When COVID-19 Changed Everything: One Choral Singer's Perspective
Updated: May 18, 2020
Sunday, March 8, 2020
I came to work tired that morning, likely grumbling as I trudged up the long staircase to the women’s vestry to don my choir robe. Down in the sanctuary for morning rehearsal and worship, I went through the ordinary rhythms without much thought or reflection. Hymns, anthems, prayer response, more hymns. It was a Sunday like most others, except for the mild precaution updates and procedures we were starting to hear and follow amongst ourselves. “Elbow bumps only,” I politely chirped to my neighbors during meet and greet.
I sang. I listened. I smiled. I said, “See you next week!” as I left the building. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I wish I had known it was going to be the last time for months (maybe even a year) that I would sing with those people in that special place.
Later that afternoon I sat in the Grand Rapids airport, waiting to leave for a week-long gig down south. I silently wondered if it was a good idea to be traveling right now. Not that I had much of a choice. I already signed the contract, and I didn’t want to give up work that might eventually lead to more opportunities. It’s an unwritten rule in the performance world. You never pass up an opportunity, especially when your fledgling career needs all the chances it can get. I slathered on some more hand sanitizer and shoved the anxious thoughts out of my mind. Cheery news anchors warning Americans should prepare for “significant disruptions” droned on the TVs overhead.
Tuesday, March 10, 2020
I stood in the hallway of a small Louisiana middle school, waiting to coach a colleague’s students who were preparing High School Musical Jr. for their spring play. A janitor asked me if I needed anything, and we made polite conversation for a few moments. I mostly smiled and nodded as my northerner ears couldn’t decipher much through her thick Cajun accent. I did manage to understand one thing: Louisiana’s first confirmed case had been discovered in New Orleans. “If it’s in New Orleans,” she said, “you know it’s here.” I swallowed hard as my colleague came around the corner. I again shoved down those pesky anxious feelings as I braced myself for the mental toll of working with middle schoolers for the next hour and a half. I think back to those short 90 minutes a lot now, to those kids who never got to put on their spring play.
Thursday, March 12, 2020
By now, it was clear that it was just about the worst week to have traveled so far away from home. Devasting emails kept rolling in: Online classes only from now through early April. Choral activities canceled until the end of March. Gigs I was relying on for good income and future opportunities were gone. I couldn’t stop scrolling through my simultaneously somber and chaotic Facebook feed. Article after article detailing almost instantaneously irrelevant facts, figures, and potential outcomes flooded my foggy brain. It was like trying to measure inches of precipitation accumulation in the middle of a tsunami. Our concert that night went forward. Waiting to go on stage, we all looked at each other with sad, anxious eyes. All of us were going home to no work, and we knew it. This was the last time we would sing with a group of people for a long time to come.
The next morning, the growing fear was plain and palpable. At the rate everything was closing, I began fearing airplanes would be grounded by the time my flight was scheduled to leave on Saturday afternoon. I began searching for alternate flights leaving that day, but booking one of those would have taken my entire paycheck from the week. I sat in my hotel waiting for the call alerting me that I was now under quarantine orders due to possible exposure. Thankfully, it never came.
Saturday, March 14, 2020
I came home to a life different than the one I left. Even then, though, I could never have imagined just how different it would continue to become. I never imagined my husband would be out of work for the next two months and counting. I never imagined I wouldn’t finish the singing season at my beautiful church job. I never imagined that gig I came home from was my last for the foreseeable future. How I wish I would have known. I would have savored every second of singing with other human beings. I would have taken a moment to be fully present in that sacred space. I would have said goodbye.
The last choral anthem I sang at Park Church was a setting of Psalm 121 by Jake Runestad, I Will Lift Mine Eyes. A stunning piece of music whose melody, harmonic tension, and text treatment continues to haunt my tired heart:
“I will lift mine eyes to the hills. From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord. He is the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved. He who keeps you shall not slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper; The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not harm you by day, Nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; He will keep your soul. The Lord will keep your going out And your coming in From this day forth forevermore.”
When powerful words like these are set to exquisite music, they become even more potent. Music added to words is like yeast added to dough. Something new is created. Something warm and nourishing. Something utterly spellbinding and delicious.
This new world of ours will need music just like the old one. We need something to leaven this flat loaf we’ve been given. (Quarantine baking culture has obviously had a big influence on my subconscious thought.) I pray we find a way to continue making music together, even if we are far away from each other while we do it. “Doing without” simply isn’t an option for us.
When this time of our lives passes away (and it will), I hope I never walk into that beautiful sanctuary, sing with my precious people, or join a group of new colleagues on a singing adventure again without savoring every single second imbued with joy and immense privilege, realizing nothing is permanent or guaranteed beyond each passing moment. I hope I never again forget to say goodbye.