The voice sections — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — enter the Seventh & James Baptist Church sanctuary simultaneously and through different doors. Singers, all masked, sit spaced apart, two or three to a church pew with an empty one in between.
Baylor Concert Choir director Lynne Gackle, also masked, stands on a raised platform from which church worship leaders usually lead the congregation, a nearby chair with a laptop opened so singers working from home this semester can follow.
After some stretching exercises and vocal warmups, the singers turn to the music at hand, and the large room fills with something most of them have not heard in person since March: people singing together in harmony.
Welcome to the brave new world of choral music in the time of COVID-19.
For Gackle, her colleagues and collegiate singers across Waco, the last few weeks have marked a cautious and gradual return to choral singing. That is no mean accomplishment given the shifting strategies on slowing the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and has led to more than 980,000 deaths worldwide, more than 200,000 of which are in the United States.
Current medical research indicates the virus is more likely to spread where people are in groups; indoors, particularly where air circulation and filtration is slow; and singing, talking loudly or shouting. Singers and theater performers have found their arts in the center of overlapping concerns, with group performances, large audiences and shared air a central part, if not an essential one, of their practice.
Gackle, Baylor director of choral activities and the president of the American Choral Directors Association, said a wake-up call came in March with the experience of a Skagit Valley, Washington, choir that followed all the existing protection protocols — symptom checks, spacing, hand cleaning — only to see more than 50 members come down with COVID-19 and two die from it.
“Everybody took a collective gasp. What does this mean to us?” she said.
As colleges, schools and events shut down last spring to slow virus spread, music educators and performers alike wondered about a future without or with severely limited group rehearsals and public performances.
The American Choral Directors Association commissioned research studies by University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University to examine how singing and talking create aerosols, fine droplets of fluid that are believed to be a means of coronavirus transmission.
Those findings and suggestions for ways to control aerosol dispersion, which the association shared with members and choral directors across the nation during the summer, found masking, distancing, shortened rehearsal times and effective air circulation and filtration the most effective ways to tamp down virus spread.
Some of that research informed summer efforts by the Baylor School of Music to figure out the safest ways to teach and perform. School of Music Dean Gary Mortensen, his faculty and Baylor staff spent weeks measuring practice and performances spaces, checking air flow and filtration and even checking outdoor areas on campus for shade coverage.
“Health and safety overrode everything else,” Mortensen said. “We wanted to find what’s the most robust way (to make music).”
New protocols were established for the fall. Rooms were fitted with new air filters. Some ensembles would rehearse outdoors, and others would move from rehearsal rooms to performance halls or a church sanctuary. Rehearsal times would be shortened, and practice groups would be smaller. Covers would be placed over wind instruments’ bells, and instrumentalists would wear masks adapted to accommodate a mouthpiece. More video cameras would be installed for livestreamed performances and class instruction.
“I think the art of getting through COVID is understand the rules, walk into this and let the creative process percolate,” Mortenson said. “We intend to play at the highest level with no excuses. The good news is our students are making music like crazy. They are so grateful to get back on campus.”
Freshman Anna Alexander, a Concert Choir member, would agree. COVID-19 shutdowns last spring ended her high school choir concerts, competitions and programs. One of the Baylor choir rehearsals three weeks ago, during which the choir sang “That Good Ol’ Baylor Line,” was her first choir experience since March.
“It has been a joy to sing again,” she said through her mask. “I’m so thankful to be singing with people. COVID, as terrible as it is, has made singing more unique and personal in a way.”
The research and guidelines underlying the new protocols for Baylor’s seven choral ensembles are informing the McLennan Community College Chorale as well. Singers rehearse in a nearby church’s fellowship hall to allow sufficient spacing and are working on their parts online in the time between.
“I tell my singers let’s be radical this year: radical in our schedule and location, radical in our teaching, radical in performance and radical in forgiveness. We’ve got to be,” director Bonnie Sneed said.
