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A year ago, they infamously demonstrated the dangers of singing in the pandemic. What will it take to get the choir of Washington’s Skagit Valley — and the rest of the world’s choral musicians — back together again?
The Skagit Valley Chorale last sang together in person on the evening of March 10, 2020. Earlier that day, Skagit County issued a news release on its website recommending the cancellation of gatherings of more than 10 people. But the chorale didn’t see the advisory in time. The valley, a rural expanse in northwestern Washington cupped between the Puget Sound and the North Cascades, doesn’t have a dedicated TV station, and county officials rely on radio, The Skagit Valley Herald and Skagit Breaking, an online news site, to carry announcements. “Whenever I put out news releases, I’m expecting behavior change and common knowledge not to happen for days,” Lea Hamner, the communicable disease and epidemiology lead for the county’s public health department, told me. Businesses, schools, restaurants and other public spaces were open as usual.
Mary Campbell, a tenor who worked as the district manager for the libraries in a neighboring county, spent the day in discussions about how to keep staff and patrons “safe from touching things,” like returned books. She showed up at practice feeling stressed and tired — but knowing that 2½ hours of singing with the group would, through alchemy everyone felt but couldn’t quite explain, give her uplift and energy.
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The chorale was rehearsing for its April concert, which often overlaps with the valley’s annual tulip festival, an event that features fields blooming in red, pink and yellow flowers and traffic jams of admiring tourists. The practice that night was optional. The group’s board, along with its artistic director and conductor, Adam Burdick, had been closely watching for local, state and national alerts since the end of February, when a soprano named Nancy Hamilton emailed Burdick to raise the question of whether they should wear masks. “Hard to sing with a mask on,” she observed. (After consulting the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Burdick replied, copying members of the board, to say that masks were recommended only for first responders and people who were sick.)
The chorale’s co-presidents, exercising what they understood to be an abundance of caution, emailed the membership before their weekly practice on March 3 to urge anyone with any symptoms or fears of being at a greater risk of harm from the coronavirus to stay home in the coming weeks. The chorale would put the music and recordings of the practice sessions online.
Hamilton, who was 83, decided to go on the 10th. So did Carole Rae Woodmansee, an alto who was a few years younger and had sung with the chorale for more than a decade. Her daughter had begged her to stay home because she had recently been through radiation treatment, but singing was Woodmansee’s passion, and she said she didn’t want to live scared. At the time, the outbreak in Washington appeared to be largely confined to a nursing home near Seattle, an hour to the south of them. But it was starting to seem that this “strange disease” they were hearing about could migrate north and halt activities for a while, according to Susan Easthouse, a tenor who attended that night. “Most of us on March 10 were thinking, Let’s sing while we still can,” she told me.
The chorale started in 1984 with 30 members; now there are about 120, with room for 10 more, a number determined in part by how many people can safely fit on the risers at the performing-arts center in Mount Vernon, where the concerts take place. Lois Vander Meulen, the only charter member still with the choir, told me that “you don’t have to read music to belong — you just have to carry a tune.” She joined in her early 40s and is 77 now. So is Roger Emerson, who went to a concert 13 years ago, said to himself, That would be fun, and then signed up. Most members are over 65 — educators, doctors, engineers, artists, farmers. Many are retired, but there are younger working professionals, even a pair of siblings in their late teens. There are couples, as well as parents who sing together with their grown children. Local politics is split down the middle and never discussed at rehearsals, which are intensely focused anyway, with little time for chitchat. Some in the group are accomplished musicians; others are beginners. Sheer size makes this mix possible. As Vander Meulen, a soprano, put it to me, “With a hundred people, you could just move your lips.”
Three choristers arrived at the church where they practiced early on March 10, as they typically did, to take folding chairs down from a rolling rack and set them up in the fellowship hall. The rest arrived a few minutes before 6:30 p.m. The exterior doors were propped open, as usual, for people to enter, so few needed to touch a door handle. Hand sanitizer was available inside. Nobody hugged. The hall was a tight squeeze for 120, but only 61 showed up, including Burdick and the accompanist, which enabled everyone to sit farther apart. The evening was chilly, but after a while, their bodies warmed the space and the HVAC system shut off.
Burdick began with a buoyant piece by Lane Johnson, a composer in Utah, called “Sing On!” After 40 minutes, he and the accompanist and the basses and tenors moved to the church sanctuary, where they sat in pews to practice. The altos and sopranos kept going on their own, while one among them played the piano. At 8 p.m., they took a 10-minute break. A handful used the restroom; about half of them ate some oranges someone had brought for a snack. They spent the last 50 minutes rehearsing together. Then those who were able carried the chairs back to the rack. Most departed around 9 p.m.
