• December 6, 2021

How We’ll Learn to Sing Together When We’re Far Apart

The story about the chorus landed like a punch. On March 10, 55 singers, none of whom had any symptoms of Covid-19, crowded into a Presbyterian church in Mount Vernon, Washington, for their weekly rehearsal. By the end of the month, more than three-quarters of the group had tested positive for coronavirus, and two were dead.

For years I too have filed into a Presbyterian church every week for chorus rehearsal, joining 100-plus other amateur singers for a few hours to prep for thrice-yearly classical music concerts. Choral singing is a good way to spread a virus around: We stand close together and inhale and exhale vigorously. It’s exhilarating to gather with a group of people and together produce sound that you could not possibly make alone. One of my favorite moments last fall was standing in a rehearsal in mixed lineup—meaning, each vocal part standing next to someone on a different part—and singing the first movement of J. S. Bach’s Magnificat from memory. In much of Bach’s choral music the parts are tightly integrated: You have to hear exactly what the altos are doing in order to sing the soprano part correctly. And that deadly Washington chorus rehearsal meant that this kind of tight-knit singing—or any kind of communal music-making—wouldn’t happen again for a very very long time.

My chorus had planned to perform Brahms’ Requiem at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in August. Five years ago the group presented the same program, but I’d dropped out at the last minute when my father-in-law passed away. I was looking forward to having a second chance with the piece. But now, the group is planning a “sing-in,” where we’ll rehearse Mozart’s Requiem in small groups over Zoom and then “perform” it by singing along while muted in our houses, to a recording we made of the same piece a few years back. My family members and neighbors may hear me singing live (let me apologize to them now for that troublesome jump to the high F in the “Lacrymosa” movement), but anyone who tunes in won’t; latency issues in videoconferencing make a synchronous performance at best uneven and at worst unlistenable.

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This orchestra playing a socially distanced Ode to Joy are not playing all at the same time. Rather, each person filmed themselves playing their part, using a metronome set to the same speed, and then the video was synchronized.

I’m not the only person in my household coping with a radically rethought approach to collaborative music. My 11-year-old son, who asked to be called Picklequack for this article, plays the keyboard in an all-kid band called Yzarc—that’s “crazy” spelled backwards, obvs—through a local San Francisco treasure/music school/gang of weirdos called Rock Band Land. In the BC (Before Coronvavirus) era, he’d meet weekly with his band, which for reasons I can’t explain includes one guitar player, one singer, one bassist, one keyboardist, and five drummers, in a building whose front door advertises “Pat Clabernathy’s Indoor Donkey Farm & Retirement Home For Children.” Yzarc members, who are ages 10 and 11, come up with original stories, lyrics, and songs. Their song “The Hand Witch Thief” includes the lines “The Pizza Guy was a witch / Who stole hands from little kids / To make chairs to massage / His aching back.” (If you are a parent in need of yet more ways to occupy your children, Rock Band Land’s weird and wonderful original stories are available on Soundcloud.)

A few times a year, dozens of the Rock Band Land kid performers stream into an old Italian-American social club in San Francisco’s Mission district to play the Big Show. There are rock show lights, rock show volume levels, bowls of earplugs, and Shirley Temples and adult beverages at the bar.

But this year coronavirus happened, and with it the cancellation of a Big Show, and of everything. To parent during a pandemic requires disappointing your child all too frequently: Your precious family camp in Yosemite won’t be operating; school won’t resume in person until the fall, we think; we have to shelter in place for another month; summer is one big question mark.

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