Same breath that carries the music now quiets the choir
Social distancing sends choir into Zoom squares, where simultaneous singing is impossible
December 23, 2020
Nothing is the same for the Shalhevet Choirhawks, who are now completely barred from singing together, unable to have even just a little of what they used to as the school’s touring, concertizing, and Chanukah-caroling co-ed Jewish a capella group.
Since the coronavirus outbreak in March, the Firehawk choir has had to abandon the Shalhevet music room and try to sing over Zoom, due to a health prohibition directed specifically at singing because it spreads the virus faster.
This has had the effect of stopping choir almost entirely, because it can’t simply move rehearsals and concerts online. Zoom features a slight audio delay — a seemingly small problem that throws off the choir’s entire sound by preventing people from singing at exactly the same time. Tiny delays destroy the entire performance, turning what should be a sonorous blend into a meaningless cacaphony.
“In choir, everything needs to be exact, exact, exact, and Zoom has a little, tiny delay, so if we all try to sing together on Zoom, it sounds super off,” said the group’s director, Ms. Joelle Keene. “Part of my job is to hold everybody together, and that’s physically impossible on Zoom.”
The root of the problem is microscopic water droplets called “aerosols” that can carry the virus, and that a person emits when projecting their voice.
Dr. Julie Higashi, a public health expert for L.A. County and leader of Shalhevet’s Medical Task Force, said one of the earliest “super-spreader” Covid outbreaks happened at a Seattle-area choir practice last March, when 52 singers out of 61 in attendance caught Covid-19 from just one who was infected. Two died.
“Singing is a well-known activity for producing aerosols extremely efficiently,” wrote Dr. Higashi in an email reply to Boiling Point questions. “The experience in Seattle … is evidence enough that choir is, unfortunately, an extremely high-risk activity.”
Tuberculosis and pertussis have also been spread by singing, she said.
Junior Danielle Finn, a Choirhawk tenor, said she understands the prohibition because of an experience she had in ninth grade when pertussis, or whooping cough, spread throughout Shalhevet, concentrating in choir.
“When whooping cough spread in Shalhevet, it started in choir,” said Danielle, who herself was the fifth case at the time, the Boiling Point reported. “And there were a lot of studies saying that singing, especially in groups, in a secluded area and even outside, spreads viruses way faster than talking, because you’re using so much more energy and so much more breath. So it wouldn’t be smart for us to be in-person.”
Because of all this, the in-person harmonization that members describe as “magical” is out of the Choirhawks’ reach. They can’t meet in person due to the virus, and they can’t sing together over Zoom due to the delay.
At online practices on Zoom, the singers warm up from their computers with their microphones muted. They can only hear one another one at a time.
Later, they divide into breakout rooms by section to learn their parts by listening to a recording and having the section leader sing it while the others follow on mute. Each member will then record their respective parts alone.
“You don’t have a face-to-face interaction,” said Choirhawk bass Joey Blumofe, who is a co-president of the group. “It’s not just the actual voices. It’s the body language, it’s the sense of the group as a whole singing together as one big voice. And so when you’re physically separated by a screen, it definitely feels a lot more isolated.”
Gone is the bond they normally feel while singing together and hanging out during rehearsals.
“I got to see people in-person, that’s what I loved about choir — the in-person aspect of it — and not having that is really hard for all of us,” said junior Andrew Petlak, the choir’s beat-boxer.
The three freshmen in this year’s group have still never experienced being part of the group sound, except on a rough-draft recording of a song the group is trying to learn — “The Bones,” by Maren Morris.
“Nothing can really re-create the harmonization that you hear in the choir,” said ninth-grade soprano Rachel Blumofe, Joey’s sister.
“Whenever I’d go to my brother’s performances, it would give me chills just listening to their beautiful voices and how they all just matched up with each other.”
According to Ms. Keene, this separateness changes the experience.
“Everything that human beings are involved in has its own chemistry and its own magic,” Ms. Keene said, “Ours comes from the emotion that comes when you make sound together.”
After Covid sent everyone home last spring, the choir was able to make group videos with singers in individual Zoom-like boxes. Since it was March, they already knew most of the music, the group was larger, and three then-seniors had previous video or computer expertise.
This year, Joey Blumofe is editing the members’ cellphone-made voice recordings together, assisted by his sister Rachel and junior Wolf Paskowitz. All three are learning as they go.
“The difficulty was sort of just trying to line everything up — an issue I discovered recently when my computer crashed and I lost all of my progress,” said Joey. “But when I put all of the clips in, they ended up perfectly lined up as they originally were.”
In early November, Joey played an edit of the choir’s combined voices singing one of “The Bones.” Hearing them all together for the first time was an emotional experience for them.
But it’s a long process, and the group didn’t manage to finish new music in time for Chanukah. Instead of a concert, Emily Klausner and Noah Masliah made a combined video of “The Best Part,” by Daniel Caesar and H.E.R., and Danielle Finn performed her original song, “Some Day.” Ms. Keene posted them on Schoology, and they received 38 likes.
Rehearsals are shorter now and the group is smaller — 12 instead of last year’s 18 — and attendance is less consistent. But a dedicated core of Choirhawks is already looking ahead.
Sophomore soprano Ella Ashkenazi is committed to the group effort and said this experience is strengthening the bonds between the choir members.
“I want to be part of the choir during this time to keep it on track so we have all of the parts and people we need in order to make it the best we can,” Ella said. “To know we can come back from this in the future when we’re together in-person — it will kind of just make us even stronger.”
Danielle also finds the Choirhawks motivated and in good spirits.
“I’m so proud of us, honestly, because the fact that- for the most part- people come to every practice and they show up and they’re not like, ‘debbie-downers,’ everyone honestly makes the most of it,” Danielle said.
“It’s like super cool to see that, because I know that people are, like, really struggling during this time,” she said. “And that fact that they still come and they still try is super cool.”