Canadian choirs try to recreate 'divine' music moments under lockdown

After ensemble singing was deemed a potential superspreader activity, choirs looked for other ways to continue to make music together. Erick Lichte of Vancouver’s Chor Leoni and Elaine Quilichini of the Calgary Girls Choir share what they did.

Choirs find ways to make music together after ensemble singing was deemed a potential superspreader activity.

Calgary Girls Choir and Chor Leoni from Vancouver. (Submitted by Calgary Girls Choir/Chor Leoni)

Choirs across Canada, and much of the world, have been struggling to replace that joyful sensation of singing together, after the act of ensemble singing was deemed a potential superspreader of the coronavirus. 

Vancouver's Chor Leoni

Erick Lichte longs for "the ineffable feeling" of voices together in a real room.

"That's the intangible part that no Zooming or Skyping or whatever digital trickery we have these days can replicate," Lichte said.

As the artistic director of Chor Leoni Men's Choir in Vancouver, he had to adapt to new ways of working together.

I think if more men sang and more people sang in general, we'd certainly have a better world.- Eric Lichte

Until late November, he'd planned a Christmas concert designed to meet all of British Columbia's public health requirements. They wouldn't even have had singers on site.

Translucence: An Immersive Light and Sound Experience was meant to seat a small audience in chairs spread apart from one another. Audience members would wear masks. Surround-sound speakers would play a pre-recorded half-hour of the Chor Leoni's men singing, timed with a light show. 

The choir spent eight months preparing. When the province announced tightened restrictions on public gatherings, cancelling the event, Lichte was crestfallen.

Translucence was meant to represent light at a time when we need it most.

Chor Leoni sings Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre.

Moving Light

"These have been dark times. I've never known a year like this in my life," Lichte said.

"I wanted to create a space where we can realize that, yes, there is some good in this world, in this universe. There is a goodness that is outside all of us. And that there is a goodness and a light that is inside each of us."  

Erich Lichte is the artistic director of Chor Leoni Men’s Choir in Vancouver. (Submitted by Chor Leoni)

Lichte further explained "that light comes from outside of us, comes into us, is changed, and then is shared with others. That's what "translucence" really means in an optical sort of way. And I wanted to use that as kind of a metaphor for being."

Lichte believes that singing softens people.  He says choirs provide their members with a greater sense of empathy and deepened ability to listen— two things he believes men in particular need to cultivate.

"The emotional needs of men are many times replaced with toxic masculinity and we're told things in our culture of how we're supposed to act and how we're supposed to be and how tough we need to be. And choir really is an antidote, I think, to many of those things," Lichte said.  
"It's opening up these levels of empathy and communication that I think are so important if we are if we're really going to change the culture for men."

Chor Leoni is now offering a digital Christmas concert available online until Jan. 1, 2021.

Calgary Girls Choir (Submitted by Calgary Girls Choir )

Calgary Girls Choir

It's hard to sing while crying.

But when the Calgary Girls Choir reunited this summer after months without in-person rehearsals, 10-year-old Kate Fisher couldn't hold back her tears.

"I just started happy-crying," Fisher said about the moment they started singing. "My heart was overjoyed just to hear that sound again."

The sound didn't have the usual acoustics with their voices reverberating off the church walls. They sat outside in chairs arranged six feet or more apart in the church parking lot. Despite these circumstances, the sound of their voices joined together was one they'd craved for months. 

Fisher wasn't the only one moved to tears. 

"I didn't realize I'd be so affected," said Heather Blair, 14, of the loss she felt after lockdowns forced the cancellation of in-person rehearsals in March.

"There was this sense of beauty that was lost in my life,"Blair said. She couldn't identify what she'd lost until those first moments of song together. 

"Something inside of me just felt so peaceful," said the teen recalling their opening notes. "I was like: 'ohh, that's what I was missing! Choir!'"

Members of the Calgary Girls Choir recorded Bashana Haba'ah in 2020. The lyrics, by Nurit Hirsch, long for a "return to the simple pleasures of life, so long denied us."

"It's the most ironic thing," said Elaine Quilichini, founder and director of the Calgary Girls Choir, "To think that all of a sudden, the profession that I thought was so nurturing, and doing nothing really but good in the world, is all of a sudden considered a danger. Imagine, teaching singing, to children, becoming a danger? It blows my mind."

Director of the Calgary Girls Choir Elaine Quilichini hopes that next year they’ll perform again in person in front of a live audience. (Submitted by Calgary Girls Choir)

Like many choir directors, Quilichini attempted to recreate rehearsals online. She, and her many dozens of young singers, began the learning curve of learning music over Zoom. 

But corralling kids as young as four, over video, is hard enough. Musically, it had other challenges: audio feedback, sound delays and distortions. They couldn't all sing at once. They would have to mute their microphones and only listen to Quilichini.

"Our saying is, 'Giving young women a voice'," said Quilichini. "And all of a sudden I was telling them they had to mute. And sing at home. Alone."

In defiance, she created, "We Sing On"— a digital series of song recordings the girls made individually, in their bedrooms and basements, and submitted online to share with each other, proving the girls will not be silenced.  

She received hundreds of submissions, including from young women who'd sung with the choir as kids. "Keep sharing music. Music is really healing, and we all need that right now," said one alumna in her video posted to Facebook.

Looking ahead

Lichte, Quilichini and singers across the country hope that next year they'll perform again, in person in front of a live audience. "Those deep moments of silence," Lichte says of an audience and choir pausing together after a final note of a song that's moved them. 

"You realize that you're not just creating something beautiful, but you're tapping into parts of who the audience is as individuals. And that's extraordinary. That's, to me, what real communion is."

Written and produced by Kate Adach.


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