The Return of choral singing workshops
By Roland Graham
The pandemic was a hard time for the arts, especially for community choirs. With seeming good reason, activities cramming large numbers of people in at-risk groups like sardines into poorly ventilated rehearsal halls, “expelling spit” as the pundits hyperbolized, were singularly condemned.
Yet, the super-spreader theory has been largely debunked. A re-examination of data surrounding the infamous Washington church choir event where 53 people tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after an evening rehearsal states that it is “vanishingly unlikely that this was a single point source outbreak as widely claimed”.
The study, conducted by Brunel University London, Nottingham Trent University and Brighton and Sussex Medical School and published in Public Health journal, concluded that “an unexamined assumption has led to erroneous policy conclusions about the risks of singing, and indoor spaces more generally”.
Folks in the choral singing community stoically trudged through nearly two years of Zoom rehearsals before public health pundits caught up with the data. The rollout of vaccines in 2021 (84 per cent of Canadians are vaccinated today) significantly helped to get things back on track. An internet search today shows study after study supporting a return to group singing.
Now back in rehearsal, many singers wear masks, and that may help, as can extra space between singers and improved ventilation. Organizers excel at running safe rehearsals by allowing individuals to sit apart from the group and offering online learning aids.
For my part, having largely taken a break from choral direction during the past two seasons – call it COVID-19, call it burnout, call it having a new baby girl – I’m delighted to be back at it with my choral workshops. This year, I’m running spring, summer and fall workshops, and I’m planning my first international workshop to take place in Central America in February 2024.
The spring choral workshop will focus on a feature work, Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Composed in 1943, Samuel Barber’s 16-minute cantata is a favourite 20th-century choral work that has much to offer singers across the spectrum. Infectious rhythms, rousing polyphony and drama permeate the accessible four-part choral score, with something for everyone to enjoy, including folks in the dead-set-against-modern camp.
The spring workshop repertoire will include a few shorter works, among them Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, a choral setting of the famous Adagio for Strings and my own Canterbury Canticles, culminating in a musical offering celebrating the 10th anniversary of Doors Open for Music at Southminster in May.
Later this season, I’ll present a beginner workshop for choral neophytes, teaching elemental singing concepts such as breathing, producing sound and blending and covering basic reading skills such as how to follow a musical score. Beginners in choral singing will finish the program singing national anthems at an Ottawa Champions baseball game in August.
In the fall I’ll mount another intermediate choral workshop and in February 2024, I’ll be taking a group of singers to Nicaragua. An unexplored region by travelling choirs, the trip will offer a totally original experience, blending wellness and eco/adventure tourism with daily singing, immersed in a wonderful world of colonial, indigenous and Latin culture, set in one of the most agreeable climates to be found on earth.
The underlying theme of my workshops is reclaiming your voice. Any who have missed employing their vocal cords to musical ends or simply want to sing even more, honing and discovering new abilities as they do, will thrive in them. Geared especially to people not seeking long-term commitments, participants don’t have to join for the whole year and don’t need to audition to take part.
For more information, contact OttawaChoralWorkshops@gmail.com.
Roland Graham is artistic director of the Master Piano Recital Series and Doors Open for Music at Southminster, held at Southminster United Church.