On the willows, there
We hung up our lyres
For our captors there required of us songs
And our tormentors, mirth
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion
But how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?
The question “How do we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” still haunts me. And during the covid-19 pandemic, providing an answer to it feels insurmountable. Over the past few weeks, those of us in the singing community have pondered how, in a practical way, we are to sing anything in this newly found “strange land” caused by a worldwide pandemic. How in a spiritual way, can we sing anything at all in this time of despair and hopelessness? And who will listen?
The logistical challenges are most immediate. Choral music is, by definition, a group activity. But after a choir rehearsal in Washington state appeared to be a spreader event, and as worship services have been closed down by government order, the community that choirs foster has been placed out of reach.
It is not clear when we will be able to gather again. In my capacity as director of the American Choral Directors Association, I facilitated a recent webinar on what science tells us about the future of singing: The medical experts we spoke to explained that speaking and singing produce aerosols that spread the virus, and that cannot be fully contained by masks.
The leaders and singers in the choral community responded to these revelations with passion and a tremendous sense of loss. Yet even now, we’ve been able to learn from each other’s individual voices.
We have worked with a software company to develop a program that allows singers to sing their part of a choral score into their computer or phone; the software evaluates whether or not they are singing the right pitch and rhythm. As choral directors, we can assess their progress and speak directly to the spots where they need help.
We are also creating “virtual choirs” in which individual singers record their part in a video, and directors edit those files into an overall mix. While the result isn’t a substitute for real choirs, these programs do allow us to hear each singer individually, and to coach musicians on how they fit into the overall performance even when they can’t hear their fellow singers.
But there is a more emotional question before us: How can we find the spirit to sing in times like this?
Over the past 12 years, I have witnessed the steady growth of choral singing in the United States — not just in our educational system, but also in refugee choirs, homeless choirs, hospice choirs, prison choirs, Alzheimer’s choirs, and a plethora of other unlikely places. Their example reminds me that singing gives something not just to the listener, but to the singer, as well. Singing requires us to use our bodies and connects us directly to our emotional lives. Every aspect of the singing process is visceral. And while the experience of singing is highly individual, choral singing blends and balances those individual sounds into a community.
As I try to come to terms with what has happened and what it means for the future of American singing, I take comfort in the creativity and optimism I find in our membership. These weeks of challenge have resulted in extraordinary new ways of working and teaching. We value more than any time in our collective history the beauty and power of our choral singing mission. We know as a society that we need to sing in community.
“How will we sing in this foreign land?” We will sing because we have to. Harmony, community and balance are not only characteristics of choral art. They are aural examples of our human aspiration.
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