A Zoom choir is born! - Part 1
In which lockdown is thrust upon us!
Best laid plans
After the hard work of Christmas, the New Year and winter period can be a little flat for an amateur church choir. In early 2020 we didn’t feel ready to work on another early Spring concert as in 2019 and we were considering an organ and choir concert in perhaps June 2020. So February and early March 2020 saw us starting serious work on new pieces for the forthcoming season - a couple of contemporary pieces for the wedding in May of one of our former conductors, and a series of contemplative pieces for a Good Friday hour at the Cross, plus Easter music. On Sunday 15th March we sang as normal in church and after the service we rehearsed the Mother’s Day anthem with the children’s choir - they were due to perform it the following week. However at that point none of us could foresee how 2020 would turn out and that Sunday turned out to be our last one singing in church (until a snatched live recording session in December 2020!). Everything stopped, church was closed, services were transferred to Zoom and our vicar’s wife recorded the hymns on their piano for us to sing along to at home.
Singing at home begins
It all felt very weird. It was if my right hand had been cut off - singing has been a part of my life since I was born and I have sung in choirs since starting school (and as I am now retired that is a very long time!). However I saw that Gareth Malone was starting a sing-along-at-home choir and decided I would try it out. To say I felt self-conscious would be an understatement! Despite the fact that no-one could see or hear me (apart from Pete) I felt really silly doing the physical exercises and fun warm-ups in my living room. But it was interesting to see how Gareth was running it and how he related to an unseen choir. One or two of our Singers were tuning in to his sessions and enjoying keeping their voices exercised. As more people got used to doing Zoom and other video app meetings, some members of the Singers were asking if we could have a choir practice over Zoom but I was very sceptical. The biggest problem of trying to do live music over the internet is the time delay and despite researching it on the internet there seemed no way of singing live together virtually, apart from recording.
By early April, following a successful family recording of an anthem as a try-out, we started recording hymns for use in the service, sending a piano track to Singers to use as their reference track. They recorded themselves on their phone or computer, singing along to the reference track on their headphones, and then Pete mixed the sound and videos together to make a movie to include in the service. This was very much appreciated by our church members who liked being able to see the people they knew leading the hymns, and I felt quite emotional in the early days seeing the Singers singing together virtually.
We take the plunge!
We chose pretty well known hymns to begin with but it soon became clear that we needed to resume practising, somehow, to sharpen up our virtual ensemble singing. So at 7.30pm on 7th May we held our first virtual choir practice on Zoom - hosted by a member of the Singers who had a Zoom account. There were 10 of us - an SATB choir in ones and twos in their own homes!
If I thought joining in with Gareth Malone’s home choir was weird, this was off the scale but strangely exhilarating! In order to run a coherent practice everyone had to mute themselves apart from me. I could then run the practice without all the disturbing split second sounds coming back at me. The down side of this of course was (and remains) that I had no idea if people were getting the hang of it and I could only hear myself and Pete (singing and playing the piano). And that is all anyone heard (very occasionally now I ask someone to sing something to the rest of the choir as my alto range is somewhat limited!). We began the session with some physical and vocal warm ups and then tackled some upcoming hymns and went through some anthems. What a buzz when we finished that first session!
The rest, as they say, is history
And from that first tentative session that is pretty much how the All Saints Singers have been practising together for the last 10 months. During the Rule of 6 we were able to have our organist and our daughters (Soprano & Alto) join us (suitably distanced) to help improve the sound that the virtual singers could hear but Lockdown 2 put a stop to that. However I take pride in the fact that unlike many other amateur choirs we have kept going in some way over the last year. Unfortunately not all our Singers are tech-savvy and some have chosen not to join in for their own reason, but it has given us a fresh perspective on singing together.
As conductor I am fortunate that I have a great bunch of amateur singers who are not afraid to let me know if they are having difficulty with anything, and we can go through the parts and tricky bits again and again until they are happy. Whilst I miss the feedback that I normally get from hearing them singing, the proof for me that this method has worked has been the resultant recordings - we have continued to learn new hymns and anthems through these virtual sessions and subsequently record them for the services. But they do miss the vocal support they get from each other and importantly the camaraderie and encouragement of singing live together. We have a church weekly virtual quiz and a Sunday virtual coffee to try to fill that gap but there’s nothing quite like singing together. And I think our hearts will burst when finally we are allowed to resume doing this!