The next morning, Wednesday, March 11, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, banned gatherings of more than 250 people in three counties. That evening, the N.B.A. suspended its season. Woodmansee’s son, Joe, finally got her to agree to skip further practices until the authorities sorted out the risks. By Saturday, the board had made the painful decision to scrap the chorale’s spring concert and halt rehearsals indefinitely.
Already, though, multiple choir members were ailing. Ruth Backlund and her husband, Mark, who are in their early 70s and attended practice, developed fevers on Friday, March 13. So did Carolynn Comstock (who is the chorale co-president, along with Backlund) and her husband, Jim Owen, another choir member. She is 63; he is 67. On Saturday morning, Burdick’s temperature spiked. On the 15th, he wrote the group to say he and at least five choristers had fevers. Though sick himself, he tried to keep everyone informed. On March 17, he sent a follow-up email: More than 24 members who attended the last practice were ill, and at least one had tested positive for the coronavirus. Mark Backlund notified the health department, which began phoning the chorale roster and asking those who had been at practice to quarantine. Most already were. Using an Excel spreadsheet, Burdick, who is 50, arranged for everyone to find a buddy in the group and check in on each other. Hamilton, whom everyone knew as Nicki, was hospitalized, then Carole Rae Woodmansee. (Another chorister was as well.) Because of the risk of contagion, Hamilton’s husband, Victor, wasn’t allowed to visit her. Late on March 20, over the phone, a nurse told him that Nicki was struggling to breathe, despite their best efforts. He decided that she should be made comfortable rather than endure further interventions. She died early the next morning. Six days later, so did Woodmansee. It was her 81st birthday.
The rehearsal, it would turn out, was one of the first documented super-spreading events of the pandemic. Tests were scarce, and not everyone was able to get one, but 53 people who attended that night developed symptoms of Covid-19. (Others could have been infected but asymptomatic.) The health department concluded that one person who later tested positive — and who had displayed some signs of a cold beforehand — was most likely the source. As with other rare cases in which it has been possible to narrow down when and where people were infected, and what they did during that time, the circumstances here raised a troubling question: If, as the C.D.C. and the World Health Organization were then insisting, the virus was passed mostly through contaminated surfaces, known as fomites, or droplets exhaled from an infected person that would fall within six feet, how and why did so many members of the Skagit Valley Chorale get sick? Could all 53 of them really have touched the same door handle, or orange, or folding chair? Had all of them stood face to face, talking to one another, less than two yards apart? Intuitively, the choristers knew what must have happened: The virus had drifted throughout the room and lingered in the air they breathed.
Eager to make sure others could learn from their experience, Burdick and the chorale leadership readily agreed to interviews. On March 29, an article appeared in The Los Angeles Times that described their rehearsal. One of the millions of readers who saw the story was Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and nearly 40 of his colleagues were trying to get the W.H.O. to acknowledge that the virus was being transmitted through aerosols — particles that can stay aloft and float considerable distances. (U.S. officials had been playing down this prospect. In late February, the C.D.C. director, Robert Redfield, said the widespread wearing of masks was unnecessary; in early March, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, Anthony Fauci, said much the same.) Jimenez dashed off a note to the reporter, Richard Read, and described the case as “the clearest example of that potential mode of transmission.” He wanted to investigate. Read connected him with Carolynn Comstock, who provided answers to a long list of questions about where everyone sat and what they touched.
Washington State had just entered lockdown when the Times article appeared, nearly three weeks after the rehearsal. Messages of support flooded the chorale’s Facebook page. But people were also scared and angry — primed to cast blame on those who got sick. “Nice to know they were more concerned about singing for the lord instead of keeping themselves and others safe,” one person commented on Skagit Breaking’s Facebook page. “One can only imagine how many people are infected because of their stupidity.” (The chorale has no religious affiliation; because of how quickly its members isolated themselves, the health department believes that no one outside their households was infected.)
