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Will there also be singing?

How have activist choirs risen to the challenge of COVID-19?

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To celebrate the entry-into-force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (outlawing nuclear weapons), Penny Stone organised a virtual three-minute ‘ICAN Can-Can’ (words by Jane Lewis), splicing together video clips of people around the UK dancing the can-can. Penny described the result as ‘wonderfully daft’. This is a still from the video. Photo: Penny Stone

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht

Dark times

When COVID-19 hit the world, one of the first cultural casualties was choral singing. As expert opinion about the main risk has shifted from ‘fomites’ (contaminated surfaces) to focus on airborne droplets and aerosol transmission, the case against choirs gathering has hardened.

For street or activist choirs, COVID-19 was a double whammy, as the possibilities for political campaigning and protest in public were also limited.

So, how would street choirs respond, not only to keep themselves together and care for their members, but also to keep reaching out and acting politically?

As with other activists, turning to technology was an option. However, video conferencing apps are not suited to choral singing because voices are out of phase. And how could street choirs possibly continue campaigning?

Zoom!

Activist choirs are not just about singing and campaigning, however. They are also about community, friendship, socialising with the wider local community, and networking.

All this came to a sudden halt when we could no longer meet. Jo McAndrews, psychotherapist, song-leader and member of the Natural Voice Network expressed this loss:

‘Humans have evolved singing together, it has been a foundation of human culture forever. In singing together, we literally attune to each other, we literally find harmony in our community, we literally find the rhythm of our lives.

‘[Now,] our bodies are wondering where everyone has gone. The very depths of our nervous systems are confused and displaced. And on top of this we don’t know when we can sing again. We are trying to find ways of best serving our choirs.’

The importance of singing is well documented: for community, for health, for remembering, belonging, making your voice heard….

At the beginning of the pandemic, most choirs took a break, but it soon became apparent that we would have to find another way of being. ‘We can Zoom!’ ‘What’s Zoom???’

A year ago, few of us had heard of such apps, but now they are our main means of keeping going.

From the first hilarious, cacophonous attempts to sing together, members can now rehearse from their homes, be visible to each other and interact. Learning and sharing skills, choir members have taken on technical challenges and we have achieved things we would never have dreamed of.

In January, the Natural Voice Network (NVN) held its annual gathering online: two weekends of workshops, mass singing, song swaps, an AGM, pub nights, and a singing supper.

Members participated from across the world, many able to attend for the first time because of the technology – a welcome side-effect of COVID!

Throughout the pandemic, NVN members have generously shared information, technical skills, songs, teaching videos and, most of all, their determination to keep people singing.

We have learned much, including stitching together individually-recorded voices to achieve a full choir sound, using technologies such as Audacity.... We have made and edited music videos.… We have developed new strings to our bows, and so new potentials for both music and community.

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Last September, women from around the UK shared photos of themselves holding signs saying ‘Sisters Not Strangers’ for a solidarity music video organised by song leader Penny Stone. Penny was working with the women of the Sisters Not Strangers, a campaign led by refugee and asylum-seeking women working for safe home for everyone and to end destitution. On YouTube, there was also a link to a draft letter for your MP. The video starts by reporting that, on 15 September, the home office re-started evictions for people who had been refused asylum. Photo: Penny Stone

Going global

So, one silver lining of the pandemic has been the fact that, all over the world, we are gathering, socialising, communicating and making music together online.

As a global community of activist-musicians, we’ve been encouraged to gather together more across geographical boundaries.

Choirs within the Campaign Choirs Network, which connects radical singers throughout the UK and beyond, have taken it in turns to host open singing sessions online.

During the last few months, we have been able to visit Sheffield, Belfast, Cardiff, Nottingham, Oxford, Edinburgh, and Aberystwyth.

In effect, we’ve been able to sing with many more of our sister choirs that we ordinarily do.

Such connections are important for different reasons. They help to support us socially; they keep us connected to the things that are important to us, and to the people who share the same passion for engaging with issues of social and environmental justice through song.

These connections help us to share the challenges and learning of singing online, as well as planning for when we will be able to sing outdoors again. They remind us all that we are not alone.

They help keep us connected to the creative side of campaigning, and challenge us to think even more creatively about how we can engage with and communicate in public spaces around the issues that we care about.

As well as hosting a handful of international song workshops with song-leaders living in Armenia and Palestine, Campaign Choirs members have been able to connect with other political choirs internationally.

Some of us have met up with choirs from across the US and Canada in collaboration with the US-based Peoples Music Network.

We participated in a ‘big conversation’ on campaigning choirs. During this workshop, we shared our experiences of how and why and what we sing, seeking more creative opportunities to engage with our activism online and beyond.

Feedback from this workshop included: ‘Let’s keep up this information sharing’, highlighting that this really is an opportunity to connect with and inhabit our ideals of international solidarity.

So, in whatever space it has to happen and via whatever means: ‘A luta continua!

Yes, there will be singing!

Through this pandemic, choirs have not only kept the flame burning, they have also kindled new fires. From the frustrations of COVID-19 they have learned new technological skills, enabling new kinds of community and creativity. As psychotherapist Philippa Perry has written, dark times are made lighter when we process them into words, art and music.

More info on the Campaign Choirs Network:
www.campaignchoirs.org.uk

and on the Natural Voice Network:
www.naturalvoice.net

Topics: Culture