While the entire music sector has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the choral community has been hit especially hard. Singers have been deemed “super spreaders” of the virus, by a study commissioned by a coalition of performing arts organizations. The study has let the national community know they don’t believe there will be a safe way for choirs to safely rehearse until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine, potentially an entire year or more in the future. Like other musicians, this bleak forecast has prompted panic for professional choristers who rely on group singing for their income, but it has also affected some 40 million people in the United States who rely on choirs for the social community, mental health, and emotional well-being.
My spouse Cynthia Siadat, a licensed psycho-therapist, recently wrote an article about how choir helps alleviate mental health distress. She writes, “73% of singers report that choral singing helps them to feel less lonely…A 2015 study, found that loneliness has been proven to be just as detrimental to one’s longevity as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day”. My takeaway is that choral singing might not just be benefiting people’s mental health but is also indirectly saving lives. It is no wonder that so many church goers, one of the largest demographics of choral singers in the U.S.A., are banging at the doors to return to their weekly gatherings.
Over the last few months, over 270,000 choirs nationwide have been trying to figure out how to move forward. While making a high quality musical product is the common call for any music ensemble, the pandemic has made it clear that it is just as much the MEANS rather as it is the ENDS that is the raison d’être for many choirs that makes the choral experience so widely popular. The question becomes not only, ‘how do we make a quality musical product?’ But, ‘how can we continue to have meaningful musical and social experiences?’. For music educators, there are existential questions about what the intended learning outcomes are for the choral classroom and if they can be achieved without singing in the same room at all.
For the groups I am part of, this question comes with an examination of our values and goals as a choral community. I believe this new medium requires a deep look at our assumptions and expectations about the choral experience and how we may have to reassess or establish anew what we consider to be a ‘good’ choral experience and how we can satisfy what both audiences and singers are missing most from choral music.
I have the good fortune of making my living as a chorister in a particular subset of the community deeply interested and invested in innovating and experimenting with choral music, and because of this involvement have had the opportunity to participate first hand in how different groups are handling the crisis and trying to move forward. No one group has ‘solved’ the issue of not being able to sing and rehearse together, but all of them have found unique ways forward and are experimenting wildly. I’d like to share with you some of the varied experiences I’ve had as a singer, conductor, and composer in community, professional, and liturgical choirs and examine some of the pros and cons of these approaches in the hopes that other enterprising leaders will be inspired to add their own experiments as we collectively try to move forward during the next year.
Asynchronous Music Making (Virtual Choirs)
It’s pretty ironic that the pandemic hit full swing almost exactly on the 10 year anniversary of Eric Whitacre’s first virtual choir. Building a virtual choir, once considered a technological marvel, has become astonishingly commonplace in the last few months. The professional choir at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (led by my long time colleague David Harris), for instance, has recorded 3-4 virtual choir pieces every week since March.
(Virtual Choir ProTip: Recording the audio and video separately allows a great deal of editing and ‘punching’ in while recording. It goes much faster than trying to get a single perfect take.)
(Additional ProTip: Conductor tracks aren’t all that helpful for the singers, use a click instead. Also consider using a “section leader” to create a guide track for each part so the rest of the choir has a voice to follow along with for style and phrasing.)
For choirs concerned primarily with making a familiar musical product, virtual choirs fit the bill. Audiences appreciate the regular output of music, the result can be quite high quality, and the experience can feel close to watching a live performance. Composers who are interested in having their new choral work premiered and workshopped, will also appreciate virtual choirs as a way to both have their work brought to the public, but also have a close equivalent of a studio recording to boot.
There are some unexpected perks to virtual choirs, namely in terms of how it makes certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before. Newly composed music works particularly well for this medium because 21st Century engraving technology makes MIDI guides and click tracks readily available, which minimizes the amount of time needed to rehearse and prepare one’s part for a virtual choir. Even without such guide tracks, the ability to learn and record a piece phrase by phrase allows for the ‘performance’ of music that might have otherwise been out of reach of an ensemble.
