If there were ever a time when singers needed hope, the past year has been that time.
Writing about music – and especially about choral music – has been especially difficult during the pandemic. As I watched my colleagues across the country grapple with the implications aerosol transmission, social distancing, and the safety of gathering together to do anything at all, there often seemed little I could contribute to the immediate discussion beyond continuing to bring forth more “jewels from the vault” of my teaching career, in hopes that a better time will come soon, in which they could be put into practice again.
As we watched, our programs and schools shut down, and singing together with others – once a cornerstone of our daily activity, warp and weft in the fabric of our lives for choral conductors – singing together with others was taken away from most of us, no longer something we could safely engage in, and its sudden disappearance from our lives keenly felt by all of us, every day.
This spring I produced some recruitment videos in support of school districts in our region, featuring brief interviews with symphony and symphony chorus musicians and conductors, and a message of encouragement to students to register for music classes for the fall. We produced these videos with a spirit of hope – hope for the dynamic and nourishing role that music can play in the lives of young people, and hope that circumstances will change for the better, allowing for the kind of social gathering that would make ensemble music-making as we know it to resume.
While I was being interviewed for my own part in the videos, the discussion turned to the experience of singing in a choir, and I found myself trying to describe the feeling of connection I have experienced singing choral music to someone with no experience of it. This discussion was within the broader context of large ensemble music, and so we had been discussing aspects of the experience of playing in band or orchestra as well – many of which are shared by choral singers. Like our counterparts in band or orchestra, choral singers strive to achieve something greater together than possible as individuals, engaging simultaneously in a complex activity that demands total engagement from all sides of the human being – mind, body, and emotions working together harmoniously – and through patience and perseverance learn to make slow and steady progress towards a distant goal.
But there’s more.
Blend and Unity
Trying to describe the idea of blend to a choral music outsider was a fascinating experience – the practice of each singer sublimating what makes his or her voice distinct, trying to sing so alike that individual voices are not discernible in the greater blend of the choir. Striving for this blend is the purposeful activity of uniting with others in a practical, musical way: it is at the heart of the choral music experience.
While instrumental musicians performing in large ensembles may share a deep sense of connection to others through music-making, the experience of choral singing is visceral and direct as only singing can be: after all, the singer’s instrument is the body. We breathe together when we perform, and not only do our breaths rise and fall together, our hearts beat together, synchronously, as we sing. The experience of singing in a choir can include a deep and thrilling sense of connection not only to others, but to the universe, to meaning, to hopes that transcend the mundane. Participation in choral singing and this kind of deep and abiding connection to the world on a regular basis provides an experience of renewal and refreshment without peer, for us choral musicians.
It is this that has been missing from our lives for the past year: not only the activity of our livelihoods and our social lives, but this ritual of renewal and connection through music. Practicing music in solitude, or in circumstances adapted to mitigate the threat of the virus through technology and social distancing – as many of us have been forced to attempt this past year in some measure – just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps no man is an island, but many choral musicians have felt truly at sea in our isolation during the pandemic.
As we head into the summer, there is much to hope for. Many schools have resumed in-person operations already, plans are underway everywhere for a return this fall to more activities that have been curtailed due to their social nature, including music classes and rehearsals. Vaccine distribution continues as a quicker pace that predicted, and although numbers across the country are still high, they have subsided dramatically from the terrible surge at the beginning of the year.
Some choirs are taking advantage of the return of warm weather and support in their own communities to hold tentative rehearsals outdoors, and many of us are planning to continue our programs as best we can come the fall, in as close to a manner to the way we are accustomed as we understand to be prudent when the time comes.
There is much to hope for! and I am hopeful that before the year is out, we will each of us find some experience of this, the renewal and connection that practicing our art uniquely provides: the magic of singing with others.
It is also my hope that when we come through this and have reached that “other side” when we can talk about “that time” when we couldn’t sing together for a year or more, it is my hope that we never forget how precious and meaningful making music together is. May we always feel and appreciate the vitality of this tremendous gift to our lives whenever we sing together.
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as director of education & community engagement for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about music and education on his blog Off the Podium at walterbitner.com.