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Singing From the Balconies and Couches: Virtual Choirs During COVID-19

Image credit: Shutterstock
Graham Strahle
| May 17, 2020

With social distancing having put an end to almost every form of participatory live music over recent months, virtual choirs are proving to be a wonderful boon for people wanting to keep up their musical interests and socially connect. While the energy of being in-person with other singers will always be missed, they are the next best thing at the present time. We look at several examples of what has been happening around Australia.

Heralding the shape of things to come, the Australia Day Virtual Choir broadcast by ABC TV on 26 January drew numerous singers from around the country of school age upwards in a livestreamed performance of I am Australian. Although no-one could have anticipated it at the time, this event proved very much the way of the future two months later.

Just as the national lockdown began, Queensland’s Pub Choir mounted a huge virtual singalong of The Carpenters’ Close to You which attracted more than 1,000 participants worldwide. An impressively produced video montage of them all singing together in three-part harmony, posted on YouTube on 22 March, has now received more than 700,000 views. Having previously been running small social singing nights in Brisbane pubs, Pub Choir renamed themselves Couch Choir for this venture whose aim was reducing social isolation. They have since gone from strength to strength with a rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ by some 6,000 singers from 45 countries. It was dedicated to all the frontline workers who are fighting against COVID-19.

John Foreman’s What a Wonderful World with his Aussie Pops Orchestra was another landmark. A large cast of star Australian singers pitched in for this including Courtney Act, Dami Im, Harrison Craig, Isaiah Firebrace and Rhonda Burchmore. Supported by some three dozen orchestral players, they all ‘phoned in’ to produce a beautifully polished arrangement of Louis Armstrong’s classic. Posted on YouTube on 30 March, it aimed at raising awareness of all those in the arts and entertainment industry whose lives are affected at this time, and to the valuable work being done by the charity organisation Support Act in supporting workers impacted by the pandemic.

The ABC followed this on 6 April with a national sing-a-long of I am Australian that drew 109 singers again from around the country. “We set out to brighten the spirits at this difficult time,” the national broadcaster announced. Then for Anzac Day the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra convened a Virtual Choir in which singers were invited to register and take part for a commemorative video of Waltzing Matilda. Marking the MSO’s contribution to #KeepTheMusicGoing, it drew more than 260 submissions and included a quartet of the orchestra’s leading string players. See their YouTube clip here.

As has happened with so many other concerts at this time, Sydney Philharmonia Choir had to cancel its performance of Bach’s St. John Passion during Easter; but they were nevertheless able to go ahead with a virtual performance presented by some 55 musicians in a composite video – each wearing headphones or earphones.

Meanwhile, many community choirs have shifted online. Each Living Moment is a virtual choir that has started up under the umbrella of Voice Moves, Western Australia’s major choral association. It invites people from any part of Australia or beyond to join in on practice and performance sessions.

Gondwana Choir in NSW has just started an array of interactive online musical courses in aural and sight singing, historically informed performance practice, beatboxing, conducting, composing and more. Zoom classes are held over eight-week periods.

Melbourne Indie Voices has been running entirely online now and live-streams its choir rehearsals from artistic director Phia’s home studio onto their private Facebook website. Membership allows one to access sessions that run over each term.

Soul Song Choirs in Queensland runs a ‘Viral Choir’ that publishes online a new song every week for singers of all ability and background to join in. “We don’t care who you are, where you are or how good you are, we just believe that your life will be better when regular singing is part of it,” says its website.

Virtual Pop Choir in Melbourne is another community sing-along venture that live-streams its weekly sessions to members. Like many others, it uses Zoom.

Ballarat-based Virtual Soul Choir took its inspiration from Couch Choir and similarly just started up. Instead of using Zoom it asks individuals to sing along to supplied tracks and send in their recordings for group compilation videos.

Check around for more online choirs, as they are continually appearing.

Creativity Australia has launched a valuable initiative that helps new choirs start up. It offers grants of up to $10,000 under its ‘With One Voice’ campaign to this end to assist community singing during the Coronavirus period. The closing date for applications is 31 May; see here for details. This organisation also delivers half-hour online sessions each night of the week tutored by 16 different conductors. Sessions consist of warms ups and songs.

With communities being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the East Arnhem Live concert series provides an invaluable platform for Indigenous musicians in the Top-End to maintain music-making and showcase their work to wider audiences. The first concert in this series, by Yothu Yindi’s lead singer Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu, was streamed on 24 April and is a stunningly well produced with aerial views of East Arnhem Land’s coastline. See it here. Performances are posted via livestream to East Arnhem Land’s Facebook page.

Aaron Corn, director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music in Adelaide, has commented on the unique value of this East Arnhem Live concert series. Writing in The Conversation, he says: “With no more than a few hundred senior Yolŋu Manikay singers alive today, the present threat of COVID-19 brings into sharp relief the rarity and uniqueness of Manikay as a quintessentially Australian musical tradition. This is indeed a national treasure of global significance that deserves to be better supported and cherished in Australia and globally.”


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