What is a Choral Artist to do these days? An exploration.
There is a renowned choral ensemble who made a recording in the first days of prescribed social distancing, after many of us had already cancelled all of our upcoming choral rehearsals and performances.
Every week or so, they post one of the songs from their COVID sessions, where they are singing 6 feet apart in the same room. Although their music is utterly sublime, I cannot bring myself to listen to these recordings because the thought evokes too much sadness. We have lost the aspect which makes us choral artists: the ability to sing together. Even though I have spent the past two months traversing through the stages of grief as a choral conductor, the sorrow that I did not get a farewell to the singers or the profession pervades. The existential question that haunts me is if we are unable to engage in choir over the next year, are we still choral artists?
Since social distancing begin, choral directors have been running ragged exploring how to stay relevant, working to keep our singing communities together, and learning how to adapt in a COVID-19 world—all while sifting through the heavy weight of loss for ourselves and those who sing with us. When we express our despair to non-performers, our attempt often yields a quip of “we are all in the same boat.” No, if we were all in the same boat, we could sing together. Instead, we are adrift. We are caught in the same storm, but the quality and size of our individual boats varies significantly, including whether or not we even have a boat. We cannot sing together because of the marked sound delay across the water. The sensation of our voices layering together in harmony is lost to us now, the very essence of our community severed. The uncertainty of when we will be rescued is crippling, wondering if we will ever be able to make music in the same “boat" again. This constant worry about our own boat’s viability, including whether one of our fellow singers will drown, draws us to seek to refuge in song, but we can only sing alone. Should we merely resign to a hiatus in practicing our choral art until we are able to gather again?
“You should do a virtual choir” becomes the echoed refrain from our administrations, parents of our students, our board members, our congregations. During the last 50 days or so, we have watched seamless virtual choir recordings come through our social media feeds. To the general public, these remotely recorded performances are a marvel and applauded with little knowledge of the significant time investment involved their creation. Not everyone understands that these performances were not created over a simple video call with a choir. It is true virtual performances resemble a choral experience… but that is where the similarities end. These videos only give the listener the impression of choir. Singing alone into a microphone with a sound engineer to minimize our mistakes post-production is no substitute for singing in a real choir. The very essence of the choral experience lies within the weaving of our vocal sound with the voices of those around us. Choir cultivates connection, allowing singers the opportunity to transform and be transformed by other singers. Virtual choirs do not allow us to infuse our voice in to the sound of the whole and the experience is lonely and exposing for the singer and time intensive for the editor. If virtual choir is not choir, how can we practice our choral art while we are physically apart?
As choral musicians whose art is shared while in collaboration with others, we are faced with a difficult conundrum during this pandemic: engage in a virtual yet inadequate substitute for choir or simply wait until we can engage in “authentic" choral singing again. No definitive end to this silent interlude magnifies the futility of this decision. If we were assured our choirs could reconvene in the fall, we would likely see this quarantine time as a needed break. However, from an epidemiological standpoint, the possibility of our engaging in choral singing over the next year is looking more and more bleak. In addition, we are hindered by current technology that does not allow singing together in real time. The only viable option left is recording our voices remotely and sharing virtually. But, choral singers are accustomed to singing with the herd and the prospect of laying down our solo voice on a track can invoke fear. Despite our collective marooning in this storm, sorrow is also keeping some singers from engaging in virtual singing options. We may even dress up our fear or grief as indignation that virtual singing is not an authentic experience, thus not worth our time. What is a choral artist to do?
A simple answer does not exist for our current situation. But, we can explore ways to shift our focus and upend the paradigm of choral singing for the current situation. We do not have any other choice that does not endanger the very lives of our singers. As usual, a song has offered some inspiration:
a flame is rising in the center of the storm
She sings in silence,
inside the ocean of my soul
Voices rise and weapons fall
and nations unite across the world
and songs of peace at the heart of every land
In the midst of darkness and chaos, the imagery of the flame in this song is powerful. A flame can light our own way and grow, but can also be shared with others. Similarly, a song can fill our own heart as well as be healing to others. Whether we use our flame to improve our own choral skills, inspire others to practice their craft, or comfort those who need it during this challenging time, the current journey is the same: we have to sing within a virtual context. We are choral practitioners; therefore, we should remain actively engaged in our art, discipline, and profession.
