How community choirs resisted the pandemic: “Zoom singing is not the one”

Communal choirs were booming pre-COVID (just ask Bring Me The Horizon and Architects, who enlisted them for emotional oomph). Now, though, their future is threatened, hears Joshua Neicho

Many of us have been working totally online for more than a year. If you’ve found it tough, imagine how members of Britain’s choirs – there are more than 40,000 of them – have been feeling.

Over the past decade, the dowdy image of choirs has been transformed and UK choir membership has boomed. This is inspired, perhaps, by the growing popularity of participatory live events and interest in honing creative skills, the impact of TV talent shows and the rise in slick but open-to-all contemporary choirs for which Rock Choir, founded in Farnham in 2005, blazed a trail. Groups such as Peckham Rye Sings, HERD and Deep Throat Choir have given a new generation a way of bonding over a shared passion. This has made the experience of the pandemic particularly intense for many singers.

Xenia Davis, choir leader of Peckham Rye Sings and Sing Out Streatham, found out she was pregnant two weeks before the first lockdown and was moved by how her singers “massively rallied round”. She adds: “In London it can be hard to find [that] community.” Members tell her: “’What I love about being in this choir is I go to Sainsbury’s and bump into people I know.'”

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During periods of more severe restrictions, choir members who had moved country still joined by Zoom. “One singer moved back to New Zealand and was getting up at four or five AM while stuck in a hotel room in quarantine. I’ve had at least two singers who have joined on an iPad from hospital wards”. When they were able to resume some socially distanced outside singing last autumn, she chose “things that were upbeat and simple”. Davis adds: “It was really touching, recognising what singing means to people. Lots of singers stood and had a cry. Some had had COVID, or had partners in intensive care. People were really worried about family members they couldn’t visit – or told they had to move out of their house”.

Georgia Duncan, a songwriter, teacher and music facilitator who leads east London’s HERD, tells NME: “When the pandemic hit, we had been in a great place with a recent big gig in Camberwell. Our numbers had grown a lot.

“Alas, Zoom singing is not the one. I decided to continue a version of our sessions online that involved learning parts by singing along with just me and recordings I had made, then some vocal games and improv passing around to hear each other’s voices and check in. These sessions were a lot of fun at times but also tinged with sadness as we realised how it compared to the actual vibrations of each others’ voices in the church where we normally practice”.

For all-female-and-non-binary singing collective the Deep Throat Choir – hailed as “London’s coolest choir” by Time Out – it has been “a fallow time,” explains founder Luisa Gerstein. She says the power of the choir, who are also based in east London, is “so much about the texture… [Zoom] doesn’t compare”. Choir drummer Zara Toppin says they feel “desperate to play a live show”.

Deep Throat’s approach was vividly creative, Toppin says: “Every time we learned a new song, we took on a different style.” They say a powerful bond was forged between members “through collective experiences and joys, adventures that we’ve had” and suggests it was the group’s “really intense connection and real joy from music”, which discouraged them from persevering online: “The hurdles of that felt not like us”.

The choir did, however, put out a haunting version of Portland, Oregon feminist singer-songwriter Naomi Littlebear Morena’s ‘Like A Mountain’, a capella with minimal percussion and with a colourful video montage of the performers – one of a series of songs for a music and movement evening that was cancelled in the first lockdown. Gerstein has been looking forward to returning to “jamming lots, coming up with lots of ideas” at in-person rehearsals at community music space Total Refreshment in Hackney, and the choir is due to launch long-delayed album ‘In Order To Know You’ and perform at Green Man Festival.

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The talented mix of classically trained and DIY musicians in Choir Noir, on the other hand– formed in 2016 for Bring Me The Horizon’s Royal Albert Hall show – has ended up “pretty busy,” says choir leader and songwriter Kat Marsh. Among their lockdown projects was a live session for prior collaborators Architects‘ ambitious recent album ‘For Those That Wish to Exist’ (on the track ‘Dying is Absolutely Safe’).

The choir’s strong sense of community – “kind of like a cult or coven, quite Gothy, witchy; everyone’s really, really nice” says Marsh – only grew tighter, with the singers, who include trained music therapists, feeling “very, very supported. People said stuff to the whole choir”. She adds: “Singing with other people, in terms of mental health and pure joy is one of the best things you can do. It’s a wonderful thing”.

