Yes, it is possible to have enjoyable, entertaining, educational choir rehearsals online that will leave choir members feeling musically enriched and socially connected.
The first part of this article gives some background and ideas for the general approach.
The second part gives specific suggestions that can be used to provide interest and variety in the rehearsals.
The Jewish Community Choir in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, has been meeting online, under my direction, since shortly after the start of the pandemic. After ironing out some initial wrinkles, we have settled into a very enjoyable weekly 90-minute routine. We are now planning a virtual Chanuka get-together with our sister Jewish Community Choir in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. After we sang with the Calgary choir on our first choir road trip in December 2019, we talked about some future date when we could get together again … but who knew that it would only be a year away, and by Zoom instead of by airplane!
It is crucial to approach virtual interactions as a new and different environment – not just for choirs, but for family, social, educational, and professional purposes as well. If you try to compare virtual platforms to in-person meetings, you will be disappointed. If, instead of focussing on “what is missing”, you turn your attention to “what is present”, and “what can be created”, you will discover a wealth of exciting and engaging possibilities.
In other words, we are not trying to replicate the in-person experience – which is impossible – but to craft a completely new way of sharing time and space.
There are many ways in which virtual interactions can be _better_ than in-person … but that is the subject for another more philosophical post. The goal of this post is to present some practical, actionable suggestions that you can implement immediately.
The overall goal of our choir has always been “to have fun singing Jewish music together”. So our rehearsals have always had a social element, as we chat at the beginning and end of each rehearsal, to connect with each other. This has become even more important during the physical separation mandated by the pandemic. We spend some time at the beginning of each rehearsal doing a social check in, when each choir member has a chance to share the news of their week. We currently have seven regular attendees, so this doesn’t take long; if we had a larger choir, we might add some extra time at the beginning or the end of the rehearsal, or use breakout rooms to divide into smaller groups, to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.
There was initial resistance to transitioning to Zoom rehearsals, for a variety of reasons.
People said, “Let’s just cancel, and wait until this pandemic is over.”
But even in March 2020, I had the feeling that this was not going to be a short retreat.
And stopping choir rehearsals risked losing our momentum, and many years of camaraderie. This warm and welcoming choir, which I had founded on Thursday 19 February 2004, could fade out and quietly disappear.
Also, after only 3 weeks off, I could feel and hear that my vocal capabilities were reducing. And although I had not tested it, it seemed likely that my harmony sensibilities were diminishing as well.
So I was highly motivated to make this work, and as quickly as possible.
… AND STRATEGIES THAT LED TO ACCEPTANCE AND SUCCESS
TRADITION AND INNOVATION
I reframed this as an opportunity for exploration and growth, grounded in our long-standing traditions. The reality is, we are living in a difficult time, where our comfortable past behaviours are no longer available in the same form. But we can retain some traditions, even as we experiment with innovation. The overall choir structure is the same – we follow the same schedule, and sing the same repertoire – we are just finding a new way to be together, apart.
Our first meetings were 80% socializing and 20% singing, to get comfortable with our new milieu.
As the comfort level grew, the percentages shifted, until now we do 10% socializing and 90% singing.
I reassured my choir members that our primary goal continues to be “having fun singing Jewish music together”, and we will find ways to make that happen!
SMALL STEPS, WITH FREQUENT FEEDBACK, CHOIR PARTICIPATION IN DECISION-MAKING, AND ONGOING COURSE ADJUSTMENTS
Each time I introduced one of the many new ways of singing together, as described below, I asked for choir feedback: “How did that feel? What was that like for you? What could we do to make it feel better, and run more smoothly?”
For example, an initial reaction to singing along with videos was, “I can do that alone at home, why waste choir time for that?” – to which my answer was/is: (a) these are curated videos, chosen to accomplish specific choir goals; and (b) even if we can’t hear each other, we can see each other as we sing together, and enjoy the shared experience that way. The choir members then participated in researching appropriate audio & video recordings, which are now well accepted as an enjoyable part of our repertoire.
