Virtual choir practice: 'Singing in dark times we can turn our voices to the light'

Anna Sublet

From my bed, propped up with cushions and with my fancy headphones on, I sip gin and watch the screen as I sing an arrangement of Ball Park Music’s Surrender.

“It’s OK, it’s alright, true terror in the middle of the night, give in if it makes you feel better. So surrender, so surrender.”

On the Facebook livestream members of our choir make comments and jokes, or poke the emoji button until we are swirling in a sea of hearts. In my little house, my family stack the dishwasher and play with the dog. But I’m “at choir”, singing while ginning, connecting to voices, virtually.

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Sophia Exiner has run Melbourne Indie Voices for the past three years with technical director and guitarist, Josh Teicher. Starting out in her front room with a small group of 30, there are now more than 250 of us, rehearsing over three nights in a Collingwood studio. “We’ve tried to build a community with the choir,” she says. “It’s a unique space for connection and also a chance to let go.”

But now the world is shutting down. Since last week Exiner and Teicher have had to work on technological connections, bringing our choir rehearsals live via Facebook to our devices. Two weeks ago a number of choristers showed up in person, but more than half of us followed direction in our own homes via the livestream.

“Last week I felt like everything was splintering, but we just felt so together at rehearsals,” Exiner says. “Getting online has highlighted what our core values are: inclusivity, community, love of music and shared experiences. We’ve realised that for a lot of that, it doesn’t require us to be in the same physical space.”

Of course it wasn’t the same as being in a sea of voices, feeling buoyed by the waves of sound around me. I missed the energy of that human frisson. Sometimes, in pre-corona rehearsals, we would turn to face each other and sing in a circle so we could hear our different parts, the blending together of melodies and harmonies. We can’t do that online, but we are still singing together. For many of us it feels like a lifeline.

Now Melbourne Indie Voices is running totally online. We all let a deep breath out to the image of a golden thread, “a beautiful sparkly network of connectivity”, as Exiner describes it.

To refine the online choir delivery, Exiner has added our choir soundtrack to the livestream. Last week when we sang our parts at home, we didn’t feel so alone. It worked so well that when the applause came at the end of the recording, many of us felt like we were there, in the room together.

Excited comments streamed on to the screen: “Yes!” “That sounded great!” “I feel like I’m surrounded by you beautiful choir people.” There were nearly 400 comments, likes, and even jokes, though the slight time lag can make comedy delivery difficult. (Knock, knock ... silence.)

In our little community of singers, we can step away from the viral vortex, follow a beat, breathe in and breathe out. The repetition of singing phrases and melodies can give us a sense of control in our swirling lives.

Other choirs are adapting to distancing too: Jane York’s Just Holler Choir has had live broadcast singalongs from a loungeroom. Astrid Jorgensen’s Pub Choir has stitched together a mass participatory video performance. Sydney’s Polyphony choir are hosting practices over Zoom. People are connecting while staying apart, using technology’s bridges.

Melbourne Indie Voices still plans to record an album this year, somehow. Even if we are singing in dark times, we can turn our voices to the light,by the glow of our screens, surrounded by a community of hearts.

If you know of a choir hosting practices, singalongs or other activities online, let us know in the comments.