Locals also expressed anger with the health department. Why were they only reading about what happened weeks later — in The Los Angeles Times and other national papers? In fact, fearful that the chorale would face just this sort of backlash in their community of 130,000, Lea Hamner and her colleagues had not identified the group until reporters asked, though Burdick had given them permission to use their name. Because the health department had traced all of the choristers’ contacts and found “no loose ends,” in Hamner’s words, its staff decided there was no need to do so. “They were the most cooperative group I’ve ever worked with,” Hamner told me recently. “It was pretty terrible that the most pure, wonderful kind of group, a community choir, was hit so terribly.” She felt protective. Supervising their quarantines, she and her colleagues talked to them on the phone daily and dropped off medications and groceries at their houses on the way home from work. Her heart sank when she saw the headline of the Times article — “A choir decided to go ahead with rehearsal. Now dozens of members have Covid-19 and two are dead” — which she read as “accusatory,” though she thought the piece itself was good. She never heard from the choristers about the attention they were receiving. “I just sat here worrying,” she said.
Lisa Stenberg, an alto who is 60 and was a close friend of Woodmansee’s, found herself responding to an acquaintance who sent her a reprimand as a direct message. “I had to explain to him that at that time we were following everything they were telling us to do,” she says. The condemnations tended to be directed at Burdick in particular. Coizie Bettinger, 73, a soprano who has sung with the chorale for more than 20 years, tried to delete them before he saw them. Heather MacLaughlin Garbes, the president of the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium, to which the chorale belongs, fielded some, too. “They would say, ‘You have blood on your hands,’” she told me. Many of the consortium’s 91 choirs had practiced that week, she said. MacLaughlin Garbes, who attended graduate school with Burdick, added: “When I think of Adam, he’s a tremendously compassionate and empathetic person. Sometimes you have the personality of a maestro and things roll off your back. It did not.”
‘When I think of Adam, he’s a tremendously compassionate and empathetic person. Sometimes you have the personality of a maestro and things roll off your back. It did not.’
The chorale’s willingness to serve as a warning to others, however, succeeded. Thanks largely to the Los Angeles Times article, word traveled quickly, leading to the shutdown of rehearsals nationwide. “It was probably one of the most important events for the choral field and a huge wake-up call that saved lives,” says Catherine Dehoney, president of Chorus America, a choral research and advocacy organization. “The choral directors I talked to, to a person, said, ‘That could have been me.’ They made the best decision they could at the time. Because of what happened there — it is why we know what we know now.”
The outbreak also provided crucial evidence for scientists seeking to understand how the virus was being transmitted. In the months that followed, Hamner and Jimenez, along with their respective colleagues, published separate studies of the Skagit Valley case. Hamner’s, which appeared in the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report last May, noted that “the 2.5-hour singing practice provided several opportunities for droplet and fomite transmission, including members sitting close to one another, sharing snacks and stacking chairs at the end of the practice.” But the notion that those activities caused so many infections, as Jimenez characterized it to me, is “absurd.” He says that that emphasis helped enable the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. to maintain and defend their guidelines. They have since revised them to acknowledge that the virus is transmitted by aerosols — the W.H.O. on July 9, the C.D.C. on Oct. 5. But many scientists, Jimenez included, argue that they still haven’t stressed enough that inhaling aerosols is the dominant mode of infection, which has led entities like schools and public-transportation agencies to put time and money into cleaning regimens that would be better spent on masks and ventilation. “We proved how you get this thing,” Comstock told me. “And it’s so damn frustrating to watch the news and see that they’re ignoring it.”
Yet the health department’s study also determined that “the act of singing itself might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols.” Hamner says that although she believes that aerosol transmission and close contact caused the choristers to get sick, she doesn’t regret not ruling out other pathways at the time.
Despite those caveats, the facts laid out in the health department’s study made it “almost impossible to imagine it was anything but aerosol transmission,” John Volckens, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University, told me. “From that standpoint, it was really a watershed study.” The paper that Jimenez’s group published in September in the journal Indoor Air found that “transmission by the aerosol route is likely; it appears unlikely that either fomite or ballistic droplet transmission could explain a substantial fraction of the cases.” Their modeling suggested that had the church been equipped with hospital-grade ventilation, as few as a dozen people might have been infected.
Rereading both papers again recently, Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland, noted that three choir members reported symptoms the day after practice — an atypically rapid onset for Covid-19. He wonders if multiple choristers were actually infected at practice the previous week and whether they all contributed virus to the air on March 10. In the past, he has run randomized control trials in a lab, infecting participants with flu virus in order to study how they pass it to others. Even under those conditions, Milton said, “it’s very difficult to see how it happens.” That, he added, makes it hard to appreciate how dangerous aerosols can be. “You get too close to somebody and they cough or sneeze and you know you got hit,” he said. “You don’t know you inhaled an aerosol.”