It is crucial that feedback is proactively sought out, on a regular and routine basis, _before_ choir members complain. Otherwise, a much deeper level of irritation may build up, before someone articulates a tip-of-the-iceberg issue. I spent many hours, in the beginning, with individual choir members, listening to their concerns and brainstorming how we could address them right from the start. Proactive prevention can be much more effective than reactive treatment.
Here are some of the specific goals of our rehearsals, and the types of songs that we include to accomplish those goals:
Fun – Easy familiar songs; funny songs
Expanding repertoire – New songs
Practising harmony singing – Harmony songs
Developing skills – More difficult songs, with soloists
Spiritual connection – Meaningful songs like Mi Shebeirach
Every month or two, I prepare a song list which our techie choir member inputs into Mobile Sheets, for all the choir members to share. For one choir member who has limited use of technology, someone prints out a package on paper and delivers it to her house.
If someone wants to sing a song that is not in the official list, we can screenshare the lyrics / sheet music or a video of the song.
A single long training session can be difficult for non-technical people to follow and absorb. So we started with brief coaching on “how to do” specific essential steps – mute and unmute, turn video on & off, turn on original sound – and added brief additional coaching episodes, as needed.
As the Zoom platform upgrades, the options may change, so ongoing updated training may be required.
After one very frustrating experience with a “Pass the Baton” song (see below), with much fussing and delays between participants, we spent 20 minutes practising mute/unmute techniques: listen closely, be ready a line or two before it is your turn, be ready to unmute promptly without interrupting the flow of the song, and mute immediately when your turn is done. After that, we began to operate like a well-oiled machine.
For turn-taking, we follow a set sequence which is the same every time.
At the beginning we had various ways to cue the next singer: a list in the chat box; a list on a piece of paper held up on the screen; flashcards held up, one by one, naming the next singer; each singer calls the name of the next one in the sequence. Once we learned how to screenshare, that became another option.
Now we have the list memorized so we don’t need reminders.
One choir member never wants to do solos. So regardless of the song-style, she stays muted throughout, and sings along with everyone else.
At the beginning we had some problems with people not taking the rehearsals seriously – arriving late, eating supper during the rehearsal, going off to answer the phone or tend to their pets. My request that people pay close attention and be ready to unmute immediately for their turn was part of a bigger message of shifting from the initial social interactions into rehearsal mode.
THE DREADED LAG:
Because there are delays in transmitting the signal, if people try to sing together their voices will arrive at different times, creating an asynchronous cacophony.
Initially we tried to see if we could outsmart the dreaded lag. With just two people singing a very simple song, the asynchrony was disconcerting but manageable. With three or more singers, it became quite uncomfortable.
We tried having some members phone in for their audio, but the lag still occurred.
There are rumours of technology in the pipeline that will reduce or (gasp) even eliminate the lag, but nothing usable as yet.
Eventually we accepted the lag as a given, and found ways to work with it or around it – as described below.
VARIOUS STYLES OF SINGING DURING VIRTUAL REHEARSALS
For all songs, regardless of who is leading & what song-style we will be using, I set the key with a few guitar chords and a few notes of the melody.
PASS THE BATON – UNISON VERSON – INCLUDING LIP SYNC
We begin our rehearsals with Hinei Ma Tov AAA AAA DC BABC BAA
Everyone is UNmuted but only one person sings at a time.
I start out with the first line with my guitar to set the key, and then we follow the set sequence with each choir member singing one line at a time, until we have sung the song twice through. Some choir members sit quietly and listen when it is not their turn; I like to lip-sync along all the way through.
PASS THE BATON – HARMONY VERSION
Then we sing Hinei Ma Tov ADDD EDC CBA CBAB lowG AA
Everyone is MUTED except for the one person who is singing.
Following the same set sequence, choir members take turn turns leading the song, one line each.
