Waiting for a room to fill up with people feels so last year. These days, community choir leader Jeannie Marsh waits for the little squares on her screen to blink into life to signal her group’s singers have turned up and tuned in ready to join in an evening of singing from their lounge room, bedroom or wherever the acoustics work best and there’s the option of a closing door.
Over the past month in response to physical distancing and self isolation, a new online world of community music has sprung up, close and personal in a whole new way as pets, partners and kids wander in and out of focus, and we find singing and playing in our pj’s easy and oh so cosy. For the time being, Zoom‘s the room and anything goes in this virtual space as we each adjust to living in this brave new world.
While this approach won’t work for everyone, the option to take things online offers a way for community music groups to continue to connect socially whilst remaining apart. It addresses our basic human need for something to look forward to, is an opportunity to share hope and reassurance with each other and navigate a way through the strange times we find ourselves in. It’s a great excuse for a quick tidy up, too.
“Right now, I’m seeing my role as just trying to help people stay positive, that’s all I can do! Keep people singing and helping anyone feeling overwhelmed to get through this.”
For Jeannie, engaging with online platforms has been something best done on her own terms, in her own time; she’s the first to admit that she dislikes Facebook.
“When social media came out, I just thought ‘no, no, that’s not how I’m going to stay sane’. I feel pretty equipped technically, but I mean you know…”, she laughs, “I don’t have technical skills but I’m not afraid of asking for help and we all have to learn, we are all learning together. With ZING! we had to make the transition very early on and held our first session via Skype which was kind of weird, but it was a way to keep in contact and I was able to teach some songs and then for our most recent rehearsal last week, we switched to Zoom, which was much better.”
Jeannie invested in a headset and has found having better quality sound makes things far easier in her new-found role as an online leader. She’s made other discoveries too. For example, it wasn’t really working for Jeannie to use a call and response approach in her early online work with ZING!:
“I was leaving a gap to go, you know, ‘your turn’, so they would all sing the part at home, but people said that they didn’t really like that because they could just hear themselves singing and found this confronting. People don’t join a choir to hear themselves sing on their own. As a singer in a choir in the room together, you are surrounded by everyone else and they are pulling you along, and the leader is singing, and there might be accompaniment, all those things, and then suddenly it’s just you in your spare bedroom singing on your own, completely on your own without even the leader helping you.”
Taking on feedback from her singers, Jeannie’s abandoned this approach, “I’m not going to be trying that method anymore, I’m just going to demonstrate and repeat, then people can sing along with me, whether it’s a phrase of a song or a warm-up activity. This means that people will always have the security of singing with somebody else.” But Jeannie notes that all this might change as the process evolves over the coming weeks, and as people become more familiar and at ease with singing on their own.
The other disconcerting issue as an online leader is the problem of delay which it seems we’re all stuck with for the time being. “I can see who’s in the room and call them by name, I can say ‘Sue, unmute yourself and tell me what favourite song you have been listening to this week’. And then I can hear them, everybody else can hear them, it’s good for maintaining connection and I make sure we have a lot of laughs, which I think is important. We have warm-ups with music too. I’ll put on some lively latin dance music at the start of a session and we do a little warm-up dance sitting down or standing up… these sorts of things are a bit of fun.”
Jeannie is in the process of exploring possible ways for online social activities to be included in the virtual space, given this is such an important aspect of community choirs. Her ideas include scheduling a break time during the rehearsal when participants can grab a cuppa, beer or whatever, come back and have freeform chat. “In real life, Zing will rehearse for a couple of hours and then we usually go across to the pub and have another hour or so of socialising. We are working out a way to build that in: You can chat, have your drink in your hand and show and tell, whatever people want to do!”
Other Zoom issues to navigate include the inability to see everyone on screen simultaneously.
“Yesterday I did a first online zoom rehearsal for Climate Choir Melbourne with about thirty people, and I couldn’t see them all onscreen at once, I had to scroll across and found that quite difficult… I’m going to have to get into the habit of looking at one panel and then shifting to another panel so that I can see who’s in the room. Their names are there and their faces are there, and I can talk to them individually, so yeah I think that’s going to be challenging but I can see ways to make it work.”
Ensuring singers have all the resources required for each session is also important in supporting their online participation. Jeannie believes this means a potential increase in workload for leaders during the initial planning stages.
“If I walk into a face-to-face choir rehearsal tomorrow and we are working on six songs and people have the music and the word sheets, I stand in front of them, and we practise the song, it’s so straight forward! And you can improvise around your structure, you know, abandon one song if people aren’t getting it, or go to another….but when you are doing this online you have to have the materials all lined up ready to go and you have to keep on delivering, you have to keep talking and singing basically, so you’re on all the time.”
To compensate for this, Jeannie and ZING! are considering reducing the running time of their online rehearsals by half an hour. Jeannie is also planning to delegate online tasks to volunteers from within the group. “If somebody wants to take something on, ask them for help with the technical side of things like setting up a group space for example. I don’t want to be the one setting up the socials but there are plenty of people who would love that! For people with time on their hands, this gives them a supporting role in the same way that volunteers used to set out the tables and chairs in the room before choir. Or maybe they can be the person who sets a musical quiz for everyone or something along those lines.”
Recording and sharing backing tracks to enable singers to rehearse their parts at home is another thing Jeannie plans to provide. “I usually only start producing rehearsal resources halfway through a term, I’ll make little recordings. It’s time-consuming, I mean it’s straight forward and fun to do but it takes hours! I think leaders are going to have to produce backing tracks for people to sing along and harmonise with for practise at home in between sessions, especially if we’re charging money.”
With financial hardship hitting so many leaders and participants alike in this Covid-affected world, Jeannie is re-considering the financial structure of how she runs her choirs to find a way which works fairly for everyone.
“The last two weeks of term just became this weird thing which some people had already paid for, so how do we manage that? Do we make other activities available by way of compensation? And then do we charge less for online choir for term two? The advantage of running online groups from a leader’s perspective is you can have a virtually unlimited number of people, which could effectively also generate more money. On the other hand, people aren’t getting the same amount of experience as they would in a face to face scenario. Also many of them have lost their jobs and I want to make things more accessible than they have ever been, with so many people in trauma.”
One of Jeannie’s ideas is to implement a triple tiered payment system to attend choir. People who are able pay the full amount as normal, a discount is then available to anyone facing financial hardship, and finally, there is a rock bottom rate which is free.
“I think that’s the only way to go really: waged, under-waged and then rock bottom. But as the choir leader also has to live, I think it’s fine asking the people who can afford to pay, to do so, and subsidise those who are struggling.”
An advantage of migrating to online delivery is that ZING! now has people based regionally and interstate who couldn’t physically come to Melbourne before, who are able to join in.
“I feel really happy that this is happening, and I think all we need to do now is set up some payment structure. When people join one of these online sessions, I think it’s important to know that the person, whether it’s me or somebody else, is still trying to run a business here. This is the time we need to step up and really find creative ways to support each other.”
Jeannie is staying focussed on music as a way to navigate these strange times. She’s also supporting the local economy of the community where she lives.
“It’s a way to stop feeling so overwhelmed by everything, I hope. To focus on the things that are within our locality, or within our own skill set, things that we know how to do well, and deal with every day. Now is the time to look at how we spend our money, now is the time to buy that digital download, now is the time to buy CDs, support artists we love, now is the time to buy a ticket to a live streaming concert. And if purchasing things isn’t an option, send those artists an email or get in touch and simply say ‘I really love your work and I want to support you the best I can, through this time, what can I do for you?’ ”
Jeannie Marsh was speaking to Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria
Big thanks, Jeannie!