“The beauty. The first time I felt part of something larger than myself.” In July, Eric Whitacre was speaking on the BBC World Service about the first time he took part in a choir. There are an estimated 37 million choral singers in Europe in churches, in the community and in schools, with 2.2 million of them in 40,000 choirs in the UK.

That feeling is what it's like to sing in a choir, with everyone in the same room, eyes fixed on the choral director. Tragically it stopped dead in early March, just before choirs’ Easter performance. The only option for  singers was to go virtual, so overnight, choral directors everywhere scrambled to buy microphones and Zoom subscriptions and become presenters of virtual choirs. One man had done it all before: Eric Whitacre, the Los Angeles based composer and choral director who invented the virtual choir in 2009. In mid-March, he realised “If there was ever a time for one of these things, now is that time.” Whitacre wanted his sixth choir to have the lowest possible barrier to entry. There has never been a fee for singers to take part in his choirs, but this time, he was keen to bring in people without singing experience as well as those with disabilities. He vowed to write a new piece of music “to speak to what's happening now.”

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Eric Whitacre conducting online

“Typically, when I compose a piece of choral music, it gets pretty complex, I tend to split into a lot of parts and long impossible-to-sing phrases. And with Sing Gently, I forced myself to write in only four parts and really try to make it as accessible and ergonomic as possible. The ranges are very conservative. It wasn't fun to do. I really felt handcuffed by it, but I did it on purpose. I added a piano which is always helpful to an amateur chorus. We had to define for a lot of people what 'an alto'  means. Just sing this and if that feels comfortable in your range. It was beautiful, because then we got a ton of female tenors and even basses.” He also created all the learning tools for the singers, bringing on board experts of all sorts to produce braille and signing guides with a vocal expert to help those suffering with compromised lungs.

Did it work? Conductor Tori Longdon says “the way that Eric interacted with his singers when they were actually putting the project together was amazing. I think everybody who took part in Sing Gently felt like they knew him a little bit better by the end of it. I think that's the real value.”

Longdon herself has been very busy since lockdown, despite having lost all her paid work when Covid-19 struck. With co-founder Jamie Wright, she has created the Stay At Home Choir, a platform on which they run virtual choir projects from multiple artists and genres. Their projects – which get no funding so singers are asked for suggested donations – are “rehearsal light” as Longdon puts it “and aim to demystify the cult of the composer and allow people to meet their favourite artists.” Their rehearsal sessions are varied. They hold “Meet n Sings”, teach singing techniques but also to “get the artists in the room so they can answer your questions and tell you first hand what they want to do with that piece... Really, it's not so much about singing in those sessions as it is meeting the artists and learning from them directly.” They also run dress rehearsals allowing the singers to ask for help on specific passages of the work and break out sessions for the singers to interact and build on a community feeling.

In the run through of the Sanctus, the large computer screen is segmented into sections displaying the score, the conductor, a few participants, a close up of an orchestra section playing the work as if live and a video of the war scene being depicted in music. It's completely immersive.

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Jennifer Sterling leads a Zoom session

Asked about the future of real versus virtual choirs, Longdon says “I'm a musician. I feed off being in a room with other people. As a discipline, I find conducting fascinating and it's been my passion for my whole adult life. Put Covid to one side for a moment, think about the face of global touring and what that's going to look like when your air travel becomes prohibitively expensive. If touring to Bahrain is not cost effective are they just going to ignore those audiences and not try to engage with them? Or is there something else that they can do, for example, collaborate with us and run a virtual choir project?”

In just four months, Longdon and Wright have built up a platform with a mailing list of 16,000 members a third of whom are currently working with Karl Jenkins on The Armed Man. It's an impressive start in this new world.

The 50 strong education department of Opera North runs music learning for several schools. In their large community in the north of England, they offer workshops from toddler age to the most vulnerable elderly. According to Alex Bradshaw, Lifelong Learning Manager, “This virtual choir grew out of our Sing ON work which provided weekly face-to-face singing sessions for the over 55s around Leeds before lockdown.” Jenny Sterling, presenter of their choir From Couch to Chorus, has been spending her lockdown with a friend in Leeds, recording Scottish Songs from a Scottish Sofa for Youtube in her spare time. “I said to my boss, it's such a shame these sessions are stopping for the summer. It'd be lovely if we could give our participants something to keep going. We could maybe open up [the virtual choir] to a few extra people.” She was certainly right: 2,200 people signed up.

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Stay at home choir rehearsal with the Kings Singers

Opera North is half way through its first project and the first virtual Opera chorus I know of – and I'm a participant, enjoying the endorphins flowing after belting out opera choruses from Nabucco, Carmen and The Bartered Bride. Sterling includes thoughtful polls in her sessions, and discovered on day one she had 8 people who have literally never sung at all, “not even in the shower” right through to several professional singers. Sterling says “I like that the people who would have come to choir in real life and been a little bit embarrassed about singing around other people and not sung out, and then suddenly this screen is put up, you press mute and they can actually sing. And because they can actually sing, they can really improve and they can learn and they can build their confidence.”

Getting paid for their hard work is tough for all virtual choirs and they have substantial costs to cover. Whitacre has a big professional setup and creates extraordinarily beautiful videos, which he funds by attracting donors, but most have the difficult balancing act trying to get decent remuneration from those who can afford it without putting off those who can't. Opera North has accumulated over £20,000 in donations so far (with contributions still coming in) for their first chorus, so Bradshaw is up for another project later in the year: “Now we've proved that the appetite... is definitely there. The response to this initiative has been overwhelmingly positive... It has clearly made a real difference to people who might otherwise feel isolated, and we have enjoyed being able to include people from across the UK and even overseas.”

At this time of Covid-19, Opera North have kept some of their team working to create an income stream for the future, furloughed the rest and are now about to bring their whole chorus back to work. They stand a good chance of having engaged with many new potential opera goers who can fuel their work in future. As Sterling, says “perhaps education is the key to enjoyment and understanding and for falling in love with opera.” 

Whitacre, the granddaddy of virtual choirs, is delighted that others are taking up his concept: “I'm thrilled to bits. The only hesitation I have is people who don't know what they're seeing, thinking that this is a replacement for actual music making together. you know that phenomenon that happens when you're standing with people... It's not only that people breathe at the same time, they breathe the same way. It's a genuine conspiracy, right? It's not just a breath. There's so much information being shared back and forth in just that single moment of a breath coming in. And in a virtual choir all of that is stripped away completely. There's kind of an illusion because you're watching the conductor track. And you're sort of breathing with him, but you don't feel that thing that takes the hair up on the back of your neck. You just don't get it. It just amazes me that schools don't start everyday singing for 15 minutes, everybody. Churches really knew the power of it. They knew that there's nothing that bonds a group of people or sort of illuminates a group of people like singing together. I think maybe the whole virtual choir thing has made that more clear to me that singing is one thing, but being connected to people is maybe even the deeper meaning in choirs in general.”

No one used to singing in a choir is likely to prefer a virtual one. Choirs in Europe are beginning to start, cautiously, but the UK and the USA are firmly opposed. There is no logic in forbidding 20 - 30 singers to meet outdoors and raise their voices in harmony, when a group of strangers of similar or larger size is allowed to congregate inside a UK pub or cheer at a football match. We can only ask the Government to provide amateur choirs with outline guidance and let them to choose for themselves the risks they are comfortable with. Surely that is the way forward to truly open the country.