Before 2020, singing in a chorus wasn't considered a particularly dangerous activity, but coronavirus changed that in a big way. The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s artistic director, Grant Gershon, says, “Just the fact that the very thing that we have put our lives into, that we believe in so strongly — the power of singing together to lift all voices and to celebrate the harmony of our differences — that very thing is the thing that can make us sick and kill us.”
He says a typical choir practice is precisely the kind of situation COVID-19 safety guidelines tell people to avoid. “We tend to be in close proximity to each other, strongly exhaling. It tends to be inside, and of course, it sounds best when there's no mask.”
What’s a choral group supposed to do in a pandemic? One option: A virtual choir. Virtual choir videos, which have been popping up on Facebook and YouTube, feel like visual metaphors for the whole pandemic experience. Gershon says, "They're beautiful, and they're heartbreaking because, on the one hand, we have this experience of watching all of these people together on our screens. But we also feel the loneliness of each one of these people having to sing into their phone or into their computer screen."
Virtual choir videos may look like they were recorded on a Zoom call, but that’s not a realistic option. Live video chat programs like Zoom have a time delay, and typically, only one person can talk (or sing) at a time. Angelenos with virtual choir experience know the truth — there’s no easy way for people to sing together from home. Choir directors eagerly await the invention of such a program, but for now, every virtual choir performance involves a lot of audio and video editing.
Charlie Kim is the artistic director of the San Fernando Valley Master Chorale (SFVMC). He also gives private voice lessons, but that’s not easy in a pandemic either. Instead of playing piano as his students sing, he now prerecords piano tracks that he sends them to use during their Zoom lessons.
When the pandemic forced SFVMC to cancel their upcoming concert, they decided to put together a three-part series of virtual choir videos, which they’re posting on Facebook and YouTube. Members record themselves singing and then submit their videos so they can all be edited together. Kim says, “Instead of meeting weekly to rehearse music online together in real-time, we're taking the rehearsal time to answer questions about the music, which is a required part of the process anyway. Everybody benefits from the group discussions, so that part we can do over Zoom.”
The San Fernando Valley Master Chorale performs “Something’s Coming” from "West Side Story."
Kim shared some advice for virtual choir newbies: "The biggest mistake, I think someone recording for the first time makes is singing to the room, which is very small. You have to stay big for you to film well, so don't let any of that training that you got on the stage go because it translates."
The Los Angeles Master Chorale holds an annual High School Choir Festival, which includes about 30 high school choirs from all around Los Angeles. When this year’s was canceled, Grant Gershon still wanted to give the students the experience of creating something together. One of the songs the students had been rehearsing was “The Promise of Light” by Georgia Stitt, and they chose that piece for the virtual choir.
The Master Chorale provided each student with a recording of the piano accompaniment and of the vocal parts with their part highlighted. For example, an alto would hear the alto part most prominently. They asked the students to record themselves with their phone or computer, but they knew that some students might not have access to that technology. Gershon says, "We asked them if they couldn't make a recording if they could at least send a selfie or a picture of themselves that we could weave into the visual montage so that as many students could participate regardless of technological challenges or issues." About 330 students joined in, with about two-thirds of them sending videos.
Gathering the content is just the first step in the virtual choir process. From there, Gershon says, “Putting it together so that it not only links up in time, but actually sounds good, and sounds like a choir is a Herculean task for this many singers. I am in awe of our team, and looking all around the country and the world at all of the virtual choirs that have popped up, each one of them represents just an incredible investment of talent and time behind the scenes.”
The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal”
The Los Angeles Master Chorale also released its own virtual choir video, a tribute to Alice Parker, whom Gershon describes as “the patron saint of choral music in America.” Parker turns 95 this year, and they had planned to honor her with a concert in May. Instead, they made a virtual choir video of Parker’s version of an old American hymn called “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal.” Gershon believes song choice is the key to a great virtual choir performance. He says, “Think really carefully about the material, and with that in mind, make sure that it's something that that your singers can really invest in.”