Adam Burdick grew up in Pysht, a former logging and fishing camp near the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, about a four-hour drive west of Mount Vernon. To the north is the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Vancouver on the other side. To the south are vast acres of forest and mountains. His was an isolated childhood. At home, he could get a handful of radio stations — two from Bellingham, one from Canada — but no TV. His grandmother lived a mile away, atop a hill that provided her with better reception, and sometimes Burdick and his two brothers would bring in firewood for her and stay to watch “Gilligan’s Island,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The A-Team.”
Mostly, though, Burdick listened to records: His father favored classical instrumental; his mother loved opera. They also had vinyl from the ’60s and ’70s: Joan Baez, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. When Burdick was 12, he started buying his own 99-cent LPs from the discount rack at a store in Port Angeles, 60 miles away: R.&B. groups like Tierra and Ray, Goodman & Brown. He paid premium for Duran Duran and ABBA. “I don’t recall that I had friends, nobody really close,” Burdick says. Once, as a teenager, he strapped a TV antenna and cable to his back and shinnied up a Douglas fir with the aim of attaching them there and being able to watch at home what he could at his grandmother’s elevation. The result was imperfect. “With that antenna,” he told me, “we could sort of see figures in the snow.”
That image — of a kid willing to risk a bone-crushing fall for the chance to engage with a wider world, to hear and see something that might amaze him — stayed with me for weeks after Burdick shared it, in late October. A similar yearning for connection, for a release from our social confines, was familiar to many of us by then. But the anecdote also seemed like a metaphor for the project Burdick was engaged in as we spoke: putting on the chorale’s annual holiday concert without the group’s singers being able to gather in the same room.
It was a problem that choirs nationwide were wrestling with, the most fundamental obstacle being that the lag time on Zoom and other online platforms makes it impossible to synchronize voices. The plan called for singers to record their parts alone at home and then email them to Burdick. He would import them as separate audio tracks into an editing program, “clean them up” and then stack the tracks like blocks so the voices, one atop another, played back simultaneously. Burdick, who has a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of Washington, had done something similar using GarageBand software for a class he taught for students in North Seattle College’s choir earlier in the pandemic. (He is paid for his job with the chorale, but without other freelance work and his wife’s income, it wouldn’t be enough to live on.) Once the tracks were ready, the chorale could host a live Zoom session: Burdick would interview a few guest musicians and composers and then play the assembled tracks over photo slide shows.
A concert date was agreed upon — Friday, Dec. 11 — and a repertoire chosen to inspire confidence, Burdick hoped: six songs that the chorale had already performed or rehearsed in recent years, including “Sing On!” from their aborted April performance. For Coizie Bettinger, the effort was symbolic. “It’s a message about resilience and optimism and looking forward,” she told me. “We want to show the world that we’ve found another way to continue singing.”
That goal, I began to understand as I followed their preparations, was not so easily achieved. For starters, about half the members declined to participate. Some weren’t comfortable with the technology required. Others didn’t believe that the experience they enjoyed in person — the sensation of blending their voice with others’ — translated online. “It’s the working together to create something more than just yourself,” explained Cynthia Richardson, an alto who is 78. “When you feel it’s right on, you look at the person next to you and you smile with your eyes: Wow, didn’t that sound good? There’s a personal interaction that reinforces the whole experience that you can’t get looking at the computer screen.” Mary Campbell tried attending a few remote rehearsals. “It was bringing up too many sad thoughts for me,” she told me. She had been infected and passed the virus to her husband, Steve, who spent two nights in the hospital. They are both in their mid-60s. “Certainly I was thinking of the people who died,” she said. “And it would regenerate the fear I had when Steve was ill.” They have fully recovered, but some other choristers and family members who were infected are still dealing with lingering symptoms.
About 50 singers would show up regularly at the weekly Zoom rehearsals. These consisted of Burdick’s demonstrating vocal exercises or singing passages and everyone else following along on mute. “Bring the straw to you, don’t bring yourself to the straw,” he said one evening in October to an onscreen mosaic of choristers holding cups of water with drinking straws in them. He blew a note into a pitch pipe and they mimicked him while exhaling through their straws. After bouts with Covid-19, many had described feeling short of breath, and he hoped this would help. He encouraged them to relax their neck muscles and focus on creating resonance. “Say something open and spacious. You could have Miss Piggy as a model, or Julia Child.”
