Choir in the Time of COVID

It was Wednesday, March 11, 2020, around 8:45 pm. We were just finishing choir rehearsal—Kol HaEmek rehearses on Wednesdays, 7:00-9:00 pm—and saying goodbye to each other. The goodbyes always end with “see you next week.” There were rumblings about a strange, new flu-like virus ravaging parts of the world, but it all seemed so far away. Little did we know that March 11, 2020 would be the last day we would rehearse together in the same space, singing together, talking, laughing, being together. We still don’t know when we can sing together again, all in the same place.
    I love to sing. I sing in the shower; in the kitchen; in the car (especially in the car!). It just makes me happy. But when I sing in a choir, the joy I feel is enhanced. Singing with others is a much richer experience. Of course, singing with a group is musically more layered and complex. Together, we create harmony—each part comes together to create a chord. Sometimes those chords can be so beautiful, it feels transcendent. We listen to one another, play off of each other, sometimes taking the melody, then handing it off to others. We share the rhythm, moving together, complementing each other, many individuals becoming one instrument. We take inert black notes dotting staves on a sheet of music and make them come alive. As Leonard Bernstein has said, “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” Music—singing—is a powerful means of communication. We use music and singing to woo, worship, and express feelings, among other things.
    But choral singing is more than just the music. It has been shown that singing in choirs is beneficial for your health, both mental and physical. Studies have shown that singing can increase endorphins, which promotes a feeling of happiness; can decrease stress; can help with cognition. When I am not part of a choir, I feel a loss, like something is missing. During this pandemic, that feeling of missing something is acute. At first, not going to choir on Wednesday nights was a disruption to my routine. Then, it became a palpable void in my life. I missed coming together to create something beautiful, and I missed the people.
    Choirs come together to make music, yes, but they also come together as a community, a havurah. Of course, those of us in Kol HaEmek are all connected by our love of singing, but many of us have been coming together for years, every Wednesday, and we have a shared sense of family when we are together. So what happens when we cannot come together physically in the same place? What happens to the two hours of camaraderie we look forward to each week? In 2020, this odd year of a global pandemic, we improvise.
    Soon after that fateful night in March, our Director, Hazzan Judy Sofer, decided to do something a little different—we met virtually, on Zoom, during the first week in April. Initially, we thought it would be easy. We assumed we could all sing our parts as we always had, with Cantor Judy conducting and Darlene Sanger, our accompanist, playing piano, being able to hear one another. Alas, when we started, it soon became apparent that singing together on Zoom created a cacophony—musical chaos! Because of variations in internet connection speeds, our singing together became all jumbled up. It was impossible to continue that way. During that first rehearsal, we tried several things to be able to carry on. The solution? We could still sing together, but each of us had to mute ourselves while Judy conducted and played the piano. If you can imagine, we could all hear Judy, but not each other. Interestingly, it worked. It was not optimal, but it was a solution. In some ways, it was like singing alone, but between songs we would unmute, discuss musical issues that we needed to work on, and chat amongst ourselves. So, it was decided to continue with rehearsals, with all of us, save Hazzan Sofer, on mute.
    I am happy to say that most of us have soldiered on with the Zoom rehearsals. We even recorded three songs for the Festival of Jewish Music last month. Making the recordings was an adventure in technology in and of itself.
    Even though we cannot meet together now, or in the foreseeable future, we have found a way to connect and do what we all love—sing! We do look forward to the time when we can see and interact with each other again in person. In the meantime, we use the remarkable technology now available to us to remain connected, to preserve our community of song, raise the collective spirit and continue celebrating the richness of Jewish music.
    We are always looking for singers! If you are interested in joining us, please contact Hazzan Judy Sofer at:


LORI MCKENNA is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.



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