Julie Lautens first sang in a choir at church when she was nine years old. By the time she was 24, the Ohio native was singing with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.
“I didn’t quite know what I’d auditioned for,” says Ms. Lautens, who has now lived in Toronto for more than three decades. “Four weeks later, I was performing with Rostropovich at the Kennedy Centre.”
Eventually life’s busy-ness pulled Lautens away from her choirs. But she never stopped missing them. About five years ago, with her children grown and herself settled in a more flexible career, Lautens returned to her passion and joined the Etobicoke Centennial Choir (ECC). Chorale singing was just as exciting as she’d remembered it.
“There’s an incredible sense of flow. There’s a physicality to it,” says the 61-year-old leadership coach, who serves as the choir’s second soprano. “You’re part of it. You’re surrounded by it.”
Then came the pandemic, and choirs around the world went quiet.
In the earliest days of COVID-19, scientists identified singing, and all the respiratory droplets and aerosols it produces, as potentially dangerous. A massive outbreak in a Washington state choir seemed to confirm that fear. The Skagit Valley Chorale lost two of its members after a sick chorister attended a practice on March 10, 2020.
That same day, the ECC held their last in-person rehearsal of 2020. Like many things, choir practice ended up on Zoom. Because of lagging issues, choristers had to keep themselves muted when they rehearsed virtually, only able to hear the five lead singers and an accompanist. One choir member likened it to simulated golf: “It’s not as good. But it’s better than nothing.”
After Ontario eased public health restrictions this past October, the ECC reunited at the Etobicoke church where they had long practiced before the pandemic. They opened up the windows to the cold fall air and spread themselves out among the pews, still a bit nervous after months of solitude. Then they sang together for the first time in more than a year and a half. Some began to cry, including the ECC’s music director, Henry Renglich.
For those who haven’t sung in a choir, Renglich says, it’s impossible to understand what the experience is like. “There’s nothing like it. I can’t describe it.”
Nearing two years into the pandemic, the return of chorale singing felt like a “breakthrough,” Lautens says. Weeks later, as the choir drew near its first performance in more than two years, she was giddy with excitement.
“My heart was just dancing last night. It was hard to go to sleep,” she says after a dress rehearsal a few days before the show. “I get excited when we’re coming close to a concert. But it’s not this dancing-goat joy that I feel today.”
On Dec. 11, the night the choir was set to perform, a windstorm had wrested power from thousands across Southern Ontario. Outside the church, it was pitch black. But inside the lights stayed on, and the choir performed without a hitch.
No audience was there to hear them sing, only a small film crew to capture the performance. While the lead vocalists sang without face coverings, the 40-odd choristers behind them all wore masks, many sporting duck-billed ones designed especially for singing. All at least double-vaccinated, they remained physically distanced throughout.
It wasn’t like before, but with closed eyes, it at least sounded like a return to normal. Lautens called it a “milestone.”
A few days later, as governments scrambled to respond to fast-rising COVID-19 cases brought on by the Omicron variant, it began to feel more like a mirage. A few days after that, when Canada advised people not to travel internationally, Lautens decided to cancel her holiday plans to visit her elderly mother, who lives in a long-term care home in Ohio.
When the choir regroups this month, it will be on Zoom. Another concert is planned for early April; it’s not yet clear whether an audience will be present.
The ECC was “on a high” before COVID-19 cut its choir season short last year, according to Mr. Renglich. The choir had nearly sold out its winter performance, making it one of the group’s largest shows ever. The spring concert was just weeks away.
Virtual rehearsals first started in the fall of 2020. And though choir may be a fundamentally collective enterprise in person, over Zoom it’s a solo one. Terry and Nancy Dockrill, a retired couple who sang in as many as six choirs before the pandemic, can’t be in the same room when they rehearse virtually otherwise a horrible echo will corrupt their microphones.
But despite any glitches or awkward moments, Zoom practices have helped the choir retain at least three-quarters of its members. The ECC now features 41 choristers, 13 fewer than in March, 2020.
“There’s no getting around it,” says Dockrill, who sings bass in the choir. “You just basically have to get used to the idea that you may be doing the same kind of thing, but you certainly aren’t doing it the same way you used to.”
Carol Cunnane, a second alto from Cape Breton, says the choir’s absence last year left “a big hole.” However, with the rise in COVID-19 cases, she’ll gladly return to singing into her computer, even if nobody else can hear her.
Cunnane joined the ECC 48 years ago, six years after it was established to commemorate Canada’s 100th anniversary. In that time, she has missed only two concerts. The 79-year-old describes chorale singing as the focal point of her life, along with her family and career.
“It was hard to imagine a time when I wouldn’t be singing two or three times a week,” she says. “No matter what was going on in my life, good or bad, sad or happy, whatever – going to choir practice and singing in concerts always made me feel better. It lifted me up to a happier place.”
The choir’s reunion this fall did not feel like a return to the vaunted “Before Times,” but Renglich, the conductor, says it felt “tantalizingly close.”
“Once you start singing the songs and feeling the music and feeling that sense of creating something in an ensemble, everything else goes away,” he says. “The masks disappear from your mind.”
There was a time a few months into the pandemic that Lautens wondered whether the choir could survive.
“Everything just seemed so hard in life,” she says. “It seemed so far in the future that we’d be singing in person again.”
But that day eventually did arrive, and now she’s sure it will come again. The choir’s return this past fall, albeit brief, supplied a much-needed boost of momentum, Lautens says: “We will weather the next phase of restrictions and come back, because we know how to do this now.”
Even if there was no audience the night the choir filmed its winter show, there is one now, and it might be larger than ever before. After the ECC released the filmed concert online, Lautens posted the video on Facebook. An old college roommate living in Oregon reached out to say the choir sounded beautiful.
“She got to come to my concert,” Lautens says. “It’s been 40 years since she went to one of my concerts.”
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