Singing Together, Apart

Rachael Beale

After a performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the Concertgebouw on 8 March, 102 of the 130-strong Amsterdam Gemengd Koor fell ill. Forty-five members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, Washington, were diagnosed with Covid-19 within three weeks of their last rehearsal, also in mid-March. Singing is thought to be an especially effective method of coronavirus dispersion. Infective droplets are spread by people talking; droplets spread further when people talk louder; singing is like a very loud form of talking. It’s debatable – and far from proven – that singing may also produce lingering aerosols, and therefore a higher risk of mass spreading. Theatres and concert halls can reopen in England from 4 July, but live performances won’t be allowed.

Musicians are very anxious about this. The classical music industry is built on the precarious labour of freelancers, many of whom have not had paid work since early March. The rolling cancellation of engagements has continued, with some groups reporting the termination of contracts well into 2021. Very few festivals, venues or promoters can pay anything to the artists they had booked, because they, too, are in a precarious position: Nuffield Southampton Theatres went into administration in early May; the Southbank Centre announced that it was likely to remain closed until April 2021, with projected minimum losses of £5.1 million even with government support.

Everywhere, hastily assembled projections of seat sales under social distancing regulations look dire; it isn’t financially viable to mount performances with so little ticket revenue. Meanwhile, the culture secretary tweeted about how many 18 to 35-year-olds had become interested in classical music during lockdown – without much indication as to how he would ensure there would still be some left for them to listen to at the end of it.

Musicians, like everyone else, are desperate for good news. When the Guardian reported last month that a professor of fluid mechanics was saying that ‘singing is quite safe’, it was shared over and over again by my singer friends. But Christian Kähler’s study involved just three singers and six instrumentalists, and has not yet been formally published (his findings can be downloaded from the Military University of Munich’s website). More recent research from the Freiburg Institute for Musicians’ Medicine and the Medizinische Universitätat Wien has been more equivocal.

For amateur or semi-professional musicians like me – in the Before Times, I sang the occasional solo for choral societies and in a church choir on Sunday mornings – the loss of income isn’t the significant factor. We sing because we love it; the loss we are feeling now is primarily an emotional one.

People have been experimenting with ways of creating a choral experience in isolation. There are apps that allow musicians to multi-track themselves: one of our sopranos, resplendent in gym kit and headphones, produced a commendable performance of a five-part upper-voice setting of the Advent Matin Responsory ‘I look from afar’.

Virtual choir projects have mushroomed. The composer Eric Whitacre is a past master of the form. His first, in March 2010, now looks modest: a mere 243 videos. His sixth closed for submissions on 22 May, having received recordings from 17,572 people in 129 countries. The ubiquitous Gareth Malone launched the ‘Great British Home Chorus’, which he leads in rehearsal sessions on YouTube. The organist and BBC presenter Anna Lapwood started an NHS Virtual Choir for healthcare workers. I’ve taken part in a virtual choir project for alumni of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and a couple of things for the Stay at Home Choir: we sang a bit of Vera Lynn on ITV News, and James MacMillan’s ‘O Radiant Dawn’ with the help of The Sixteen. The recording of the latter will premiere on Saturday evening – stitching 800 different tracks into something that won’t make the listener wince in horror takes a very long time, even for a skilled editor.

Alongside these virtual choirs, a substream of videos highlights the absurdity of the set-up, poking fun at trying to sing together, apart: outtakes from the failed attempts that even the most accomplished singers have to go through before they get something usable; interruptions by toddlers and pets.

Because it isn’t the same at all, singing by yourself to a recording, or a click track, or a YouTube video of someone conducting enthusiastically to a smartphone. The whole point of choral singing is that it’s something you do – in time, in tune – with other people. Singing with your headphones on can’t replicate that. It’s just you, and a mic if you’re lucky.

My last experience of making music outside my kitchen (plenty of tiles, better acoustics) was a concert in St Gabriel’s Pimlico on 7 March. I walked there from King’s Cross, avoiding the packed tubes I’d taken to the rehearsal earlier in the week. (I’d joked to my husband that I needn’t have bothered taking hand sanitiser – the train was so full, my hands couldn’t be anywhere other than in my pockets.) London was already incubating the bulk of Covid-19 cases that made up the first peak.

A week later, my church choir sang its final pre-lockdown service, with four singers standing two metres apart. The composer whose music they performed – William Byrd – knew something about music-making in isolation. Many of his works were written for clandestine masses held by recusant Catholics, and were sung behind closed doors by enthusiastic amateurs (with the top parts probably sung by women rather than boys).

Holy Week arrived – the busiest time of the year for church choirs, especially those attached to the Catholic churches that go in for grander liturgies, where Easter Vigil services can run to several hours. Our musical director and his wife multi-tracked a motet from Byrd’s 1589 Liber Primus Sacrarum Cantionum, and sent out multiple versions of their recording, each with a part missing. Headphones on, laptops open, we sang together, apart, of the holy cities that had become a wilderness, and the desolation of Jerusalem. The 16th century felt surprisingly close.