A message by Ruben Piirainen, UUCW Music Director

In this time of COVID-19 we have seen so many changes to our usual way of doing things. I have been teaching piano lessons online to students from age 5 to age 70. I know many of you are working from home and still many others have been reporting to their workplaces as usual since the beginning of the pandemic.

There have been big changes at church, too. All groups and Sunday worship have temporarily switched to an online format, including the UUCW Choir. Until mid-March, I had never before conducted an online rehearsal, and I wondered if anything I did would be effective. What I have discovered in these few short months has been eye-opening in terms of church communities and the importance of staying connected.

A typical rehearsal for us when we meet in person begins with body warm-ups in the form of light yoga stretching. Then, we work on vocal warm-ups which prepare our vocal mechanisms for healthy singing and gives me a chance to work on specific vocal and choral techniques. Finally, the majority of the rehearsal is dedicated to learning often challenging choir music for presentation during Sunday services.

Online rehearsals are totally different. Our group, which averages 15 attendees each week, takes the first part of the meeting to check-in. We talk about how our lives are going, what we’re feeling in the midst of all the uncertainty, how our friends and family are doing. We often have a musical ice-breaker question like “who are your favorite singers, and why?” and “describe your previous (if any) musical training” that helps us to learn more about each other in a focused and fun way. Other times, like this week, we spend the check-in reflecting on current events  the George Floyd murder, the resulting protests, our call to respond, and our privilege  before singing several social justice-oriented songs.

The second part of our online rehearsal is something I have always wanted to do: present a weekly topic on music theory. Understanding the “why” of music will ultimately make for a more rewarding singing experience. We have been studying a system of sight-singing called solfege and working on ear training. 

We also take time in each online rehearsal to sing. We are a choir, after all; however, singing online is not the same as singing in person. Even with the fastest and most reliable internet connections, the ability to sync up is non-existent. Trying to sing as a group results in utter cacophony, which we have experienced first hand to our amusement and sadness. It is an interesting experience to sing hymn #360 “Here we have gathered, gathered side by side”  seeing each other’s faces in the Zoom grid, but having our mute buttons turned on. We SEE each other singing, and we SENSE each other singing, but we cannot HEAR it. One vital part of the piece is missing, and yet, we hear it in a brand-new way.

The reports are out: congregational singing is not safe, and will not be for some time. Singers are “super-spreaders”  the act of singing in a choir involves strong, supported tones in close proximity, resulting in what can be a germy environment. Many of us have heard the story about a choir rehearsal on March 10 at a Presbyterian church in Mount Vernon, Washington, in which one singer  who was having mild “cold” symptoms  unwittingly infected over 50 people over the course of one rehearsal. And despite the CDC’s recent (and politicized) reversal on the dangers of choral singing, we know that choral or congregational or any group singing, for now, is simply not safe.

What does that mean for the UUCW Adult Choir? Well, we are figuring that out. There are apps, such as Acapella, that allow users to create ensemble videos by individual contributors. We are experimenting with Acapella and, in my new role as the project manager, I am discovering that what seems patently simple can come with a whole host of unexpected challenges. And, Acapella is only fully compatible with Apple products, which leaves our Android users unable to participate, which is a huge problem that I’m working on addressing. Then, there are the really cool “virtual choirs” spreading across social media which always makes my blood run a tad cold  as amazing as these productions are, did you know that a single 4-minute “performance” is the result of up to 50 hours of work involving specialized video editing skills?

For now, until a Great Solution emerges, we have chosen to focus on the actual choir community itself. We are heartbroken that we cannot sing as a group, but we are cultivating deep relationships that will only make the act of group singing, once we can resume, that much more special. If you are looking for a musical community or have always wondered about being in the choir, this is a wonderful, low-risk time to give it a try (no one but you will actually hear you sing!). Come for the songs and stay for the community. The choir is usually on summer hiatus by this point, but we are going to continue our Tuesday evening meetings throughout the summer. We meet via the Zoom app at 7:00 pm. Any interested persons may contact me for information about joining the meetings. We hear you, and we welcome you.

Ruben Piirainen
Credentialed Music Leader, Unitarian Universalist Association