In front of the group, Burdick always sounded upbeat. “One of the things that I have done a little more in the Zoom rehearsals than I used to in in-person rehearsals is I will wax rhapsodic about a given phrase in the music and how good it feels to sing it,” he told me. “The way the vibrations happen in your head and in your mouth when you are creating a sound that’s supported with your breath and kind of vitalized — that is a joy in itself.”
But his own feelings were more difficult to manage. The damning messages hurt. “We put out a statement on our website about how the choir was grief-stricken and mourning and recovering, and somebody said, ‘Where’s the remorse?’” he told me. “It seems to me that that’s not the right word. ‘Remorse’ implies wrongdoing, that we did someone wrong. We were in error, and we didn’t understand the ramifications of the risk.” Still, he did feel remorse. He felt responsible. “I’m the cheerleader for the group,” he says. “If I hadn’t come, they probably would have canceled the rehearsal. I have felt that the decision was mine and what happened afterward was my fault.”
A piece of music is choral music so long as each part has more than one singer. That’s the strict definition, but you also know choral music when you hear it: It’s a full spectrum of human sound that, like water, fills up any container it’s set free in. It’s the hallelujahs in Handel’s “Messiah”; it’s the London Bach Choir with the Rolling Stones on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Among the finest choirs in the world are groups as small as Chanticleer, a 12-man vocal ensemble based in San Francisco, and as large as the Tabernacle Choir, which is 360 men and women. Choral music most likely evolved out of Gregorian chant, a monophonic style of sacred singing that emerged in Europe during the sixth century. But the roots of choral music are hard to pin down, because they’re everywhere. “Part of the challenge is the amount of literature is so vast,” says Earl Rivers, emeritus professor of conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. This tradition is not just musical notes but also words — poetry. Each song tells a story.
What choral singing has never been, however, is something people do alone. Before Covid struck, Chorus America estimates that more than 54 million children and adults in the United States, or one in six people over 18, were singing in choirs. Beginning last March, most of them endured a lengthy hiatus; for many, it hasn’t ended yet, and it’s unclear when it will.
On May 5, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, along with Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Society, the American Choral Directors Association and the Performing Arts Medical Association, organized a webinar to discuss when choirs might be able to sing together again. Donald Milton and another expert spoke, and what they had to say was devastating, says Tori Cook, who at the time was the director of sales and marketing for Chorus Connection, a company that builds software to manage choir membership and account information. “We were told it would be one to two years before we could safely return to group singing, if we were to wait for a vaccine. That really put people in a panic.”
Choirs, which have been linked to tuberculosis outbreaks in the past and at least eight other Covid-19 outbreaks internationally, are especially effective at spreading respiratory germs. The act of singing itself — drawing air deep into the lungs and then expelling it completely while forcefully vibrating the vocal cords — puts more particles, and thus more virus, into the air than talking does. And more of those particles are aerosols. Our respiratory tracts are lined with mucus. As you breathe out, narrow passages in the lungs called respiratory bronchioles that lead to the alveoli sacs, where air and blood exchange gases, collapse. Upon inhaling, those walls pull apart, creating a bubble of mucus that pops, adding a fine mist to the carbon dioxide going out. (The older you are, the less elastic your bronchioles are and the more aerosols you produce.) Louder singing (or speaking) tends to coincide with greater emission of particles of all sizes, though it may not account for what is known as super-emitting — the ejection of a far greater volume of matter than average — whose cause is still mysterious. The particles that leave the mouth of a super-emitter singing “Happy Birthday,” John Volckens says, are roughly equivalent to 10 people standing shoulder to shoulder talking.
Choral organizations began looking for remote solutions. Some hosted drive-in concerts, mic-ing singers and sending their vocals through a mixer and then an FM transmitter that people could tune into on their car radio. In temperate climates, they tried singing outdoors. Software developers got to work on the latency issue.
Even the most ingenious substitutes, however, could not fill the vacancy choristers felt in their lives. That missing sensation of being one of a hundred voices was also an intimate one. “Harmonizing with another person — it’s a give-and-take process,” Carolynn Comstock told me. “The timing, the tone. If the basses go flat, everyone adjusts and goes flat, so it sounds in tune relatively. There’s a physical satisfaction to getting it right.”
Kelli Boardman, a soprano, skipped the rehearsal on March 10 because she was caring for her elderly mother at home. On Tuesday nights last fall, she and her husband, Brian, who is also in the choir, would put on a movie for her mother and slip downstairs to attend the Zoom sessions, which they looked forward to. When I asked what singing in the chorale used to be like, she recalled squirming through a service her parents took her to at a large Methodist church in Shreveport, La., about 55 years ago. She was around 8. “When that choir opened up and sang, the vibration just went right through me, and it made me feel like I wanted to explode. There was this joy,” she said. “I remember it vividly.”
