Choral Society to release mini documentary on virtual singing
The Santa Barbara Choral Society hasn’t missed a performance season for 73 years, so when the pandemic hit, Jo Anne Wasserman wasn’t about to let it ruin the 2021 season — her 28th year as director.
Therefore, the choir filmed its own mini-documentary called, “How Can We Keep From Singing?,” which features two songs recorded virtually and tells the story of the choir adapting to COVID-19 guidelines.
“We just felt that we really needed to move forward and keep serving the Santa Barbara community as much as we could during this difficult time for the arts, and also to keep our singers together, motivated and engaged with the Choral Society,” Ms. Wasserman told the News-Press.
The free program will premiere from 5 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Those interested in watching should RSVP at www.sbchoral.org to receive a link to the Choral Society’s YouTube channel, where the performance will continue to stream following the premiere event.
Typical seasons for the Choral Society run from September through June. During the pandemic, members were unable to meet in person to rehearse songs. But last fall, the choir began meeting virtually once a week to attend musicianship classes and hear from guest speakers such as composers and maestros.
Members were then allowed to ask composers and professional musicians questions in Q&A sessions at the end of each class.
Todd Aldrich is a member of the choir and the Choral Society’s board president. He told the News-Press that initially, the choir met over Zoom just for the social nature of it.
“Frankly, for a lot of people in the chorus, this was their only connection with the outside world,” he said. “It became quickly apparent to me that we needed some more focused activity. There’s only so much you can talk about — we wanted to sing, and it got me thinking, ‘Writers must publish and artists have to create.’”
A small creative committee made up of scriptwriters and a TV producer/director began meeting once a week to work on the short film. Then the choir used a guide track — a rough recording of a song that allows musicians to play (or sing) along to the song with its set tempo and structure — to record two new songs.
Members were able to record themselves singing from home and send their clips in. Then an audio engineer synced them all together.
“Everybody sends in their individual part, which I think can be really traumatic for people that record themselves and send it out into the world,” Ms. Wasserman said. “It’s much different singing it, of course, when you have 25 people around you singing with you. It took a lot of courage for the singers to be able to do that. …Then you kind of just add one voice on top of another voice and all of the sudden, you have a choir.”
The director said she was very pleased with the result that took a few months to put together. The songs, along with the documentary, will make their debut on Saturday’s release of the product.
Rehearsing, however, wasn’t as easy to control over Zoom. In preparation for recording the new songs, the Choral Society, which is made up of more than 40 singers, had to practice singing the songs together, which doesn’t exactly work virtually.
“There’s this latency problem. … It sounds too jumbled,” Mr. Aldrich said. “You have to have someone leading and playing the music and usually singing along with it, and you have to be muted on your end singing. That’s sort of off-putting — you can hear your own voice.”
The singer said he’s not a soloist — only “maybe in the shower.” However, while he said singing alone and hearing himself was challenging, it helped him grow.
“After I’d done the fourth or fifth take, I felt like I had it down and I started to really enjoy my voice … I’m not the greatest singer, but I’d just done the best I could,” Mr. Aldrich said.
He added that he loved being able to “let it rip” while he was on mute, versus in person in a choir where he may have gotten “a funny look.”
On the other end of the operation, though, Ms. Wasserman had to trust her choir, considering she couldn’t hear them.
“It was frustrating, teaching the music and not being able to hear what people were singing because everybody was on mute,” the director said. “But I think what really helped this to be successful was that these singers had been in the Choral Society for a very, very long time … They thought about all the things we’d been doing for years, making sure they were singing properly, breathing properly, phrasing the music they way they’ve been instructed to do.
“Apparently they did, because the final product really is very, very nice.”
Ms. Wasserman and Mr. Aldrich agreed the guide track put responsibility on the singers to work out troublesome areas themselves, and Mr. Aldrich said he believes it will be a tool regularly used moving forward.
The documentary features the choir performing the “Amen” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” and the American folk song “How Can I Keep From Singing?” There are also brief video messages from the singers, board members, donors and composers.
“Our singers were hungry to learn new things and be exposed to new music and different composers. Those types of interviews were very stimulating for the singers. Something different every week was very, very important,” Ms. Wasserman said.
“Putting this together was really a labor of love,” the director said. “We can’t wait to get back in person singing, but this was something that, I think, brought so many people in our membership together.
“We stepped outside of the box to put this video together, and we have so many creative people within our own group that helped make this happen.”