CHENNAI: If we were to declare that Christmas cheer would'’t just be the same without the heady delight of a rousing chorus of Carol of the Bells, a tear-inducing rendition of Ave Maria or a soulful take on Silent Night, well...we’d probably be preaching to the choir.
Yet, with the world where it is and our populace still too wary, the choir stand in your church is likely to remain empty next Friday. But despair not, it seems! For, when loved ones can recover from disease and distress, businesses can find hope in recovery, and vaccines can turn out to be a success, Christmas-time miracles are all around us and there's one to spare.
Choir groups, armed with the mastery of having pulled off a digital Easter, are well-prepared to move the merry- making online. For many big choir groups in the city, meeting online for their weekly sessions has become a comfortable routine. Going the extra mile to stay cautious and keep everyone safe, they have been holding practice sessions via Zoom even after the lockdown was removed.
Madras Musical Association director Augustine Paul says that the main reason for this continued effort is to keep the elderly members out of harm’s way. "We have many elderly singers, who have been extremely cautious about stepping out or coming in contact with too many people. For their safety, we set up Zoom sessions where the entire choir can log in and sing from their homes," he says.
On the other end of the spectrum, NalandaWay Foundation's Chennai Children’s Choir - one that houses yet another vulnerable group - went the same way too. “It was a bit difficult to coordinate with everyone at the same time.
Then, the choir was divided into smaller groups, each with a leader. They started conducting practice individually through the week before meeting together on Zoom for a collective session,” explains Sriram V Ayer, founder and CEO of the Foundation.
Mastering the transition
As necessary as the transition was, it hasn’t been easy, it seems. With children and adults finding it difficult to navigate the digital sessions, the first few rounds of practice had been quite taxing, says Jayanthi Prabhakar of Octet Cantabile. Yet, help was not far away.
"Our younger members really stepped up and personally helped set up the Zoom app, web-cams and mics for our elderly lot. Within a week, all of us had gotten the hang of things and the sessions began flowing more smoothly," she recounts.
While the mechanics of it was easy enough to navigate, not everywhere was all that comfortable with the move. For starters, they were not particularly thrilled about singing into their laptop screens. "I was so used to meeting in a group, socialising and talking to my friends before every choir practice. It added spirit to our singing. This year has brought many of us together, but going virtual is still a barrier when it comes to being with your friends," says Sandhya V of Celestial Choir .
While some may miss the old days, a few have invited the transition with open arms. "I have never seen so many happy faces on my laptop screen. Choir singing was one way for me to relax and sing my heart out. Because of the pandemic, I had to travel back to my parents in Dubai. But, with the help of Zoom calls, I have been a part of choir sessions. It has been a great feeling to belong to my group even through tough times," says Ainsley Verghese from the CSI Kappalikonam church choir, Dhwani.
While the choirs with adult members have been facing their own obstacles, children’s choirs have been a whirlwind for instructors. "All the kids are excited to be in front of their laptops to practice. They get so excited that it becomes difficult to calm everyone down and continue the session across a screen. I ask my members to record their voices and send it to me individually. It’s one way to work with an overexcited choir members who haven’t met each other in almost a year," says Shiny D, conductor of the AG-Church Children's Choir.
Creating new rituals
MMA, too, had found its groove in the new order of business. After months of practice and recording, they participated in an international event organised by the St Andrews Cathedral in London. In lieu of their presence, their recorded clip joined the ranks of choirs representing 44 other countries. Closer to home, they just finished participating in the event organised in Bengaluru by the Glorious Choir from Lingarajapuram.
As exciting as all this has been, nothing is as rewarding as singing at their own Carols by Candlelight event, the one that marks the advent of the season for them, says Augustine. “Every year, we have an open-air event called Carols By Candlelight. Typically, choir groups from around South India register to participate in this event.
This year, we asked around 27 choir groups to record two Christmas songs each and send it to us. We had compiled all of them for a virtual event on December 19,” he details. The Hiranandani Upscale School (HUS) Choir has its social media performances to focus on. “We have gone live twice already on Facebook and YouTube, and both the performances were quite appreciated,” says Joanna John, teacher, and choir coordinator of the AG Church Choir and HUS Choir.
It’s not just the big-name bands taking the digital route; many choir groups in the city have been working diligently to put up their music online too. Mervin Thomas, a member of the MMA and a few other singing groups across the state, has been actively engaging around 10 choir groups to record their songs and upload them online. "We have around 30 songs from all the ten groups. I am individually editing their videos and making a compilation," he says. The entire playlist will be aired online on Christmas eve.
Out for the count
While these groups have their hands full with virtual plans, there are many localised choir groups who have decided to sit this year’s celebrations out. “I have a women’s choir and a childrens’ choir. We haven’t been able to meet even once during the lockdown. It was because of this and the fact that other choirs were going virtual that we decided to opt out.
It isn’t disheartening because our members are cherishing their families this Christmas and staying home,” says Vijayalakshmi Ramakrishnan, coordinator, Shalom Church choirs. Yet, even for the ones safely ensconced at home, there’s room for cheer from plentiful virtual renditions of Joy to the World. “We usually have a footfall of around 1,500 at our Christmas concerts.
We are expecting double that number this year, now that we will be going virtual,” says Manjula Ponnapalli, conductor of the Chennai Children’s Choir. So, if you’re in need of a fresh dose of Christmas cheer, you just have to tune in, it seems. And get singing, of course!