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Into the Wilderness

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The choral world is currently processing the consensus that emerged last week that singing in groups is one of the highest risk activities for spreading Covid-19 and that we shouldn’t expect to restart rehearsals until there’s an effective vaccine.* There’s a fair bit of denial going on, and occasional anger (to be expected, as the first stages of grief), but we are collectively gradually moving on to ask: okay, so now what?

Before all this broke last week, I had scheduled a post on a thought experiment about what it would take to return to normal, but I deleted it as it was overtaken by events. I suppose it’s worth noting that the primary thing I was contemplating as a pre-requisite for a return to rehearsal – a robust contact-tracing regime – may still actually be fine for those countries like New Zealand and South Korea that have succeeded in getting their community transmission rates right down. But for those of us in the UK and US where not only are transmission rates still high, but there doesn’t appear to be much political will to reduce them, the advice that we shouldn’t revert to our beloved super-spreading habits until there’s a vaccine remains more realistic for now.

So, now we are staring the despair in the face, what do we do?

In some ways, now I know we’re in remote mode for the long haul, I’m less anxious than when I couldn’t envisage the medium-term future. Now we can plan. And at least we have two months of remote rehearsing under our belts now, so we have some sense of what is possible in this mode. It is time to move out of the holding pattern of just living week-to-week and start to think strategically again: what kind of arc or trajectory will our musical journey take us on over the coming months?

A concept I have returned to as I have started to imagine this future is the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. Whilst some things just don’t work in online rehearsals, there are some realistic longer-term learning goals we can set ourselves that we know will stand us in good stead when we can finally make music in person again. Having a programme of ongoing skill-development helps maintain a sense of purpose. When you ask yourself ‘what’s the point?’ the improvements you are seeing in those specific aspects of your craft can provide an answer.

Those are our rational objectives. And the future-focus they provide are vital. But they are not enough. We can’t just live in hope for better days to come (pace Protestant work ethic), we need the living itself to be satisfying on the way through. Experiential objectives focus our attention on how it feels to participate in our online rehearsals.

As with the rational objectives, there are some specific and fundamental elements of what we do that we can’t currently provide. You can’t recreate online that sonic-kinaesthetic buzz of what barbershoppers would variously call, ‘busting a chord’, ‘singing with the angels’, or ‘ringing the snot out of it’.

But we can nonetheless provide genuine pleasures: social connectedness, laughter, a sense of achievement. We can address a variety of needs: belonging, esteem, aesthetic. As I write this, a personal goal has come into focus of setting the experiential goal of providing a Flow state – not a simple task via video conferencing, but a good one to aim for.

I fully acknowledge that all this is darning round the edges of a gaping hole: those who say you can’t have choir without singing together are of course right. But we have sung together in the past, and we will sing together again in the future. Our job for now is to get safely through the wilderness together, using the resources and imagination we have at hand to equip us to rebuild once we eventually arrive in the promised land.

Some people may decide, not unreasonably, that all this doesn’t give them the experience they want from choral singing and go off to develop a different pastime for now. All we can do is wish them well and look forward to seeing them in the future. I’ll still be there, keeping the music warm for them.

But we needn’t worry about whether people will come back once we can safely sing together again. There’ll be re-building to do, for sure, but there will also be a lot of pent-up desire to energise that work. Singing together is fundamental to being human, you can’t stop people doing it, as you know if you’ve ever been on a train after a football match.

One of Dale Carnegie’s pieces of advice for coping with worry is to accept the very worst case scenario in your heart as likely to happen, and then put your energies into improving on it. This post is part of the process of building my coping mechanisms for the coming drought, and I share it in the spirit of reciprocation for all the practical ideas and moral support my choral colleagues have given me, not just in the last few weeks, but throughout my musical life.

*The full webinar that worked through the reasoning is here, and the Barbershop Harmony Society have published a useful summary that applies pretty well across all choral genres. A useful overview of risk factors that puts singing in a wider context is here.
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