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Together in spirit: Young@Heart Chorus finds its voice via Zoom rehearsals

  • Leila Wilson, at right, joins director Bob Cilman and other members of the Young@Heart Chorus at a rehearsal in 2018 at the Northampton Senior Center. The singers are rehearsing via Zoom these days. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2020 8:01:01 AM
Modified: 5/7/2020 8:00:51 AM

The members of this singing group may have been born well before the computer became a mainstay of modern life.

But in the midst of a pandemic that has forced most people to retreat to their homes, the locally-based Young@Heart Chorus is using some of the most up-to-date computer technology around to keep singing.

Since late March, the senior singers have been doing their twice-weekly rehearsals, not in the Northampton Senior Center, but rather via Zoom, the videoconferencing platform that’s become the go-to tool for so many during the COVID-19 outbreak.

It took awhile to get everyone up to speed with the technology, but Young@Heart Director Bob Cilman says it’s now a great way for everyone to get together and keep working on the material.

“It’s been a really positive experience,” Cilman said during a recent phone interview. “The sound quality is not the best, but just to see everyone alive and well, knowing they’re doing OK, that’s been a blessing.”

And Young@Heart, which for years has drawn rave reviews and audiences across the country and overseas, remains a popular draw even via video. The group recently performed a version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” during a Zoom rehearsal (they used recorded instrumental music from a previous performance of the song) that Cilman says garnered over 100,000 views between the group’s Facebook page and YouTube.

That same “COVIDeo” popped up on the CNN program “The Good Stuff” last week after Cilman sent a link to it to the show’s producers (CNN anchor John Berman, who met the group back in 2008, came to Northampton last year to do another segment on them).

Cilman joked that he’s seeing better attendance in the virtual rehearsals than in past live ones. “The weather can’t stop you now,” he said, noting that a session earlier this week had 19 singers on camera and several more dialed in by phone.

Not that there weren’t a few technical hurdles to overcome to get to this point. After Cilman and group members decided in early March that it wasn’t safe to sing together, they had a conference call March 19 to touch base, which Cilman said was a bit chaotic: “You don’t have a mute button, like you do on Zoom, so it was a lot of voices all at once.”

The next step was to get members hooked up with Zoom, and Cilman says Young@Heart’s technical director, John Laprade, did yeoman’s work in arranging that over the phone, taking singers step-by-step through the process. Since then, sound technician Dan Richardson has worked magic in getting the sound improved, Cilman said, and arranged to have soloists sing surrounded by images of the other members, who then join in on the chorus.

Band members like pianist Mark Gionfriddo, guitarist Joe Boyle and drummer J.J. O’Connell also have pitched in individually on the rehearsals, as have bassist Jim Armenti, drummer Billy Arnold and accordion player Chris Haynes. The chorus had been preparing new songs for its May fundraising concert — now canceled — by Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead and others, said Cilman. That music has yet to be completely recorded.

Young@Heart also took time to mourn the loss of longtime member Pat Cady, who died last week (not of COVID-19) at age 84. “We spent an hour just talking (on Zoom) about Pat and what she meant to everyone,” Cilman said. “It was important — everyone had so much to say.”

He notes that until it’s safe to be together again — especially with a more vulnerable part of the population — the Zoom rehearsals will continue for Young@Heart. “And, hopefully, people will keep tuning in to listen to us,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Young@Heart’s website is youngatheartchorus.com.

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