In May, for instance, the FCCLA professional ensemble performed Stravinsky’s 12-tone anthem The Dove Descending, an emotional and mystical work rarely performed by choirs today, especially church choirs, perhaps in-part due to the amount of rehearsal time required. In the virtual choir setting, however, we were able to effectively record the piece in a matter of a few hours. It would be quite an phenomenon if one of the results of our current circumstances was a revival of mid-century atonal choral literature!
While the end product of virtual choirs can be satisfying, the means by which that product is made can be sorely lacking. The great communal spirit of singing together is completely lost, and the pandemic has shown with painful clarity the aching social importance of group singing. I cannot point to a more clear example of how music is greater than the sum of its parts than when an ensemble performs together. Virtual choirs reduce the experience of making music to its component parts and only reveal that ineffable sum once the engineers have done their editing magic. This urgent need to reclaim that in-person experience has led to some fascinating explorations of…
Remote Choirs and re-creating the community experience
Though Zoom has become one of the primary means of communication during the pandemic, desperate musicians are learning that it’s a subpar platform for music making. The sound algorithms cause voices to cut in and out, and the latency, or lag, between singers makes any kind of meaningful rehearsal or performance of traditional choral music tenuous at best. Luckily, there are some low-latency audio options specifically designed for musicians to re-create some semblance of in-person music making. (Soundjack and Jamulus are two that my community uses, but there are others.) C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, a maverick choral ensemble in New York dedicated to performing new and innovative music from the last 25 years (and with whom I’ve been working since 2011), did not wait long before becoming one of the only choral groups to experiment with this software and start giving truly live choral performances streamed over the internet. You can read about how they created the technical set-up for these performances with these detailed instructions.
It didn’t take long working with this medium to realize that remote choirs are entirely new kinds of ensembles that need to be approached with a different set of values as well as repertoire idiomatic for what is essentially a new instrument. For those that had hoped to recreate the traditional choral experience, this was a disappointment. Typical choral values like blend, balance, and uniformity are made that much trickier by every singer’s individual mic set up. Rehearsals started with about an hour of tech adjustments, setting levels, and troubleshooting, not exactly the most enlivening rehearsal experience, and the singing itself still felt like a group of individuals rather than a unified choir.
And yet, once we finally waded through the tech set up and arrived at our first moment of singing together, just a simple C Major chord, I felt a flood of emotion. After long weeks of isolation, I was finally singing with my friends. It wasn’t the choral experience I was used to, but it was unmistakably live music making, and that taste was enough to keep me coming back every week.
The results have been a series of pretty astounding and ever improving online performances with a great collection of experimental repertoire.
Similar to the virtual choir experience, there are some unexpected perks to this new medium, especially when it comes to repertoire. One great opportunity is for the incorporation of live-electronic elements. There isn’t a lot of work for choral ensembles that utilize live sound processing, partly because it is not usually feasible to individually mic each singer in the choir. With the remote choir format, however, such micing is an intrinsic part of the medium and opens up the door to a whole new world of expressive devices. C4’s online performance of The Last Transmission of Amelia Earhart, by composer Robbie LaBanca is a prime example of how the choir can take advantage of this inherently electronic medium. Distortion, reverb, mic noise, and spatialization are all employed to bring the piece further to life in a way that would be impossible for an acoustic concert experience.
Because the software being used for remote choirs is LOW-latency, not NO-latency, perfect rhythmic unity is nearly impossible. Similarly, the unified choral sound typically asked for in traditional rep is also difficult to achieve. These two factors inspired C4 to curate, solicit, and create repertoire that embraces timbre, improvisation, and asynchronous performing, sometimes juxtaposing such sections with moments of metric unity in rhythmically simple and homophonic textures that don’t sound out of place with a little lag.
As I’ve written about previously, such aleatoric writing where individual performers have some creative control over their parts is not new to the music world, but it is uncommon in much of the choral world. Ensembles interested in shifting to a remote choir format, however, seem to show a surge of interest in pieces that allow for dense textures outside of the stereotypical four-part polyphony. Some well-established composers, like Kile Smith and Dale Trumbore, have quickly responded to the changing needs of the field by writing new works and making them freely available to the public, though there is already an abundance of pieces that utilize graphic notation, minimalist textures, and other aleatoric elements that fit well with the remote choir format. My own publishing company has curated a list of pieces from our catalog that are particularly appropriate for virtual and remote choirs.
