Changing Choral Culture in a Time of Covid

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Last week I received a message from a reader with a number of wide-ranging questions:

Have you already (that I missed) posted something about the changing culture, changing expectations of singers as a result of our individual COVID experiences? Thoughts about what new/different things that directors should do, music teams should plan, individual singer behaviors that will change, etc.? I would be interested in your thoughts in some of these areas.

Looking back over my postings over the months since March, I could see that I’d wandered near these themes a number of times (for instance here, here, and here), but there was clearly a lot more in his questions than these posts covered. So I promised to have a mull and if I had further ideas to blog about them.

My first reaction was that it is quite hard to generalise about this, given that – as noted in the second linked post above – there has been such a wide variety of approaches to coping with the whole situation. The trends that I explore below, therefore, might not be (probably aren’t) representative of every choir out there. But they are derived from conversations with and observations of a number of groups, so I know they have some currency beyond my own direct experience.

First, is that people seem to be more patient with each other these days. As we navigate technology that is new to most of us, and operate within a difficult singing environment, people seem very willing to give each other time and help to find their way through. An unstable internet connection can make the experience frustrating, but people don’t on the whole take that frustration out on each other. And there seems to be a more open recognition of the outside pressures on choir members that can interfere with their participation: the stresses of those working in healthcare, the complications of home-schooling and child-care, individual health issues are all discussed more openly.

Choirs still may set attendance requirements and deadlines for learning music, but when people struggle to meet them, the answer is a kindly: do what you can, come when you can, it will be nice to see you. This probably stems in part from not having the pressures of performances to prepare for: the deadlines are useful to gives structure, but they don’t carry the usual urgency. I have some more extended thoughts on the theme of ‘expectations’, but those can wait for another post (aka I haven’t finished thinking about this yet).

But I think this behavioural change is part of a larger culture change in which the balance between many choirs’ social and musical focuses has shifted. The cri de coeur from choral singers when we were first prevented from meeting was: this is important for our members’ emotional health, now of all times is when we need to sing together. And with the technological obstacles to musicking as we knew it, the community spirit grew to fill in the gaps.

Even those of us who have stayed strongly focused on practical singing activities in our online rehearsals have a sense that we do music when we get together because we like singing, and it’s what we have in common. But again the lack of performance opportunities brings the focus much more onto looking after one another and staying connected.

The biggest challenge for musical leadership in my view is how to balance the now and the future. We know there’s going to be a lot of rebuilding to do when we can finally get back to normal rehearsing, but to what extent do we plan our activities around setting the group up for that time of resumption, versus living life in the present? On one hand, it can be difficult to maintain a future focus when that future is uncertain; we don’t want just to be wishing our lives away. On the other hand, having things to look forward to can give shape and meaning to the present. We need to set experiential objectives for rehearsals that will be satisfying for both our current and future selves.

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