Everyone can join in, nobody will be left behind

As we continue to adapt to the changing circumstances of life in a world with Covid-19, the recently re-opened Arts Centre Washington is once again offering in-venue exhibitions and face-to-face creative activities, blended with an ongoing online programme (with a few new measures to safely welcome you back).

Sinead Florence Livingston, who leads the Washington One Voice Choir at Arts Centre Washington, shares her experience of choir leading in the time of Covid-19. She talks about the importance of choirs as communities, and the ways in which she has adapted how she works in order to sustain them.

 

When Covid-19 hit, and the choir leading world started talking about moving online, I panicked.

Aside from the immediate loss of income, there was also the realisation that we were facing challenges that no-one had ever encountered before, like how can we keep people singing in the midst of an airborne virus that stops gatherings? I currently lead six community choirs across the North East, including Washington One Voice Choir at Arts Centre Washington and the Sunderland Empire Community Chorus. Each of those choirs is a community, largely made up of older individuals, and I could see that bond being ravaged without the ability to meet up.

Facebook groups set up by colleagues were an immediate lifeline, giving us a place to put our heads together and meet the new challenges head on. Some of the more tech-savvy leaders introduced us to Zoom, but my lack of fancy software and recording equipment was disheartening. I’m also famously allergic to technology, and able to break a computer at 100 paces! It was an immediate mental setback, but I knew that doing something was better than nothing. A week later, I had set up Zoom meetings for four of my groups, starting off with simple sing-a-longs at the usual rehearsal time.

While we got into the swing of using Zoom and singing at home, I learned new techniques, such as how to record multi-tracks using Bandlab, so that we could sing in harmony (the lag on Zoom means that everyone has to sing with the others on mute, otherwise there’s an unlistenable cacophony). I also made sure there’s enough time for chatting, as the social aspect was suddenly more important than it had ever been.

Since then, I’ve been able to engage in a ton of training and networking that I wouldn’t have been able to attend in the real world. As well as learning new techniques for choir leading on Zoom, it also gave me the confidence to run a virtual choir project called ‘Set Our Voices Free’, a song that I wrote and arranged, recorded by members of each different choir. It was very much outside of everyone’s comfort zone, but I am so proud of everyone who took part!

Track mastered by Harbourmaster. Video by Wycombe 89.

Unfortunately, a lot of participants still don’t have the technology at home that they need to join online sessions. I want everyone to be able to get involved and see friendly faces, especially as we face further restrictions. That’s why I’m thrilled to say that I’ve just recently secured funding from the Community Support Fund (distributed by The National Lottery Community Fund) to provide laptops, tablets, and internet technology to those choir members who are most isolated, and haven’t had the means to get online and take part. I’d like to give special thanks to Regeneration NE, who have been hugely supportive, and instrumental in securing the funding. I’m determined that as we go forward, nobody will be left behind, and everyone can join in.

For now though, a new term has started, and we’re still living the Zoom life. Polling my choirs has shown that they just aren’t comfortable with regular rehearsals yet, and neither am I, but with the help and guidance of colleagues I can start making plans for the future. I’m currently searching for large spaces that would let us gather for maybe one in four sessions, while being strictly governed by the latest guidance.