The virtual choirs keeping the music alive

Katie Strick
locdown: Alamy Stock Photo

They say you can fit most song lyrics to the situation you’re in, if you try hard enough. But I don’t expect choirmaster James Sills foresaw his song choice being taken quite so literally ahead of last week’s online choir rehearsal.

“Tonight is Bob Marley night and we’ll be singing his classic Three Little Birds,” the curly-haired Ed Sheeran lookalike tells me and the 500 other swaying faces on his laptop screen: families in their kitchens, children playing their recorders, a woman walking her dogs on the beach.

Six Zoom windows to the left, a woman called Sue puts her face up to the camera and introduces us to her practice partners for the evening: three pet budgies. “They’ve been singing along but they’ve gone all quiet and shy now,” she says proudly into the mic. Humans, it seems, aren’t the only species enjoying some musical therapy amid the pandemic.

It’s week two of quarantine and 20 minutes into my first rehearsal with The Sofa Singers, I’m just about settling into my new Zoom-based choir routine. Instead of putting my coat on and heading to the drafty church hall across the road like most Monday nights, I’ve stayed in my slippers, made a cup of tea and hauled myself onto a comfy spot on the sofa. My sister and her housemates have joined me as usual - they’ve dialled in from their flat in Clapham - but Sills’ chorus feels a little larger than the little 30-person Pimlico ensemble we’re used to. For a start, there are rather more pets.

“It’s part-choir rehearsal, part-House Party singalong,” Sills tells me over Zoom from his sofa in Wrexham, North Wales. The community choral leader founded the online ensemble two weeks ago, after social distancing measures forced him to press pause on his usual face-to-face rehearsals. Sills was inspired by another musical solution to self-isolation: the Italians singing and playing music from their balconies each evening. “I was so incredibly moved by that natural response to the situation which was to sing,” he says. “I thought there must be something I can do over here.”

Sills, 37, insists he started the choir as an “experiment”, but it quickly became one of the hottest tickets on the self-isolation social circuit. Famed TV choirmaster Gareth Malone has now started his own virtual choir, The Great British Home Chorus, with more than 50,000 households dialling into his YouTube livestream each night, and many of the capital’s top choirs have started streaming rehearsals off the back of The Sofa Singers’ success.

“It was like Glastonbury sign-up,” laughs Sills, explaining how the website crashed as 10,000 people logged on to get their hands on one of the 500 spaces for the first rehearsal. Families separated across the world said it helped them feel closer together; an NHS nurse messaged to say she’d be refreshing the page “for 10 hours” just to get a ticket. “That just shows the thirst people have for something that is joyful and will connect them to other people.”

From Sills’ living room in North Wales, The Sofa Singers has quickly gone global. The virtual chorus has already had its own feature on America’s NBC News and tonight there’s a German TV station filming our rehearsal (anyone who doesn’t get one of the 500 spaces can watch the session live on YouTube - they just won’t get to see their face on the Zoom mosaic).

“We’re more of a global band than a choir,” explains Sills, pausing the rehearsal to shout-out to members Zooming in from Argentina, Indonesia, Montreal, Conneticut. He’s had emails from fans as far afield as Australia, Borneo and America saying they’ve been setting their alarms for 2am to join in.

Sills now hosts two weekly rehearsals, on Tuesday evenings and Friday mornings, to accommodate different time-zones and is keen to ensure all songs are cross-cultural. “Everyone knows Bob Marley,” he explains, ahead of this evening’s session. In future weeks, he hopes to host a Eurovision-style rehearsal with national flags and he has big plans for upcoming sessions: a gold dress code for singing Gold by Spandau Ballet; a signing week for those hard of hearing; special guests. His dream guest? “Lionel Ritchie,” Sills laughs. “If you could make that happen…”

In the meantime, there’s plenty of talent amongst existing members. After a brief tea-break, it’s open-mic time: my fellow Zoomers and I are treated to performances from harpist YouTubers Adele and Karina in Kent, Atticus from California on his trombone, 12-year-old Daisy in St Albans singing Lean On Me. Sills then pans to Christian in London who’s halfway through making his microwave dinner. “Wait, one second!” he laughs, before putting on a silly hat and serenading us all to Stevie Nicks’ Landslide on his guitar.

Of course, Sills is aware you lose some of the benefits of singing together when it’s done through a screen. There are no hugs at the start, tea breaks are lonelier, and he has everyone on mute for most of the rehearsal for practical reasons, “so you don’t hear the big final sound”. But there are also bonuses: it’s free (though he welcomes donations on buymeacoffee.com), there’s no travel, and no one can hear you when you sing at the wrong time. “I’ve also got the power to mute people, which is amazing,” Sills teases.

Sills hopes to arrange an in-person event for all members when the pandemic is finally over. He sees The Sofa Singers as more of a “singing experience” than a choir that rehearses to perform, whereas Malone has other ideas. His online chorus, inspired by one of the first virtual choirs from US conductor Eric Whitacre, is live-streamed over YouTube so members can’t see each other, but soon there’ll be faces (and voices) to put to the figures. By the end of this week, he’s hoping to have a video composed of each of their individual at-home performances.

Malone’s 25-minute rehearsals currently take place at 5.30 every day “just after Boris to lift spirits” and the chosen song is You Are My Sunshine, which feels apt as the sun streams onto the nation’s laptop screens. Over the last week, he’s asked each of the 100,000 signed-up members to record a video of themselves singing to a backing track and send it in under the hashtag #GBHC. His team from Decca Records are busy stitching it all together and hope to release the recording as a video by the end of the week.

“That’s what I want people to remember about the isolation period,” Malone told viewers after his first ever internet broadcast last week. “That we made something.” And our budgies did, too.

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