Like Gackle, Sneed has been sensitive to students’ emotional needs in a topsy-turvy year altered by COVID-19, choosing repertoires of songs with encouraging, empathetic texts.
“Our students want to sing and they want community,” she said.
Sneed knows the feeling. She is conductor of the semi-professional choral ensemble NAVE Voices, whose members, scattered across eight states, recently performed together online.
“We almost cried when we were done,” Sneed said.
Tears did fall for Baylor Concert Choir accompanist Maggie Stith, when the choir recently rehearsed Elaine Hagenberg’s “You Do Not Walk Alone.”
Hagenberg’s setting of an Irish blessing contains the lines “May you always remember when the shadows fall, you do not walk alone,” a message many of its Baylor performers took to heart.
“I was crying as I was playing — and in my mask,” said Stith, who moved to Waco from Colorado this summer to start graduate studies in collaborative piano. “It spoke to what I do. As a musician, I work with people and I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”
Baylor and MCC choirs are not the only ones adjusting to new procedures and practices this fall as Waco community choirs also find their routines altered.
The COVID-19 shelter-in-place order in March caught the Central Texas Choral Society just as it was preparing its major spring performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” and the community choir has not sung together in person since.
Director David Guess said the chorus’ board members opted to pass on any group rehearsals or concerts this fall, given that the age and health of some singers make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Still, choir members will continue to make music together, if only virtually. There is a Zoom rehearsal on the first Monday of the month in which members sing a handful of previously performed songs and accompany a recording.
“We sing, but we really don’t sing together,” Guess said.
The online rehearsals, however, have drawn about 60 participants, including former members now living outside Central Texas and some of Guess’ past choral students. In October, Guess will loop in Allen Hightower, director of choral studies at the University of North Texas, for the rehearsal with composer and pianist Dan Forrest, whose song “The Music of Living” the chorus will sing in a virtual project later this fall.
Plans are percolating for some sort of virtual holiday singalong or performance, but performance or not, Guess said members have felt a need to sing.
“We’re at a volatile time in our nation … a time where an outlet is needed,” he said. “This is also about a community of people.”
The joy of singing also is the fall agenda for the about 60 school-age singers of the Youth Chorus of Central Texas. Like the Central Texas Choral Society, the youth chorus has shifted to online rehearsals on the first Monday of the month with no performances planned.
“We decided to call this season ‘the fermata season,’” director Florence Scattergood said, referring to the musical notation for a sustained note or rest.
Given the challenges of finding a rehearsal space large enough for social distancing as well as a performance space containing a distanced audience, chorus leaders opted for virtual meetups for the fall.
The monthly choir rehearsals are largely online singalongs of the choir’s past repertoire, and Scattergood keeps in contact with choir members in the weeks between.
Given the stress of schoolwork from home and families strained by new schedules and responsibilities, chorus leaders wanted to give their singers some relief.
“This is just for the sheer joy of it,” she said. “We just want to be a source of joy and encouragement.”
Coronavirus shutdowns also iced the spring performances of the Waco Community Choir, which has been on hold since then.
“March 7 was our last time to sing together. It’s been a long, dry spell,” director Thomas Brooks said.
With summer heat fading in the fall, the choir will start coming back to life, with a socially distanced outdoor rehearsal in the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church parking lot penciled in for Monday night. It likely will not be like the nights when the nationally known gospel choir would rock the house, but it is a first step on the journey back.
“We miss the music and the camaraderie,” Brooks said. “We’re moving forward. We know the Lord has a plan.”
Baylor School of Music Dean Mortenson said the human drive to create and make music cannot be squelched or extinguished. Choirs, bands and orchestras will go on in some way.
“We are not going to stop creating,” he said. “We are never going to stop creating.”
For Concert Choir freshman Alex Reichert, singing “That Good Ol’ Baylor Line” in harmony with scores of fellow singers after months of silence was welcome enough.
“It was kind of overwhelming just singing together again,” he said.
When McLennan County’s first six COVID-19 cases were reported March 18, the news came as a shock despite weeks of early warnings.
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