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Webinar strikes high notes: Singing -- What we CAN do during a pandemic

Webinar strikes high notes: Singing -- What we CAN do

Innovation, new technology, and creative programming will define choral life as the era of social distancing becomes a new normal. But those are all good things.

Art doesn’t stop. Choral groups are innovating and finding ways to meet each other and their audiences with new events, collaborations, and modes of performance and rehearsal.

Leaders of major choral singers once again combined expertise and mutual support to present Singing: What We CAN Do, a special event that offered examples of how singers and singing ensembles are producing their art now, as physical distancing guidelines continue to be in place

Moderated by Brian Newhouse, board chair of Chorus America , a variety of guests shared promising projects and existing and emerging technologies that keep us connected and singing.

How we feel

The passage from mourning to optimism and resolve has been swift in the choral community. That initial sense of catastrophic loss is passing, as artists and presenters recreate their expectations for what performance can look like in the future. As Lee Anne Myslewski noted, knowing that there will be livestream and recorded means of reaching audiences allows everyone to feel that there will be an artistic and financial lifeline --and equally important, the connected ties of the community will be reinforced.

David Sabella praised the innovation of artists figuring out how to leave behind notions of “how do we continue doing what we do the way we’ve done it?” in favor of “how can I serve new people new ways?” Francisco and Elzabeth Núñez even feel reinvigorated and passionate by the constraints of the day forcing us to reinvent and rediscover where music is going.

“I’m a technophobe,” said Elizabeth Davies. “I came into virtual rehearsals kicking and screaming. My chorus members are older gentlemen, and I wasn’t ready. But my friend Kim Wonders pointed out that everyone is grieving, in different ways, and grieving different things. I felt that human needs are just the same as always — and now virtual rehearsals have become the highlight of my week.”

Most importantly, continuing choral experiences through the quarantine are providing vital connective tissue for society. Philip Shoultz says emphatically. “I have to sing every day.” His daily five minute livestream aims to create a safe space where people feel comfortable to create, by way of playful ways of making music and passing along. It’s a vital kind of self care that we can all do together.

What we're doing


Unsurprisingly, adapting technology for group singing topped the list of concerns for most participants, and questions and comments filled the live chat among the 1800+ live viewers. As David summed up succinctly, the tech goal is to reach perceptual synchronicity. Relatively simple steps in that direction include:

  • Webcam + mic. Try to get something better than your built-in better mic. David uses and recommends the Blue Yeti as a reliable workhorse.
  • Hardwire your Internet connection. Don’t rely on WiFi, which is subject to interference from everything else trying to connect to your WiFi access point.
  • Use closed, over-the-ear headphones for minimal lag and best quality. Reduce echo by not sending everyone else’s voices back to them via your mic!
  • Use Zoom’s “Send computer audio” to directly transmit track playback, digital piano, etc. Don’t ask the mic to do the work and waste bandwidth.
  • Everyone benefits from a good mic! Now might be the time to invest in everyone’s success where needed.

An interesting side effect of widely distributed rehearsals has been that singers are stepping up to both learn the technology, and also to take a different kind of ownership of their personal skills. When recording themselves for a virtual choir project, for example, singers find they have to do multiple takes to get it right — so they are building listening skills and vocal skills almost as a side effect.

Zoom “duets” in live rehearsal, where one person sings and the others sing along with mics muted offer a great team effect. “Barbershoppers are ensemble singers,” said Elizabeth Davies, and not many think of themselves as soloists. “People are realizing that it is a gift to the chorus when someone is willing to be vulnerable and step up and solo so others can harmonize. We’re starting to fall in love with all these individual voices that we’re hearing in a new way. We’re building trust, and getting braver and braver.”

Sonja Greiner, of the European Choral Union-Europa Cantat, offered perspectives on activities of more than 60 choral associations in more than 31 countries, including some technologies still in development.

Radically rethinking your programming

The Young People’s Chorus of New York has dug in deep to shape its role artistically and as a source of social and emotional support of its singers. Its plans are rich with

  • new video projects, made in new ways
  • new commissions from 20 composers, with special works reflecting this unique time
  • virtual choirs and concerts
  • Skill-building programs in which students explore what their phones are really capable of doing.
  • In addition to curricular and programmatic changes, YPC alums are expanding their mentoring roles.

“We asked donors for permission to repurpose their gifts,” said Elizabeth Núñez. Some funds are aimed at supplying technology as needed, which helps bring equity to all singers. Generosity from hardware and software vendors is growing, they note: “Singing from the balconies in Italy triggered a yell all around the world” -- and waves of assistance from all quarters.

Phillip reinforced this notion. Creating together forges stronger connections with one another, and ultimately, can extend stronger outreach to the community. His “Take Five With GPS” daily livestream includes poetry, moments of gratitude and reflection. “I invite people to go outside to sing for their neighbors. It’s very vulnerable,” he notes. “It’s about SHOWING UP — providing that space for people to know that every day I will be here, and I will sing with you.”

Bringing music into the public space was a particular pleasure for moderator Brian Newhouse, in his role at Classical Minnesota Public Radio. A friend challenged him: Could the statewide radio network get everyone in Minnesota to sing one song at the same time? Yes! One Friday afternoon at 5:55pm, all three of MPR’s statewide networks suspended normal programming to play Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” -- and the people of the state stepped outside and sang along. “It was the most emotional outpouring I have seen in more than 40 years of public radio.” said Brian. Momentum continues to grow, and further events to "BringThe Sing Home" are scheduled through the month of June.

Software discussed

Seeing the value

The practice of making music is continuing, and is proving to be of value in itself, not just hooked toward an end product of performance. Donors and patrons remain deeply connected, happy they are doing the right thing. Singing is psychologically comforting for the students, providing continuing social/emotional growth.

Singers are growing despite the challenges, and surprising themselves/ “I have 80 year old men using What’s App to send me videos of themselves singing,” said Francisco. That’s new -- and it represents bravery for the singers.

Singing: What we CAN Do is a collaboration among leading choral associations, including:

These groups previously had worked together to present Science and the Near Term Future of Singing.

Thanks to all presenters and participants:

Brian Lynch is Public Relations Manager for the Barbershop Harmony Society.