I click on the ‘join meeting’ button, and I’m met with a screen full of squares. Tiny moving faces smile, squint, some too dark to make out. The faces are drinking tea, shooing away cats, adjusting their chairs. Others are standing, rocking babies in slings- their heads cut off the top of the screen. All are silently mouthing something in broken synchrony, everyone mute. The Choir director throws an imaginary ball. We all catch it. She laughs, claiming ‘I love the look of your faces when we go low!’. I can hear the shaky sound my own solitary voice in the kitchen, along with the hum of the washing spin and the boiling eggs tapping against the metal of the saucepan on the stove.
This is an experience of on Online Zoom community choir session during the COVID 19 Pandemic in the UK. Choir singing as a face-to-face activity has, like many social gatherings, been severely curtailed by social distancing laws. Community choirs had been heralded as a social lifeline to millions across the UK. Research into the physical and psychotherapeutic health benefits of community choirs largely agree group singing good for you. It can boost the immune system, create feelings of happiness and belonging, reduces stress and is the most effective way to bond together large groups of people (Pearce et al 2017, Dingle et al 2019). Community choirs are recommended for adults suffering from depression, physical and mental health difficulties, homelessness and marginalised lives.
The Coronavirus outbreak continues to expose the many ways people in isolation connect socially through virtual means: Netflix parties, virtual pubs and bookgroups. Group singing and music, a powerful tool long used for social and spiritual connection, joined these creative ways of togetherness, and online choir sessions such as the Sofa Singers, sprang up on a global scale.
My research into choir singing has been historically preoccupied with the atmospheric space of shared sound and vibrations. How this translates into a virtual space is of great interest. From meeting at a regular time each week, to gather, to see and be seen, to embody the space, feel the presence of the other bodies, the touch, the breath, the post-rehearsal pub drink, and of course the acoustic sound. Between March-July 2020 I turned my attention to gathering the experiences of 40 community choir members and 22 choir directors via qualitative surveys, research based at The University of Westminster. Online choirs are both a painful reminder of the loss of singing together in the same space, whilst at the same time create opportunities for deeper- and at times more equalitarian- connections.
Ongoing interactions: Inviting the choir ‘into your living room’
For those for whom community choirs had come to play a significant role in their social lives, coming together virtually maintained vital social interaction, structure and rhythm during what was often isolating, frightening and shapeless long weeks of lockdown. Members spoke of being ‘reminded there was a world outside my flat’, a regular commitment in the week to ‘hang on to’, a ‘lifeline’, a sense of escapism and ‘much needed normality’, keeping our community and ‘family’ close, and a ‘feeling of belonging and togetherness’. Members reflect on the importance of familiarity and connections during a lonely and deeply stressful time:
I have experienced such warmth and joy from logging into the Zoom choir. The first time I logged in was approximately day 5 of the lockdown and I was in what I like to think of as the ‘panic phase’. Everywhere I looked in real life there were scared faces and this ripple of uncertainty throughout the land. I live alone so I was feeling EXTEREMELY and intensely lonely! I knew I had to try anything and everything to get back my flailing grip on reality. One by one up popped all those little faces on my computer screen; they were like little honey bees in the nest! Some of the faces were familiar and some not-but seeing those little teeny tiny, honey-I-shrunk-the kids-faces smiling and chattering and even just simply moving made me feel better for the first time since the Pandemic began. It felt like being replanted in the soil. (Member, 40, London).
A couple of times I was so overwhelmed with being together like that I became too choked up to sing but still so enjoyed joining in and listening. I am amazed to be able to join up with everyone like this (Member, 52, Cumbria)
Our choir has evolved from being a group activity to being a family. We see each other more than our own chosen friends or family so to lose that connection in the current circumstances would, I believe had a profound detrimental effect on us all. (Member, 42, London)
Missing voices, ‘painful’ loss of sound
Maintaining social connections, however restorative, were presented as scant compensation for the loss of harmonies and collective sound. Current technology allows only one voice to be heard at a time- the antithesis of group singing, which attributes the intensity of the shared experience to the blending of multiple voices to ‘become one’. Choir leaders selected morale boosting repertoire that reflected the stoic mood of ‘keeping on together whatever lies ahead’, yet singers spoke of the ‘visceral pain’ of ‘missing voices’.
