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Lonnie Delisle, music director of Universal Gospel Choir, leads a virtual choir rehearsal from an otherwise empty church, while choir members tune in from their homes, on March 16, 2020, at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver.

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When the Universal Gospel Choir was forced to cancel rehearsals at the outset of the pandemic, the group of 80 singers moved to online gatherings. But the platforms kept lagging and cutting singers off, bringing performances to a halt.

With a coming virtual concert, the Vancouver-based group found itself without a way to rehearse or record music. Since then, the empty church that the UGC calls home has become its recording studio, with groups of six rotating in and out of the 400-seat space to record individual performances for online concerts – a way to keep members engaged and also drive donations.

“We know that the arts plays a role in providing a presence of healing and hopefulness – things that we’re all reaching for right now,” artistic director Lonnie Delisle said. “We’re trying to find ways to do more virtual concerts so people can still hear the result of their voices blending together, even though they’re sending the recording in from home.”

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With health authorities warning that singing spreads virus-carrying droplets at a high rate – because it involves deep breathing and voice projection – choirs have been forced to cease in-person rehearsals and cancel concerts. Since early March, the more than 3.5 million Canadians who sing in choirs have been searching for ways to practise without getting together and struggling to make do without ticket revenue from performances.

The UGC is taking donations during its virtual concert in late June, but its main intention is to keep its singers feeling connected and fulfilled through music – even if that means singing alone.

“In terms of long-term sustainability, we don’t know,” Mr. Delisle said. “But even if we have to cut things back, we’ll find ways to keep the choir moving forward.”

Choir singing made headlines at the outset of the pandemic when dozens of members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State were found to have contracted the illness after a rehearsal in early March. Two died.

In a report on the risks of singing and COVID-19 released in May, Alberta Health Services said singing generates more virus-transmitting particles than other activities. However, it also said a “gap in the scientific knowledge” means it’s uncertain whether transmission at choir rehearsals and performances occurs through singing or a failure to physically distance. Regardless, Alberta has been restricting singing groups from gathering during the pandemic.

As researchers learn more about how the virus spreads, choirs are hoping health authorities will provide more detailed protocols that allow singers to gather again with preventative measures, including face shields, improved ventilation and physical distancing in large rehearsal spaces.

“I have no doubt that once we’re allowed to come together in smaller groups, we’ll see wonderfully streamed concerts that may not have big live audiences but that do have a small number of people and well-developed guidelines around safety,” said Kellie Walsh, the president of Choral Canada and the founder and artistic director of Lady Cove Women’s Choir in St. John’s. “But many provinces do not have guidelines for how people might engage safely in any form at all for singing.”

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As Ontario launched into the second phase of its economic recovery plan this month, singing was still banned in many sectors that were allowed to reopen, including child-care settings, places of worship and outdoor seating areas at restaurants and bars.

In B.C., Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry says choirs and singing are risky activities, pointing to cases where singing in churches, even with physical distancing, led to infections.

Those realities have forced choirs to reinvent how they gather and perform. To produce virtual concerts, singers prerecord individual performances and send the footage to editors who synchronize dozens of voices together in one video. The final product is presented live on streaming services with a few people hosting the show.

The Universal Gospel Choir performs 'We Shall Overcome' online on May 11, 2020. To produce virtual concerts, singers prerecord individual performances and send the footage to editors who synchronize dozens of voices together in one video.

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But videoconferencing software tends to freeze, causing the music to fall out of sync. And recording alone is not the same as singing alongside dozens of other voices, Ms. Walsh said. “We realize that we need to reimagine and learn how to live as singers in this new reality.”

Choir associations are concerned that if health authorities keep singers from gathering, it could mean the end of choirs and school music programs that rely on donations and other forms of funding. Of the 28,000 choirs in Canada, only 9 per cent are professional groups. Church groups comprise 63 per cent, and 29 per cent are based in schools, according to Choir Canada. And choral participation in schools is highest among low-income families, providing musical education to those who otherwise might not be able to afford it.

“The government is erring on the side of caution to ensure singers aren’t put at risk, and we appreciate that,” said Brendan Lord, the executive director of Choir Alberta. “But it’s having a profound impact on the choral music sector, as millions of dollars of revenue has been lost since March. There are programs in schools being cut altogether because their school boards or principals are concerned that it might be unsafe to sing. And those impacts are largely the result of the telling of that anecdotal evidence by policy makers.”

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Many choirs have already cancelled plans for holiday shows. With live performances on hold until next year, some won’t survive that long without new sources of funding, according to the B.C. Choral Federation.

To help its more than 200 choirs navigate the barriers created by the pandemic, the organization has been playing host to virtual town halls on mitigating risk when singing, maintaining community engagement and managing budgets to scale back operations. During the first session, more than 1,000 people tried to join in; unfortunately, the platform could only accommodate 300.

“What we’re discovering with choirs is that the community piece is hugely important and it’s what’s keeping people together in the absence of any music,” said Willi Zwozdesky, the executive director of the B.C. Choral Federation. “But some choirs will fold and stop operating. It could be that bad.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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