Choirs adapt amid the pandemic, and look toward the future
By Cara McDonough
The pandemic put an abrupt stop to many activities, with no clear answer about when we’d be able to resume doing the things we love.
Singing together in a group was an activity that got hit particularly hard. COVID-19 is airborne, meaning that singing in choruses is a particularly risky activity in the new, pandemic world. And while many activities (like dance lessons and “happy hours” among friends) slid somewhat seamlessly onto the internet, singing online together – or making any music as a group – isn’t as easy. Time lags and technical glitches can make it impossible for a group to sing coherently when every member is on their own computer.
But many singing groups, including several Connecticut-based choruses, found ways to keep making music – as well as to foster the camaraderie that’s so important to their members and perhaps became even more important over the last year.
The Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus is one of those groups.
“I’m happy for our group,” says Robert Reader, cofounder and executive director of the chorus. “We’re continuing to march forward.”
The group – known as HGMC for short – was founded in 2012 after a conversation around a kitchen table, Reader says.
“We needed to have our voices heard,” he recalls.
Once they launched, the HGMC grew – and grew quickly. Their holiday concert that first year sold out, and over the years, their performances eventually garnered large enough crowds to be held in Harford’s Aetna Theatre. They’ve had 60-plus members at their largest, and today the group welcomes all gender identities, as long as they can sing in the tenor or baritone/bass range. In the years since it began, the HGMC has participated in events including “Pillow Pride” at the Jacob’s Pillow performance space in Massachusetts, Hartford’s (and other) Pride events, and singing the national anthem for sporting events, including for the Hartford Yard Goats and the Connecticut Sun.
“These have been some of our most shining moments that make me feel really proud,” Reader says. “We are doing this to show love and outreach and inclusion.”
So when the pandemic hit, Reader and the rest of the group knew life for the HGMC was going to look very different for a while. But they couldn’t let it go entirely. They moved weekly rehearsals to Zoom and hosted regular social hours on the platform. The group produced a few songs and an online version of their annual holiday concert for their YouTube channel (a version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the beginning of the pandemic was particularly comforting to fans).
For Reader, keeping the chorus alive during the pandemic was especially meaningful: he lost his job of 13 years at Hartford Stage when the pandemic necessitated cancelling its season and letting go of employees. He knew the continued connection was crucial for other members, too, and in the months since, many have communicated how much the ongoing connection to the group – with its inherent enthusiasm, artistic talent, and friendship – has meant.
“A lot of people have struggled, and a lot of people have thanked me,” says Reader about chorus during quarantine. “What really moves me is that this is a place where I find love and support, just being with everyone. We create a safe environment to be together, and for some of the members, the rehearsals have been a lifeline.”
Finding A Family
Members of Another Octave: Connecticut Women’s Chorus – founded in 1989 with its roots in the lesbian community – describe their experiences with the group in a similar light.
“It’s family,” says Gina Juliano, the chorus’s board chair. “I think what’s killing us right now is that we are really missing our family.”
Another Octave didn’t move to doing online rehearsals or concerts during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, most notably that singing and producing music online is so difficult and time consuming.
The lack of weekly rehearsals and the face-to-face time these allow has been no small loss. Many Another Octave members have been with the group for years; some joined when facing personal challenges in their own lives, looking for an artistic outlet, as well as solidarity and support.
“There are always the baby showers and funds or a sympathy gift when a member loses someone,” says Elle Powell, the group’s fund-raising coordinator. “We celebrate birthdays every week. For me this is a community – a family.”
“For so many of us, singing is what makes us feel better,” says Melinda Walwer, the group’s artistic director. “Some members sing together in small groups in addition to the full ensemble.” She adds that many members normally eat dinner together before weekly rehearsals, and that they’re all big fans of social time over snack breaks.
“We just can’t get enough of each other,” she says.
Juliano, who has been with the group for nearly 30 years, echoed that thought, saying that within 10-15 minutes of getting to rehearsal every week (back when rehearsal was in person) she could feel the day’s stresses easing as the music – and friendly faces – worked their magic.
And, sure, you can sing at home. But members are quick to point out that it’s not quite the same.
“I enjoy harmonizing with others. That’s huge. I just love to sing,” says Karen Kriner, the group’s publicity coordinator. “I still sing around the house. But singing with other people is the best.”
Powell agrees: “I sing along with the radio and sing songs about my pets all the time. But singing in the chorus with other people, that feels like an accomplishment, especially when you have a piece that feels really hard. When it sounds good, it just boosts my confidence in general.”
The group’s music is particularly impactful for the singers, as well as audiences at their regular concerts, because the leadership chooses pieces meant to represent women and the diversity of their experiences. That includes everything from showtunes to traditional choral pieces and folk songs in a variety of languages to pop, all showcasing a variety of accompanying instruments to keep their repertoire exciting. The group’s website features several recordings, including the “Iraqi Peace Song” and a traditional American piece, “Goin’ to Boston.”
Walwer emphasizes that this mission – representing women’s experiences and diversity in general – is a key aspect of Another Octave, and something they’ll eagerly get back to when singing together is safe once again. For now, they are hoping for summer singing sessions outside, or at least beginning a new season this fall.
The Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus is wondering about similar timing when it comes to being back together in person. The organization is in its 35th year, and it is safe to say it has never seen a year like this one, says chorus President Ken Sawicki.
The group, made up of about 30 members of all ages and backgrounds, was founded in 1986 as the first organization of its kind in the state. Their normal routine includes in-person weekly rehearsals at New Haven’s St. Thomas’s Church, and performances at places like the Shubert Theatre and other locations, with large, enthusiastic crowds. The group’s members are warm, funny, and friendly, says Sawicki, and over the years they’ve held memorable concerts complete with costumes, choreography, and plenty of emotion as they celebrate the LGBTQ community and their commitment to the arts.
They’ve also developed a robust fund-raising system, including monthly “BingoMania!” nights at The Annex YMA club in New Haven – events that not only support the group financially, but are joyful get-togethers for the group, their fans, and their friends.
Their pandemic setup lacks the in-person sense of community that has come to mean so much for this group. But the weekly Zoom rehearsals and recorded concerts and songs – which included a Boyz II Men cover in honor of Black Lives Matter and a full Valentine’s Day concert in lieu of their annual holiday event – have been a salve throughout the pandemic months.
“Tuesday night on Zoom, we see everyone’s faces and focus on music,” says Sawicki. “It’s what we love, and it’s been great to have the fantastic, enthusiastic group that we have at this point to fall back on. You realize you’ve not only been working with these guys, but you’ve developed friendships that will last a long time, and there’s so much to be said about that.”
Looking Forward to Reuniting
Sawicki is confident that the pandemic experience will make the group stronger than ever when its members come back in person.
“What we have is a wonderfully diverse group,” he says. “A group of people who really care for each other, and really enjoy each other’s company. It’s such a good feeling to get up there and do what we do for an audience. I hope we can do it again soon.”
Scott McEver, president of the HGMC chorus council, has positive things to say about the group’s eventual reunion, too, noting that because their chorus – like the other groups – is rooted in such a meaningful mission, the bond the members have with one another is nearly impossible to break.
“Folks joined our chorus because of their interest in music, but of course as an LGBTQ group, there’s also a sense of community and connection,” he says. “For some folks, joining was really their first statement as a gay person.”
McEver says that once chorus members are able to gather safely, the challenge presented by the pandemic could result in a positive new outlook, yielding even more appreciation for the importance of such a committed group.
“I’d like to think that as we get towards that moment, we’ll be able to reflect on what we’ve gained being a chorus in this challenging time,” he says. “And about what it means to be connected again.”