A study of 3,950 UK choir members and facilitators earlier this year found a strong desire to keep choirs going through lockdown, but also “unanimous frustration and sadness at not being able to sing together, in-person” due to the technical limitations of current virtual choir options, be it tele-conferencing, livestreaming or making multi-track recordings. The authors note all the evidence for the psychological benefits of group singing, compared to both solo singing and taking part in group sport.

Simon Sharp, artistic director of the London Gay Men’s Chorus, says that “while we had some note-bashing sessions [on Zoom], is was pretty dry – it was nigh-on impossible”. The choir kept online conference calls to “social things, quizzes, a Friday night line-up of home-recorded numbers”.

Curtis Stansfield, music director of non-audition network of choirs Some Voices, whose repertoire includes indie, disco, hip-hop and soul, says that there’s a value in linking up singers online “like a Joe Wicks HIT class – you know there was a pulling together”. But he also notes the irony given “a lot of people join a choir to get off their computer” and describes the cacophony produced by 50 people singing at the same time on Zoom as “quite funny”.

The London Gay Men’s Chorus in 2019. Credit: Getty

Xenia Davis would create recordings or play ones the choir had made earlier, but was anxious whether her instruction had hit the mark: “Have the altos learned the part, are the basses in time? [Online] you’re feeling you need to compensate for the fact that Zoom choir isn’t as good as real choir”. One of her singers was mocked by her two teenage sons each time she joined a Zoom session.

Bazil Meade of London Contemporary Gospel Choir was dismayed to begin with, directing singers over Zoom “like a robot” – he has subsequently found a blended version of eight to 10 performers in his Walthamstow studio and others calling in more effective.

North Wales-based James Sills, who sings with a capella folk troupe Spooky Men’s Chorale and wants to free people of their hang-ups about their singing abilities, has made a virtue out of the maxim “sing as if no-one is listening”. Participants at his Sofa Singers’ twice-weekly Zoom sessions (200-plus, from dozens of countries) are warned up-front that there’s no capacity to synchronise and they won’t be able to hear each other. Sills accompanies on guitar and many of the singers bring theirs to strum.

Meanwhile, Mark Strachan is a passionate advocate of his Self-Isolation Choir’s model of learning a song on livestream, then singing your part into your phone so the whole work can be pieced together, as a fruitful new way of working for choirs: “If you’re late for a rehearsal, nobody minds. You can have a drink. You can sing loudly [or] softly.”

“Singing with other people, in terms of mental health… is one of the best things you can do. It’s a wonderful thing” – Choir Noir’s Kat Marsh

Just 15 to 20 per cent of male voice choirs have shifted to an online platform, says Edward-Rhys Harry of London Welsh Male Voice Choir, compared to around two-thirds of choirs as a whole. Chris Evans of Beaufort Male Choir – also secretary of the Association of Welsh Male Choirs ­– half-jokes that they’re not sure if some of the Beaufort’s 70 members have running water at home, let alone internet access.

Over the past decade, the choir has added to its tradition of social activism a commitment to artistic innovation, singing the music director’s arrangements of Muse tracks and embarking on crossover collaborations with the likes of prog band Public Service Broadcasting. (The Beaufort’s performance with PSB for the finale of the Green Man Festival, “70 year old choristers acting like Freddie Mercury,” was quite the sight, says Evans.)

When lockdown came, Evans and colleagues focused on pastoral support for choristers. They lost two singers to the coronavirus and suffered the heartache of not being able to sing at their funerals. In summer last year and from April this year, they moved to singing outdoors at Ebbw Vale Rugby Club. They’re taking bookings again and preparing to sing at weddings postponed from last year. In contrast to England, the Welsh Government is treating all choirs as an organised activity, allowing up to 30 amateurs to rehearse indoors.

Deep Throat Choir at Green Man Festival

When COVID guidance came out for England on May 18, it was revealed that amateur choirs shouldn’t practice or perform indoors in groups of more than six. There are no Government limits on the number of professional performers and they aren’t counted towards maximum venue capacity. “You should have heard the swearing in this house [when the restrictions were announced],” says Shropshire-based Lizzie Grocott-James, who sings in two choirs.

