Choral Groups Struggle To Harmonize In Coronavirus Era

Jun 22, 2020

Everything we think about high-risk activities has shifted in the time of the Coronavirus. If you heed the warnings of leading epidemiologists, just about the last artform to emerge from the pandemic is live choral music.

Think about it. Dozens of vocalists stand shoulder-to-shoulder on risers, singing with gusto and, in the process, launching microdroplets all over an enclosed airspace. It’s enough to drive infectious disease experts crazy, and it has choral directors all over the country scrambling for ideas to keep their choirs and the very artform alive.

Michael Yannette (right) rehearsed the Cherokee Chamber Singers in October 2019.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

“Six feet apart in a choral rehearsal really isn’t enough,” said Melodie Galloway, a choral instructor at UNC-Asheville and director of the Asheville Choral Society.

“We’re looking at models that have us 15 feet apart wearing a mask, so now we have challenges facing us that emerge like ‘How large is your classroom space?’ and ‘Do we now have choir in a gym?’” she said. “It’s really changing the whole field.”

Galloway and her colleagues have developed programs to teach voice classes virtually. Virtual rehearsals happen over the internet, with singers coming together from different locales. This isn’t practical for choirs because of delays, inconsistent internet connections and other limitations that don’t allow many individual voices to be heard all at once. Nobody seems to yet have an answer on how to safely rehearse and perform with a choir in one shared space.

“The art of choral singing—that’s the essence of the art—is singing and blending with others,” Galloway said.

Health concerns around this artform aren’t unfounded. At a time when most arts groups first halted rehearsals and performances, the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State went ahead with a March 10 rehearsal. Of the 60 singers who attended, 45 were later either diagnosed with COVID-19 or fell ill with the symptoms, and two died.  

The American Choral Directors Association on June 15 published 100 pages of well-intended but confusing guidelines for choirs at every level and environment, with no clear guidance on how to proceed. Galloway spoke with a biology professor at her university about developing a mask just for singers, but said that would change the nature of the artform.

“Some of my colleagues have said ‘We’re just not going to have choir,’” Galloway said. “I had to come to terms with the fact I’m an artist and I’m not willing to sit on the sidelines and not pursue my art for two years. It just may have to take a different shape and a different form for a period of time.”

That’s not necessarily so, if you ask Michael Yannette. He leads the celebrated choral programs at Cherokee Public Schools and says, if it were up to him, which he concedes it isn’t, his choirs would begin rehearsing as normal when school opens in August.

For now, like most choral directors, Yannette foresees using Zoom video and other virtual tools to teach students their individual parts, so they can be better prepared before rehearsals begin again.

“I definitely feel like it’s a blip in time,” Yannette said. “I know choral directors that are really nervous right now, but I just don’t see that. I see it as just being one of those things that a year from now we look back on go ‘Remember when …?’” 

Rev. Brent LaPrince Edwards directs the music program at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Asheville’s East End. He’s turning to CDs and soloists singing live over the internet for his virtual services until he can safely bring his three choirs back together.

“Our Plan A is to use the choir, but Plan B is, under these circumstances, what are other ways we can do music ministry without using a chorus?” Edwards said. “Music is important during this time and that is one of the reasons why in our worship services, even though our choirs have not been able to meet, we include some kind of music because it has that way of pulling people together.”

Galloway said outdoor rehearsals are an option while the weather cooperates and is hopeful to be back together next spring for some level of performances. She recently polled the roughly 120 vocalists of the Asheville Choral Society, and only about 60 percent voiced interest in participating in some virtual program in the fall as opposed to simply waiting it out until they could safely reunite.

“What can we do is what I would rather focus on rather than what can’t we do or what isn’t possible,” she said. “We also will just have to adapt and adjust for a period of time, and isn’t that how art morphs and changes and how artists create new things, sometimes out of adversity?”