Choir Interrupted: An Op-Ed

Image created by Patricia Trutescu 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.

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“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[1] (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.

 

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[1] 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

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR0TvULRJ27bPuuLhifRhmnUcmG1b15eoaIYiEVeb2jlxj_q_CiBmVhUm10

“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

https://news.artnet.com/opinion/social-distancing-art-1810029

 

Works Cited

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

 

“All on a Silent Night”: A song of peace and comfort in difficult times

Last year, on Christmas Eve, I sang a version of “Silent Night” called “All on a Silent Night” as a soloist, for the congregation at Bethany Presbyterian in Huntington, New York. My decision to perform involved the Music Director of the church partially talked me into it and validation from members of the congregation when they heard me sight sing this piece on the first try.

Since last Fall, I had been attending the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Huntington. Members of this community have been supportive, kind and, as of very recently, encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone as a newcomer. One Sunday after service, I was chatting with the Music Director and had told her about some of my performance experience, including my time with the Syracuse University Women’s Choir, the Huntington Women’s Choir, and my ability to play piano. She pulled me to the grand piano at the front of the room, to show me a version of “Silent Night” written by Becki Slagle Mayo; this rendition of the song was for a two-part Chorus and Piano with an optional cello. This version was titled “All on a Silent Night.”

The Music Director played a bit of the song and had asked me to follow the vocal melody in the top line with the accompanying music. After receiving validation from the director, and a few members of the congregation, I had decided then and there that it was only natural that I would perform this song. That’s when I decided to flex my musical muscles again, which involved practicing the piece with the music director and, most of the time, on my own.

“All on a Silent Night” was written in an ABA form; the ‘B’ section includes the melodic composition that resembles the original by Franz Gruber[i], while both ‘A’ sections include additional text and an original melody by Mayo[ii]. The parts which Mayo wrote for a soprano, includes a range from a D4 to an E-flat 5 on the piano, a range that just stretches over an octave – call it an octave and a half. The sections composed by Mayo presented a happy challenge, as D4 is a low note for my voice, while E-flat 5 borders the limits of my upper register. I especially liked how that E-flat 5 note was assigned a mezzo forte – more like a surprise forte – in the middle of the fourth bar into the music followed by a crescendo one measure long. There was a decrescendo in the last two measures of the seventh bar, thus concluding the first ‘A’ section.

One might think that Section ‘B’ of this song, which resembles the version of “Silent Night” we all might know, is simple, but I soon realized that the complications hide in the details of how to properly pronounce the words. The authentic version of Gruber’s song was written in German in 1818, and then translated into English in the middle of the 19th Century[iii]. Based on my experience, English is one of the toughest languages for singing an art song composed during these time periods, because the best way to clearly pronounce a sung word in English is to put on emphasis on the consonant of the first letter and the consonant of the last letter, like the word ‘night.’ However, in this word, a singer must make an effort to pronounce the middle letters in a way that makes them softer. More specifically, the singer should sound out a word that has a similar spelling to ‘naught’ not ‘night.’ When signing a word that starts with the letter ‘i’, especially like ‘infant’ that ‘i’ must receive a more acute pronunciation like how one would hear ‘ee’ like in the word “Halloween” or “seen.” Otherwise, if that ‘i’ in ‘is’ or ‘infant’ receives the same pronunciation in a sung verse as it does when spoken, that ‘I’ will sound like an ‘ugh’ to the listener.

The proper pronunciation of the lyrics within “Silent Night” is necessary to help tell the story about the time of Jesus Christ’s birth. However, the origin of this song, according to the Silent Night Association, gives the tune an additional meaning:

In the time “Silent Night” was written, the Napoleonic wars had come to an end, and new borders in Europe had been set with the Vienna Congress. The ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg lost its status as an independent country and was forced to secularize. In 1816, its lands were divided into two, with part assigned to Bavaria and the larger portion relegated to Austria. The Salzach River also became the new border between the town center of Laufen and its suburb Oberndorf by Salzburg. For centuries, the Salzach River had provided transportation for the salt trade, which provided a basis for the local economy. During the Napoleonic wars, the salt trade declined and never fully recovered, causing a depression in the local economy with the transportation companies, boat builders and laborers facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Further, Oberndorf by Salzburg was the site where “Silent Night” was first performed.[iv]

Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest of the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, wrote the text for “Silent Night.” His previous place of service, Mariapfarr, suffered greatly during the withdrawal of troops from the Bavarian occupation in 1816 and 1817. With this in mind, the creation of the 4th verse takes on a special meaning – expressing a great longing for peace and comfort.[v] Below is an English translation of some of the 4th verse, created by “Silent Night” historian William C. Egan[vi]:

Silent night! Holy night!

Here at last, healing light

From the heavenly kingdom sent,

Abundant grace for our intent.

“All on a Silent Night” by Mayo does not include this 4th verse. However, I strongly believe that the context behind songs stay consistent throughout any revision. For this reason, I felt encouraged to practice the delivery of this variant of “Silent Night” to the best of my ability. Thanks to the technician who came to my house to tune the upright piano in my house the previous week, to the holiday break I received from work, to all the practice with the Music Director of Bethany Presbyterian, I feel like I had the time to deliver a decent performance.

While I sang in front of the congregation on Christmas Eve, I felt my legs shaking from a combination of nerves and the cold air within the church (caused by a heating system which needed to be started earlier in the evening). From my waist up though, I looked calm and I felt composed. I feel grateful that I sang for Bethany Presbyterian, and I hope I get to sing again. The feeling is very humbling.

If you, the reader, ever get the chance to perform any version of “Silent Night”, please remember the historical context of the song and appreciate the meaning behind the verses, especially if you should receive a copy of the version that includes the 4th verse in the lyrics. Perhaps you might know of someone who needs comforting in a time of great uncertainty, whether it is being caused by problem that effects a nation or isolated strictly to an individual. No matter what challenges you may be facing, or those you know are facing, the next time you hear “Silent Night,” I hope you feel some peace and comfort.

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[i] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/text_and_music.asp on December 26th, 2016

[ii] JW Pepper. “All on a Silent Night.” Retrieved from http://www.jwpepper.com/10307377.item#.WGF63fkrLIV on December 26th, 2016

[iii] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/spreading_song.asp on December 26th, 2016

[iv] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp on January 16th, 2017

[v] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp on January 16th, 2017

[vi] Hymns and Carols of Christmas. Retrieved form https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/silent_night_holy_night-1.htm on January 16th, 2017