Nfld. & Labrador

Choirs bring people together in joy and in song. Here's how COVID-19 has devastated them

These are lonely times for anyone who loves to sing in a choir. Due to current pandemic restrictions, most are crooning in their own bubbles or staying in touch via Zoom.

'No safe way for singers to rehearse together until there's a COVID-19 vaccine'

The Shallaway Youth Choir perform at the Seghizzi Choral Competition Grand Prix in 2019. (Seghizzi Grand Prix/Facebook)

"As long as we live, there is never enough singing." — Martin Luther

These are lonely times for anyone who loves to sing in a choir. Due to pandemic restrictions, most are crooning in their own bubbles or connecting for rehearsals via Zoom. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador — where there has been a rich tradition of secular and religious choirs for generations — singing together has been part of daily life for thousands of people. 

Those performances and regular rehearsals halted when COVID-19 turned into a pandemic. 

Worse, they likely will not resume for months to come, as singers learn the very thing they love the most is a high-risk activity in a time of a highly infectious disease that has no treatment or cure. 

"There is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a COVID-19 vaccine," said Dr. Lucinda Halstead, president of the Performing Arts Medical Association and medical director of the department of otolaryngology at the University of South Carolina. 

Haldstead made the comment at a May 5 webinar attended by choral music directors and musicians from all over North America to discuss the future of when group singing can resume. 

It's a stark message.

I think that this void in everyone's lives is really impacting people physically, emotionally and mentally.- Valerie Long 

"[It's] overwhelming to hear the science," said Kellie Walsh, president of Choral Canada and the artistic director of Shallaway Youth Choir and Lady Cove Women's Choir, who attended the webinar.

"I mean it was incredible that they took the time to really explain to people why singing is a high-risk activity," she told Weekend AM host Heather Barrett. 

"But if you think about this, things of physical activity — when you project your voice you're projecting droplets further than you would if you're having a normal conversation."

Walsh said relying on science and the experts is key.

"But when you have the signs in front of you and all of these specialists [are] talking about the exact reasons why we just have to be very careful, and rely on the science and on experts to help us figure out what the next year to 18 months is going to look like."

Members of Lady Cove Women's Choir gather outside St Peter's Church in Riga, Latvia, before a performance in July 2014. (Lady Cove)

30,000 organized choirs in Canada

Walsh said all rehearsals for the Shallaway Youth Choir are online, and while it's not exactly like a live rehearsal, there's plenty of singing and fun. 

The children in the choir recently collaborated on a video in which they shared photos of rocks they had painted. "Thank you for keeping our culture ROCK solid," the choir said. 

Walsh said Shallaway has always been about more than performance. 

"We still sing and and we're doing all kinds of games and theory and activities — and you know even artwork, things like that — to come together as a community," she said. "The Zoom platform can hold up to 100 and sometimes up to 500 people. So there are ways to come together."

Walsh said with almost 30,000 choirs organized choirs in Canada, "this is becoming something that we're really, really having to think about."

The Atlantic Girls Choir prepare for a performance. Girls from the age of four to seven sing in the kinder choir, ages eight to 12 in the junior choir, and older girls sing in the senior ensemble. (Atlantic Girls Choir/Facebook)

'There's a very special bond'

Wendy Woodland, a voice coach based in Corner Brook and an artistic staff member with the Atlantic Boychoir and Atlantic Girls Choir, told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning she was "gobsmacked" with timelines of 18 months to two years being bandied about in the choral community. 

"And a little bit shocked as to where we are, and in some ways trying to figure out maybe if I have to reinvent myself in some way," she said. 

Listen: Heather Barrett explores how the pandemic is changing life for choirs:

"So much of my time and creative energies is involved with with singing, performing, coaching kids and adults, and standing in front of choirs. It's a little bit daunting, actually."

In her work with youth choirs on the west coast, Woodland said it's not just the music that's important for children. "It's the friendships … the way those kids interact with each other, support each other," Woodland said.

"There's a very special bond. With the girl choir, we're still meeting via Zoom just to stay connected and we know that that's important for the for the girls — but there is something really, really missing and is going to be missing in their lives for quite some time. That's important for their growth as people, let alone musicians." 

Members of the Atlantic Boychoir live in different parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and prior to the pandemic, gathered several times a year to rehearse and perform together. (Greg Locke)

'Camaraderie and the family'

Valerie Long, a choral director and music educator, directs and accompanies three choirs in St. John's, including the Holy Heart of Mary Alumnae Choir and Les Ms. Women's Choir. 

Long said she has a "major void" in her life because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. "My entire purpose these days and for the past number of years is working with other singers and choirs," she told Newfoundland Morning co-host Bernice Hillier. 

"It's not just the singing. It's the camaraderie and the family. I always refer to them as 'you're my family.' You know, I'm just missing the hugs, the stories, their faces. And it's kind of like going through a grieving process but not actually getting to see them to share in the grief. And I think that people are feeling literally and physically isolated when they're not getting together to sing."

The Holy Heart of Mary Alumnae Choir was formed in 1999 as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the school's opening. (Holy Heart of Mary Alumnae Choir/Facebook)

For Long, it's the regular rehearsals and gatherings she's missing.

"It's the weekly coming together and supporting each other and loving each other when people are going through difficult times," she said.

"And people are really, really missing that. People are missing their families and catching up on what's going on in each other's world … and getting that a few hours a week break from the monotony of the day-in and day-out lives that people have been living. And I think that this void in everyone's lives is really impacting people physically, emotionally and mentally."

Les Ms. Women's Choir, under the direction of Valerie Long, is based in St. John's. (Les Ms. Women's Choir)

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Lisa Gushue

CBC News

Lisa Gushue is a newsreader and digital editor with CBC News in St. John's.

With files from Weekend AM and Newfoundland Morning