Like tiny images on a sheet of postage stamps, 130-plus boys in navy shirts join voices in the upbeat "We Are the Day." To the untrained eye, the boys in Ragazzi, an award-winning Redwood City-based choral group, look and sound as if they're singing together, as they have done for years. But each boy, ages 6 to 18, is recording alone, singing at home with earbuds or headsets, hearing only himself and his cues. While this particular choral piece, which begins with the words "We are the eyes gleaming with wonder," expresses hope and joy, it grew out of a devastating pandemic that forced chorales overnight to change the way they operate. A chorus is a group that sings together. COVID-19 made that impossible, giving choir directors a difficult choice: Adapt or disband.
"The biggest challenge that we face is having something that we love to do that brings a lot of purpose to our existences (be) dangerous," said Jennah Delp Somers, co-founder and co-artistic director of iSing Silicon Valley, which brings together 300 girls from first to 12th grade in five different choirs. "We went through a mourning period." In-person rehearsals: canceled. A choral trip to the UK: canceled. A spring concert before an audience of a thousand at Mission Santa Clara: also canceled. The release of the choir's debut album, "Here I Stand," "was a fantastic way to end an otherwise disastrous year," Delp Somers said.
Because a choral performance or even a rehearsal is a "superspreading event" for COVID-19, choirs had to change how they operate. Instead of singing Mendelssohn's entire "Elijah" oratorio before live audiences, the Los Altos-based Schola Cantorum produced "Virtually Elijah," featuring soloists singing at home, pianists playing at home, and the entire chorus virtually joining voices in the glorious "He, Watching Over Israel."
When choral rehearsals shut down abruptly in mid-March, choral directors with little or no technical training suddenly Zoomed into electronic media. Within four days of the shutdown, Ragazzi's conductors took up the challenge of keeping their choirs alive. They created audio and videotapes to conduct singers they could neither see nor hear, at first relying on parents and volunteers with sound and video skills to transform individual recordings into a choral performance.
"Along the way we produced three virtual choirs," said executive and artistic director Kent Jue. Among them are a dozen graduating seniors performing "Shenandoah" as their swan song, and a group of 24 singing the rhythmic "Count On Me."
"None of this was a plan. It sort of just developed," Jue added. "Once we learned we would have to cancel our season and be remote, we needed a project for the boys to focus on. We came up with these virtual choirs, which, I have to admit I was not a fan of at the beginning because there's so much work on the back end and so much work on the front end."
At the front end, the logistics involve creating instructions, collecting recordings and fielding questions. With boys as young as 6, that means parental involvement. Ragazzi estimates that phase takes about 15 hours, not counting individual singing time. For the nearly 140 separate voice recordings that went into "We Are the Day," audio and video editing, all done in-house, took another 30 hours.
Of course, it would be simpler if choral members could sing and record simultaneously on apps like Zoom, but the sound from the home of a conductor or an accompanist does not reach 140 other homes, or even half-dozen, simultaneously. Delays of a few tenths of a second from one place to another would result in choral cacophony. That's why choir members must push their mute buttons during group rehearsals.
Jue noted that Ragazzi recently was able to record nine singers simultaneously in real time, but not on Zoom. "One of our board members is a technology genius," he said, adding that the technology, which is a "game-changer," is still in the experimental stages.
Making the transition from live to virtual is no easy undertaking. While Los Angeles conductor-composer Eric Whitacre combined 17,500 voices from all over the world in his "Sing Gently," local conductors are working on a more modest scale. Some are focusing on coaching individuals, which they don't have the opportunity to do during regular rehearsals, when the focus is on the group. By working on their own, the singers are improving.
"I'm confident that when we come out of this, and are able to rehearse in person again, we will be stronger and better," Jue said.
Delp Somers agreed. "The kids are becoming really individually savvy and responsible for learning notes and pitches," she said. "Things that they might have relied on others for in the classroom setting, they're now individually accountable in a new way. We were surprised to see so much individual growth in such a short amount of time."
In addition, although the singers are not performing before live audiences, they are finding new audiences in distant places. When Mark Burrows, the composer of "We Are the Day" who lives in Texas, heard Ragazzi singing his song on YouTube, he thanked "all of my new friends" with a YouTube recording of his own. "As a composer, to hear a piece in your head and then to hear it in person sound even better than the version in your head is amazing," he said. "Thank you for being a message of hope in a world that so desperately needs hope right now."
Hope is what keeps these chorales in harmony, even amid disappointment. In March, when Ragazzi first soprano Liam Lowitz first heard that COVID-19 would force choirs to shut down, "I started crying," he said. Lowitz, 12, a seventh-grader at North Star Academy in Redwood City, said he "loves singing with my friends," and not being able to sing together was unthinkable.
But tears dissipated when Ragazzi began meeting on Zoom. And when he heard the finished virtual piece of "Count on Me," in which he has a cameo solo, "something inside of me just lit up. I think it's really cool that we're able to do this."
For the Palo Alto-based Aurora Singers, Tuesday get-togethers on Zoom are reunions, drawing in former choir members living in Canada, Vermont, Colorado and New Jersey who join the group in sing-alongs, share news and participate in virtual choir pieces, recording their parts at home.
Instead of performing at senior residences, these days Aurora invites the residents to join them in Zoom sing-alongs, with songs ranging from folk to rock to Broadway. Although these events are not rehearsals, said founder-conductor Dawn Reyen, "our regular online gatherings allow us to maintain our strong sense of community, as well as maintaining good vocal habits, so that when we can resume in-person rehearsals, we will be ready to jump right back in."
HaShirim, a Jewish community choir also based in Palo Alto, does hold virtual rehearsals on Zoom. When conductor Billie Bandermann introduces new pieces, pianist Angela Cheng plays the individual choral parts as well as the accompaniment.
"Everybody sings a part they're not used to, so that nobody is idle during rehearsal," Bandermann said. Then when the singers learn their own parts, they sing along to a professional choir's recording, "giving them the experience of what it's like to sing as a choir." At the end of the rehearsal, the singers join in on pieces they know by heart, like "Old Devil Moon."
"We miss getting together," said Bandermann. "As long as there is some joy of singing together with other people, that's what makes choral singing so infectious."
"It's nice that we get to socialize with each other and see each other on Zoom, but it's not the same. It's hard to sing by yourself," said HaShirim first soprano Carol Emerich.
On the other hand, she said, this is a choir "without stars and divas, and everybody is so supportive of each other. That comes through for me, the sense of trust and caring about each other."
When Emerich had a flood underneath her Cupertino townhouse that forced her to evacuate for a week, she was distraught. Emerich, who has been isolating since March, has asthma as well as other immunity issues that put her at high risk. "The idea of staying for a week in a hotel was very scary to me," she said.
Emerich mentioned her concern during a rehearsal. Fellow soprano Ellen Beaudet offered her guest room, a separate bathroom and use of her backyard. Beaudet also prepared dinner, which they ate outside, socially distanced
Said Beaudet: "I love that HaShirim is a community! It's wonderful to be able to help one another."