I sing in a church choir. Correction: I used to sing in a church choir. Further correction: I used to sing, once upon a time…
Singing has fallen victim to the Covid-19 pandemic. When health regulations prohibited large gatherings, and when physical distancing precluded even small groups from getting together, choirs everywhere had to shut down.
Some choral groups have put together magnificent performances during this time of social isolation. But not by singing together. Every track has been recorded separately, and then painstakingly stitched together by someone — either the conductor or a technician — doing countless hours of labour.
My church chose to move its Sunday services to Zoom. Zoom is a wonderful platform. But you can’t sing together on Zoom.
I don’t pretend to understand the technology behind Zoom, but I can hear that it delays transmission by a fraction of a second, to avoid the feedback squeal that can dislodge your fillings.
As a result, if you start singing when you can hear me, you’re already half a word behind. And if you have a strong voice, others will follow you, but half a word behind you, a whole word behind me.
On our first attempts at singing over Zoom, some singers ended a full line after the pianist had finished. It was chaos. Definitely not a unifying effect.
So we tried having just one person singing the words, while everyone else had their microphones muted. They could sing along, but only to themselves.
A few weeks back, I was the congregation’s “designated singer.” I did not like the sound of my voice. It felt raw, uncertain. I struggled to stay on key.
I realized I hadn’t done any vocal exercises. to warm up. I should have done at least 10 minutes.
More than that, I hadn’t done any singing at all for several weeks. Not even in the shower.
The late great cello player Pablo Casals once said about practising: “If I don’t practise for a month, my audience knows it. If I don’t practice for a week, my accompanist knows it. If I don’t practice for a day, I know it.”
Singing, like gymnastics or swimming, involves physical fitness, muscle training. The old saying applies: “Use it, or lose it.”
The day I was the “designated singer,” I knew I was losing it.
With the loosening of COVID-19 regulations, some churches have begun holding in-person services again. For limited numbers, with people spaced out.
But the rule still applies — no singing!
Because, of course, if you’re singing you’re breathing deeply. And you’re all inhaling and exhaling at the same time. For virus particles carried by air currents, singing must resemble pulmonary paradise.
As a compromise, my congregation agreed to allow humming. Under a mask, of course.
And yet singing may be more central to worship than fine words or fancy rituals. I suspect that worship originated, not delivered by a flash of lightning from above, but in gatherings around a prehistoric campfire as people munching on the day’s catch synchronized their grunts and slurps, and felt themselves part of something bigger, something more profound, more meaningful.
When I was younger, we often re-enacted that campfire ritual. As we roasted marshmallows or hotdogs, we sang. Perhaps churchy songs like “Do Lord” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Perhaps secular stuff: “Old MacDonald” or “Home on the Range.” Perhaps the latest hit by the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
Sometimes, some of the guys would try to sing off-colour versions. As a kind of mating ritual, I suspect — like preening peacocks proclaiming their availability.
Singing has been a way of co-ordinating human efforts. Think of sailors singing sea shanties. Or Volga boatmen chanting: “Yo, heave, ho…” Think of human rights marchers: “We shall overcome.”
Whatever the mode, singing together was a way of building community.
Medical studies indicate that when we sing together, we not only breathe together, we also start to synchronize our heartbeats. We start to act like one body.
Pete Seeger intuitively knew that, even though may have lacked medical expertise. He always — always — got his audiences singing along.
A friend’s grandchild recently lamented COVID-induced isolation at her daycare: “It’s no fun playing hide and seek by yourself.”
The same holds true for singing.
Singing together has become a yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I miss it. I wonder if we’ll ever get it back.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.