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The COVID Choir Ensemble

By Fred Bogert

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Hello choir – welcome back! I hope you have been able to stay safe and keep your voices in shape, even if it has meant showering more often to avail yourselves the marvelous acoustics of the upstairs bathroom. 

It looks like we’ll be able to start meeting again (ever so carefully) to combine our voices in that special choral way, to the delight of all involved. And it also appears that we are not all going to be able to rejoin the adventure, due to the limits imposed by this horrible COVID-19 scourge that continues to plague us all (pun intended). To honor the legacy of our choral past, I’ve had to closely examine the makeup of our current group so that we can preserve balance and cohesion in our singing. Let’s look at some of the aspects of that process so we better understand how we’re going to bring our ensemble back to life.

Let’s start with that word: ensemble. When we were less than 20 people, we could sing to a blend of voices that had a natural tendency to unify our rhythms and pitches. Now that we’re down to 12, or maybe even eight singers, we’re going to have a more granular sound, with the timbre of each voice more exposed. Fear not – it might be a different soundscape, but many times it can actually be more compelling for the listener to hear, and easier for us to hear each other, even at COVID-19-safe distances. 

Some of those lush arrangements we’ve enjoyed are going to have to be pared down for our new situation. I’m going to look at phrases that have octave doubling and take one of those lines out when the other parts are all needed to preserve harmonic structures. And when I have to reduce 6 voice chords to 4, some of the consonant intervals will disappear. Chord degrees like 3 and 7 must remain to define the chord, dropping roots and 5s as needed if there are harmonic extensions like 9s, 11s, and 13s that need to be expressed. 

We have some mighty pieces we’ve done that have multiple soloists riffing over SATB choirs, and that’s going to sound pretty weird with what we have now. I’ll look at each of those situations and treat them more like counterpoint or descant if I can. We’ll sing them that way, and perhaps discover new life in old warhorses!

Those outside parts like 8ve bass and high soprano are also going to be reviewed. Too much distance between parts doesn’t bode well for a light ensemble, so I might have to lose the deep base notes and bring the soaring soprano down closer to the flock.

I’m going to try to reduce the arrangements to SATB, that’s obvious. But going even further down that road can help us make a good sound. SAB can be a powerful reduction of a bigger score when sung by a well-rehearsed ensemble. It gives us more voices in the baritone, and that means better support for the upper voices. Let’s try some of these reduced arrangements in our next few rehearsals and see what works. Depending on who our remaining singers are, I won’t leave out the possibility of raising or lowering the key of an arrangement to see if that helps bring out more dynamics, focus and power in our performance.

I’m going to suggest we rehearse in the big activity hall for a while. It has very live acoustics and is twice the size of our choir rehearsal room. I’ve asked Tom to bring his keyboard, so we have a volume knob to match the accompaniment to our reduced numbers. This is also a great time for us to sing with an acoustic guitar or two… know anyone who’d like to jam with us? Of course, Jennifer won’t be able to use the drum kit at these levels, so how about setting her up with a cajón? New times, new adventures!

And please remind me that we won’t be turning in our music anymore. I’ll make personal copies for each of us to keep and file the originals in the library to preserve our adherence to copyright laws. When you’re done with yours, please just toss it.

Well, there you have it, choir… oops… ensemble. As stressful as all these changes have been –and who knows what’s coming next? – we still have a song in our hearts. Let’s get to know our new sound and raise a joyous noise just like we always have. Remember that if you’re not singing, you’re wearing a mask. Talk among yourselves and enjoy the company, but at a safe distance. These things must become habits for us all for the sake of our very lives and the safety of all those around us. Everybody ready? OK, one more time from letter B!

Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for and performed on three Grammy-nominated CDs, as well as appearing as composer, producer and performer with a variety of artists, from John McEuen and David Amram to the Austin Symphony and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Bogert’s Nashville studios included RCA Studio B and Studio C, where he recorded over three thousand songs for a who’s who of independent artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com.

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