Non-leading choir members are on mute, so they can sing their own part along with the line that the leader is singing.
Sometimes the leader sings the melody line and the muted participants sing harmony; sometimes vice versa.
FOLLOW THE LEADER – GROUP SINGING; SOLOIST DEVELOPMENT; LEADERSHIP SKILLS
Next we do easy familiar songs, to get everyone engaged & warm up our voices.
The leader is UNmuted; everyone else is MUTED, singing along to their hearts content.
Choir members take turns being the leader; this a chance to practise leadership skills and solo singing.
Sometimes one person leads the whole song; sometimes we pass the baton, as singers take turns leading the verses and choruses.
In preparation for our upcoming Chanuka event, choir members have taken ownership of specific Chanuka songs which they will lead at each rehearsal until the concert.
The muted participants sing along enthusiastically, and groove to the music – see next entry.
GROOVE TO THE MUSIC
The leader is UNmuted, everyone else is MUTED.
We all show our enthusiasm and enjoyment by moving to the music – swaying, hand-clapping, finger-snapping, toe-tapping, drum-beating, tambourine-shaking, castanet-clacking, dancing – sitting or standing, as able.
Sometimes I role-model this; sometimes I provide verbal cues – “Give me some attitude! Let’s see some ruach!”
Even if we can’t hear each other, the shared visuals provide engagement and connection.
CALL AND RESPONSE – LEARNING A NEW SONG
The teacher is UNmuted, and everyone else is MUTED.
First I sing the song through, from beginning to end, so the listeners can get an overall impression.
Then I sing it snippet by snippet, pointing first at myself as I sing & they listen, then at them as they repeat.
Sometimes I sing along with them as they repeat, sometimes not.
The details of this depend on the complexity of the song. I can tell whether they are catching on or not from their lip movements, facial expressions, and body language. This determines the length of the snippets for each call and response, the number of repeats, and how I connect the snippets into longer phrases. For a long song, I may do one chorus and verse one week & leave the rest for another time.
Eventually when we are done learning, we sing everything that we have learned so far from beginning to end, while I continue to watch their lip movements, facial expressions, and body language to determine how I will approach this song the next time.
SING ALONG TO A VIDEO / AUDIO RECORDING
Our choir techie chooses the appropriate settings to share a video / audio that all can hear. All choir members are MUTED as they sing along with spirit.
A few examples:
“Mi Chamocha” by Rick Recht
CALL AND RESPONSE:
“Only Light” by Delonte Gholston
For songs we already know, we look for arrangements that match the arrangements in our repertoire, so choir members can sing their usual parts, and practice holding their line while singing in harmony.
“Lean on me” by Bill Withers
SING ALONG TO MUSESCORE
The MuseScore program can play back individual parts of a harmony arrangement, or several parts at once. The accompaniment can be turned on or off, and can be played on a wide variety of electronically-replicated instruments, including keyboards, strings, and wind instruments.
Our choir techie chooses the appropriate settings to share the audio selections that I request.
To rehearse parts separately, one choir member is UNmuted and sings their part along with the recording. (There is a bit of a lag, but it is manageable.)
To rehearse in harmony, all choir members are MUTED as they sing along with the recording.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
The leader is UNmuted, everyone else is MUTED.
The leader has a song recording, could be in MuseScore, or the A capella app, or some other audio recording program, of a “layered” song, in which different parts of the melody line can be overlapped to create an interlocking harmony. [If someone knows a technical term for this, please comment & I will update the post]. For example, this could be a song with several sections which can be sung together in harmony, or a round, or two partner songs.
With audio sharing turned on, the song is first played through in unison, as everyone sings along to the melody line.
As the recording continues, the different parts are gradually layered onto the melody line.
Each singer can choose to stay with the melody line, or join in on any one of the harmony lines, or switch back and forth.
The song can be repeated several times, so that singers can experiment with different parts.
