Posted by: Colin Britt | March 14, 2020

Cancellations and choral music in the COVID-19 era

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Less than one week ago I was writing about my exciting trip to Rochester for the ACDA Eastern Division conference, and about some very exciting upcoming concerts, including the West Village Chorale‘s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and the premiere my new commissioned piece for the Maine Bicentennial, So Also We Sing.

What a difference a few days make. Within the span of about 6 hours on Thursday, each of my teaching jobs and choruses made the difficult but necessary decision to close down and postpone our upcoming performances until the coronavirus pandemic has receded. My church choir will not be singing together or rehearsing for the foreseeable future, and the church itself will be broadcasting services on a youtube channel, rather than risking the health of parishioners by continuing in-person services. The West Village Chorale has postponed our Sunday concert until an undetermined future date, and Tuesday night rehearsals are likewise suspended. And in possibly the saddest and most painful moment of my teaching career, I had to tell my students with tears in my eyes that I honestly didn’t know when I’d see them again. The uncertainty and fear we all face seems unprecedented, and for those of us in the choral world, it’s paralyzing.

When I think back about the worst days of my life – 9/11, the sudden death of a close personal friend, Sandy Hook, and certainly natural disasters and political unrest – on each of those occasions our communities were able to come together in solidarity, and to comfort one another. We could hug and kiss each other, hold hands, and cry, and those of us who draw comfort and inspiration from music could lift our voices together in communal song. It’s what we do with our art – we unite, we galvanize, we uplift. But not with this virus. This silent, invisible danger threatening us all prevents us from doing that. It feels eerily like a hurricane or blizzard descending on our community, except we can’t see it coming, and we don’t know who among us might be infected. So we retreat from contact and interaction, we quarantine ourselves, and above all, we certainly don’t gather together.

Asking musicians not to join and engage with one another is kind of like asking a bird to stop flying. It won’t kill them, but it feels like there suddenly seems to be less of a world out there. These necessary and life-saving measures will most assuredly limit the spread of this dangerous virus, but all of us who have devoted our lives to performing with and for one another now face an emotional and existential test unlike any we’ve encountered in our lifetimes. And those of us who teach music now find ourselves struggling to adapt to a cold and distant world of online instruction; it may fill the hours normally spent in the classroom, but it will never even come close to replacing the act of singing or playing together in person.

I realize that some of these are the epitome of first-world problems. I for one am incredibly fortunate to have a strong support system in place, and to work for institutions who will continue to provide for their employees as this social distancing phase unfolds. There are thousands upon thousands of artists who will not have it as easy as me, and I encourage you to visit one of their fundraising sites to support those artists who find themselves without any income for the foreseeable future.

And my heart goes out to the millions of people who will have an even harder time than we will – single under- and unemployed parents trying to care for children who now have no guaranteed meals because schools have also been shuttered, people with compromised immune systems, the elderly and infirm who are at the highest risk from this virus, and of course people already suffering from its effects. This is going to hit all of us in some way. But for a large number of us who have devoted our lives towards healing and bringing light and hope into the world with our music, this is a new and particularly agonizing challenge we’re now facing.

But we will overcome it. Together, even if not physically. We are strong, and resilient, and we will find a way.

If you’ve read this far without giving up, please enjoy the performance given at ACDA by the Rutgers University Voorhees Choir (conducted by Dr. Brandon Williams) of “Imagination,” my setting of a text by Phillis Wheatley, who was the first African-American woman to publish a book (while still enslaved!). If you’re looking for inspiration in these trying times, try drawing some from these incredible words:

    Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Be safe, everyone. See you on the other side.

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