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Can't stop the music

Fairfield-based chamber singers finding ways to rehearse safely

The Chamber Singers of Southeast Iowa rehearse in the atrium of the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center while being mindful to socially distance. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Reding)
The Chamber Singers of Southeast Iowa rehearse in the atrium of the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center while being mindful to socially distance. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Reding)
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FAIRFIELD - Coping with isolation in a pandemic has been especially challenging for those accustomed to engaging in social and cultural activities.

But unexpected opportunities can arise when adapting to alternative workarounds, as many choral singers have recently experienced.

How can singers proceed in a respiratory pandemic, where aerosol spread from group singing is particularly infectious? How can they sing when research has scientifically established that singers cannot safely gather in large numbers within confined spaces and soak up the sonorous surround sound of harmonies they are used to? Choral singers depend on group singing in order to thrive individually and collectively. Faced with the dismantling of musical norms, such as in-person group rehearsals and performances, will choral singers be silenced?

Even in a pandemic, choral singers will seek expression through singing for its timeless nurturing value. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.” Just as a new sprout springs up through a sidewalk crack, choral singers will find ways to innovate and pursue their art through musical connection, whatever the circumstances.

The Fairfield-based Chamber Singers of Southeast Iowa have been at the forefront of incorporating the most current research and recommendations on aerosols into their practice plans, adapting responsibly to virtual and socially distanced rehearsing with all necessary precautions.

Many choirs around the country are now choosing to meet virtually and in small groups with recommended safety precautions such as masks, social distancing, and shorter rehearsals in well ventilated or outdoor venues. While there is no substitute for large group singing, those who are exploring online alternatives have discovered a tsunami of musical offerings.

The chamber singers held a virtual concert on May 28, but ceased rehearsing for a month until more research came in on the safety of various rehearsing practices.

Director Elaine Reding said the group is considering a December concert provided it can deliver a quality performance with all necessary health precautions in place. The chamber singers normally hold two concerts a year.

The group, which numbers 20 people, has been experimenting with indoor and outdoor rehearsals. In both cases, the singers are mindful to stand more than 6 feet apart. The group recently met at the home of one of its members, Susie James, where the singers distanced themselves all along her back deck and down the stairs. With the advent of fall, the singers have moved indoors and now rehearse in the atrium of the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, wearing specially designed masks for singers that provide greater space around the mouth.

In addition to regular rehearsals, singers have participated in choral symposiums, “singposiums,” workshops, masterclasses, virtual streaming concerts, lectures, virtual choirs, quarantine choirs, stay-at-home choirs, and watch parties.

Choral works have been composed expressly for COVID-19, e.g., “We’ll Play Our Part” by Paul Ayres, “I Hope You’re Doing Well” by Dale Trumbore, and “Sing Gently” by Eric Whitacre.

With geographic barriers lifted in an online environment, singers are no longer limited to local events. Hundreds of singers now find themselves in neighboring Zoom windows, learning from professors and conductors from around the globe.

This summer, singers have been conducted by John Rutter in England, studied works by Salamone Rossi with the Western Wind in New York, sung a Billy Joel song in a virtual choir with Chanticleer, attended ensemble workshops with VOCES8, and sung major choral works with 10,000 international singers as part of the London-based Self-Isolation Choir.

The virtual environment has expanded learning options with less expense and more accessibility, and the simultaneous live chat invites connection. A singer can now be scheduled practically every day of the week, attending virtual rehearsals, lectures, and concerts throughout the global choral community.

Researchers from Bar-llan University in Israel recently discussed the science of Lockdown Singing in Neuroscience News and the varied ways that people are bonding with each other musically. They found that the brain resonates emotionally with music in ways that far surpass messaging and video conferencing. When we sing together, our brains are activated to produce more oxytocin, a hormone released when we form social bonds and engage in synchronized activity with others, such as choral singing.

As the researchers noted, music is not only food for the soul; it is food for the brain. To paraphrase English composer Malcolm Arnold, music is the strongest social act of communication among people… and singers will not be denied.

To learn more about the group, contact Reding at elaine@lisco.com.