“Ma Gadlu” by Shefa Gold
Everyone is UNmuted. I start with a single steady note, held on one tone. Others join in, singing single prolonged notes, which can vary in pitch, duration, and volume. Because we are not trying to synchronize, the lag is not disruptive.
If there are strong differences in volume, Zoom may only play back the loudest sound; but as long as we all sing at approximately the same volume, we can have a shared experience, hearing each other in improvised harmony.
Everyone is UNmuted. We sing a slow repetitious chant many times through. As with Song Improv, slow note changes bypass the lag problem; balanced volumes allow several singers to share the performance space.
TRADITIONAL DAVENING STYLE
In many traditional synagogues, there are prayers which everyone says at their own pace, with no attempt to coordinate and be on the same word at the same time. With this approach, the virtual lag is irrelevant!
We use this style for some prayers: everyone is UNmuted, and the voices interweave with their own natural timing.
SONGBIRDS – SOLOISTS FOR VERSES, & FOLLOW THE LEADER FOR CHORUSES – SOLOIST DEVELOPMENT; LEADERSHIP SKILLS; SOME GROUP SINGING
Different soloists are UNmuted as they take turns on the verses. Everyone else is MUTED, and can either listen or sing along, as they prefer.
For the choruses, choir members who do not have solos take turns as the UNmuted leader. Everyone else is MUTED and sings along.
SONG POLISHING – INDIVIDUAL COACHING
WITH THE WHOLE CHOIR
As a non-auditioned community choir, with varying levels of ability, we prioritize fun and a sense of community over musical precision. In general, I would rather sing easy music well, than difficult music badly. But sometimes more advanced singers request more of a challenge, and more detailed feedback to nurture their growth. I adjust my expectations according to the musical capabilities and personality preferences of each choir member.
We do this Masterclass style, with everyone MUTED except for me and one choir member who are both UNmuted. The soloist performs, I give comments and feedback, then the soloist performs again, incorporating the suggestions. The non-singers learn by observing.
When learning a new song, I might have everyone take turns singing the same lines, to encourage accuracy from the outset.
When polishing a well-known song, I might spend more time with just one soloist per rehearsal.
IN BREAKOUT ROOMS
For a larger choir, breakout rooms can allow more people to receive coaching by assistant directors or section leaders, in small groups.
Breakout rooms can also be used for Sectional rehearsals, using the same strategies as for the full choir, but focusing on the musical parts for each section.
If a shy singer declines individual coaching of any kind, I address any comments for them to the group as a whole, trusting that the individual singer will benefit from the general feedback, without feeling embarrassed by being singled out.
If they are willing to receive private feedback, this can be done before or after the group choir time, or using a private breakout room.
We often approach the end of our rehearsals with Kum Bachur Atzeil – “Get up you lazy boy, get up and go to work!” Everyone is UNmuted and singing together. The playful cacophony makes me think of a class of kindergarten students getting ready to go out to the playground.
PRAYER FOR HEALING
When we wish to pray for healing for choir members and community members, we name their names, and conclude the rehearsal with the Mi Shebeirach prayer. One choir member sings a solo UNmuted while everyone else is MUTED and sings along.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
In the balance between tradition and innovation, my personal scale is heavily weighted on the side of exploration, rather than the tried-and-true. So as soon as something has become comfortable and easy … I’m on a quest for something new!
So here are some possibilities under consideration.
Karaoke versions of song accompaniments could be recorded on guitar, piano, or MuseScore, and distributed to choir members by email or Dropbox.
Choir members could use these for home practice.
For rehearsals or performances, if a soloist plays a pre-recorded accompaniment on their own home equipment, they can sing along without any lag whatsoever.
As we plan for our First Ever Virtual Concert – see notes below – we are investigating options to prepare recordings.
Recordings will provide a means for us to expand the scope of our offerings.
We can use these in rehearsals, as we sing along with ourselves, instead of with someone else’s choir recording.