Before participating in that virtual choir, Master Chorale singer Sharmila Lash had never done much home recording. At first, singing without the rest of the choir felt like a psychological experiment to her. She says, "When you're starting out, and you're singing, you're constantly second-guessing yourself as you're recording, and then you're listening to it thinking, 'Oh, that was terrible. Is that going to work?’”
When she performs live on stage, the show happens once, and then it's a memory. There's no opportunity to listen to it over and over again and obsess about every detail. She says, "In a performance, it's easier just to sort of live in the moment and feed off of what's around you. Whether it's within the choir or in the audience, you can feed off of their reaction.”
Click through below to see the members of the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus performing virtually.
She’d tell other singers performing in a virtual choir for the first time, “The main thing is not to be a perfectionist about it.”
While virtual choirs feel like pandemic-inspired inventions, they've been around a lot longer than the past few months. Eric Whitacre, a Grammy-winning composer and conductor based in Venice, created the first virtual choir as an experiment back in 2009, with 185 singers from 12 countries. He recalls, “It went viral, and singers from all over the world started contacting me.” His choirs grew bigger over the years, and when he made Virtual Choir 5 about a year and a half ago, it was in collaboration with NASA. The video featured more than 8,000 singers and imagery captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. He thought he had taken the project about as far as it could go, but when the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to isolate at home, he thought, “If ever there were a time to do a virtual choir, this is it.”
Whitacre composed a new piece called “Sing Gently” for Virtual Choir 6, which has more than 17,000 participants. The biggest challenge? “Consonants. I knew that it was going to be a nightmare when I named the piece ‘Sing Gently.’ Say it out loud. ‘Sssssing gently.’ Try to imagine 17,000 people all singing ‘Sss’ at a slightly different time. It sounds like parseltongue, right? Madness.” He recommends that anyone doing a project like this consider that the diction is going to take “lots and lots of editing time on the back end.”
Eric Whitacre’s "Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently."
Virtual Choir 6 premiered on YouTube in July, but Whitacre emphasizes that the final video isn’t what matters most. “Our experience has been over and over that the real meat of the project is in the building of it. That's where the sense of community happens and where everybody starts to feel part of something larger than themselves.” For Virtual Choir 6, he says, “We had weeks and weeks of rehearsals and videos that were not only voice lessons, but also talking about the physical benefits of singing, the physiology of singing, and the reason we sing, the psychology of singing.” The participants swap advice in a Facebook group that’s 21,000 members strong. He says, “All of this is designed to build a sense of community that actually transcends the finished choir product.”
Sean Carney is the music director for the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus, which is open to kids in grades 2-12. When all their upcoming performances were canceled, he said to himself, “Maybe I could figure out this virtual choir thing, Eric Whitacre-style.” Carney has audio engineering and producing experience, but he used YouTube videos to teach himself how to edit the singers' videos together. It turned out so well; they ended up creating an entirely virtual concert, which premiered in late June.
Rehearsing online required the young choir members to be braver than usual. Because of video latency, singing together online doesn’t work very well. “I can be at my piano playing the accompaniment, and the kids are like two beats behind just because technology hasn't come that far yet.” As a result, he says, “They're singing a solo basically in front of all their peers. Once they've done their part, they have to also be open to me saying, ‘Hey, you know, that's an A flat, not A natural.’ And then we go over it, and by going over it that way, it's kind of like a master class to the other students.”
The choral groups featured in this article know they won’t be together in person anytime soon, but editing-intensive video projects aren’t their only option. Carney says, “Sometimes we just gotta sing, and sometimes I just have to deal with the latency.” He’ll pick up his guitar or go to the piano, and tell the kids, “We're going to be out of sync, but we're all going to sing together, and we're just going to connect in the only and best possible way that we can.” He says, “It's silly, and it gets super sloppy and all over the place, but at the end of the song, everyone's like, 'Oh my god, I needed that.'”
Top Image: Members of the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus perform virtually. | Courtesy of San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus