The social isolation brought about by the Coronavirus has changed the course of my day-to-day. Before entering this period, my schedule for the first week of March involved activities, both professional and recreational. On Friday night, I took a long car ride to St. Bartholomew’s Church on the upper east side with a few congregation members of Bethany Presbyterian Church Huntington, to see a New York Choral Society concert. Listening to the choir, I thought that the act of savoring the church’s architecture and massive organ would be available to me indefinitely. Little did I know that the relief I was experiencing within that moment would become temporary.
By the second week of March, social interactions and professional meetings continued to unfold online through Zoom Video Communications, private phone calls, and Facetime conversations with friends, family, and prospect hiring managers. The same goes for physical exercise – doing workouts to the instructions of teachers (whom I have never met before) over YouTube videos. Performing in a choir, on the other hand, proved less easy to replicate virtually.
On the final Sunday of March 2020, the Bethany Presbyterian Church of Huntington successfully held its first remote church service, which saw an attendance of 50. The pastor, along with a handful of members, volunteered to do a practice run of the service that previous Saturday. In the trial run, we also made sure to try out singing simple hymns. We sang together over the computer audio, but those who called on their mobile and landline phones came in seconds later. The results involved segments of singing around that coagulated into cacophony. By the time of the Easter Sunday service, the protocol of singing hymns had changed. The pastor had muted all members, except for the music director who played the piano accompaniment. Members could easily follow the music and sing to themselves. While I felt confident that other congregation members and I were singing simultaneously, though I could not hear them, I still long for that feeling of connectivity, I have always experienced singing with a choir.
Later, I read a message from David Hayes and Patrick Owens, the Directors of the NY Choral Society. A friend of mine who is a member of this chorus forwarded me an email from the directors who felt compelled to share a message that offered support and encouragement, one that can potentially hold us together in spirit and continue looking toward a more positive future.
“Perhaps a good way to think about the period we are in is what the Tibetan Buddhists call “the Bardo state” – and intermediate state in which we have lost our old reality, and it is no longer available to us, leaving us feeling ungrounded,” write Dave and Pat.
“As a chorus, we are particularly ungrounded – the notion of social distancing is profoundly ‘un choral’ as it strikes at the very core of what we do – come together as a community to rehearse, socialize and make music together. For many of us, this has left an eerie emptiness.
“We know live music will be an essential healing force for all of us and a critical component of bringing some sense of normalcy. What we don’t know is how and when we will be able to create and share live choral music.
“So, notwithstanding all of this uncertainty, we will be working on some projects and long-term planning for the chorus to ensure we are ready to share our voices in song when they will be needed most! (D. Hayes & P. Owens, personal communications, March 14th, 2020).”
One of the major projects the directors are working on includes planning to host a ‘virtual gala and online silent auction’ sometime in mid-to-late April. More information on this event will appear on the NY Choral website in the coming weeks. Also, David and Pat decided to publicize video and audio recordings of past concerts to members and their e-newsletter subscribers.
Returning to their message, I decided to look up the definition of ‘the Bardo state.’ Researching the Encyclopedia of Britannica Online, ‘Bardo State’ comes from the definition ‘Bardo Thödol,’ Which in Tibetan means “Liberation in the intermediate State Through Hearing.” Further, this phrase is called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ This funerary text is recited to ease the consciousness of a recently deceased person through death and assist it in a favorable rebirth” (Britannica, n.d.).
By using this metaphor, I think the choral experts feel the “Bardo state” of the choir is more a quiet transformation than a slow withering. While many choir leaders hope the tradition of meeting to rehearse in person will resume as soon as it is okay to stop social distancing and isolation, how much longer do we need to stall?
Like everyone else I know who is socially isolating or distancing themselves daily, I also watch or read the news. While it is helpful to see how the virus is playing out beyond the performance space, I remember that the experience varies from person to person. On Facebook, I read posts and comments from friends of friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, who know at least one person who has either been infected with COVID-19 or has died. Some of the individuals who passed had no underlying medical conditions and did not even reach the threshold of 60 years of age. I also read posts about emergency tents getting pitched up in Central Park, shortages of workers in make-shift hospitals in the boroughs. On my Twitter feed, I read notices from friends and acquaintances who may face possible layoffs due to the closing of businesses or have been sick with COVID-19.