It was hoped the cap on amateur performers would be lifted along with all COVID restrictions next Monday (June 21), though the Government has now announced that the country’s reopening will be delayed by a further four weeks.

London Welsh Male Voice Choir’s Edward-Rhys Harry says the restrictions have been “psychologically very difficult to manage”, adding: “Members are asking us questions and we don’t have clear answers”. Whereas last year he felt he had an idea of the roadmap, “since January, Government communications have not been consistent and consultations have dried up; it feels very odd and one-sided”.

Ear, nose and throat doctor and classical singer Declan Costello collaborated last year on a study into the amount of potentially COVID-spreading aerosols people produce, which found that the volume is a much bigger factor than whether a person is singing or speaking. Incidentally, any suggestion that rock choirs might pose more risk than other genres is off-target, says Costello: “It’s all about volume. All forms of singing have quiet and loud sections.”

Costello thinks the lessons of his work, incorporated in Government guidance from last November, have been forgotten. He questions why singing has been singled out when wind bands can go ahead and bars and pubs have reopened, and wonders how decisions are made.

“I get frustrated that the guidelines seem to be steered only towards [the] economy” – HERD’s Georgia Duncan

The May 18 directions are only guidance, without statutory legal force. The London Gay Men’s Chorus is ignoring the guidance, which artistic director Simon Sharp calls “so confusing and inconsistent,” in favour of rehearsing singers in masks and with social distancing at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, in accordance with the church’s own risk assessment.

Sharp has been going gangbusters, working with two groups of 40 singers on alternate nights to prepare for a classic hits and anthems gig at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea, due to follow a Christmas-at-Midsummer show with a smaller ensemble at Clapham Grand on Sunday June 20. With the four-week delay to reopening, the Cadogan Hall concert now stands to be postponed from July nine and 10 until mid-August.

Croydon’s IMDC Gospel Choir has concerts planned for July three and four. Choir founder and director John Fisher warns that the delay could be devastating to them: “I’ve talked to venues already about Plan B. They can function at a socially distanced [level], cut down to 150 people. I’m considering whether it’s financially viable. Because it would have been the first concert out for many people, you want to give them value for money: a good sound and light show”.

Some Voices has already had to pull an event and refund everyone who bought a ticket. They hope the next stage of guidance won’t limit singers to 30 to a room – “in order to have a solid sounding group each week, 50 to 60 people is ideal”, says Curtis Stansfield. The impact of the delay to reopening on their summer classes is “quite exhausting,” he explains, adding that “everyone has laid out money, factored out part of their income” but their strategy is firmly to “delay until it’s safe – we’ve got no interest in putting people at risk”.

Very broadly, the feeling among choirs seems to be that now there is a delay, the Government should give some certainty by sticking to a timetable. Gill Upham of the Natural Voice Network, which supports open-access choirs, says that the fear of COVID is such that it will be a long time before some amateur singers return to rehearsing indoors. Xenia Davis is torn – she feels a duty of care to vulnerable people in her groups, taking a cautious approach to resuming rehearsals outdoors, but is keenly aware that there is “a whole sector of people whose livelihoods are in the balance”.

Georgia Duncan of HERD says she feels “frustrated and in ways quite angry with how the guidelines seem to be steered only towards [the] economy. If it can make money – ‘Let’s go ahead’; if it’s based on community and well-being it’s a ‘No’”.

A Government spokesperson told NME: “We must take a cautious and phased approach in easing restrictions… We understand this is disappointing to amateur choirs and performance groups but are taking decisions based on the advice of our public health experts. We [will] review measures after two weeks, and as set out in the roadmap, we hope to remove all legal limits on social contact.”

Over the past strange year, the passion and ingenuity of Britain’s huge variety of choirs has been apparent. Is it too much to ask to ensure they can add ‘Hallelujah’, as well as ‘It’s The End of the World’, to their repertoire?

– Main image: Choir Noir with Jordan Fish of Bring Me The Horizon during the ‘Amo’ album session. Photo credit: Peter Miles

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