Choir consequences: Why virtual concerts just don't cut it for choral ensembles

With public health restrictions preventing group gatherings, choral concerts and rehearsals are all but impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘The primary purpose of choir is to be together,’ artistic director says

Singers in Edmonton's Pro Coro Canada professional choir perform in 2017. (Marc Chalifoux/Mark J Chalifoux Photography)

For decades, the Pro Coro Canada professional choir has performed at Edmonton's Winspear Centre on Good Friday.

Like scores of other events, that concert was cancelled this year.

With public health restrictions preventing group gatherings, choral concerts and rehearsals are all but impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're suspended for the foreseeable future," Pro Coro's director and principal conductor Michael Zaugg told CBC's Radio Active.

In the meantime, the choir has been showcasing archived performances on its Facebook page.

Other choirs in Alberta — including the Edmonton Youth Choir, Kokopelli Choirs, Spiritus Chamber Choir and Chronos Vocal Ensemble — have also cancelled concerts and suspended in-person rehearsals.

The young members of Calgary's Cantare Children's Choir spent 2½ months preparing repertoire for a March 14 concert that was eventually postponed. Two of the group's upcoming concerts could have the same fate.

Among the choir's singers, many of whom have sung together for years, there is "a tremendous sense of loss," said Catherine Glaser-Climie, the choir's founder and artistic director.

Why virtual choirs don't work

Individual musicians can still practise on their own and live-stream concerts, but conductors say large choral ensembles are more limited in what they can do during the pandemic.

That's because singing in groups on video platforms like Zoom, Skype or FaceTime does not really work, Zaugg said.

Because of a digital lag, musicians can't hear each other and sing in sync.

"The primary purpose of choir is to be together and to make music together," Glaser-Climie said. 

Though singing together isn't possible, Cantare youth singers, between the ages of six and 18, have been using video tools to socialize and watch vocal lessons.

Glaser-Climie said the technological constraints have underscored the value of singing together in person.

"I don't think any of us will ever take the richness of that experience for granted again," she said. 

Musicians miss seeing each other

Glaser-Climie, who also serves as minister of music at Church of the Cross in Calgary, tried to record herself singing hymns before Easter.

She had to keep restarting the recording because she was crying, she recalled.

The emotions of her young singers have been on display as well. When they got together for the first time on Zoom, she could see tears streaming down some of their faces.

"This whole journey that the world is going through is teaching us about the importance of human contact," Glaser-Climie said.

"For musicians, that's even more heightened."

Audiences also missing out

John Hooper, a choral conductor and professor emeritus at Concordia University of Edmonton, said virtual concerts have their place, but nothing can replace the "human to human connection" present during a live choral performance.

"It's fine to watch the conductor on the computer and try to sing along," Hooper said, "but it's completely different when you have everybody together, with that intense feeling with each other."

With files from Rod Kurtz