St. Michael’s Boys Choir has been forced to the sidelines because of COVID-19, but stay in tune via online conferencing. Photos courtesy Maria Conkey

Choirs seek harmony in online world

By  Wendy-Ann Clarke, Catholic Register Special
  • April 12, 2020

Although choirs are prevented from gathering physically due to COVID-19, it has not stopped many from finding creative ways to come together in song at Easter.

Like musical ensembles that use computer programs and apps to hold online jam sessions, technology is helping the teachers at St. Michael’s Choir School adjust to the new normal.

Isolation has been difficult for the students in the all-boys’ school who are used to singing every Sunday at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica and holding daily choral rehearsals at school. At this time of year, preparations are usually in high gear for the busy Easter season and the Spring Concert.

But instead of gathering as a group for practice, rehearsals have gone online through video conferencing. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but the work carries on.

“I’ve experimented with a few online platforms and chatted with other colleagues to find the ones that work the best for us,” said junior choir conductor Maria Conkey, who has been holding online large-group and small- group sessions with her students. “The most important thing I’ve found from the children and parents is just providing that sense of connection and community.”

Like many groups and businesses, the school has been using platforms such as Zoom to not only connect but recreate a sense of routine. Conkey and her students are also utilizing online educational programs to post assignments, questions, responses and worksheets. Conkey says these programs are invaluable to the morale and the unity.

“The music we make really matters, especially in a time like this,” said Conkey, whose junior choir is made up of 50 boys aged 10-12. “I say to the boys quite often that I don’t think of us as just singers at the cathedral or just music makers. I think of us as vital in the same way as a paramedic, a doctor or as a nurse.

“By no means do I think we’re on the front lines, like our health care workers are now, but I think we have a real obligation and duty to heal people during this time.”

When it comes to online rehearsals, the platforms available come with challenges, including the major issue of only being able to hear one voice at a time, Internet latency and ensuring all students have online access at home.

The St. Basil’s Catholic Parish adult choir says that though they are practising physical distancing, their 30-member ensemble, which ranges from age 20 to 70, is doing its best to maintain their regular schedule. During their Thursday evening rehearsal time slot, they hold online calls in which members come together for prayer, encouragement and planning for a future calendar that is uncertain.

“We spent 25 to 30 minutes of our Thursday session singing vespers together, so our prayer time was longer than it would usually be for a choir rehearsal,” said the group’s director J.P. Farahat. “Through singing we do our best to press closer to each other. These are obviously unprecedented times and no one’s quite sure when we will be able to be together again in person.”

Although group recordings while in social isolation have proved challenging, the choirs continue to explore options where members might be able to record themselves individually and the voices put together digitally through various programs.

For Easter Sunday, St. Michael’s selected a repertoire from last year’s recorded Easter Mass for posting on the church website.Conkey hopes their choir will find a way to add their youthful voices to future live-streamed service offerings at St. Michael’s.

“I think we just all really feel that the music is vital and needs to continue,” said Conkey. “We are working as hard as we can to make sure that happens.” 

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