Singing In The Dark Times: Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir Takes On New Meaning

Jul 18, 2020
Originally published on July 18, 2020 2:14 pm

Here's a surprising statistic: According to a survey by Chorus America, one in six Americans, or 54 million people, sing in choral groups, whether that's community, school and children's choirs, religious groups or professional ensembles. But since stay-at-home orders have been issued across many states, choral music here and around the world has completely stopped. It turns out singing is a perfect way to spread coronavirus. So, what's a choral singer to do? Well, one could join a virtual choir, and that's what over 17,000 people did.

Ten years ago, a teenage fan recorded herself singing the soprano line from one of Eric Whitacre's choral pieces and posted it on YouTube. And it gave composer-conductor Whitacre an idea: What if he could get several singers to record themselves in their rooms, doing one of his pieces in the same tempo and key, then stitch the videos together and make a virtual choir?

"We tried it and it worked!" he says. "We had this little virtual choir, 185 singers from 12 countries. I never thought it would go further than my little group of choir geeks, and it went viral."

More virtual choirs followed, each getting exponentially larger. Now of course, the word "viral" has more connotations, and when Whitacre put out the call to join his latest project, the response was overwhelming.

"This virtual choir, Virtual Choir 6, has 17,562 different singers from 129 countries," he says. "When I look at the numbers and, more so when I look at the faces of the people from around the world, I'm just stunned."

Wei Jiang, a professional choral singer and hematologist based in Sydney, Australia, says that Virtual Choir 6 has "a special and a very different meaning because of the state the world is in."

She's been part of every Eric Whitacre virtual choir since the beginning, but says, right now, she misses being in a room with other singers.

"You somehow need to learn how to breathe together, how to listen to each other, how to blend with each other and how to communicate as a collective," Jiang says. "I think there's nothing else in my life that's quite like that experience, and that's why I sing choral music."

Those are the kinds of lessons Danielle Koplinka-Loehr teaches her middle school choruses in Culver City, Calif.

"It's about building community," she says. "It's about students finding [their] voice; it's about students building their confidence."

With school closed, her students couldn't sing together, so Koplinka-Loehr gave them the assignment to participate in Whitacre's virtual choir. She says it was a real challenge for her students to sing along to a guide track alone in their rooms.

"When you're making your own video, you're very exposed. And I think that a lot of students are understandably a little nervous and anxious about that," Koplinka-Loehr says.

Singing a choral piece alone is not just weird for middle schoolers, it's challenging for everybody. Ashley Ballou-Bonnema, a professional singer from Sioux Falls, S.D., who has Cystic fibrosis, created her own virtual choir for people with the disease.

"It's so vulnerable," she says. "And everybody hates listening to their own voice. When you're in a choir, you realize that, OK, I'm not alone in this. I'm melding myself a part of something."

Over the years, a community has developed on Facebook around Whitacre's virtual choirs, where people share their trials, tribulations and tips. Marc Lodge, an IT specialist who lives in Kent, England, says he's met many people from the Facebook page in real life. But, now, he says: "It's a very hard time for the world, and the only way that we can come together is virtually."

When Eric Whitacre did his first virtual choir, it was an intriguing curiosity, but right now, it feels like an essential lifeline.

"There's something about joining voices, both metaphorically and literally, that makes us better people, better citizens, more empathetic, more compassionate," Whitacre says. "And ultimately, I think that singing is so popular and feels like a thing that we must do, because we feel part of something larger than ourselves."

Eric Whitacre's "Sing Gently" debuts on YouTube tomorrow, at 1:30 p.m. ET.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

According to a survey by Chorus America, 1 in 6 Americans sings in choral groups, community, school and children's choirs, religious groups, professional ensembles. That's 54 million people. But since the pandemic struck, choral music here and around the world has completely stopped. It turns out singing is a perfect way to spread coronavirus. So what's a choral singer to do? Join a virtual choir. And that's what over 17,000 people did.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Ten years ago, a teenage fan recorded herself singing the soprano line from one of Eric Whitacre's choral pieces and posted it on YouTube. And it gave Whitacre an idea. What if he could get several singers to record themselves in their rooms doing one of his pieces in the same tempo and key, then stitch the videos together and make a virtual choir?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIRTUAL CHOIR SINGING)

ERIC WHITACRE: And so we tried it, and it worked. And we had this little virtual choir, 185 singers from 12 countries. And I never thought it would go further than my little group of choir geeks. And it went viral.

LUNDEN: More virtual choirs followed, each getting exponentially larger. Now, of course, the word viral has more connotations. And when Whitacre put out a call to join his latest project, the response was overwhelming.

WHITACRE: This virtual choir, Virtual Choir 6, has 17,563 different singers from 129 countries. When I look at the numbers, and more so when I look at the faces of the people from around the world, I'm just stunned.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

VIRTUAL CHOIR 6: (Singing) May we sing together, always. May our voice be soft.

WEI JIANG: This virtual choir seems to have a special and a very different meaning because of the state the world is in.

LUNDEN: Wei Jiang is both a professional choral singer and a hematologist. Based in Sydney, Australia, she's been part of every Eric Whitacre virtual choir since the beginning but says, right now, she misses being in a room with other singers.

JIANG: You somehow need to learn how to breathe together, how to listen to each other, how to blend with each other and how to communicate as a collective. I think there's nothing else in my life that's quite like that experience. And that's why I sing choral music.

LUNDEN: Those are the kind of lessons Danielle Koplinka-Loehr teaches her middle school choruses in Culver City, Calif.

DANIELLE KOPLINKA-LOEHR: It's about building community. It's about students finding voice. It's about students building their confidence.

LUNDEN: But with schools closed, they couldn't sing together. So Koplinka-Loehr gave her students the assignment to participate in Whitacre's virtual choir.

ANNABELLE: (Singing) Always.

LUNDEN: That's 11-year-old Annabelle Andreone. Koplinka-Loehr says it was a real challenge for her students, who sang along to a guide track, alone in their rooms.

KOPLINKA-LOEHR: When you're making your own video, you're very exposed. And I think that a lot of students are, understandably, a little nervous and anxious about that.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) And may we always sing along.

LUNDEN: Singing a choral piece alone is not just weird for middle schoolers; it's challenging for everybody. Ashley Ballou-Bonnema, a professional singer from Sioux Falls, S.D., who has cystic fibrosis, has created her own virtual choir for people with the disease.

ASHLEY BALLOU-BONNEMA: And it's so vulnerable. And everybody hates, you know, listening to their own voice. And when you're in a choir, you realize that, OK, I'm not alone in this. I'm melding myself a part of something.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIRTUAL CHOIR SINGING)

LUNDEN: So over the years, a community has developed on Facebook around Whitacre's virtual choirs, where people share their trials and tribulations and tips. Marc Lodge, an IT specialist who lives in Kent, England, says he's met many people from the Facebook page in real life. But now, he says...

MARC LODGE: It's a very hard time for the world, and the only way that we can come together is virtually.

LUNDEN: Eric Whitacre says he wrote the words and music to "Sing Gently" with the pandemic in mind. But as the world has been wrestling with renewed calls to confront racism, the pieces gained other resonances. When Eric Whitacre did his first virtual choir, it was an intriguing curiosity. But right now, it feels like an essential lifeline.

WHITACRE: There's something about joining voices, both metaphorically and literally, that makes us better people, better citizens, more empathetic, more compassionate. And, ultimately, I think that singing is so popular and feels like a thing that we must do because we feel part of something larger than ourselves.

VIRTUAL CHOIR 6: (Singing) As one.

LUNDEN: Eric Whitacre's "Sing Gently" debuts on YouTube tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.