Child and youth choirs going digital amid COVID-19 pandemic

Megan Emmett, director of education with Youth Singers of Calgary, poses for a photo on Thursday, August 27, 2020.

Children’s choral groups in Calgary hit a low note when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of concerts and paused in-person rehearsals but some directors are composing a new way of singing together — digitally.

Certain organizations are switching to online group singing and individual sessions on platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom to deliver a range of supports for children and young adults passionate about choir.

Megan Emmett, director of education with

Youth Singers of Calgary

(YSC), said putting an end to their services wasn’t an option.

“It was very clear to us right away that our community needed us,” said Emmett. “They were struggling. We were all struggling. So keeping together was very important.”

YSC will be offering choral, dance and performing classes starting in September for people aged four and up. Due to risks associated with group singing, students will be allowed to meet for choreography or theatre work with strict physical distancing in place but choral singing will be taught online.

Emmett said this is an especially important initiative for children whose singing groups have been cancelled at school.

“Choir for children is a fantastic way to grow as a person, to build teamwork skills, leadership skills, confidence and musicality,” she said. “The great thing about choir is you have 20 or so of your friends — up to 80 when we were fully running — supporting you, so you’re not alone. You’re not putting yourself out there in the same kind of way that’s vulnerable for young people.”

Indoor vocal concerts are still restricted in Alberta due to a high risk of transmission, however outdoor vocal concerts are permitted with safety measures in place, according to provincial guidelines. Choir Alberta, which connects organizations across the province, mirrors the government’s advice to avoid any in-person singing.

Erin MacLean-Berko, who works with the Calgary Boys’ Choir and Spiritus Chamber Choir, said the downside to virtual choirs is it can feel individual and isn’t for everyone.

“The deterrent is you’re still kind of singing alone. It’s only after the engineer gets behind the scene and splices it together that you think ‘we’re actually kind of singing together,’ ” she said.

Spiritus Chamber Choir has halted its season until at least January due to the vulnerability of its participants. The Calgary Boys’ Choir, alternatively, will be participating in a hybrid of outdoor musicianship classes and online group singing and individual lessons.

“We sketched out two or three scenarios — one of theme being cancelling entirely until January as well — but we just thought the kids still want to see each other,” said MacLean-Berko.

The organization is reformatting to a flexible month-to-month plan to allow flexibility for families, especially those that might need to quarantine, isolate or are worried about loved ones during the pandemic.

Calgary Girls Choir has also made the switch to online learning.

But Jaime Mitchell, who co-ordinates events for the girls’ choir, said going virtual and the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on families has led to declining membership. Choirs also said finding space to rent can prove difficult.

Despite the hardships, Mitchell said they wanted to persevere.

“Our mandate is giving young women a voice. It’s just a real passion and desire to keep that going,” she said. “We have so many girls who, for them, singing is everything. It lifts them up and makes them feel like a whole person. It gives them strength and confidence.”

Some choirs are more hesitant to restart.

Jean Czaja, who founded Westside Concert Choir, said his organization is waiting to see how successful school reopening is to determine the safety of beginning classes again.

“We’ll see how it all goes. That’s what we have to do. Just wait,” she said. “If things really go well at school and everyone is confident we can do this safely with our children … we will start. If it’s still in flux and I’m unsure, then I think I’d be looking to January.”

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