Reversely, social media also bears positive news. Another friend, working in healthcare, says that in the state of New York, Coronavirus recoveries outnumber the deaths. Recently, the New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, had also expressed in a live Coronavirus briefing broadcasted on Twitter by TIME that while cases of infections and deaths are starting to level, the economy is not yet ready to re-open. He says, “How you re-open determines everything” (TIME, 2020). The governor also references missteps taken by foreign countries which re-opened their economies too soon following a decrease in Coronavirus cases and then saw another spike of infections shortly afterward. To prevent NYC and surrounding states from repeating the same mistake, the governor talks about collaborating with the governments across seven states on a public health strategy that will help in re-opening the economies (TIME, 2020).
In the spirit of observation that Governor Cuomo had made, “Look at how people have been selfless and put their own agenda aside for the common good” (TIME, 2020). I feel that many New Yorkers and citizens all over the country have contributed to this selflessness this with social isolation and social distancing. Although it may not help with anxiety, continuing this trend seems paramount for the time being, as it has helped halt the spread of the COVID-19 infection.
As social isolation continues to interrupt the landscape of choir singing, can live performance and rehearsals transform into something we could not have previously predicted or imagined? To answer this question, I look at what other musical organizations are doing to keep the spirit of singing alive among their communities. Opera Night Long Island (ONLI), a not-for-profit in Northport, NY, is now holding virtual concerts on the first of every month. The Artistic Director of the series, Danielle Davis, reassures that these events will get publicized on the ONLI Facebook page via a video teaser. Viewers can follow a link beneath the teasers to the official ONLI webpage and view the virtual concerts, which will now also include video interviews with the singers. All of this is accessible from the comfort of one’s own living space (D. Davis, personal communications, April 14th, 2020). Larger organizations like the National Chorale, according to its Executive Director, Amy Siegler, are postponing their major concerts until further notice about performance spaces re-opening. As for National Chorale’s educational courses, they will continue their partnership with the Professional Performing Arts High School in remote classrooms, and they are currently in the process of planning their 2020-2021 Lincoln Center Season (A. Siegler, personal communication, March 26th, 2020).
For now, if your choir seeks alternative ways to rehearse, I can only encourage you to get creative and look for alternative ways to support real-time practice virtually. I can also offer you two pieces of advice. Firstly, whether you chose to rehearse over computer communications or telecommunications, make sure all players connect on one single channel. Secondly, to have a successful virtual rehearsal, all singers need impeccable internet connection or signal, which we all know is not always possible. One choir in particular which seems to be gaining popularity on YouTube with their “Self-Isolation/Virtual Choir Covers” is Camden Voices (n.d.).
If the advice I provide you above does not work or you are skeptical of it, please remember you have a voice! Use it to bring peace to someone who is severely ill yet able to connect with you through virtual communication. If you require more information as to how to better deal with this tough situation or to get some artistic inspiration, Patrick Owens shares a few articles with his readers, and now I am also passing them onto you. To all my readers, and all musicians, please stay safe.
 To understand how a public health strategy would help state governments re-open their economies, please watch the COVID-19 briefing with Andrew Cuomo from 18:40 – 20:09 in the twitter moment, https://twitter.com/TIME/status/1250085119173332999
Recommended reading from Patrick Owens
That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief – A really nice article from (of all places) the Harvard Business Review
“I didn’t know how much I would miss art and culture until it was gone.” Holly Mulcahey is a musician who writes on the Neoclassical blog https://insidethearts.com/neoclassical/2020/03/missing-art-and-culture/?fbclid=IwAR0o6p29sreZ7wA4ROMfmboUpsY3gGENKrtffDVYn-lENQiMSom56tozv5s
How We Should Reimagine Art’s Mission in the Time of ‘Social Distancing’ – Ben Davis at Artnet is providing some wonderful insights on the current state and future possibilities of the arts
Bardo Thödol. N.d. Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tibetan-Buddhism
TIME. (2020, April 14). New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers briefing on COVID-19 [Twitter moment]. https://twitter.com/TIME/status/1250085119173332999
Camden Voices (n.d.). Home [YouTube Channel]. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1EEtXsLimU5kjJPSeIWW3A