This winter, a friend coaxed me to join her choir. This wasn’t something I’d thought of doing since high school. During my childhood and teens, I belonged to choirs at school and church. I enjoyed them and continued to like singing alone or at occasional public events, despite my diminishing vocal quality. No longer able to hit the high notes, my range became limited to about five notes. My voice cracked and stained by end of each song. The tones fell flat, to my own ears.
My friend got into choir for something to do after she retired. Before then, she’d had no interest in singing and, unlike me, hadn’t taken piano lessons as a kid. She explained that some choirs required auditions. Others don’t, including Shout Sister, her all-female choir.
She gave me printouts of lyrics to her group’s current roster of songs. Leonard Cohen., Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles; my long-time favourites. I had spare time and was looking for activities this winter, since I was away from home in Ottawa, helping a relative through medical treatment.
“I’ve arranged for you to try out the choir this week,” my friend said. She’d also convinced the administrator to give me a special rate if I decided to stay, since I’d only be there for part of the year.
“Okay,” I said, because she’d gone to all this trouble.
Wednesday afternoon, we drove to her choir practice at a local church. About seventy women, mostly seniors like us, stood in a horseshoe shape facing the choir leader. No sheet music. The notes rose and fell with the leader’s hand, a method of music reading I found easy to follow.
The meeting brought back memories of my youthful choirs. “Don’t interrupt the line of music by taking a breath.” The director echoed my earlier choir leaders. “Sustain the last note.” The large group sang harmonies that sounded lovely to me. I found myself able to sing all the notes. Either the organizer selected songs suited to amateurs or she arranged them for unpracticed female voices.
Best of all, for those two hours of song I forgot my worries about my family member’s health challenges. The choir had me hooked.
I looked forward to the weekly sessions. After two months, a woman I talked to during the break convinced me to participate in the next week’s concert at a retirement home. Performing with the group was fun and gave a new dimension to choir practice. Our concert ended with the 1970s O’Jay’s anthem, Love Train, which urges people around the world to join hands and form a train of love. At the rousing finish, we were supposed to join hands with the person beside us. Some of us did; others refrained.
The following week our choir session was cancelled due to COVID-19. It soon became clear we wouldn’t be singing for weeks and months. Then the organizers set up practices on Zoom, a virtual meeting site that has taken off in this time of home isolation.
I’m not swift with technology and worried I wouldn’t figure out Zoom, but with a little advice, Zoom worked easily and well. Now, I follow the leader on my computer screen, while thumbnail pictures of choir members appear along the top or side. During breaks, I switch to gallery view, with thumbnails filling the screen. The first two weeks, over fifty members signed in each time. I’ll miss week three since I’ll be driving from Ottawa, west across Canada to my home in Calgary .
At the virtual Zoom session, the director puts us all on mute, since the system can’t co-ordinate our voices. I discovered my voice doesn’t sound as good alone as I sounded to myself with the group. It still cracks and strains for those high notes.
I wouldn’t want to start with choir online, but virtually continuing with familiar faces and songs was more satisfying than I’d expected. Again, for those two hours, choir brought me out my despondent mood. For the first time since this mass isolation began, I felt that most of us won’t be permanently damaged and we’ll return to our humankind.
Shout Sister operates in numerous Ontario locations. Ottawa has three branches, with our afternoon group the most recent sister. Here’s a YouTube video of one of our older sister groups performing Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, a song our newer group learned this year.
I have several friends in Calgary who belong to choirs. A year ago, I asked one of them what he gained from being in a choir. He said, “When you sing together, you make each other so much more.” I agree.