Remote choirs aren’t going to be for every ensemble. The tech requirements, both in terms of necessary hardware and techie know-how, will likely be a barrier for many avocational community choirs to jump into this format. The volunteer choir at FCCLA is one such example. Group video chats during a weekly “choir happy hour” did a lot in terms of keeping the social aspects of the group alive, especially in the early days of the pandemic, but without the ensemble’s focal point of making music on a weekly basis, enthusiasm and participation started dropping off.
To bring back some semblance of community singing, we started experimenting with what I call Choral Karaoke. The concept is simple, the meeting host takes a previous recording of the choir performing a song they know well (for our church ensemble we have a lot since we’ve been doing so many virtual choir performances), shares their audio for everyone to hear, and participants put on headphones, mute themselves, and sing along.
I know this might seem hokey, I myself was extremely skeptical when the suggestion to try this was made, but I only made it halfway through the first piece before emotion overtook me and kept me from singing any further. I was watching my friends sing, and I was hearing their voices wrapped up in that perfect choral sound we achieve on stage as a group. It didn’t matter that in reality what I was seeing and hearing weren’t the same thing, it was close enough that my brain was convinced I was singing in a choir again. Once the song was over, I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. The singers shared how much they had missed making music together and how this bittersweet experience simultaneously revealed and brought home for them a piece of what had been absent. If you are struggling to find meaningful ways to connect with your choir, and you have some decent recordings of familiar work, you might find choral karaoke a satisfying stop-gap. This is a great method for learning new rep too, as you can show a score and sing one part at a time with a guide voice while others sing along on mute.
Harnessing Technology and Creating Hybrid Live / Pre-recorded Music
Perhaps the most innovative and technology-heavy approach to choral singing I’ve seen during the pandemic comes from The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles (C3LA). Hungry to keep making music together, and looking for alternatives to the more “traditional” virtual choir, David Garcia Saldaña, a tech-savvy members of the ensemble took the lead on organizing a hybrid project that combined pre-recorded ‘virtual choir’ like elements, live electronics, visual art, improvised vocals, and audience participation to create an astonishing multimedia concert experience.
Check out the “fridge magnet concert.”
What I love about this approach is how eagerly it embraces distance and recording technology as a creative opportunity, and how the process itself was a collaborative opportunity for artists to get creative and make music together, even if it’s in a different manner than they were used to. Each aspect of the project required a combination of collaboration juxtaposed with individual writing and recording. Teams of musicians selected word banks and parameters for composing musical cells and images for each word in the composition, which were then written and recorded by individuals and programmed into a playback device that can be performed live by another musician. You can read a full write up of the process here.
As an audience member, I found the concert immensely satisfying. It was unmistakably a live event, replete with the awkward introductions, delays, and delightful mishaps of live performance, but with an excellent audio quality coming from the pre-recorded tracks. While the performance experience is singular, there is only one person triggering samples, what was presented was visually and audibly choral. One of the electronic performers, Molly Pease, added another element to the performance by layering live vocals on top of the pre-recorded samples. Taking it a step further by adding visual elements, the concert went beyond the normal choral boundaries into a full-on interdisciplinary feast for the senses.
For performers, this project was more satisfying than the lonely and isolating experience of recording for a virtual choir. The collaborative elements that involved meeting with fellow artists, planning what would be created, and allowing room for interpretation, especially with the visual element, brought life, direction, and purpose to the project as a whole. Such a template has great possibilities for the future of remote collaboration and made a clear statement that choral music is an important part of the experimental new music landscape. I hope it’s an approach other choirs look at as they find ways to continue performing live.
Re-examining Goals and Values in an Educational Setting
For ensembles that are part of a learning institution, additional questions about what the ensemble experience is supposed to teach are also present. Have we been using choirs as an opportunity to practice ear training and sight-singing skills, vocal technique, or ensemble skills? If so, are there meaningful ways to continue this education in a remote environment, and what about the artistic/social/musical experience is lost if pedagogy becomes the focal point. Is there a way to maintain both? This is an especially urgent question since so many schools are committed to distance learning for at least the coming fall semester.
