Choir singing in the time of COVID

The Bytown Voices choir (formerly Glebe Singers) has found ways to sing in person while still following public health guidance. Its next concert will be in December.   Photo: Valerie Bryce

By Valerie Bryce

Bytown Voices choir has survived through the pandemic, not only intact but with an increased membership. As one of the original members from the days of the Glebe Singers said, “Rehearsals on Zoom were not ideal, but it kept us in touch and in voice!”

Two years ago, the choir was busy practising for its 21st-anniversary concert in April 2020 when rehearsals had to be suspended due to public health concerns about the spread of COVID-19. It soon became obvious that this special concert would have to be cancelled.

“Never mind,” we thought, “we’ll re-start rehearsing in September and include some of the anniversary music in the December concert.” Well, that didn’t happen, nor did any concerts in 2021.

So what has the choir been doing for the past two years?

First, we learned how to use Zoom and sang from our living rooms, bedrooms, cottages or wherever. Led by our dynamic and ever encouraging director of music, Joan Fearnley, the routine was familiar – physical and vocal warm-ups, then the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses learned their notes in breakout rooms, each section with its own musical teacher. A short plenary session completed the rehearsal with piano support.

“It’s not the same,” most of us muttered. No, it wasn’t, but we were continuing to sing every Tuesday evening and were introduced to new music. We could also socialize with our fellow choristers in the 20 minutes or so allowed for this before the rehearsal began. Once we were familiar with the music and pressing the correct buttons on Zoom – “mute” being the most important! – Joan announced that all those who were willing could record themselves, then submit their recording to our tech guru (a tenor) who would coordinate them all. He worked his magic, and the results of two efforts can be seen on YouTube (search for Bytown Voices).

As COVID levels and public health regulations changed, so did the ways we rehearsed. A hybrid model was devised whereby half the choristers could practise in person every other week, keeping the numbers down. On the weeks when not singing in person, Zoom provided continuity. Everyone had to be double vaccinated, sit two metres apart and complete health-screening forms before each gathering. Masks were compulsory for singing and many bought the special mask for singers designed by our director (see “Soprano creates mask made specially for singers,” |CBC News). The Zoom option was always available for those who chose not to sing in person for whatever reason.

Now the whole choir is singing together again in person, though full vaccination is still required, singers are still seated further apart than normal and still wearing masks. Hopefully by September, our Tuesday night practices will look and feel much like they did prior to March 2020.

It’s been a lot of planning and a lot of Zoom meetings, but thanks to the positive energy of our director and her musical team plus the enthusiastic commitment of choir members, Bytown Voices has survived the pandemic. As one member said, “When so many doors were closing around me due to COVID and my life became increasingly restricted, Bytown Voices was a wonderful antidote. I looked forward to our weekly choir practices, to connecting with my fellow choir members, to the stimulation of learning new repertoire and to singing my heart out. It was both energizing and healing.”

Bytown Voices is one of the largest non-auditioned choirs in Ottawa, welcoming new singers while still keeping experienced singers on their toes. We tackle a variety of music styles from classical to contemporary and normally give two concerts a year.

Our next concert is scheduled for December 2022 – after a gap of almost three years, it will feel very special!

Valerie Bryce sings alto with Bytown Voices. Information about Bytown Voices can be found at

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