Dec 17, 2020

Scattered Voices: A Reflection on Choral Singing and Community

What does singing collectively mean for community—and why does it feel especially important during the holidays? How did we sing together during this difficult year?

In this article, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir soprano Carrie Loring draws from experience and anecdotes to express the incomparable magic of choral singing, and why it is such an integral part of the festive season.


Scattered Voices: A Reflection on Choral Singing and Community
Carrie Loring, soprano

Image: depicted left to right are Tafelmusik sopranos Carrie Loring, Susan Suchard, and Meghan Moore

Choral singing is a timeless tradition, a natural passion shared by people of many backgrounds all around the globe: strangers and friends, young and old. In the best of times, we sing with our families, in school, in church, around campfires, in both amateur and professional choirs, and we carol at Christmastime. Choral singing has always had a unique power to bring us together as a community, in song and in friendship. This is especially so during the holiday season, when we celebrate love and the promise of new beginnings. 

“Unto us a child is born.”

 

I have been singing in choirs for as long as I can remember, and realize that it has always been uplifting, inspiring, healing, challenging, and joyous. There are countless choral memories, and they somehow live in us forever. 

“Sing, choirs of angels; Sing in exultation.”

 

High school choir held its ambitious productions, festive holiday concerts with singers crammed in together, wearing white shirts and red bow ties; the hard work and memorization culminating in one giant performance; hundreds of parents looking on with pride. In this choir, we learned the basics of singing and performing. We loved the escape from classrooms into a world of blasting out songs, and making friends with whom we shared special musical bonds.

“Sing we joyous all together.”

 

There is the church choir which is an entity unto its own, composed of unique, caring, and jovial individuals. Beautiful, varied, and extensive weekly repertoire mingles with a time for caring and faithful fellowship. Singers often arrive fatigued on Sunday mornings, but are rejuvenated by noon. The Christmas Eve service moves us with its candles, solace, and restrained excitement.

“Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day.”

 

I fondly remember our annual carolling quartets, dressed in Victorian costume, holding giant songbooks with tricky arrangements. We would sing at private parties, stroll through snowy Toronto streets, and wander busy shopping malls. Our carols were warmly received by spectators, both religious and agnostic. There were solemn moments, when harmonies jelled in the sweet acoustic of an echoey alcove. There were giddy moments in the jarring juxtaposition of singing sacred texts in a secular surrounding: “Hail thou ever blessed morn” just as a jolly elf mascot rounded a store corner. 

“O’er the fields we go, laughing all the way.”

 

Over the years, I am proud to have sung with some outstanding professional choirs. Don’t even get me started on Tafelmusik! This is my twenty-ninth year with the Chamber Choir; Lucky me! It is pure pleasure. There is the richness of the music itself, the emphasis on nuance and vocal agility, the camaraderie and commitment of the musicians, the exuberance of the music-making. At our annual Sing-Along Messiah, it is impossible not to feel elated. Over two thousand diverse voices blend together, with Mr. Handel directing us all with passion, humour, tradition, and joy. 

“Hallelujah!”

 

I have been fortunate to lead children’s choirs, and direct seniors in song. In this wide spectrum of age, “kids from one to ninety-two," there is no difference in the delight that choral singing brings. A child happily vocalizes, readily joining its voice with others. An elder, whose memory is failing, gleefully trills every note of a chorus sung in youth. 

“Olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams to share.”

 

In this surreal year of 2020, given the restraints of the pandemic, we have been made poignantly aware of the importance of our cherished choral community. COVID, the Grinch, tried to steal choral singing from us. Seasons were postponed, performances were cancelled, and concert halls were locked up. We were stuck home alone unable to come together. How do we sing together in such a circumstance? Well, it seems that singing is unstoppable. If COVID has been the Grinch, then we are the “Whos down in Who-ville, the tall and the small," who stay very merry, and sing despite all! 

“Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day!”

 

Humans are highly creative, and we are lucky enough to live in a technological age in which we are not fully cut off from each other. After the pandemic set in, our inventiveness began, and we embraced the learning curves and opportunities for creativity. Our disappointment gave rise to our determination.  We sang behind face masks that covered the body part most vital for singing.  We sang separated by plexiglass panes that muffled our sound. We sang on Zoom despite the pesky lag. Our homes evolved into make-do recording studios for complex virtual collaborations. Porch concerts emerged with passerby audiences. People wailed out songs from their balconies, and those below joined in. 

“Angels we have heard on high."

 

Image: a choir member's inventive home setup, for recording Tafelmusik's version of Jesus bleibet meine Freude

Image: a still from our most recent concert, A Tafelmusik Christmas, featuring our choir members in masks

This Christmas we are separated from loved ones. There is good news: “Someday soon, we all will be together," but there’s a caveat: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow." We won’t be together in our usual way, but we can still sing up a storm and raise the rafters. Join in the Chorus of Tafelmusik’s Sing-Along Messiah on Screen*; revel in the sweet swells of John Rutter’s "Nativity Carol," soar up high on the David Willcocks’ descants; bask in the virtual choir of Eric Whitacre's "Glow." Let the familiar melodies conjure up precious memories: of songs sung, stories told, loved ones lost, laughter with family and friends, cherished gifts, lights, trees, and traditions. Let the harmonies warm your heart, comfort your soul, and lift your spirits. Our community is strong though our voices are scattered. 

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”


* Please join Tafelmusk for our Sing-Along Messiah on Screen: available for free to watch (and sing along to!) from December 17 at 7pm EST through December 26 at 11:59pm EST, in the comfort of your own home. Join us—and set a reminder to watch—at tafelmusik.org/sing-along-on-screen