‘When that choir opened up and sang, the vibration just went right through me, and it made me feel like I wanted to explode. There was this joy.’
Some researchers believe that singing together can be managed safely. Shelly Miller, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the Indoor Air paper, has since been collaborating on a study of Covid-prevention measures with the International Coalition of Performing Arts. They are tracking 200 or so bands and choirs that practice in person under criteria that Miller and colleagues created in part by studying the Skagit case: multiple layers of cloth masks (there are versions available that keep the fabric away from the mouth); a specific rate of air exchange; a limited and distanced number of occupants in a space; and a vacating of any room after 30 minutes of activity. So far, although many participants have tested positive, there is no evidence that any of them have transmitted the virus at practice. “The risk is pretty low if you use this layered approach,” Miller says. Volckens, though he agrees that such measures greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting the virus, isn’t yet ready to recommend indoor practices unless everyone has been vaccinated, in large part because it is still unclear what an infectious dose of the virus is. “Until we have that,” he says, “how can we possibly say what’s safe?” Figuring that out for any respiratory disease, though, is daunting. “We’ve been studying influenza for more than a hundred years,” Donald Milton points out, and at the most detailed level, “we still aren’t sure how it transmits.”
Many choirs don’t have the money for safety measures as comprehensive as Miller’s or aren’t comfortable with the risk. Half of 337 choruses surveyed by Chorus America have seen their budgets drop by 40 percent or more. Mass vaccination will surely help, but that is taking time, and virus variants could make achieving complete protection more difficult. Chorus America predicts that more groups will return in person this fall, but in a March blog post, the organization noted that C.D.C. guidance doesn’t support large, unmasked gatherings yet, even if the participants are vaccinated.
Most choirs in the U.S. are church-affiliated, and they have been less affected financially. But many Christian churches, hoping to attract a generation infatuated with TV shows like “American Idol” and “Glee,” had already begun replacing their traditional choirs with smaller, pop-inspired groups backed by a band, “not unlike, honestly, what Kanye West employed in his tour,” says Craig Adams, a spokesman for the Gospel Music Association and creative director of Lifeway Christian Resources, a publishing company. “Some church pastors in the evangelical church have seen this as an opportunity during the pandemic to go ahead and make that move, to make that switch.” The response, he says, has been split between parishioners who find traditional choirs “culturally irrelevant” and those who see them as “an integral part of not only the practice but even the theology of the Christian Church.”
The fact that Covid-19 poses a greater risk to older people, and to communities of color, which also face greater barriers to vaccination, may affect what kind of choral music comes back and when. The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, founded in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey, a composer and director known as the father of gospel music, has more than 1,200 members nationwide, most of whom are African-American. The group has introduced remote socials and recorded presentations, provided information to choir leaders about virus-mitigation measures they can take and, for the second year, canceled its annual gathering in August, which typically features indoor performances by large choirs. “We have to look at alternatives,” says Ulysses Moye, a vice president of the group. “Many of our constituents are elderly. Those persons are really not rushing to come back into that setting.”
As Halloween neared, Burdick had received concert recordings from about only half of the Zoom participants, mostly altos. (“The altos are overachievers,” says Ruth Backlund, an alto herself. Basses, Roger Emerson says of his section, are “not known to volunteer.”) The main reason for the shortage was the reaction singers were having to hearing themselves unaccompanied by their choir mates. In playback, their voice reached them as it does others — from outside the friendly acoustics of their own skulls — and their responses ranged from surprise to horror. “They’re humbled, or they’re disturbed, or they don’t think they’re worth including,” Burdick told me. Backlund, who grew up in the Midwest playing piano and organ for church services held by her father, a minister, had already submitted “Sing On!” recorded in her bedroom with the iPhone memo app. “When you listen to your own recording, every breath sounds so loud,” she told me. Peggy Schultz, a 63-year-old tenor who is the group’s treasurer, put it this way: “Being exposed is what it is.”
Often, Lorraine Burdick, Adam’s wife, a professional opera singer who got the virus from him and still has symptoms, would host a chat before practice began. “We just talk about other things going on,” Backlund says. “What did you have for dinner?” It was more socializing than what was typical for in-person rehearsals. For many, their connection with other chorale members tended to be more fraternal than familiar — you don’t need to be confidants to harmonize. Subsuming oneself to a larger whole is what makes the experience transporting, even euphoric. And it’s part of what is lost online when all you hear is yourself.
