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At In-Person Choir Rehearsals, a Balance Between Joyful and Careful


LONDON — On Wednesday night in a community hall here, Matilda James kick-started a rehearsal of the Citizens of the World Choir with an unusual instruction. “Can we really keep our voices down?” she said. “We don’t need to be louder than when we talk.”

Her plea — in line with findings by British scientists indicating that singing poses no more risk of spreading the coronavirus than talking, if done at the same volume — initially seemed to work. But about 20 minutes in, while practicing a jaunty Zulu folk song, the 14 members were clapping along and swaying side-to-side. Their voices grew louder and louder, ending in a joyful, full-voiced harmony.

“It’s really hard not to sing that one loud,” said Meg Brookes, the pianist.

Such measures are being adopted by choirs across the world as they return to in-person rehearsals amid a still-spreading coronavirus pandemic — a significant challenge after early outbreaks linked to choirs in countries including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and the United States suggested that collective singing might be one of the last cultural activities allowed to resume.

The risks remain. Earlier this week, the entire choir of the Czech Republic’s National Theater was quarantined after 10 members tested positive for the coronavirus, a spokeswoman said.

“When you take a deep breath, they collapse against the face,” she said — though she added that many college choirs were following the advice.

That shift has been important for choirs, which are typically more than just a s singing group.

“We really are a family,” Dell said of the Citizens of the World Choir.

Its members include people from Syria and the Democractic Republic of Congo, and some are asylum seekers who have been waiting years for their applications to be processed in Britain’s immigration system, she said.

Barred from working and with little money to socialize, they had found an outlet in the choir, she added. During the country’s lockdown this spring, Dell said, the choir sent laptops to several members and paid for data plans so they could take part in online rehearsals.

“I don’t want to be dramatic,” she said, “but it makes a difference between a life worth living or not.”

On Wednesday night, five of the choir’s members all said they felt safe indoors.

Aref Hussaini, 22, an Afghan refugee born in Pakistan, said it was “a delightfulness” being able to sing together. With the choir covering his internet costs during the lockdown, he was able to take part in Zoom rehearsals, but often lost cellphone connection. He said he preferred singing in a group, so he wasn’t self-conscious about his voice.

“You can release whatever’s inside, and it feels so good,” he said.

Sonia Shamlo, 35, a political refugee from Iran, said she had asthma and had been stressed about going out during the pandemic. But “it’s more important to be here than worried,” she said.

“Choir is not just choir for me,” said Shamlo, adding that being part of the group had helped her deal with past traumas, including traveling across land from Iran to Britain. “It’s therapy,” she said.

The evening had the usual sights and sounds of a typical choir rehearsal, making it easy to forget all the coronavirus measures. At one point, Hussaini, got lost and flicked through the sheet music to find his place. Shamlo smiled broadly throughout, especially when the sopranos’ voices leapt high above the others.

But eventually the restrictions crept back in.

Exactly 28 minutes into the rehearsal’s second half, Ms. Brookes, the pianist, was leading the choir through a song involving lots of body percussion, in which the singers beat their chests.

“We’ve only got two minutes left, so let’s do it a bit faster,” she said. “Have a bit of a dance! We don’t really get to do this at the moment.”

Almost everyone happily did what they were told.



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