The National Collegiate Choral Organization recently released a position paper about choirs in an educational setting during the pandemic. Much of it is an argument for maintaining choral programs at risk of getting cut while simultaneously reading as a lament for what we lose with the remote experience that is only achievable when we are together. I think, however, there are a number of educational opportunities that present themselves through these current circumstances.
While planning an entirely remote education semester at Chaffey College, where I co-direct choirs, my collaborator (the inimitable David Rentz) and I decided to reexamine our learning outcome goals to better fit this new online format. Certainly singing is at the heart of all we do as choirs, and that can be maintained even if our energy is not on the performing ensemble skills (blend, balance, uniformity, etc.) we might typically focus on during a traditional rehearsal. Instead, by examining our usual values and amplifying pedagogical subjects that permeate the background of a choral rehearsal, we can embrace the individual singers and how they each contribute to a larger work.
One of the primary goals I am interested in cultivating among students is audio recording skills. There is an assumption that young people are more comfortable with technology than the older generation. While that may be true in terms of creating a new TikTok video, many (young) singers have never had to concern themselves with learning the basics of recording and editing an audio track. For community choirs where the emphasis is on the experience of singing together, taking the time to learn audio engineering skills might be a low priority, but for aspiring artists such skills are an intrinsic part of sharing your work with a modern audience. I see this as an opportunity to fill a gap in traditional classical music education that tends to focus on live acoustic performance, and yank both educators and students into the 21st Century by getting them comfortable with using recording technology. Virtual choirs are excellent culminating projects that utilize such skills in a way that results in a satisfying product.
Another area of focus that usually takes up background space in the choral rehearsal is vocal pedagogy. Building muscle coordination, tone, and breath support by working on scales and exercises helps build the individual voice and lays the foundation for stronger singing in solo and ensemble situations alike. Focusing on pedagogy is also an opportunity to share technical information about vocal anatomy and acoustics. Screen sharing in the remote format allows me to use tools like VoceVista to teach about the overtone series, vowel, and timbre, and I often share the colorful and illustrative resources on VoiceScienceWorks to show students how the voice does what it does.
Improvisation is another skill that can be achieved using a combination of virtual choir and choral karaoke methods. Establishing basic harmonic progressions, like a 12-bar blues (even building them with your ensemble through a virtual choir!), and teaching students how to solo over them idiomatically is a great opportunity to develop ear-training, creativity, and music literacy. Ear training and sight-singing in general are core musicianship skills in the western music curriculum that are often integrated into the choral classroom and can translate decently to a virtual environment. On the more avant-garde side, there are opportunities to engage with graphic scores, drone based music, and other methods of music making that aren’t as common in the usual choral curriculum.
Conductor David Harris argues “the individual’s vocal and emotional experience are the core building blocks of the ensemble.” During this time when singers have to be isolated, ensembles have an opportunity to build on those individual skills and experiences, thereby making their group dynamic stronger when they are allowed to sing together in the future.
A Final Thought
All of the above methods and considerations of how to keep choral singing live scratch some part of the itch for some of the participants, but nothing can re-create the mystical experience of sharing the space and air of our fellow musicians when we make music together. Perhaps some enterprising ensemble will organize a concert in a parking garage or individually mic every singer in the choir and spread them across a football field, but until then exploring how to find the opportunities in the current situation is the way forward. There are silver linings that come from having to innovate and experiment, and I hope some of those changes, especially the new repertoire and examination of values in the choral world, stick around and lead us into a new and exciting era when we sing together once more.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Fahad Siadat creates interdisciplinary works, folding words, sound, and movement into ritualistic narratives. He is a frequent soloist with such groups as The Industry and PARTCH, and has had his music performed in Europe, China, and across the United States. Fahad is artistic director of HEX Vocal Ensemble and is co-artistic director of The Resonance Collective. In 2012, he founded See-A-Dot Music Publishing, a company devoted to the advocacy of adventurous choral music.