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How Does a Choir Keep Going — Safely — in a Pandemic?

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Middlebury College Choir rehearsing during the pandemic - COURTESY OF JEFF BUETTNER
  • Courtesy Of Jeff Buettner
  • Middlebury College Choir rehearsing during the pandemic

In December, Jeffrey Buettner, associate professor of music and director of choral activities at Middlebury College, won a Virtue Family Exceptional Service Award. His achievement? Conducting the Middlebury College Choir in person.

That's no small feat in a pandemic. Singing is a perfect delivery service for the coronavirus, as singers can send aerosolized droplets well beyond six feet. One of the pandemic's first super-spreader events in the U.S. was, in fact, a choir rehearsal in Washington. But Buettner, who joined the college faculty in 2007 and cofounded the Middlebury Bach Festival, was determined to find a way to gather his singers together in the real world.

While conducting online courses last spring and facilitating weekly Zoom meetings of the choir through the summer — often inviting alumni to chat and share video clips of previous performances — he was also poring over studies of aerosol dispersion and consulting with campus medical staff.

Buettner implemented his plan for safe, in-person singing at the start of the fall term. He limited his choir, which usually has between 36 and 40 students, to 30 and divided them into three groups. He met with each group twice weekly for 30 minutes in Mead Memorial Chapel on campus, which seats 700, and placed them 12 to 15 feet apart in the pews. Everyone wore masks. Students disinfected their areas before and after practice. Conversation was banned, and the students could only face forward. But they sang.

"A number of students left those sessions weeping because they were overjoyed to sing together again," Buettner said during a phone call.

The in-person rehearsals, which lasted through the end of the term in November, resulted in zero cases of COVID-19. (Buettner also banned his students from meeting outside of class to sing together, and the college banned its half dozen student-run singing groups from meeting.) So the conductor plans to resume in-person rehearsals in early March, at the start of the next term.

While most singing has moved online during the pandemic, substitutes for choral singing are problematic, according to professor David Neiweem, longtime director of the University of Vermont Concert Choir.

"Choral singers are by definition members of a team," he wrote in an email. "Making, hearing and succumbing to the interplay of human voices is the essence of choral singing. Without that, it's hard to be inspired to breath[e], listen, think and perform in unison with other singers."

That interplay of voices presents new challenges when the singers are so far apart. Buettner has had to rethink his repertoire. "Musically, our projects have to be much shorter," he notes. And because sight lines are problematic in a 700-seat chapel, the music that has worked is rhythmic. That includes "Non Nobis, Domine" by Rosephanye Powell, a 2002 piece that's standard with academic choirs; and the folk-sounding "Meet Me Here" by Craig Hella Johnson, from 2016. The latter, says Buettner, is "a little slower but had a continual pulse that we could all feel across a distance."

The conductor was also able to hold his fall course for first-year students called Singing Communities in person. They met in two groups of seven students and were able to sing twice a week, though they had to forego the community outreach part of the course. Buettner's spring course on ensemble singing may prove more challenging. The a cappella group, he said, will study "music, its context and how to sing together. In these circumstances, this is really hard."

Buettner was able to realize in-person singing partly because the college is an enclosed society: No outsiders are allowed on campus, and students who flout safety rules are promptly sent home. Other colleges have faced different challenges.

At UVM, Neiweem's singers were all remote during the fall semester, partly because the 300-seat UVM Recital Hall was still undergoing renovation. With the space now reopened, he'll begin in-person rehearsals at the start of the spring semester on February 1.

At Saint Michael's College, music professor Nathaniel Lew was able to rehearse 12 to 15 choral students in the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall, which seats 330, for only a few weeks. The college went online in October.

Meanwhile, nearby community choirs have had no choice but to remain on hiatus. The Burlington Choral Society has held only online rehearsals with artistic director Richard Riley. Neiweem's Burlington-based Aurora Chamber Singers haven't met in any capacity since last February. "We have tried to keep in touch as a community. However, it's been stressful, to say the least," he wrote.

Lew, who also directs the professional vocal ensemble Counterpoint, wrote in an email, "Counterpoint has not been able to rehearse in person for the very good reason that no venue is letting strangers in to engage in potentially dangerous activities. Insurance risk!"

In that light, Middlebury singers are perhaps the envy of all choristers, and not just because they've been able to make music together. In-person rehearsals boost emotional health — something the pandemic has rendered precarious — and provide social support and community in a time of distancing.

"It's really an emotional thing to be able to gather and sing," Buettner said. "For many students, half their classes are online, and I have a number of students with no in-person experience. So, for those 30 minutes, you can hear your sound with their sound, and it does a bit of what singing does for those who love it so much."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Voice Control | How does a choir keep going — safely — in a pandemic?"