‘I have wept and wept…it HURTS not to be able to hear those voices together… the full physical experience of singing and all vibrating together is utterly missing’ (Clare Elleray Mee; Growing Singing)
What is missing is the feeling of breathing as one with your fellow choir members, and with that the synchronised heartbeats and feeling of unity. What’s missing is the support of the voices around each singer encouraging them to open their mouth and let out the scary sound that is their voice. What’s missing is hearing and feeling the glorious sounds made by the choir and the uplift that gives… I am aware that I am doing a good job for my singers in keeping them together but it doesn’t feed my soul (Anonymous Choir leader)
I don’t think you can ever fully replicate that energy through Zoom! That collective moment has to be physically FELT and breathed into your body and out again and passed onto the next person and so on. The breath and vibrations and skin cells of everyone in the room have to be mixed into a glorious union of voice and minds and heart and souls. (Member, 40, London).
New opportunities, different voices
Resigned to the fact that choirs were no longer (predominantly) about singing, creating new opportunities for deeper connections emerged as a strong theme in the research. Abandoning the rehearsal in its usual format, online choir sessions became a forum for ‘checking in’ with each other, allowing everyone’s voice to come ‘into the room’ in turn.
Initially, a good quarter of the session was dedicated to chatting and seeing how everyone was doing, sharing suggestions of distractions; from watching theatre productions, Frieda Kahlo ballets to vegetable growing tips. We listened to health updates of those affected, hoping and hoping. As the months have passed we have become more used to not hearing each other during the singing. (Kirsten Taylor, SONG BIRDS)
Despite seeing the same faces every week for ten years, for the first time members were discovering each other through intimate conversations. ‘Weathering the storm’ together opened meaningful rapports, where ‘chat instantly went deep, no wishy washy topics. Like “are you making ends meet?” “are you too lonely to cope?” which in my eyes kind of beats “that’s a nice scarf, is it from Laura Ashley?”. This newfound ‘group therapy’ can of course simultaneously work to exclude those who not feel comfortable. Yet for those who thrived, the loss of the collective voice made space for new voices where members felt, in some cases for the first time, ‘really heard’.
Like all online shifts, virtual choirs can create greater accessibility for those who have difficulties traveling to shared spaces, due to health, disability, caring responsibilities or affordability. Having been previously forced to leave the choir due to accessibility, members claimed social distancing has enabled them to ‘reconnect’. Less confident singers have ‘been liberated by being able to sing without being heard by others!’, and for those for who struggle to perform awkward small talk whilst packing up, the abrupt click of ‘End Session’ feels like a welcome relief.
The future landscape of choir singing remains uncertain. One choir leader told me that choirs have been left to fend for themselves, and while this has meant community choirs have produced their own resources and directives, ‘it’s another example of governments failing to acknowledge the importance of the arts in people’s day to day lives’. Identified early as a high risk activity, government guidelines have only recently clarified how choirs can rehearse safely. In the meantime, virtual choirs can provide an unexpected space for listening to each other’s voices somewhat differently.
Dingle, G. A., Clift, S., Finn, S., Gilbert, R., Groarke, J. M., Irons, J. Y., Williams, E. J. (2019). An Agenda for Best Practice Research on Group Singing, Health, and Well-Being. Music & Science.
Pearce, E., Launay, J., MacCarron, P., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2017). Tuning in to others: Exploring relational and collective bonding in singing and non-singing groups over time. Psychology of Music, 45(4), 496–512.
Emily Falconer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Westminster.