At the concert, we can present a harmony video, showcasing our voices.
We can sing along with a video of my adorable grandchildren dancing to my Chanuka song “Spin!”
Recordings will provide a backup option, if someone’s internet goes down during the concert.
And for me, something new to learn is of great value for its own sake!
There are many ways to stitch together videos of individual choir members singing their parts, including the A Capella app, Zoom recordings, and various more complex recording programs. For larger choirs, if there is a budget for it, there are innovative musicians who have set up business models offering this service as a work-for-hire, with tiered levels of pricing depending on the complexity of the project.
Should we add lyrics as a lyric sheet beside the video, or as subtitles?
Should we add pretty photographs, for interest & variety?
Any choir member who wants to participate; possibly other musicians, friends and family, like my grandchildren (did I mention that they are adorable?)
We have some work to do to figure out the apps and experiment with them. If we had a budget, we would have to take some time to figure out how best to spend it.
Our goal is to have some initial recordings ready for our Chanuka concert, and after that as an ongoing project.
For the present, this would be a private project, for our own internal choir use & to share at concerts.
Maybe, down the road, we could post *our* music on Youtube, & share it with the world!!!
Our primary goal, as a choir, is to have fun singing Jewish music together.
We also want to enhance our Jewish environment by sharing our love of music with the community.
As we prepare for our First Ever Virtual Concert, for Chanuka 2020, our performance goals are the same, even though the format is different: we want the audience to sing along, to learn some new music, to enjoy the experience, and to leave feeling uplifted, enriched, and connected – to the music, to the choir, and to each other.
In planning a virtual performance – just as for virtual rehearsals – we seek a balance between tradition and innovation.
And if we shift our mindset from “difficult” to “unfamiliar”, then we can focus on finding creative solutions to new problems.
It is important to keep in mind that the new format solves a number of challenges that were built into the old style.
For example, our previous Chanuka concerts were outdoors. Sometimes bitterly cold weather made it difficult to keep my fingers warm enough to play guitar, and iced up my headset mic. Sometimes wind caused guitar tuning issues. Sometimes rain risked damaging the finish of my lovely wooden musical companion. Indoors, on Zoom, all of these issues will be resolved!
The repertoire will be our usual Chanuka music selections.
We will include Shehecheyanu, no matter what night it is, to celebrate our new adventure!
If the concert is on Night 1, we will sing this after the candle-lighting blessings; if it is on any other night, we will sing it at the opening of the concert.
We plan to include a mix of live and recorded presentations, using a variety of the styles discussed above.
Here are a few examples:
- Pass The Baton, Unison and Harmony versions: For 2 versions of Hinei Ma Tov
- Follow The Leader: For easy songs like “S’vivon Sov Sov Sov” and others, choir members will take turns as Leader
- Karaoke Accompaniments on piano or guitar – will help Leaders stay on timing and pitch
- Pass The Baton, Unison Version: For funny verses to “I Have a Little Dreidel”.
- Call and Response: To teach my song “One More Candle Every Night – an easy round.
- Groove to the Music – Recording: For my song “Spin”, we will sing along to a video of my grandchildren spinning, twirling, dancing, whirling, wobbling, and falling down!
- Groove to the Music – Live: For “Ocho Kandelikas”, I will lead on guitar, while one choir member counts on-screen with his fingers, another plays castanets, and the rest enthusiastically sing along, moving and dancing.
- Sing Along With Our Very Own Video Recording, Including Lip Sync: Our techie will co-ordinate and prepare a harmony video for our showcase piece, “Hava Narima”.
- Follow The Leader, with Karaoke Accompaniment: I will sing the “Candle-Lighting Blessings” using a karaoke guitar version, while all choir members (including me) will light candles in our own little boxes
I hope that these ideas are useful, as you plan your virtual music programs.
Please let me know in the comments if you try them out, and how it goes!
– Ros Schwartz