines can take years of development. Tests with the necessary level of accuracy are rare. And any return to rehearsals is going to be a gradual process. There’s still a lot we don’t know about Covid-19, but we do know it spreads person-to-person, and basic maths tells us that activities with a high concentration of people involve the highest risk. Large choirs, orchestras, and live audiences, are not simply going to return en masse to churches and concert halls any time soon. Whatever happens in the long term, as choral leaders we need to start planning for an inevitable period of transition, with limits in place on the number and concentration of people, and some high-risk members of society remaining in isolation.

How can we rehearse when only some of the choir can attend rehearsals? Obviously we need to make our rehearsals spaces safer; spread singers out, place physical barriers between them, and think about the direction they face – it can feel like progress is slow, but lots of research is under way, and as government guidelines and restrictions emerge, we will need to think about practical measures to assemble safely. But it’s almost inevitable that, for an extended period of time, most choirs won’t be able to fit their full complement of singers into their usual rehearsal spaces. Initially we’ll probably be stuck rehearsing in smaller groups, but hopefully over time we’ll reach a point where a core group can meet in a rehearsal space.

My concern with the current focus on “returning” to rehearsals is that this is only the start of a potentially long period in which vulnerable singers will still be shielding, track-and-trace will mean singers (and indeed conductors) may have to withdraw at short notice, and due to the possibility of local outbreaks and lockdowns we’ll need to be ready to revert to online-only rehearsals. In short, we’ll need to find ways to work with live and on-line singers at the same time, if we don’t want to potentially exclude swathes of our singers. This approach is becoming known as the “blended” rehearsal, and I’ll look in detail in a future post at ways we can achieve this.

What music can we perform? Good composers thrive on restrictions – think of Thomas Tallis reinventing his compositional style for each monarch, Messiaen composing in a prisoner-of-war camp. We need to engage with composers, help them find ways of working round the limitations, and perhaps look for new technological solutions to specific issues rather than trying to solve everything with a single app. We need to consider existing repertoire too, adapting pieces if necessary. Can we incorporate recorded elements into a live performance? Can we perform and broadcast sections with smaller groups in different locations? Can we make a feature of some of the familiar issues with online collaboration? Once again, I’ll return to this subject in the near future.

How can we maintain our audience and our income? This isn’t a new question – it’s one that arts organisations have been grappling with for many years. Find someone who could make a good quality live recording of your event. Look into live-streaming it for concert-goers who are unable to attend in person. Perhaps you can make the recordings available later on a subscription basis. If you’re commissioning a new piece (or adapting an existing one) consider including a collaborative element for virtual audience members. Ask people on your mailing list to help crowd-fund a new commission. There’s a lot of scope for collaboration between groups here, too – and some of the newly formed networks of musicians, as well as established ones, may prove instrumental in promoting this new way of thinking about performance.

I have no doubt that some people reading this won’t like any of these ideas. They don’t want half measures and Heath Robinson solutions – they want a Nelson Mass, a Brahms Requiem, a Bach Magnificat. So do I, and I’m not pretending that any of this will completely fill those voids. But all of us have had to perform works that aren’t our first choice, in situations that aren’t ideal. We’re there to help our choirs achieve something much bigger than they could on their own, and they need our help now more than ever.

Of course it’s possible I’m simply in the Bargaining stage of grief, trying to convince myself that, if only I can get some of these things working, it will all be fine again. But I’m not going to give up just yet. There may be no perfect solution, but slowly, carefully, and however imperfectly, we can get back to what we love – making music.

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