Helping People Back to Choir

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VFPlogoI don’t know if there has been any attempt to gather data about the overall state of choral singing since covid, but all the anecdotal information I’m coming across suggests that choirs are mostly back up and going, but depleted. A few groups didn’t make it through and disbanded – not necessarily directly because of the pandemic, but the stresses of the situation brought underlying problems to breaking point. A few groups, meanwhile, have come back with increased numbers and are facing the enviable challenge of integrating a high proportion of new singers all at once.

Most, however, seem to be reporting a drop in numbers of about 30% from pre-covid levels. The first ones lost were those who opted out during the zoom era, either finding the whole online rehearsing thing presented too many obstacles for them, or dropping out after a while because they found the experience unsatisfactory. Some of these singers have come back on return to live singing, but not all.

Others stayed with their choirs through the remote rehearsals, but have not returned to live singing. For some, the issue was still covid itself – they did not feel safe returning to large group activities. Others found that once they could get out and about again, they had higher priorities for what they wanted to catch up on – going places and seeing people they had missed out on for too long. (This response seems also to have had a significant impact on attendance amongst those who have returned.)

But I suspect that for many of those yet to reappear – whether or not they participated in online activities – there isn’t a single identifiable reason for not coming back. I’m drawing inferences here from limited information: by definition you have less insight into the situations of those who are absent. From the conversations I have had, and which have been relayed to me, though, it seems that there is a mixture of a certain loss of confidence combined with a load of life stuff.

Life stuff happens all the time of course, though for many it has become more complex through the last two years. But when you are in the swing of doing something, life stuff doesn’t get in the way of it so much – in fact, choir can provide both an escape from it and a valuable support network. When you’re out of practice, it’s a whole different proposition. Getting both voice and brain back into choir mode is going to demand more of your mental and emotional energy than it takes to keep going once you’re up and going.

Those of us who have been through the process of restarting can remember how the voices weren’t in best shape when we first resumed, and how cognitively tiring it was to be that over-stimulated. Our missing singers aren’t wrong to feel a bit daunted at the prospect. It is quite rational to want to clear some of the other stuff out of the way to make headspace for it. And the first step, as in so many things, is the hardest.

One of the things about confidence, however, is that it follows action. If you wait until you feel confident to do something, you’ll never start. (This is the conversation I usually have with people about readiness to perform.) It’s an interestingly different set of obstacles with returning singers than with completely new members. Novices come in without expectations of themselves; if you know you are new, you accept that your skills will be less developed than everyone else’s at first. Returning singers come with knowledge of both what is required and what is possible, and therefore the capacity to gauge the extent to which they don’t measure up to their past selves. They’ll likely be far more judgemental about their current capacities than either their conductors or their fellow singers will be.

One of the goals of the Vocal Freedom Project is to support people in this position. It removes a lot of the pressures people experience when returning to choir - the demands of repertoire knowledge, the need to be ready to perform – and creates a space in which people can reconnect with their voices and find out what they have become.

Because of course none of us have emerged from the last two years the same as we went in. The passage of time would change us whatever happened, but the strange dislocations our lives have gone through have changed how we act, how we think, how we feel. It is only to be expected that it will also have changed how we sing. The Vocal Freedom Project aims to help people make friends with the new possibilities that emerge, sonically, expressively, so they can return to ensemble singing with more confidence in what their contribution will be.

Part of helping people come back, that is, lies in helping people move forward.

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