The Tears of the Choir World
Editor's note: Jenny Tisi is a children's and youth choir director in California. This essay originally appeared on her blog.
There is a world of tears and grief in the choir world these days. Let's face it. We have read enough in both the news and people's opinions that group activities — and some go as far to say, "especially choirs" — will not be back in action any time soon. Some say it won't be the same, but it might be something different. Ouch. I can't tell you how much that hurts those of us who do this for our hobby and our living. We have been told enough by well-meaning people outside of the choir world about the choir in Washington that held their last rehearsal in March and 45 members came down with COVID-19. The amount of times we were tagged or sent the article — like we wouldn't have known or seen it enough in our own choral communities — trust me, we heard the news before you did. We know what it is like to sit in close proximity and sing. We know spit flies. We can smell what each other had for dinner. We know — and we are grieving. Heavily grieving.
We also knew about Virtual Choirs before the rest of the world. The constant, well-meaning "Did you see this?" Or "This is cool! Can you do this?" Yes. We knew. We know. We knew its purpose, the time and cost involved, and knew it was not to be a substitute for the real thing. It was not the goal. It's not community, folks. In its original form, it was strangers coming together to form a performance that looked cool. It's uniting in a cool share-on-social-media way. But for those of us who have tried it now with far less cash and technology — for those of us that know the faces and the voices? It is creativity, joy and anguish all at the same time. It's the best we can do, and it's what I am calling "Isolation Choir." I've made two of them now with the help and technological genius of one of my 10th-graders, cuz momma don't know a thing about technology.
So this kind of choir — here's the truth. It's for those who are confident with their solo voices and their appearance. But many of these videos will exclude those who don't want exposure, especially to their choir director. Members won't even submit their 20th attempt at a video. "What if they don't like my voice?" And when the product is finished I just want to reach through the screen, wipe away the borders, and put all of my choristers back in our choir space, including the ones not seen in the video. I want us back where we can create, emote, throw around some child-teenage drama, giggle; hear things like "I don't know where we are," "I can't find my music," and other comments that make us choir directors want to pull our hair out. Those comments that constantly fly around our rehearsal spaces like — well — like spit.
The history of groups of people singing together in our world or even the more formal setting of the choir have been around for centuries. Styles of writing change. Styles of ensemble sounds change. Conductors and singers rotate in and out. But the art itself requires a gathering of humans, a gathering of voices, and in nearly all cases, a leader who has a vision for their ensemble. For some, it is their profession. For some, hobby. For some, a way to connect to something outside of themselves. Group singing, for so many of us, is far more fulfilling than solo singing. It's why there are so many choirs around the world. It wasn't meant to do from the confines of our own home, and brilliantly thrown together with technology. It's cool, yes. It's even creative. And it's oh so exposing and isolating.
There is a thing that will happen during this time. Either choirs will unite and stay together or they will fold. There will also be groups who will have to completely change what they are. I am in that discernment period right now. There are school choir programs who wonder, once again, if their subject matter will be cut because online choir is just not that attractive to many of our kids. Will kids even sign up for such a thing? Is it even necessary?
And we grieve. We grieve for so many reasons. Choir directors who have missed their final end of their career concerts. Seniors who are missing their final grade-school concerts. People not getting a final farewell. Traditions gone. These are our people. These are our safe places. This is our family.
I asked a simple question on my Facebook status. The post was, "I'm seeing it from every choir director. The grief is profound. I'm curious. How many of you in a different career are heavily grieving the loss of the way you did your job? And I'm curious how many of you are actually thriving in this new way." There are presently 65 comments and side comments, and it's still growing. Some professions and hobbies work through an online medium. My choir director friends are grieving. The grief I read on choral forums is so thick. It hurts.
There are only two ways to do this right now. One way involves risk. The other, technology. The risk? Get together and social distancing by God knows how many feet and sing through a mask. Or, enter the world of Virtual Choir. For me, I'm trying to figure out a world where both exist until we can get back to something — whatever it's going to be. I, unlike the cynics out there, believe that choirs will come back and will be what they were — a thriving community of people who want to join their voices together to create the most beautiful sound there is. I'm not giving up on that. It's too good. History says so.
I'm trying to figure out how to do my job for now and the unforeseeable future. How do I do this and not lose one single chorister in the process? What does it look like? How do I fall in love with this? I mean, after putting off a dream for 30 years to go on to an advanced degree in choral conducting, finally going back, and now I'm not conducting? Oh, sure — I send videos to my kids of my conducting and they can sing alone at home and watch, but really — come on — how connecting and fulfilling is that? We need the space to connect to make the music. We need each other in the same room at the same time. Oh, how I miss our community and what we give to others!
I'm trying to put my current choir program on hold and create a whole new one. What will it look like? Who will be involved? Will this be just my local choristers, or can we open this up to the country — the world? How will I group choristers? Will it involve only those kids who are comfortable singing alone? Will it only involve kids? Will there be other mediums we can add in like dance, instruments, visual art? Am I creating a whole new art form? What happens to those kids who are insecure and not confident in their ability to record themselves alone and submit sound and video? Do I offer them individual online instruction so that they get confident to do so? Will they want that? Is this why they joined choir? How do I keep a sense of community? What technology will I use? What training do I need? Who do I bring into the work? How much does this cost? All of this — while grieving! It's daunting, and a big kudos to me and anyone else in the choral world for getting off of the couch to actually think about it. Social-distancing pats on the back all around.
I don't know where this is going. I hate that it's even going in the first place. I want back what we had. It wasn't broken. We were thriving. I wasn't up for creating a new art form. I was up to improving and learning more about what we had. I'm still doing that. It's important. The skill of audiation — hearing music when music isn't present — is even more of a needed skill right now. It's a skill I have to master to get better at being a choir director. I wasn't planning on having a crash course in it anytime soon. I guess the unplanned is now reality.
I just want to give a virtual hug to every chorister and choir director who is hurting right now. I hear you. I get you. I feel you. This sucks. This isn't the way it's supposed to be. I miss you. I miss you terribly. I ache. But we will get through this together. And I can hardly wait to be together again, sharing breath, sharing space, a row with you, a pencil when I can't find mine, and a common vision and dream, and love. So much love.
Photos: Cam Sanders and Jenny Tisi