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Published on Sunday, September 20, 2020

Another casualty of Covid-19

I sing in a church choir. Correction: I used to sing in a church choir. Further correction: I used to sing, once upon a time…

            Singing has fallen victim to the Covid-19 pandemic. When health regulations prohibited large gatherings, and when physical distancing precluded even small groups from getting together, choirs everywhere had to shut down.

            Some choral groups have put together magnificent performances during this time of social isolation. But not by singing together. Every track has been recorded separately, and then painstakingly stitched together by someone -- either the conductor or a technician -- doing countless hours of labour.

            My church chose to move its Sunday services to Zoom. Zoom is a wonderful platform. But you can’t sing together on Zoom. 

            I don’t pretend to understand the technology behind Zoom, but I can hear that it delays transmission by a fraction of a second, to avoid the feedback squeal that can dislodge your fillings.

            As a result, if you start singing when you can hear me, you’re already half a word behind. And if you have a strong voice, others will follow you, but half a word behind you, a whole word behind me.

            On our first attempts at singing over Zoom, some singers ended a full line after the pianist had finished. It was chaos. Definitely not a unifying effect.

            So we tried having just one person singing the words, while everyone else had their microphones muted. They could sing along, but only to themselves.


Use it or lose it

            A few weeks back, I was the congregation’s “designated singer.” I did not like the sound of my voice. It felt raw, uncertain. I struggled to stay on key.

            I realized I hadn’t done any vocal exercises. to warm up. I should have done at least ten minutes.

            More than that, I hadn’t done any singing at all for several weeks. Not even in the shower.

            The late great cello player Pablo Casals once said about practicing: “If I don’t practice for a month, my audience knows it. If I don’t practice for a week, my accompanist knows it. If I don’t practice for a day, I know it.”

            Singing, like gymnastics or swimming, involves physical fitness, muscle training.  The old saying applies: “Use it, or lose it.”

            The day I was the “designated singer,” I knew I was losing it.


Breathing together

            With the loosening of Covid-19 regulations, some churches have begun holding in-person services again. For limited numbers, with people spaced out. But the rule still applies -- no singing!

            Because, of course, if you’re singing you’re breathing deeply. And you’re all inhaling and exhaling at the same time. For virus particles carried by air currents, singing must resemble pulmonary paradise.

            As a compromise, my congregation agreed to allow humming. Under a mask, of course.

            And yet singing may be more central to worship than fine words or fancy rituals. I suspect that worship originated, not delivered by a flash of lightning from above, but in gatherings around a prehistoric campfire as people munching on the day’s catch synchronized their grunts and slurps, and felt themselves part of something bigger, something more profound, more meaningful.

            When I was younger, we often re-enacted that campfire ritual. As we roasted marshmallows or hot dogs, we sang. Perhaps churchy songs like “Do Lord” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Perhaps secular stuff: “Old MacDonald” or “Home on the Range.” Perhaps the latest hit by the Beatles or the Beach Boys.

            Sometimes, some of the guys would try to sing off-colour versions. As a kind of mating ritual, I suspect -- like preening peacocks proclaiming their availability.


Building community

            Singing has long been a way of co-ordinating human efforts. Think of sailors singing sea shanties. Or Volga boatmen chanting: “Yo, heave, ho…” Think of human rights marchers: “We shall overcome.”

            Whatever the mode, singing together was a way of building community.

            Medical studies indicate that when we sing together, we not only breath together, we also start to synchronize our heartbeats. We start to act like one body.

            Pete Seeger intuitively knew that, even though may have lacked medical expertise. He always -- always -- got his audiences singing along.

            A friend’s grandchild recently lamented Covid-induced isolation at her daycare: “It’s no fun playing hide and seek by yourself.”

            The same holds true for singing.

            Singing together has become a yet another casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic. I miss it. I wonder if we’ll ever get it back.


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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On the importance of common courtesy, Bob Rollwagen wrote,” I agree with you. I like your trffic signal vs right of way comparison. If you have travelled by car in Britain recently, you will notice that busier intersections are now a combination of the two with diversion lanes. 

            “The debate of state vs religion, individual human rights vs the good of the community, sets the tone that gives those who want to ignore common good in favour of personal comfort the ability to feel entitled. Just look at how the U.S. constitution is seen to protect the right and freedom of the individual at all cost. In Canada, while we have rights, we also have a health system that is equal to all.

            “Do what you want, but do nothing that interferes with another’s rights. No mask, don’t go where masks are required -- which means 6 ft or more distancing. No vaccine, no access to areas requiring a vaccine. No vaccine, be clearly identified so you can be avoided. 

            “Privilege comes with responsibility.  Current events seem to illustrate that some do not realize the privilege they have and their lack of responsibility that comes with it. They see privilege as a way to dominate rather than share and improve society. Religions have it right but they did not invent the idea of common courtesy. They may be the only groups teaching it and encouraging the concept as a personal responsibility.”


Steve Roney thought I was “too pessimistic about the chances of eliminating COVID-19 altogether. I think we have a good chance of doing so, over the next few years, since reports are that the vaccines are effective. Just as we wiped out smallpox, or scarlet fever, or polio, before it. If we can get the reinfection rate, the R number, below 1:1, and keep it there, and unless it [the coronavirus] can find a reservoir in some animal population, it will die out.

            “You refer to ‘viruses like coronavirus.’ But of course, viruses have always been with us. More recently, we have something we can do about them, and a chance to defeat them. Our encounter with coronavirus should improve our arsenal in this regard. Some new vaccine techniques are being tried, and a development process that used to take years, this time, is taking months.

            “You say some people will refuse to take the vaccine. That does not matter so much. They are risking their own health, but the rest of us, if we take the vaccine, will still be protected. Evidence is also growing that we may reach herd immunity at a rather small proportion of the population—perhaps as low as 20%.”


Brian MacLachlan felt I was ignoring my own advice when I wrote, " Making common courtesy more common would help".

            He responded, “From my perspective I believe it common courtesy to inform ourselves. I question who funds our media and information we are receiving? Why does media not allowed  any contradictory messages about Covid? Why, when 90% or more people recover, are there such dehumanizing measures destroying our society? 

            “Masks have been used as ownership and control by slave owners for centuries, and have no scientific justification. 

            “I believe it is time to show ‘common courtesy’ and refrain from name calling ‘anti-maskers’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’, and enter serious debate about the information presented to us. 

            “Why do vaccine companies have no liability for their products? What is in vaccines? What is a droplet? what is an aerosol? What is a virus? How does the immune system work? Why are all the counties of the world listening to the WHO and the CDC, who are non-elected drug company officials?”


Shelley Eberle also did not like my references to anti-vaxxers: “I take offence to your comment that ‘anti-vaxxers’ are obsessed with their own importance. I personally have the moral belief that vaccines are false security and faulty science and do not give true herd immunity. Until vaccines are proven safe and effective, it should be a personal choice.”


Isabel Gibson thinks there’s a bigger picture: “I suspect that living with COVID-19 will require a lot of ‘and/and’ thinking (forget ‘both/and’), as in ‘masks and physical distancing and vaccines and better treatments and lockdowns and contact tracing and border closures and hand-washing and social bubbles" all at the same time. And all for a long time, as our societal attention span goes.

            “Your traffic light and traffic circle analogy is interesting. As I understand it, traffic circles are more efficient than lights up to a certain level of traffic. After that, they choke up.

            “Maybe our communities are now too big for common courtesy to work.”






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                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: singing, worship, choirs



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