Julia Reinach wasn’t surprised when Boston Children’s Chorus rehearsals were canceled in March. The Natick High School senior had been following the global spread of coronavirus. “I kind of assumed that we would take a brief break and come back to it,” she said.
In those first days, few could have predicted that in-person rehearsals would be out of the question for the rest of the spring season, and possibly beyond. However, it quickly became clear that cancellations were necessary to keep everyone safe. Live choral singing has been singled out as a uniquely risky activity while there is no vaccine or reliable treatment for COVID-19. According to the CDC, the “act of singing” may have enhanced the spread of COVID-19 during a Washington State adult choir practice that was later declared a “super-spreader event.” And in a webinar with choral leadership from around the country this month, otolaryngologist Dr. Lucinda Halstead predicted there was no safe way to hold a large group rehearsal in the short-term future.
For Reinach, an 11-year veteran of Boston’s Children’s Chorus, the cancellations were devastating. “I missed seeing my friends and going to rehearsals and having that as a decompression area from the rest of my life,” she said recently.
With young singers sheltering in homes all over the region, BCC leadership quickly started looking for ways to keep everybody engaged. One way to accomplish that, they found, is with virtual chorus videos. This week the organization premiered its socially distanced performance of Keb’ Mo’s upbeat song “Let Your Light Shine,” featuring the Grammy Award-winning blues rocker himself as special guest soloist. First the chorus’s band recorded the accompaniment and sent it to Keb’ Mo’, who made a video of his vocal part from his home in Nashville. BCC singers (ages 7 to 18) recorded their individual parts under the guidance of artistic programming director Robbie Jacobs, who stitched it all together into a polished final product. (Jacobs had to give himself a crash course in the video editing program Final Cut Pro.)
BCC landed on these virtual chorus projects almost as soon as in-person rehearsals stopped. “I really appreciated the immediate outreach they started doing in terms of getting people connected,” Reinach said. The week that Massachusetts schools closed, 36 current singers, alumni, and staff joined in for the chorus’s anthem, “We Sing,” by composer Jim Papoulis. Subsequent videos have only gotten bigger and more complex, with singers from children’s choirs all over the world joining in. The “Let Your Light Shine” video features 135 singers, including those from Russia and South Africa. A recent performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker as guest soloist, featured 230 singers, including some from India, Estonia, and the United Kingdom.
Reinach has appeared in all but one video to date. It doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing, but she loves doing them nonetheless. “Although the five minutes of recording yourself might be a little bit awkward,” she said, “the energy and the spirit that comes from the entire piece together is unmatched.”
Virtual choirs aren’t the only way BCC is maintaining connections with singers. The choir is also offering online lessons and a series of “Listen In” Zoom discussions with community leaders (including Sociedad Latina executive director Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital). Feedback has been positive. According to BCC chief program officer Irene Idicheria, 70 percent of the students have participated in some capacity in BCC’s new online programming.
“We’ve heard ... ‘this is a fantastic way for us to continue to make music and see our friends and stay together as a community,’” Jacobs said.
Four out of five BCC singers receive some form of financial aid; so the chorus’s staff also works to recognize any inequities that might hinder kids from participating. And they try to dismantle barriers to the best of their abilities. “The real inequity is whether or not people have Wi-Fi and data to be able to log onto a Zoom session,” Jacobs said. “That’s why we try to make as much of our content as possible available on YouTube after the event.”
And even if they can’t participate, BCC singers and their families hear that they’re cared about. A couple weeks into the shutdown, Idicheria said, BCC’s youth advisory council (consisting of BCC teen leaders) urged staff to personally call each singer’s family to check in. “The agenda for the call wasn’t ‘we want you to come online,’ though we would love to see them online and encourage them to continue their music learning. It was ... to say, look, we miss you, we’re thinking of you, and call us if you need anything,” she said.
Nobody knows what’s ahead for BCC and its community of just over 450 young singers. “We know that BCC is certainly not going to be leading the way with being the first to go back to normal practice. We’re definitely going to be taking cues from experts in public health,” Jacobs said. “[But] we also have a season planned for next year which can pivot between online and in person, so we’re in a position to continue to deliver high-quality content to our students.”
“Let Your Light Shine” can be viewed at www.bostonglobe.com/artsalive.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.