VIRTUAL CHOIRS: Singing Together and Apart

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Fauntleroy Church Chancel Choiir

In this nadir of the pandemic, some of us are still finding a way to “sing, make a joyful sound,” together. I’ve been singing in two virtual choirs, a way of staying sanely connected to my musical community and keeping my voice supple, my lungs buoyant. Singing my mezzo-soprano part alone with headphones and video selfie is a far cry from enjoying the warm embrace of other voices, their vibrations echoing in our bodies, our hearts actually beating as one with the richly woven harmonies. But as our Australian-born “musical catalyst” director, Bronwyn Edwards, reminds us in her mantra: “It’s about joy, not perfection.”

When Bronwyn sent us the gorgeous arrangement of “Silent Night” by Dan Forrester, she assured us in her upbeat style, “This is going to be so beautiful. Concert attire please — black and white with a touch of red.”

I sighed, resigning myself to yet more virtual boxes like the musical chairs of Zoom screens we all must inhabit these days. But then I listened to this traditional song so elegantly arranged with soaring sopranos and intimate tenors, anchored with a stately, walking bass that echoes the magical journey of wise men wandering after a star. By the time I got to the lyric soprano descants of “love’s pure light” and “dawn of grace,” my eyes blurred.

Blinded, only my ears could follow the song — the arpeggios of “Al-le-lu-jahs” that rose to high F and G’s, the steady baritone heartbeat, the tremulous tenors. Then the crescendo to fortissimo a tempo with the resounding “Siiiiii-lent Night, Hooooolllly Night.” Surely, this was the sound of angels singing. Who wouldn’t want to join in what singers reverently call “the blend?”

I began to practice for our holiday concerts, often singing in the pandemic bubble of my car whose acoustics make anyone sound better. Since we were now a virtual choir, I could invite my far-flung family and friends to join us. I’ve sung in chorales most of my life and grew up singing with siblings. My beloved brother sang tenor semi-professionally in his younger days. He and I still duet via FaceTime and share our Spotify playlists. I also invited my niece who used to play keyboards for a rock band and now teaches her two children on a cherished piano. Reaching out to an old friend, Lee, from my university days who now sings with the respected San Antonio Master Singers in Texas that has performed in the Vatican, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Carnegie Hall, I implored him: “Can you lend us long-distance your glorious tenor?”

He did. In his red necktie and tuxedo, Lee sang alongside the other valiant men in our Fauntleroy Chancel Choir and the melodious women in their stylish black concert dresses with bright red scarves or necklaces. It was a virtual reunion when I discovered that one of the sopranos I’ve sung with for a decade in another choir, Seattle Metropolitan Singers, also added her clear, vibrant soprano to this chorale.

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Listen to Silent Night

There are many sorrows in losing the physical community of my fellow singers but there are some unexpected gifts in virtual choirs, besides being able to invite voices from Australia, Canada, and Texas. We have to work harder on our own parts because when we record them as individual tracks, we can hear when we stray or don’t quite reach a pitch. The final recording may not be live but is probably more resonant and balanced. This better quality is achieved — not by the forgiving acoustics of brick-and-mortar-and-wood arches — but because our hard-working musical directors, with their perfect pitches, can modulate missed notes, sharp or flat moments. A less intimate but more professional sound quality in the remixing. We also have a video and audio link to share with those who can’t attend a local concert. Think of it as an audio/visual holiday card on social media. Most of all, the virtual choirs allow us to keep singing.

As our Seattle Metropolitan Singers director, Allan Andrews, says, “Even though we’re singing virtually, it’s still soul-soothing.” He is right. We are less alone this dark, holiday season, because of our brave, virtual choirs. We are still rehearsing even if it’s a Zoom meeting. At our last practice for John Rutter’s “Christmas Lullaby” and Woody Guthrie’s “Happy, Joyous Hannukah,” and the lively African chant, “Bonse Aba,” Allan was actually directing us from across the country. Mid-season, he and his partner moved to upstate New York; but he could still lead us from his little virtual box, while our devoted pianist, Daniel, still here in Seattle, played along in perfect rhythm to the uptempo “Bonse Aba” lyrics. Translated from the Zambian, the festive celebration song means:

“All who sing with the spirit have a right to be called the children of God.”

It was both amusing and very dear that even as we sang along, our voices muted because of the irritating delay in singing via Zoom, Allan commented after we’d navigated a particularly difficult series of measures, “Oh, that’s really beautiful.”

Of course, he couldn’t hear us. But he explained: “I remember what you sound like. We are what we sing together — even if right now that only exists in our memory and hearts.”

This season, we must all remember each other in our memories and our hearts — and our songs. Until we can sing together again safely, radiantly, reunited. It is about joy, not perfection. Allan reminded us our last rehearsal of this Year 2020, “All creation is still singing. So must we.”

Bronwyn Edwards Virtual Choirs

Seattle Metropolitan Singers

Bio: Brenda Peterson is the author of over 23 books, including the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind, which was selected as a “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction” book by the Christian Science Monitor and an Indie Next “Great Read,” by Independent Booksellers. Peterson’s latest non-fiction book is Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, chosen as a “Best Conservation Book of the Year” by Forbes magazine; her children’s books include Wild Orca and Catastrophe by the Sea.

Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” and the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind.

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