The first step is to acknowledge there is no substitute for the experience of living music; then move on and begin to adapt. Singing virtually is not a replacement for choir, but it can be a useful tool. Shifting our perspective in this manner may offer new insight into keeping our choral creativity flowing during this time of social distancing. Will our virtual attempts be a vehicle for other singers to connect, a motivational tool for our own growth as a musician, an opportunity to soothe others through song?
The first step is to acknowledge there is no substitute for the experience of living music; then move on and begin to adapt.
We can approach virtual singing as an experiment. As choral directors, we engage in score study and analyze the technique of its execution through considering balance, intonation, vowel formation, speed of vibrato, diction, etc. Within a virtual concept, score study will be approached in the same format, but the considerations for singers will need to be different. For an accompanied piece, can the singers record their parts with only the accompaniment provided? Do you need to provide the singers a click track with each of their parts played individually? Or can the singers record their individual part with only with a provided melody or bass line? The answers to these questions will be greatly determined by the intonation that you wish to employ in this process. Parts played on the piano for a cappella songs will only allow for an equally tempered product. The layering of the voices over a melody can allow for just intonation, but there is greater chance for tuning issues. In this format, the singer creating the initial track has to employ accurate intonation and the fundamental pitch must remain constant. Including a video of our conducting could improve the rhythmic accuracy of the singers. There are numerous considerations in this process. It will not be easy, but there is no time like the present to start.
One could experiment by recording the melody or bass line of a song with four part harmony. It is important to encourage ourselves not to be discouraged when we listen to the first recording. We are trained to be hyper-aware of diction, vowel placement, and vocal technique, but especially intonation. We can truly engage in our practice at this point—we know how to address these issues in our choirs. On the subsequent recording takes, we can be our own clinician and adjust our vocal technique accordingly. When we do not have singers around us to fill in the harmony, we are forced to rely more on audiation. Auditiation is the hearing of sound when none is present. While we are singing our part, we can audiate the other vocal parts to intuit where our line is placed in the harmony. If the intonation is still not settled in the recording, we can consider using a pitch app where we can drone the fundamental. Once the recording is created, we can enlist singers to participate in our experiment. Singers may be seeking an opportunity to continue their art as well as to connect with other singers.
After the collaborative singers have layered their voice on our recording, the next step in the process is the part I find the most compelling. The sound editing phase is time consuming, but the most revealing, especially with respect to intonation. Within a sound editing software (I used Logic X Pro because Apple is allowing a 90 day free trial of the software), one can examine and edit the pitch. A visual representation is available of the onset of vocal sound in conjunction with the consonant and how it affects the intonation. If the prospect of working with the technology is daunting, there is a short YouTube video that can explain how to explore the pitch in Logic X Pro here: https://youtu.be/gV_5zQDbHTk. It is well-worth the time to explore this software as I have learned a considerable amount from this step that can now be transferred to my next singing, teaching, and choral conducting endeavor. We can assimilate the information gleamed from the first recording, determine techniques to improve for the next time, and repeat the experiment. One can consider providing the singers with a video of your conducting and determine whether it made a difference in the final product. This step allows us to keep our conducting skills and technique vibrant as well.
Singing virtually is not a replacement for choir, but it can be a useful tool.
The last part of the experiment is to share the recording on social media or send to others who may need to be comforted. Music is meant to be shared. A collective power and sense of connection is felt when we see people singing together, either in-person or virtually. As a singer, we may not derive the same personal satisfaction from virtual singing, but we can still use it as a way to continue to inspire, comfort, and engage through choral music. “Voices rise and weapons fall….” Our song has the potential to serve as a light for those in need. The process of its creation might be a salve for the singers who are also grieving the loss of their careers right now. Conceptualizing virtual singing as a means to practice our art rather than only a performance may help us stay engaged during this stark time. At the end of the day, if we do not see an improvement in our choral skills while experimenting with virtual singing, we should take comfort in knowing that that the music we cultivated may have enriched the life of another. Who knows, experimentation may even bring us closer to self-actualization as artists. Regardless, we will be forever changed by the year 2020.
*Update--this post was written prior to the NATS/ACDA forum this evening. After the dire news from the webinar, it feels as though the grieving process has begun again, but more profoundly. This post was meant to be a ray of hope, but perhaps my previous one is currently more appropriate if you are grieving right now. I know that I am.