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Shir Joy Chorus: Singing Through the Pandemic

Shir Joy Chorus, entering its tenth year this Fall, is an adult non-auditioned community chorus in Central Massachusetts that sings a wide variety of Jewish music, from historic pieces to contemporary composers in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, and Ladino. 

“Our Director, Nan Gibbons, as well as our board of directors, never considered the possibility of stopping during the pandemic,” says Karen Rothman, president, and founder. “Singing brings people so much joy that we knew we had to stay together somehow.

In February of 2020, Shir Joy presented what would be its last live, in-person concert for the foreseeable future due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The chorus’ Spring concert was cancelled, but Shir Joy director Nan Gibbons used archival recordings from old concerts as well as recordings of other musical groups to create virtual “sing-along” rehearsals at home via Zoom. The chorus was determined to do at least one concert in 2021. 

As the winter of 2020 became spring with no end to the pandemic in sight, Gibbons brainstormed with other choral directors around the country looking for innovative ways to produce a group sound when singers couldn’t be in the same room. Four chorus members made voice recordings in four distinct choral parts. Members learned their parts at home, taught each other to make their own individual video recordings and then sent them to Gibbons.  Using sometimes-cooperative software, Nan spent countless hours editing, blending, and mixing to create virtual choir pieces. 

“Making your own solo recording with all its imperfections and then sending it out on the internet for others to hear took a lot of guts,” said Rothman. 

Laura Logan, a longtime Shir Joy member, added, “One of the challenges of singing in a virtual choir is that you can’t hear each other. We lose our opportunity to blend our sound with each other.” The end result seemed like magic: a series of beautifully blended pieces the chorus could be proud of that were used for the chorus’ Feb. 21 concert. 

The singers really missed the experience of hearing each other’s voices. Gibbons and chorus member Warren Huber investigated more and discovered Parking Lot Chorus technology, a pandemic-born technique that allowed members to sing into a wireless microphone connected to a mixer while listening to each other through their car radios. After a test rehearsal in the summer, the chorus began parking lot rehearsals weekly on Sunday evenings in the parking lot at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough last fall.

Although darkness prevented members from seeing each other, they could hear each other. “The first time we tested this equipment was a very emotional experience for all of us.,” Gibbons said. “Most importantly, it gave us a way to sing together.”

She directed in white gloves and car lights helped illuminate her hands. Warren ran the sound equipment and recorded the sessions so Nan could edit them and use them as a basis for future videos. The chorus’ pianist, Anne O’Brien, played keyboard wrapped in a coat, hat, and fingerless gloves. When the weather was too windy, snowy, or rainy, the group switched to Zoom rehearsals, where the chorus focused on learning new pieces. 

On   Feb. 14, 2021, Shir Joy livestreamed its first virtual concert on Zoom, with a combination of virtual chorus pieces, live recorded selections from the group’s parking lot chorus sessions, and a few pieces from previous concerts—all laced together with live introductions and commentary. More than 180 people attended the concert on Zoom and the video was distributed to Central Massachusetts senior and assisted living facilities and cable stations so it could be viewed by thousands of people from the safety of their own home. 

Buoyed up by the success of the February concert, Shir Joy’s members were ready for their next challenge: to bring the joy of singing back to several other area choruses that had been idle since the previous March. Thanks in part to pandemic grants from the Worcester Cultural Council and Avidia Bank, Shir Joy re-envisioned its annual Communities of Song concert, a collaboration between Shir Joy and several area choruses. Gibbons as well as some chorus members helped teach members of other choruses to prepare videos electronically. Gibbons spent countless hours collating these into video recordings that were presented as a virtual concert on May 16. Shir Joy hosted the concert on Zoom, composed of virtual chorus recordings, parking lot chorus recordings, and videos of previous Communities of Song concerts when all the choruses could sing together. Like Shir Joy’s Winter concert, a YouTube video was distributed to senior and assisted living facilities and cable stations.  All proceeds from the concert were sent to the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Massachusetts, which provides counseling to residents of Central Massachusetts.

When Covid restrictions began to relax in late spring 2021, Shir Joy resumed live, outdoor rehearsals in the beautiful courtyard of Congregation B’nai Shalom. Guest musicians added to the music, giving the singers and players, at least, an opportunity to enjoy live music together. Singing together outside with flowers blooming and birds singing around us was a treasured highlight of a very difficult year for many of Shir Joy’s members. Shir Joy ended its 2021 season with a final concert on June 27, performed virtually with a combination of the many techniques they had used over the year.  The group also performed lived while masked indoors at the Jewish Federation presentation Exodus 1947/Yom HaShoah commemoration and Israel Bonds Appeal in Worcester on June 22 and is scheduled to sing the pregame show for the WooSox on Aug. 22. 

The Jewish Federation of Central Mass. has been a major supporter of Shir Joy since it began. Congregation B’nai Shalom has generously allowed the choir its use of rehearsal space.      Everyone at Shir Joy is looking forward to being able to return to live, in-person rehearsals on a regular basis. “As convenient as online concerts may be, they are actually far more work to produce and present than a live performance,” says Gibbons. “Chorus members much prefer to actually sing together rather than in the isolation of a virtual choir. We are a friendly, supportive group. For now, we have the option of live, outdoor rehearsals. When we need to, we can use our parking lot chorus system. At this moment, the future of the pandemic is uncertain. We are really looking forward to being able to sing together in person on a regular basis. However, come what may, we will continue as a harmonious community of enthusiastic singers!

Shir Joy Chorus will be resuming weekly rehearsals on Sunday evening, Oct. 3. Shir Joy welcomes new members; the group’s first two rehearsals are open to potential new members. Shir Joy Chorus is a 501(3)c corporation. Concerts are currently planned for Feb 6, 2022, and June 26, 2022. For more information about Shir Joy or how to join, go to shirjoychorus.com or contact them at shirjoyMA@gmail.com.

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