Vermont chorus groups are finding new ways to make music, learning through necessity how to use digital tools to keep their groups together and safe during a pandemic that spreads readily through singing.
Group indoor singing has been linked to severe COVID-19 outbreaks, and the pandemic has forced chorus groups to heavily adapt. After a few months of tinkering, Vermont chorus leaders Maria Rinaldi, Mark Howe and Dawn Willis have found creative digital methods to keep the music going during a time where human connection can be scarce — one group is even planning on releasing a new song collection in December.
Maria Rinaldi directs the Vermont Freedom and Unity Chorus in Colchester and Jericho, a new chorus group whose mission seeks to promote social, racial and environmental justice through song.
After a severe spinal cord injury at 12 years old, Rinaldi was left paralyzed from the chest down, but was still able to sing.
“Music has always been very important to me in singing, and I studied and took lessons and participated in choirs all my life,” Rinaldi said. “I now have the opportunity to direct choruses to give other people that opportunity for me and it’s important for people to have an outlet to be able to express.”
When COVID-19 forced Rinaldi to stop directing the chorus in person, she began leading rehearsals over Zoom. As many people have experienced during this pandemic, the meetings were chaotic at first. In time, Rinaldi adopted a new practice for leading rehearsals.
The choir now meets every Thursday, and Rinaldi sings while members sing on mute. While Rinaldi can’t hear them, she can see them singing and instruct them on how to practice at home.
Through these meetings members of the 60-voice choir can check in with one another and retain the sense of community sought in choirs, Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi plans on waiting until it is completely safe to lead a group in person. Outdoor singing is possible, but Rinaldi said people need to be 12 feet apart and masked to sing in person outside.
As temperatures cool, this type of meeting is unrealistic and challenging, Rinaldi said.
For Rinaldi, most important is the health of her singers, some of whom are elderly or immunocompromised. While this may mean waiting until the spring to meet in person, Rinaldi is hopeful everyone will return.
Mark Howe, director of music at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington, has taken a different approach. Instead of practicing over Zoom, Howe has members send him individually recorded tracks, which he mixes and combines to create virtual choir productions.
The result is a neat, synth-like sound that beautifully accents the different voices. After he is done editing the virtual production, the choir meets together over Zoom to listen.
“Zoom is not designed for anything that has sustained sound like music,” Howe said.
By meeting this way, the choir avoids potentially annoying lags that happen when individuals all sing together over Zoom.
Like Rinaldi, Howe does not plan on meeting for in-person rehearsals until experts deem the practice safe. Naturally, the digitalization of such a communal practice like singing leaves plenty to be desired, Howe said.
Younger children may not want to join again when it is safe, and their singing skills may degrade due to the lack of practice, Howe said.
“This is already a big thing proportionate to the length of their life,” Howe said.
Meanwhile, Bella Voce Women’s Chorus, which is based in Essex Junction but performs far and wide, has flourished during COVID-19, director Dawn Willis said.
Like other groups, Willis was forced to stop directing in-person rehearsals in March. As the artistic director and founder of the group 17 years ago, Dawn picks the repertoire and conducts rehearsals and performances.
The community of women is close-knit, and many members have deep friendships outside of the choir, Willis said. News that they could no longer meet came as a blow, just months before their annual May concerts.
Despite serious setbacks, the group has produced several choir projects over the past six months, the first of which is now available online.
The chorus plans to release a new song collection in December. Willis is unsure if they will be able to perform their annual holiday recital and is preparing for a virtual meeting.
She hopes they can perform socially-distanced outside carols as they do every year.
As other musical directors have, Dawn has relied heavily on technology to keep her choir running.
“I think since several of the local high school directors and middle school directors were talking about how much pressure they were getting from their administrators to create virtual choir videos for their singers and for many of them, it was very stressful they had no clue how to do it,” said Willis.
Willis’ coir includes some technologically savvy people, including herself.
The Bella Voce singers continue to meet over Zoom where they can catch up and check in on one another. This past weekend, the women met outside and socially distanced for a fundraiser.
Unlike most years where they host a massive tag sale to raise funds for the choir, they hosted a large outdoor book sale. For the first time since March, the singers met in person and bolstered comradery through group fundraising.
“Everybody says it’s not the same and of course it’s not the same,” Willis said. “But at least it’s keeping us on the path until we can be together and I think it will be much appreciated by our community.”