But the choristers also found unexpected benefits in being forced to grapple — in bathrooms hung with towels or bedrooms with scores taped to the wall — with the reality of their voices stripped bare. Backlund started turning in tenor tracks in addition to her regular alto and wondered if she should switch parts. Debbie Amos, another alto, had learned how subtle changes to the shape of her mouth shaded her tone. She tried to open her throat as she learned to do with the straw and let the feeling the words gave her show on her face. “I wanted a warm and soft tone to my voice,” she said the week before Thanksgiving, referring to a song she had just finished recording, “and I was able to get that.”
Burdick hadn’t wanted to pressure already-anxious singers with deadlines, but he was starting to worry that he hadn’t left himself enough time to edit their submissions. By Thanksgiving weekend, he was spending more than a dozen hours a day in front of the computer. He had to listen to each track, eliminate ambient noises — pets, cars, ringing phones — then adjust the voice to be on key. Where the singer’s rhythm was off, he would shift their syllables. One day, feeling overwhelmed, he called a music-producer friend, Thyatira Thompson, to help. Thompson spent about 100 hours on one song, and he added his own voice to the mix. “This is how I’m using my life right now,” Burdick told me 11 days before the show. “We’re making a work of art. The time that it takes is the time that it takes.”
The chorale concert was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Pacific time. “I’m nervous as a cat,” Ruth Backlund wrote me that afternoon. At 5:05, Burdick saved the final “bounce,” or version, of “Sing On!” He put on a tuxedo and some makeup; Lorraine pinned a white rose on his lapel.
In a small way, the concert seemed like an attempt to answer an unanswerable question — Why did this happen to us? — by distilling another question to its very essence: Why sing? Throughout history, choral music has given expression to collective grief, loss and fear that is otherwise unspeakable. During the Renaissance, many European cities held “penitential processions” in response to plagues, where residents sang Psalms in the streets in the hopes of securing God’s pardon. In America, the spirituals sung “as a chorus” by enslaved people during forced labor were the “prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his memoir. The concert, by separating the singers in space and time — elongating the moment between when they made a sound and when they heard it combined with other voices — seemed to probe for the instant the choristers had described to me, when they stopped being themselves and became a single voice: Does it happen when the sound leaves the body? Or when you hear it with others? Must that happen simultaneously to achieve transcendence?
The elastic space-time properties of technology that made the concert possible have also transported choral music during the pandemic to places it wouldn’t otherwise be known. “We’ve been hearing from people literally around the world, telling us: ‘Oh, my, I’m so pleased to hear you. I didn’t know about you,’” says Marshall Onofrio, dean of Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University in New Jersey, whose symphonic choir frequently performs with the New York Philharmonic. Broadcasting may become a permanent feature of choral performance. But tablets and computers, Onofrio told me, “are physically incapable of a full range of color and frequency, low and high notes. You are literally losing the resolution.”
You also lose the vibrancy the audience and performers get from each other — the sense that each hit note is a victory over inevitable error. After the concert was over, Burdick would wonder if editing, ubiquitous now, was creating “a false expectation of what singing should sound like.” To make music together with other people in person is to surrender — and to be released from — the pursuit of perfection. To Carolynn Comstock, who didn’t take part in the project, the compiled recordings felt stripped of that vulnerability. “It’s totally flat and sterile,” she told me later. “It lacks a soul.”
To make music together with other people in person is to surrender — and to be released from — the pursuit of perfection.
When it was 5:30 Pacific, it was 8:30 my time. My kindergartner had fallen asleep; as he does every night, he had asked me to leave his bedroom door wide open, and I did. It was dark in our apartment. Careful not to make too much noise, I set up my laptop on the dining table and followed the link to the concert. From 3,000 miles away, from days and weeks away, the first bars of “Sing On!” arrived in my kitchen. I could still hear my son’s breathing. Often, I wonder if he will remember this time at all, if his brain will retain certain sounds, smells or moods forever, like fragments from a strange dream.
At the bottom of the screen, a frustrated listener complained of choppiness and said she was signing off. “Better luck next time,” she wrote. A subsequent flood of comments, from the more than 500 accounts that had signed on, said everything could be heard just fine. “Beautiful,” they typed, over and over. The pieces emerged, complex and substantial, as Burdick had promised they would; the sections led and supported one another by turns, adding shading and dimension. Peggy Schultz had arranged photos of choristers together and with their families to go with the music; on a slide with photos of Nicki Hamilton and Carole Rae Woodmansee, she had written “in loving memory of.”
