CHICAGO -- Masks especially created for singing. Wristbands signaling comfort with hugs, or closeness. Rethinking the meaning of worship, or fellowship.
One of the earliest casualties of the covid-19 pandemic was the tradition of singing together in a choir.
Whether a church choir, professional ensemble or friends getting together, the camaraderie involved with seeing the same people on a regular basis and creating music together is, simply put, unmatched by Zoom.
Many who sing in choirs said throughout the past year, they missed not only the regularity and beauty of creating music, but also the friendship and fellowship found through spending week after week, sometimes year after year, seeing the same people.
Alison Harrald, 74, has been in the choir at First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Ill., since the 1980s. The absence of singing in person with her choir colleagues, she said, helped her realize what she was missing.
"The music has always been my favorite part of worship," she said. "When you practice and practice and go over it week after week after week, it just becomes part of your soul."
When covid-19 hit, many choirs quickly ceased rehearsals.
"Covid shut us down completely because singing is a super spreader event," said Jimmy Morehead, artistic director for the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus. Immediately, they canceled all shows and in-person rehearsals.
But they set virtual rehearsals for the same time, hoping to provide connection.
"The twofold reason why people join the chorus is to either just sing, or make friends, and so we wanted to make sure that people didn't feel alienated and didn't feel isolated," Morehead said. Everyone shared what they did that week, what they watched on Netflix or what they cooked.
AWAY FROM CONFLICT
Ideally, said Adam Hendrickson, director of music and worship at First Presbyterian Church, a chorus becomes a place away from conflict, with a common goal.
"The goal of the unit is singing, and as long as you're in sync with that, it's just so refreshing to be amongst a group where you're not thinking about the news," he said. "Taking a moment to be quiet, or have introspection, but then at the flip of a switch or at the drop of a cue, it's the most exuberant, joyful moment."
Online rehearsals came with pros and cons; the regular conversations helped, but "the whole harmonic experience in person doesn't happen online," Morehead said.
In person, Morehead was used to being able to give quick feedback. On Zoom, "I have to trust and hope and pray that they're learning and doing everything correctly." The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus pulled off live online shows, where people performed from their homes.
The Chicago Community Chorus used software that allowed singers to choose music, said artistic director Keith Hampton. Singers and musicians could record music and even gauge tone and pace. They also used breakout rooms, so they could designate, for example, "Sopranos, you go to room one."
"The conductors would rotate room to room, just like we would do if we were live," he said.
Their online concerts had thousands of views; a silver lining has been seeing their music reach larger audiences than would have been possible if they were live in a venue.
Once vaccines emerged, directors began thinking about how to bring everyone back together.
Hampton surveyed members, gauging their comfort level with reuniting face to face, and in different scenarios where everyone is wearing masks or no one is wearing masks but everyone shared proof of vaccination. "It's an issue of safe, safer or safest," he said.
He is balancing individuals' comfort levels with an activity that is uniquely changed by covid-19.
"It's everything with the wind and blowing and air," he said, "that we were most afraid of."
Recently, the Chicago Community Chorus held a picnic. Even when it rained, the singers stayed. "People were so glad to see one another," he said. "That sense of community is something you cannot replace."
Right now, they're planning a hybrid rehearsal, where some will meet in person, fully masked and vaccinated. They will wear special masks for singers, a kind "which allows you to articulate and sing clearly, but of course it's a hotter mask," he said.
STATUS KEPT PRIVATE
Morehead said their several in-person rehearsals have been socially distanced and with masks and singing from different pews. They ask members for their vaccination status, which is logged but kept private.
"It was just wonderful to actually see everyone in the same space," he said.
He also gave out wristbands that people can choose to reflect their comfort. "If you didn't want to touch people and wanted to be in your own little corner, you wore a red wristband. If you were like, I can elbow you and say hi but keep your distance, you wore a yellow wristband. If you're like, I'm not too worried, hug me, you wore a green wristband," he said. "That just kind of flagged everything so you didn't have to repeatedly tell people no."
Hendrickson said they've taken this time to rethink how they do things, and why. They have set aside some music that they used to sing because they always sang it. They have reconsidered what togetherness means. "We're really happy to look forward and really hold these things close to our heart and take that feeling of fellowship with us as an active thing," he said.
People are returning to the choir after time away, he said. "Now they're wanting to come back because it's like, now I'm doing all the things that make me happy."