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Choral Solutions Under COVID-19: Gondwana Choirs

Sydney Children’s Choir with Australia Ensemble Image credit: Twitter, Gondwana Choirs
Graham Strahle
| June 20, 2020

Much attention of late has been directed at how choirs might be unwittingly contributing to the transmission of COVID-19. It seems that small droplets and aerosols produced by the physical act of singing are one route by which the virus can spread, even when social distancing rules are observed. For choirs of all types – large or small, young or adult, amateur of professional – this becomes a matter of great concern.

It is no wonder then, that a webinar hosted by Gondwana Choirs in May called ‘COVID-19 & the future of choral singing in Australia’ attracted nearly 1,800 registrants from 27 countries. It was presented by a team of expert panellists and showed scientific research conducted at UNSW on this question of airborne droplets produced by singing. In the slow-motion video footage that was played, one can see how some consonants and syllables produce showers of droplets.

This webinar can be seen again on Gondwana’s website and on YouTube, where it has received more than 10,000 views. It is just one of many offerings that Gondwana has made available in its Gondwana Online initiative, which collects together an impressive range of resources, instructional videos and short courses – they can all be found here.

As with all choirs around Australia, Gondawana Choirs immediately fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic when social distancing restrictions were imposed in March. An immediate halt was called on rehearsals and performances for its portfolio of choirs including the Sydney Children’s Choir, Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir and Marliya. The latter are a group of young female Indigenous singers based in Cairns, and they had just given a rousing performance of their Spinifex Gum program at Womadelaide on 7-8 March.

Lyn Williams OAM, Gondwana Choirs’ Artistic Director, describes the effect the shutdown had on her singers.

“I was on tour with Marliya Choir for their Womadelaide performance, and there were thousands of people present, a massive crowd. By the next week it was all over. I went to Cairns soon after for more rehearsals with the choir, but had a sore throat. Thankfully it didn’t turn out to be COVID-19, but I made a decision not to possibly endanger the singers, so we stopped then. Everything else was cancelled around the same time.”

One of those events, sadly, was Gondwana’s participation in the prestigious triennial World Symposium on Choral Music. This was to have taken place during in Auckland in July. “We were the only choir from Australia that had been invited. It was a massive disappointment, because we had a wonderful program about themes of country and land which we’d been working on with Indigenous people,” recounts Williams.

Soon Gondwana began exploring ways of continuing its activities online. Williams says that she found that Zoom worked best for teaching – in particular for sight-singing – but generally proved unsuitable for rehearsals.

“The closest I’ve come to it working was preparing Marliya choir in their Spinifex Gum project in the Pilbara region with (singer songwriter and composer) Felix Riebl,” she says. “This worked because they have been able to learn his songs and learn about the people in that region.

“Riebl has taken the present opportunity to write and record new works on themes that are incredibly important to people in that region, such as Deaths in Custody and the issues of Black Lives Matter. He has written the Spinifex Gum song cycle with guidance from Michael Woodley and Lorraine Coppin in the Indigenous communities in the Pilbara.”

See here for more about Marliya and this wonderful project.

For other choristers under the Gondwana umbrella, it was a case of having to forego rehearsals for the time and try out a range of other activities.

“Trying to replicate the choral experience did not work, and instead we experimented to see what else was possible. Instead of trying to replicate the choral experience through watered down rehearsals online, it was obvious to me that we should do things differently. The coronavirus pandemic was clearly having a deep impact on singers’ lives, so we wanted to introduce various online experiences to address that,” says Williams.

Chief among them was a series of eight-week online courses designed for Gondwana’s singers. These began in May with classes in percussion, music from the movies and Abba songs for six year-olds, beatboxing for older students, and courses in composition, conducting, historically informed performance practice, jazz, and acapella singing for the seniors.

For the wider community, Gondwana has offered free webinars, the most recent being ‘Back to choir: positive and practical next steps’ – this gave practical advice on how to support young choristers when there is a return to in-person rehearsals.

Other online sessions under the title ‘Choral Insights’ have been presented by noted conductors on a range of choral matters. They include Jonathon Welch of the Choir of Hard Knocks and Astrid Jorgensen of Pub Choir and Couch Choir, and can be seen here.

Despite the severe pressures facing choirs and all performing arts organisations right now, Williams remains upbeat.

“This time has sparked creativity. I must say I haven’t felt such a rush of creativity in a very long time. All the people involved have been amazing, and something I’ve most pleased about is that we have been able to keep most of our artistic staff through this period, and even on occasion employ more,” she says.

“The arts are exactly about that, about surviving and creating in new ways.”

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