When I talked to the singers afterward, they sounded pleased and a little bit relieved that it had gone so well. “It was thrilling to me,” Coizie Bettinger said, surprising herself by tearing up. “I’m really proud of us for doing it.” Debbie Amos, who is 69, thought the experience made her a better singer. Schultz shared their sentiments. She recalled one time, a little over a year ago, when the choir had been touring the upper Olympic Peninsula, near Pysht, and she needed to sit down. “Usually, you hear your own part dominating,” she said. “To sit out front where it’s balanced and hear all parts equally — it was kind of neat, and I think we should all do it once in a while to get a sense of what we sound like.” The online concert, she said, had accomplished that: “It gave us an opportunity to hear ourselves as a whole, not just our little spot in the middle of it.” Anonymous donors offered $6,000 to continue rehearsals in the spring, which Burdick agreed to run. Mary Campbell has begun joining in. “It’s part of my identity now, being part of a choir,” she says. But there are no plans to do another concert.
Burdick’s parents still live in Pysht, and they attended the performances Schultz remembered. “We were almost treated reverently,” his mother, Karolyn, told me. “They were so pleased with Adam,” she added. “It was striking how much they wanted us to know how much they appreciated him.” Her voice broke. “The whole thing with Covid, I don’t know how it will be. I don’t know that that feeling — that you can recapture something like that after all the chorale has been through.”
Choral singing may be the last activity to return to normal, the last thing we feel comfortable doing without a mask on. If it weren’t such a primal need — an expression of our humanity that can’t happen another way — you might wonder if it would come back at all. Joe Woodmansee told me that his family took comfort in the fact that his mother’s last activity before getting sick was singing, and that her death had helped others avoid the virus, which they believe she would have been grateful for. “She loved to sing,” he told me. “I don’t think there was a day in her life she wasn’t at least singing to herself.”
The day after the concert, Burdick posted it on YouTube so that anyone can watch it at any time. I imagined that I would revisit it myself, stopping and starting, taking notes, until I could describe it for you in intricate detail, as a critic might. My cursor hovered over the play button. But I found myself unable to click it again; you can go there, after all, and listen for yourself. Watching it live, so to speak, I had felt a heightened sense of anticipation, knowing how Burdick and the singers were feeling: Would the streaming work? Would people like it? Would it achieve an effect that was greater than the sum of its parts — greater than all the hours and painful self-examination it had required? I felt part of a collectively held breath, like the pause in a concert hall when the cacophony of instruments and the chattering of the crowd dims and the conductor raises the baton. And that’s how I want to remember it. But I can tell you that in my kitchen, in the darkness of that December evening, the chorale was welcome company, and their voices, all together, made a full, sweet sound.
Top row, from left: Ann May / Alto; Jim Owen / Tenor; Marilyn Derig / Alto. 2nd row: Jill Hatcher / Soprano; Lisa Stenberg / Alto; Mary Campbell. 3rd row: Cynthia Lockwood / Alto, George Lockwood / Tenor, Patt Jorgensen / Alto. 4th row: Patricia Fikkert / Alto; Carolynn Comstock / Soprano; Mark Backlund / Bass. 5th row: Kelli Boardman / Soprano; Lorraine Burdick / Alto; Nina Tallering / Soprano. 6th row: Brian Boardman / Baritone; Coizie Bettinger / Soprano; Kitty Mintz / Soprano.
Singers Top row, from left: Ann May / Alto; Jim Owen / Tenor; Marilyn Derig / Alto; Jill Hatcher / Soprano; Lisa Stenberg / Alto. 2nd row: Mary Campbell / Tenor, Cynthia Lockwood / Alto, George Lockwood / Tenor, Patt Jorgensen / Alto, Patricia Fikkert / Alto. 3rd row: Carolynn Comstock / Soprano; Mark Backlund / Bass; Kelli Boardman / Soprano; Lorraine Burdick / Alto; Nina Tallering / Soprano. 4th Row: Brian Boardman / Baritone; Coizie Bettinger / Soprano; Kitty Mintz / Soprano; Peggy Schultz / Tenor; Ruth Backlund / Alto.
Song “Sing On!” by Lane Johnson, performed by the Skagit Valley Chorale. Copyright 2016 by Santa Barbara Music Publishing, Inc.
Additional design and development by Jacky Myint.