Choir by wire: local singing ensembles evolve to share in song in spite of pandemic

Singing groups find community, support through virtual rehearsals and online forum

By Emily Fagan
May 7, 2021

Choir by wire: local singing ensembles evolve to share in song in spite of pandemic

Singing groups find community, support through virtual rehearsals and online forum

By Emily Fagan
May 7, 2021
Photo: Marc Jenkins / Submitted
Photo: Marc Jenkins / Submitted

Choir by wire: local singing ensembles evolve to share in song in spite of pandemic

Singing groups find community, support through virtual rehearsals and online forum

By Emily Fagan
May 7, 2021
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Choir by wire: local singing ensembles evolve to share in song in spite of pandemic
Photo: Marc Jenkins / Submitted

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The last time Marc Jenkins experienced the intoxicating power of 200 voices singing together was at the end of February 2020, on the stage of Alix Goolden Performance Hall. As director of the Choirs, three non-audition local singing groups, Jenkins’s favourite songs for his ensembles to sing have always been those that speak to a triumph of the human spirit—breakup anthems like “Greenlight” by Lorde, or melancholic ballads such as “Hard Times” by Gillian Welch. 

“The chorus is, ‘hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more,’” Jenkins said of Welch’s song, which the Choirs sang several times between their early days and the elimination of their in-person rehearsals last March. “You know, it seems like no matter what the situation is, it's always applicable.”

Over the past year, as the Choirs’ weekly meetings have shifted from a collective, amplified experience to one members now experience at home in front of their computers, Jenkins says many have attached new meaning to the lyrics of these numbers. Now, these songs speak to the strength and perseverance they’ve all needed throughout the pandemic. 

A masked, distanced rehearsal. Photo: Robyn Pouliot / Submitted

With the many challenges presented throughout the past year—especially physical and social isolation—the singing ensembles themselves have taken on a new role in the lives of their members. In spite of the challenges that came with shifting their rehearsals online, members of the two main groups, the Choir and the Chorus, say this community has been critical in helping them get through the pandemic.

“I look forward to it and it gives me a purpose,” said Debra Young, a tenor in the Chorus and a retired neuro physiotherapist. “It keeps people connected when they feel disconnected in the world right now.”

Jenkins has done his best to maintain the social aspect of the Choirs, building time to chat and catch up into the virtual rehearsals. This has been embraced by many members of the groups, including Paul Huxtable, a member of the Choir. After their practice, Huxtable is among the members of the Choir who stay on the call to catch up, sometimes until midnight.

When he was unable to work as a barber in the first few months of the pandemic, his partner and the Choir became his social lifeline.

“This time last year specifically, [the Choir] was the primary thing that was keeping my marbles in order, 100%,” Huxtable said. 

Many aspects of the pre-pandemic weekly rehearsals—which saw more than 100 people packed tightly together, hugging, sharing snacks, and spewing aerosols with each song—are impossible given current public health orders.

Performing with the Choirs back in the day was “emotionally intoxicating,” Huxtable said. As a longtime tenor in the Choir, he remembers that in his early years of singing with the group, the overwhelming energy of their performances would often move him to tears.

When COVID came, Huxtable says, the nature of choir practices started to feel different.

“It's very much like a long-distance relationship, but it's still a strong, solid relationship,” he said, although he acknowledges his experience isn’t universal.

Jenkins has worked hard to recreate opportunities for socializing and singing together. The latter proved difficult over platforms like Facebook Live and Zoom, he said, as they weren’t advanced enough for the audio of everyone singing to line up perfectly, so people sang without hearing their fellow ensemble members.

“It was basically me in this room, talking to my computer and hoping that it reached people,” Jenkins said.

For a few weeks in the fall of 2020, when restrictions loosened, Jenkins brought back a smaller version of in-person rehearsals with pods of 12 meeting physically and the rest of the group joining in virtually. With physical distancing and the use of singing masks created for Broadway performers, they were temporarily able to recreate a fraction of their original rehearsals. But when infection rates started to climb, Jenkins had to bring back fully virtual sessions.

However, through the video conferencing service Flock, the Choirs have finally found a way to sing together again during this time apart. About half of those at rehearsals are now able to sing live, with everyone else singing along to their voices. 

“It’s a remarkable bit of technology,” Jenkins said. “So, it's the closest it's felt to the real thing since the [pandemic] started.”

Taking practices online has also allowed the groups to reunite with old members who have since moved to the Lower Mainland and Alberta.

Without the ability to hold large-scale performances, Jenkins partnered with musicians to create music videos showcasing the Choirs’ talents. This was no small feat—for their video of “Bet On Love” by Pharis and Jason Romero, 75 members of the Choirs filmed themselves singing from four different angles. The video for their cover of “Treat People with Kindness” by Harry Styles features about 300 photos sent in by members of the Choirs.

When performances were in person, Jenkins would ensure each show gave back to the community in some way. Previously, their events have benefitted organizations including the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, Our Place, and the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.

A pre-pandemic concert. Photo: Peter Gardner / Submitted

Many members of the Choirs long for the day when they can resume normal performances, but Huxtable says even the weekly practices give him a thrilling rush.

“I would love to be able to perform in front of another 600 people again, but I don't even need to,” he said. “The practice is just as great most of the time for me.”

The community of the Choirs goes beyond the music. Through their website, they’ve arranged walking groups, group trips to give blood, and a bowling night that has been indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic. 

Young feels the Choirs have played a powerful role in helping herself and her fellow singers throughout the darkest moments of the past year. Retired and without any of her usual hobbies available, practicing with the Chorus is an essential part of her week.

“We're singing beautiful songs and singing just lifts the heart,” she said. “I do believe that it's really helped people, because with music and singing you can get a lot of satisfaction and joy.”

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