The singing stopped, and the emptiness arrived

  • In this Monday, June 8, 2020, photo, a piece of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams is displayed in Worthington, Ohio, in front of a YouTube video of the Atlanta Symphony performing it. The coronavirus pandemic has forced choral singers to raise their single voices in song from isolated settings, singing to audio files or online videos rather than with other singers who have the potential of spreading COVID-19. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth) Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press
Published: 6/12/2020 2:50:12 PM
Modified: 6/12/2020 2:49:58 PM

WORTHINGTON, Ohio — My mother taught me that the best place in the world is on the inside of a chord. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what she meant. It’s a bear hug of awe and wonder, a sublime sliver of beauty or dissonance or genius powered by the humble human voice. Or, more precisely, by many human voices.

How I miss that place.

When COVID-19 first descended, our church choir sang for one final Sunday. The cases in Ohio were still few and it seemed important to us to be present. As we elbow-bumped our goodbyes that day, one friend joked, “Will I ever see you again?”

None of us imagined the lockdown that would ensue, the months of isolation and separation. The masks, the fears, the divisions.

In my world, coping with such stuff is what singing is for. I was taught to harmonize at my mother’s knee, and she at her mother’s. We break into rounds on long car trips. We perform at weddings, birthdays and funerals. I’ve joined a choir wherever I’ve settled, making fast friends along the way.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown me how much I rely on these choral interludes for my spirituality, my community, my sanity.

Our wonderful choir director, Brandon Moss, has helped ease the emptiness with a weekly email: a virtual warm-up, sheet music and YouTube links for singing at home.

For the first couple weeks, I ignored the emails. I was busy learning the new rules for how to cover the Ohio State house, navigate the grocery store and fill my now endless free time.

By Week Three, my soul was starved. I opened the email and began. I warmed up. Alone. I queued up the audio file and followed my alto line into the void. “Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken... all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken... Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy...”

It helped. So I opened another email, and another.

Easter Sunday arrived. I saw a silver lining. A dear friend directs a church choir in Kalamazoo, Mich. I could sing hymns at my own virtual church service, then belt out a rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” rebroadcast a state away. I dressed up, I wore a flowery hat.

Yet even this music-filled day didn’t put me inside a chord. Nor did the virtual choir project I participated in, recording myself via cellphone and emailing it to a distant curator. What I wanted was to be surrounded by friends of all vocal ranges, delivering a work of art we’d painstakingly worked on for months, artists and grateful audience in tune.

This story’s ending isn’t happy. Not yet. The hard truth is this highly infectious virus, spread through droplets from the mouth and nose, has blocked the road to my favorite place in the world, maybe for quite some time.

“There is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a COVID-19 vaccine and a 95 percent effective treatment in place,” Dr. Lucinda Halstead, president of the Performing Arts Medical Association, said in May.

On one hand, how devastating to think of a world without choral music, even for a single life-saving year. On the other, it confirms what I always knew: Singing is breathing is life.

Perhaps this moment calls for a state-of-mind adjustment, a shift from “Hallelujah Chorus” optimism to something closer to Mozart’s Requiem. Supremely moving, in spots even uplifting, because the sorrow and grief show us just how deeply we loved.


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