“Lovely singing, I’m sure,” choral director Kirsten Rezansoff tells her choir, gathered in boxes before her. “It looks nice from here.”
“Here” is the music room in her home, where 11 members of the Grand Forks choir gaze back at her through her computer monitor, each one projected from their respective living rooms or kitchens. This is choir practice in the time of COVID-19.
After letting the singers chat about gardening and home projects on the go at the top of the Zoom choir session on a Wednesday night, Rezansoff signals the start of the singing, leads singers through some gentle stretches, clicks to mute everyone’s microphones and jumps into warm-ups on the piano. Across the computer screen, faces stretch and smile out “Ma-Me-Moos” in relative unison, but slight lags or grainy pictures speak loudly to signal the new time this choir is navigating.
“I would hesitate even to call it really a choir practice because it’s so different from what we normally do,” Rezansoff said in an interview just a couple days before her singers were meant to take to the stage in the auditorium at Grand Forks Secondary School for their spring show. But with no show to sing for anymore, thanks to restrictions in place to curb the pandemic, Grand Forks choir members are still turning out on Wednesday nights to sing alone, together.
Now, Rezansoff said, “It’s more about how people are feeling and just giving everyone an opportunity to use their voice as medicine.”
Lyn Mackie has been singing in the Grand Forks choir for 25 years. She’s sung her way through the ranks into the Back Row Altos – a group of veterans in the choir – but she started in the 1990s with little experience. After watching one Christmas show, she was hooked.
“That whole movement forward, that culmination of four months or five months worth of work to get to that point [of a show], you miss that,” said Mackie about not having a spring show this year. “The little bit of anxiety and then the ‘Wahoos!’ when you finish your concert, all that aspect goes out the window,” she said.
Nevertheless, practices these days are well worth it for her.
“It’s still just so nice to connect and so nice to sing even though you’re just singing with yourself and nobody can hear you,” Mackie said.
Because of internet lag and microphone quality, among other factors, Zoom online choir can’t accommodate voices in unison. Instead, only Rezansoff’s microphone is on to share her vocal and piano directions with the choir. From Mackie’s perspective, she’s then singing in duo with the choir director.
“I just go into my little back room and close the door – and my husband is downstairs – and I just sing my heart out,” she said. “It’s not pretty. But it feels good.”
Jennifer Fenn, a first soprano, has sung in choirs in England and across Canada. “Choir singing is part of my soul,” she said.
Though she said she’s missing filling the same room with her voice and those of another 40 or so friends, she said she appreciates the connection that online choir has fostered.
“I think music is so important,” she said. “It heals the soul and it’s just got all kinds of properties that we need.”
That’s why Rezansoff keeps the choir going. Instead of the Broadway hits that made up the set list for the cancelled May 2 show, she leads them through tunes like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, before closing the night with The Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Grainy video be darned, seeing the singers feeling the same music has a power to it as well.
The last time there was an in-person glitch in technology, Rezansoff said, was when the choir was together earlier this year learning a song called “Connected” by Canadian composer Brian Tate. The power in the high school’s band room snapped off, but the choir just kept on singing.
“It was so cool and powerful to be in the dark with this group of people singing this very cool music with really important text,” Rezansoff said. “And just feeling that connection in the complete dark.
“For me, when my choir gets together again, that will be one of the first things I want us to sing, because it’s such a reminder of the importance of singing together,” the director said.
At the same time, Rezansoff said, there’s value in just belting out a tune for the sake of it.
“I think music is so powerful when we aren’t analyzing it or digging into that analytical side of things. Instead of thinking about how we’re singing, we just sing and for the joy of it.”