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Senior choirs find creative ways to keep singing while apart

Choirs aren't allowed in hospitals or nursing homes to sing for Easter because of COVID-19. Creative choristers are making sure the song carries on.

Choirs can't perform in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes because of COVID-19

They can't meet in person, but that's not stopping the Shout Sister Choirs from rehearsing. The group has been meeting over Zoom to keep practice going throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They typically perform in hospital wards and seniors homes. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

When people are dying, Elaine Andrews sings. She and her choir sit bedside as patients are about to pass, softly singing to them in three-part harmonies.

But COVID-19 has kept the choir out of hospices, hospitals and seniors' homes.

"We are at a standstill right now," said Andrews, who directs the Threshold Choir in London, Ont. "We're kind of going, 'Wait a minute, we can add comfort. We can bring something to this. Call us.'"

The pandemic has forced choirs to find new ways to reach seniors, both for residents at these facilities and for the choir members themselves. The majority of Andrews's members are over 60, an age group more vulnerable to the virus.

She's kept her choir rehearsing from afar, via Zoom, a video service that allows members to run through songs and practise harmonies. The online lag prevents them from singing entirely in sync, so one chorister leads, while the rest are on mute.

Members of the Threshold Choir in London, Ont., hold a rehearsal over Zoom. They typically perform at the bedside of those dying but aren't allowed into hospices, hospitals or nursing homes because of COVID-19. 'It’s just a pause. I know we’ll come back to it,' says choir director Elaine Andrews. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Andrews is trying to figure out a way to still reach patients. The online lag doesn't allow for harmonies. She's thought about singing in gardens outside the hospice, but choir members would then have to worry about standing far enough away from one another to stay safe.

"It's so hard on the choir because they see the value in this and they know how important it is," she said. "You see the benefits of this and now they're [dying] alone."

Videos allow choirs to connect

Some choirs have decided to take a pause during the pandemic. Others are getting creative.

The residents' choir at Pioneer Manor, a long-term care home in Sudbury, Ont., are working on singing Put a Little Love in Your Heart. Staff are filming members from the choir individually singing different parts of the song.

The final edit will bring the choir together — while still practicing physical distancing.

The Elderberries Choir stopped in-person rehearsals in mid-March. Director Louise Jardine said that's been hard on the choir. 'You just can't recreate that special bond when people come together, the energy that's created when we're all singing together.' (Submitted by Paul Sprunt)

Louise Jardine has also been using video as she breaks down specific parts of songs for her choir, the Elderberries. She sits at her piano and records herself.

The choir, made up of seniors from around Gravenhurst, Ont., decided to stop meeting in-person in mid-March and shifted to video. She's calling her videos "bits and bites."

The pandemic has given her choristers ample time to practise. She hopes they are eagerly learning their notes — and that it gives them something to look forward to.

Jardine has been creating instructional videos to keep her choristers singing from afar. Most members are seniors; the oldest member is 85. 'We have to be really careful,' she said. (Submitted by Louise Jardine)

"They don't know it, but when I send the video out … I can see how many views I have," she said. "So far, they're all doing their homework."

'It gives you such a lift'

It's not an ideal setup. But choirs are making it work.

Georgette Fry started Shout Sister Choirs, which has more than 20 chapters around Ontario. They too have shifted to Zoom. At first, Fry was skeptical.

"I thought, 'We're not really singing together.' But then I started singing, I thought, 'Oh yeah, this feels right.'"

Choir sings John Lennon's Imagine together, from afar

CBC News

11 months ago
3:00
Shout Sister Choirs can't meet in person, so they rehearse online. 3:00

They would typically be performing in hospital wards and at seniors homes. But it's online for now while they work on a plan to get into these venues virtually.

The choristers log in online and socialize before launching into song. Some come with a glass of wine in hand. They follow one member's backing track and mute everyone else so it's not a cacophony.

Choirs aren't allowed in churches or nursing homes to sing for Easter. But the song carries on. Haydn Watters heard the creative ways choristers are joining hearts and harmonies even while apart. 5:05

They can't hear each other, but they see everyone singing and grooving. Member Kath Nichol loves seeing all the smiles and waving back.

"It gives you such a lift and such a good feeling," she said. "Just for one short little period of time, we forget some of the awful stuff that's going on around us and just be happy for a little while."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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