Hospice choir reflects on pandemic perseverance

  • The hospice choir, consisting of about 25 members, had to reconsider its performing methods to heed health safety precautions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, while still trying to be flexible when requested to sing at residences, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across Franklin County and beyond. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Joe Toritto leads the Eventide Singers during rehearsal at the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Joe Toritto leads the Eventide Singers during rehearsal at the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

For the Recorder
Published: 12/7/2022 4:39:58 PM
Modified: 12/7/2022 4:39:37 PM

In their efforts to comfort the dying, the ill and the homebound through music, volunteers with the Eventide Singers grew accustomed to performing in intimate environments, gathered closely around an ailing person’s bedside. Come 2020, though, windowside would have to do.

The hospice choir, consisting of about 25 members, had to reconsider its performing methods to heed health safety precautions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, while still trying to be flexible when requested to sing at residences, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across Franklin County and beyond. By standing in driveways and singing through open windows while wearing masks, the Eventide Singers persevered, even during the wintertime.

“I’ve been involved in (Eventide) for many, many years,” said Alexa Berton, a 15-year member from Brattleboro, Vermont, “and to suddenly have singing be one of the most dangerous things you could do was just really sad and was an enormous loss to me and my life. Some people were comfortable getting together masked indoors, and I wasn’t among those people who were doing that. … Wearing a mask, you can’t see each other’s faces. And I’m not comfortable sitting really close even with a mask if I’m singing. I don’t know if it will ever recover, if we will be able to be unmasked indoors, standing together the way we used to. The whole feel of it is quite different.”

“It was a big adjustment during COVID,” agreed Whately resident Nancy Blickenstaff, a choir member for seven years. “Plus, singing with a mask is a challenge.”

At last, though, the choir is inching back to something more similar to pre-pandemic operations. After a stint in which members practiced on Zoom — an alternative that members described as difficult due to a delay — the choir is back to practicing inside at the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield while wearing masks. During warmer weather, the choir could rehearse outside as well, with a Zoom option. Greenfield resident Joe Toritto — who has been director of the Eventide Singers since not long after it was founded in 2007, drawing inspiration from a Montpelier, Vermont-based group — recalled practicing in a parking lot outside a colleague’s office.

“I’m so grateful that Zoom existed, because it if hadn’t, I would have lost singing. It felt like we were still a group,” commented Northfield resident Mary Johnson, who has been part of the Eventide Singers for 15 years.

Toritto noted that some assisted living facilities, such as Charlene Manor Extended Care in Greenfield, have started to allow indoor performances again. But still, the choir continues to sing on porches and in backyards.

At the height of the pandemic, Blickenstaff said the choir convened at the time of day in the winter when temperatures were warmest.

“I had a rule of thumb with (Hospice of the) Fisher Home,” Blickenstaff said, “that if it was going to be in the 40s, and sunny, and no wind, we could sing because they were willing to open their windows, and we wouldn’t get very cold in that.”

South Deerfield resident Jean Schwartz, who has been with the Eventide Singers since 2019, remembers that when she performed outside the Fisher Home in Amherst, she couldn’t see the person they were seeing to, as she might have indoors. Still, it was clear that their performance made a difference, as she could see the individual’s “hands go up and down, clapping at the end of a song.”

Despite the circumstances, the singers also say they have gained beautiful memories. Toritto recalled a performance the group did in Hadley during the pandemic.

“We were outdoors, the sun was setting and we were singing through a basement window (into) a bedroom,” he said, noting that the family had gathered inside. “We were locked in our sound, and it was just gorgeous and moving.”

After they sang, Toritto said the family members were “just so thrilled” that they bought the singers ice cream from a business next door.

“It helped them to transition. Sometimes it helps family members to reconnect or make amends,” Toritto said of bringing in hospice singers. “Amazing things do happen, and the family is so grateful for the opportunity. It feels like a gift to give that.”

The choir doesn’t only have a human audience. Members said they recalled cats jumping up to the windows to greet them, and they have had birds join in on the singing.

“It was just amazing how many times we would start singing and the birds would be there,” said Johnson.

As some more intimate gatherings resume, Schwartz reflected on the choir’s ability to persevere.

“It’s been remarkable that with all of the losses all of us have experienced during COVID, of social connection and eating in restaurants and going to the movies,” she said, “this group has continued. To me, that has been absolutely remarkable.”

Toritto said the choir is “always looking” for new singers, and particularly hopes for younger participants to join. There is no age limit. Those who are interested in joining the Eventide Singers can contact him by email at joetoritto@yahoo.com or by phone at 413-774-5828.


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