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‘A wonderful, human thing to do’: Chorus resumes in-person rehearsals for first time since start of pandemic

Alto Jackie Kann sang at rehearsal with the Coolidge Corner Community Chorus at Brookline Senior Center. The chorus met remotely during the pandemic and only recently started gathering in person.
Alto Jackie Kann sang at rehearsal with the Coolidge Corner Community Chorus at Brookline Senior Center. The chorus met remotely during the pandemic and only recently started gathering in person.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Part of a series of stories capturing the transition to post-pandemic normalcy.

BROOKLINE— It’s easy for Geri Barrison to recall the last normal moment she had before the pandemic: She was singing with the Coolidge Corner Community Chorus.

At one of their weekly rehearsals in March 2020, the choir’s 40 or so members — mostly Brookline residents — got a text from the town alerting them to stay home and quarantine as coronavirus rapidly spread throughout Massachusetts. As Barrison remembers it, the singers wrapped up their rehearsal and bid each other farewell.

“We all kind of said, ‘Bye, see you when we see you,’” she recalled. “We all thought it’d be two weeks.”

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Two weeks turned into 15 months of upheaval, isolation, and, for members of the chorus, unnatural silence. But on June 23, armed with strange-looking masks that give singers more room to breathe, the chorus trekked back up to the third floor of the Brookline Senior Center, and once again harmony and laughter filled the room.

Barrison attended that first rehearsal and sang for 40 minutes, as long as she could muster after a bout of COVID-19 damaged her lungs. Afterwards, she couldn’t talk for two days, she said. That’s why, as her comrades warmed up at a rehearsal this week, Barrison stood in the hallway and gazed at them with a pained expression.

“It’s too much, to feel like I’ve lost something, even though we’ve got it back,” she said.

Inside the airy ballroom, the group of roughly 20 singers — half the size of the chorus pre-pandemic — sat in chairs around Lee Wilson, the choir’s director, and a baby grand piano. The chorus practiced “Rest,” a haunting requiem by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Wilson interrupted the lilting melody and eerie dissonances every few measures to offer critiques, sometimes addressing individual voice parts.

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“You’re singing an absolutely essential melody here,” she told the sopranos at one point, “so let her rip.”

Crispin Weinberg, the choir’s president, said there’s no single reason why the group has shrunk so much since before the pandemic. Some members might be staying away for the summer, when vacations and other diversions beckon. Others, though, are uncomfortable returning to an activity that led to outbreaks at an earlier stage in the pandemic.

Deb Allen, 72, is one of those “wussies,” as she jokingly called herself. But the retired teacher has reason to be cautious — Allen is the sole caretaker for her partner, who is immunocompromised.

“I’ve had to be so careful not to bring anything home,” she said.

But the absence of singing throughout the pandemic was tough for Allen. Normally, Wednesday evenings meant a reprieve from caregiving duties, and a time to recharge among friends and fellow singers.

“This was the only thing that I could go out and do on my own,” Allen said. “And then it was gone.”

“Singing together is just a wonderful, human thing to do,” she added. “To have it ripped away was just awful.”

Edna Etkin, who has been singing with the choir since its founding, said the group was central to her life, too.

“It’s my pharmacy,” she said during a break in the two-hour rehearsal.

Etkin appreciated the choir’s effort to continue rehearsing via Zoom during the pandemic. In those rehearsals, the musicians would sing along with a rehearsal track while on mute.

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“If we hadn’t started that, I would have quit,” Etkin said.

Wilson agreed — even if virtual rehearsals were far from optimal (”There’s nothing less gratifying than rehearsing on Zoom,” she said), the sessions helped keep the group alive at a time when some choirs stopped singing altogether.

“It gave us the continuity to get together and not feel like we’re starting all over again,” she said.

But Jackie Kann, 67, said that the method of rehearsing took away her favorite part of choral singing.

“The whole point of a choir is singing with other people,” Kann said. “I don’t enjoy just hearing my own voice.”

Kann wonders if the hollowness she experienced in Zoom rehearsals has discouraged singers from returning now that the choir is meeting in person.

“We are really depleted,” she said while looking out at the chairs, half as many as there were before the pandemic. “We’re going to have to do some recruiting.”

Kann’s attempt to enlist a young Globe reporter was unsuccessful.

The choir has gained at least one new voice. Erin Rinehart, 23, joined the group this month after moving to Brookline last year.

Rinehart already enjoys singing with the group, but said she’s still getting used to singing with a mask: “It makes it harder to hear everybody.”

But to Rinehart and the others at rehearsal, anything that allows the group to sing together again — to feel a chord lock, look around, and share it for a moment — is worth it.

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“We’re all willing to do a fair amount to be able to sing,” Allen said.



Jack Lyons can be reached at jack.lyons@globe.com.