After 52 people in Washington state became infected with coronavirus during a choir rehearsal in March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report declaring communal singing a potential “superspreader” event.
The news was devastating to singers and choirs all over the world.
“It became very clear that there was not going to be any choral music of any kind for maybe 12 to 18 months until a vaccine was invented,” said Cantor David Tilman, conductor of Shir KI, the adult volunteer choir at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. “So everybody entered this period of frustrating inactivity and a lot of grief and a lot of hand wringing.”
Like everyone else in 2020, singers and conductors have used technology to collaborate and adapt to their constrained circumstances.
“In mid-June, the concept of the virtual choir was becoming very, very popular all over the United States, and not only with choirs but with orchestras as well,” Tilman explained.
Nashirah, the Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia, continues to meet for rehearsals online. Meetings are typically 90 minutes and split into sections, including sight singing practice, presentations on breathing techniques and lectures on various topics in Jewish music.
Conductor Julia Zavadsky said Nashirah will host a virtual lecture series beginning Oct. 16. The 2020 schedule includes appearances by Jonathan Coopersmith, chair of music studies at Curtis Institute of Music, and Donald Dumpson, conductor of the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, who will speak about the connections between Jewish and African American music. It also will host Festival of Light, a Chanukah celebration featuring singers and dancers from Israel, New York and Argentina.
The series will continue into 2021 and feature virtual choir performances in addition to speakers.
Zavadsky said the choir’s virtual schedule may be busier now than it was a year ago.
“We were practicing every day, obviously, and preparing for concerts, but it was more focused on only singing,” she said. “And now, because singing is obviously limited in a way, we figured out that making music together is not limited in other ways. So we’re exploring all of them right now and keeping us all together and as positive as possible.”
But what about concerts? While actors, comedians, dancers and other performing artists have transitioned many of their live performances to Zoom, sound delays, echoes and slow internet can wreak havoc on singers’ timing and sound on the platform.
“If you hear people trying to sing on Zoom, it’s a disaster,” said Amy Eisen, member of the Temple Beth Hillel – Beth El Synagogue Chorale.
A popular option for virtual choirs is having individual members record their performances at home. The recordings can then be submitted to sound editors, who compile them into one video that mimics the sound of a live choir performance with the acoustics of a synagogue. Shir KI and Temple Beth Hillel – Beth El Synagogue Chorale chose this approach for High Holiday services since the videos could be prepared well in advance.
Tilman said it took about three weeks for his choir, which consists of 25 to 30 volunteer singers and four professional singers, to produce a recorded performance of Louis Lewandowski’s Psalm 150 for Rosh Hashanah.
After sending singers click tracks — a series of audio cues used to synchronize audio tracks — Tillman met with the sopranos, tenors, altos and basses for section rehearsals on Zoom. Once the singers learned the piece, they were given a tutorial about how to record and send their audio file and 10 days to submit their parts on their own time.
“The end result was really spectacular,” Tilman said.
Eisen and her fellow singers recorded 12 songs for Beth Hillel-Beth El’s High Holiday services using a similar technique. While some members of the volunteer choir chose not to participate virtually, 13 were featured in the videos. She said that while singing alone seemed a bit strange and the technology appeared daunting at first, the final product felt like a team effort.
“It was really thrilling,” she said.
Nashirah plans to perform in two ways.
For Festival of Lights, Zavadsky will play a prerecorded video of the singers performing in their homes. During the new lecture series, however, the singers will livestream together on Zoom and sing into muted microphones while their prerecorded voices are played for the audience. This approach combines a real-time communal presence with high-quality sound that won’t be disrupted by Zoom delays.
Zavadsky said an unexpected result of the pandemic was that Nashirah welcomed back members who were previously too busy to practice or had moved away from Philadelphia.
“Don’t forget, people are isolated,” she said. “Being in the choir, even in the way as we are right now, is uplifting, so our choir actually got bigger.”