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Singing in silence: How this Whitehorse choir is rehearsing during COVID-19

Barbara Chamberlin leads her choir through vocal warm-ups — but she can’t hear her singers.

While it looks like 11 sopranos are belting their hearts out, everyone is muted on Zoom.

“I’m just seeing a bunch of mouths moving, hopefully,” said Chamberlin, the director of the Whitehorse Community Choir.

The Whitehorse Community Choir is largely rehearsing over Zoom this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. People sing from their own homes, with their microphones on mute to avoid the time lag.

The experience is “really strange,” said Chamberlin.

The soprano section smiles during a Zoom rehearsal last week. Everyone is singing, but they can only hear the director and the handful of choristers in her home. (Laura Howells/CBC)

“It’s hard to sing by yourself, it really is.”

But new guidelines from Yukon’s chief medical officer mean a few people can now sing together again. 

At the soprano sectional on Monday, four singers sat in Chamberlin’s home wearing masks and sitting at a distance, while she lead the rest of the choir over Zoom.

“It’s a bit more of a choir experience,” said Chamberlin. Only one section rehearses at a time, and a volunteer helps sanitize the room.

Some people in the Whitehorse Community Choir can now rehearse in person, after Yukon’s chief medical officer released guidelines for singing last week. (Submitted by Barbara Chamberlin)

The choir stopped rehearsals this spring and was on hiatus until September.

More than 60 people signed up for virtual choir practice. Rehearsals began with online sectionals, so Chamberlin can work with smaller groups.

“It’s really strange doing it over Zoom because I can’t hear what anyone’s doing,” said Chamberlin. She plans on starting to record singers, then providing individual feedback.

“We’re not used to this at all,” said Chamberlin. “But it’s been pretty successful so far.”

But it’s not the same.

Socializing is such a big part of choir, said Chamberlin, who noted some previous members didn’t sign up for virtual practices.

Barbara Chamberlin is director of the Whitehorse Community Choir. She says it’s been ‘strange’ rehearsing over Zoom, because she can’t hear her choristers. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Chamberlin has submitted an application and hopes to have 19 people rehearse a church later this month.

Their holiday performance will also be pre-recorded, with Chamberlin mixing the choristers’ recordings together.

Singing  and playing wind instruments produce droplets that pose risk of spreading COVID-19, say guidelines from Yukon’s chief medical officer. These activities weren’t allowed in Yukon’s schools when they reopened.

But Dr. Brendan Hanley announced new guidelines for singing and wind instruments in late September.

“We have tools to manage that risk, even if we cannot eliminate it,” the guidelines say.

A ‘normal’ performance from the Whitehorse Community Choir back in 2016. (Bruce Barrett)

The guidelines suggest wearing masks, having practices outdoors or in well-ventilated areas,  not sharing music, and keeping a plexiglass barrier between performers and the audience.

Singers have to be two metres apart, and the conductor has to be four metres from the choir.

The guidelines suggest rehearsing in small groups, and keep rehearsals to 30-minute sessions.

Chamberlin said she’s happy with the guidelines. But the whole choir still can’t rehearse together — they don’t have enough space for the required distancing.

She’s uncertain about the future.

“There are diehard choir people and they will always want to do choir no matter what,” she said.

“I try to make this fun, but it’s not always fun being on Zoom by yourself. So we just have to see what happens.”

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