By Séamus Rea
Like every other choir in the country, the Fourth Choir’s activities came to an abrupt halt in March this year. We rehearsed as usual on March 12th and, although the UK Government did not introduce lockdown until March 24th, we were already worried about the safety of our singers and voluntarily decided not to have any more rehearsals. Unusually, one of our singers took a video on her phone of the Choir singing “Shenandoah” at what turned out to be our last rehearsal. By the time she circulated it, frightening stories had begun to emerge from the US of the virus spreading like wildfire at choir rehearsals and the video became a poignant reminder of what we had lost. Something we had taken for granted had been taken from us and we had no idea of when we would be able to get it back.
But technology would save us – right? If we couldn’t meet in reality, we would meet online and Zoom – which I found out was not, apparently, a budget airline – flew into our lives. Our Conductor and Artistic Director, Dominic Ellis-Peckham, made our first online rehearsal as much like a real rehearsal as possible. We did a vocal and physical warm-up and then we started singing one of the simpler pieces we had been working on. It only took eight bars to realise that, with the myriad of tiny time delays before the sound arrived from each singer, it was impossible to sing in time with each other on Zoom and our rendition of a beautiful piece of Renaissance homophony came out sounding like Alban Berg’s final composition…
Despite that, the Choir’s WhatsApp Group filled up with messages such as “Feeling 100% better for seeing you all tonight” so it was clear that our members wanted their regular fix of choral music. The Fourth Choir was founded in September 2013 for LGBT+ singers (and our non-LGBT allies) who wanted to sing the masterpieces of the historic choral rep as well as contemporary compositions. One of the functions of the Fourth Choir therefore is to allow those of us who are in a minority in a sometimes hostile world to breath freely in a space where we are not a minority. It was important that that kind of support continued too.
So, the Zoom sessions continued and Dominic came up with lots of ways to keep them interesting, in particular singing along (with everyone muted) to a recording of a piece we were working on. We also recorded our own solo lines of pieces at home and sent them to Dominic who edited them all together to produce a choral recording.
In June, we had to cancel a big concert for Pride in London but instead, with our “assembled” recordings, we were able to produce a short virtual concert which went out on YouTube on Pride Week. (If you’d like to see it, just search for “The Fourth Choir” on YouTube and it’ll be the first clip that comes up.) Back in April, the Choir was devasted to learn that a former member, Alvin Chua, had died of Covid19 at the criminally young age of 42. Our YouTube concert allowed us to commemorate a beloved colleague and was dedicated to his memory.
Whilst the Choir took its normal summer break in July and August, the Choir’s Trustees met regularly on Zoom to discuss whether we’d be able to start rehearsing in person again in the autumn. We wrestled with the Government’s often confusing and contradictory Guidance and we were outraged when professional musicians were allowed to start performing and rehearsing together whilst the country’s army of non-pro musicians were ignored. However, ever the optimists, we studied the safety measures recommended for professional musicians and worked out how we could put those measures in place when (if?) non-pro choirs were allowed to start up again.
The first thing to do, the Guidance said, was to carry out something that sounded very scary called a Risk Assessment. What’s one of those and how do we do one? Do we need a team of experts in hard hats and hi-vis jackets? In the end, we went through every element of a rehearsal step by step – arriving and leaving, warming up, singing, tea breaks and toilet breaks, giving out music etc. – and tried to identify what the risks of transmitting the virus would be in each of those situations and how we could implement a safety measure for each step which would minimise that risk.
In our case, the first thing we had to do was find a new rehearsal venue as the cramped little school hall that we had been using was too small to allow us to maintain social-distancing. A minor miracle happened when the husband of one of our tenors suggested we try the Siobhan Davies Dance Studios (or should we now call them the Dame Siobhan Davies Dance Studios as she has now become a DBE in the birthday honours list?). We found out that their largest studio was available on Thursday evenings, our regular rehearsal night. That was “game on!” so we grabbed it, booked it and everything else became possible from that point.
The Studios gave us an incredibly warm welcome. They had already carried out their own Covid Risk Assessment so we added our safety measures on top of theirs. Temperatures are checked remotely and masks donned at the entrance to the building. We marked out the floor of the Studio into 2m square boxes. Each singer has their own box and must keep all their personal belongings inside it. All the Guidance emphasises the importance of good ventilation so we keep the windows open during the rehearsal: at the break, everyone leaves the room and we turn on fans to refresh the air. There is no sharing of music or pencils and no refreshments at the break. Singers are encouraged to take a loo-break as and when required, rather than waiting until the break, in order to avoid queuing (but planning ahead is also a good idea to avoid having to use the loo at all!). Warm-ups are much less physical than before and we avoid touching our faces. We’ve bought a roll-up transparent screen (easy to order on the internet and surprisingly cheap) to place in front of Dominic to protect him from droplets.
Once we had worked out all the safety measures we were going to put in place, we sent the Risk Assessment with our proposed safety measures to our members and asked them if they would like to rehearse in “real life” again. The answer was a resounding yes! The majority said they would be quite happy to rehearse together with those arrangements in place. For those members who wished to continue to shelter, we broadcast the rehearsal live over Zoom: it’s important for the Choir’s culture that everyone should be able to participate in rehearsals, whether or not they’re actually “in the room where it happens”.
Autumn - The First Rehearsal
So, on September 10, almost six months to the day since we last met, we arrived at the Studios with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The main question was – would we be able to sing with masks on?
Speaking personally, it felt very weird to begin with. The social-distancing meant that I was very aware of my own voice and that the rest of the Choir seemed very far away. I then had to learn not to take sudden, deep gulps of air which would almost make me swallow my standard-issue mask. (Enterprising people are now producing singer-friendly masks which you won’t swallow as you approach a high C.) After six months of silence, we were all rather tentative to begin with but the joy of being back together again after so long was almost overwhelming. We picked up exactly where we left off and the first thing we sang was Shenandoah. It was not our best-ever rendition but it was certainly our most heartfelt.
The response on WhatsApp was unanimous: “I felt very safe – thank you”; “Totally secure”; “Making sounds again – soul food!”; “I am so buzzed from the rehearsal tonight, can’t sleep!”
The Rule of Six
New rules, new guidance, more confusion and contradictory advice. More outrage when the long list of exceptions included indoor rugby but, once again, no mention of non-pro musicians. (I was of course much relieved to find that the exceptions allowed me to continue to play polo (!) and that, when I went grouse shooting, employees such as “beaters, pickers-up and loaders” were exempt from the rule of six “both indoors and outdoors”. I couldn’t decide whether to bring a horse or a loaded gun to rehearsal.)
From an excess of caution, we cancelled our rehearsal on September 17 and trudged unwillingly back to Zoom. Fortunately (and thank you!) Making Music lobbied the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport for clarification and a specific announcement was made that non-pro musicians could continue to meet, provided that no more than six “mingled” at any one time. The only possibility of having more than six mingling during our rehearsals is during the break so we now send groups of six to separate rooms for a chat at break-time. We’ve now had four more rehearsals, each one a joy, in part because we know each one should be treasured as they could stop again at any moment.
For now, the Fourth Choir is still singing, still proud and still living from week to week…