by Artistic Director and choir leader Stephen Deazley ~ Sept 2021
We last gathered on the stage of the Usher Hall on 9th March 2020, two weeks before a planned epic community choir concert with 450 singers from five Edinburgh choirs, with our own Love Music Community Choir as host. We all know what happened next.
On 27th September 2021 we are back with a cautious but highly technically and collectively challenging return to in-person singing. That’s a painful absence of 567 days, when in normal times we’d be there most weeks with a capacity choir of 330 singers. Our new hybrid term is a solution to our own self-created problem, of delivering a successful model of super-charged, massed voice, community singing.
The Usher Hall is such a special building and we are so grateful and fortunate to have the ongoing support of the City of Edinburgh Council. But it’s the communities that use and love it that bring it to life, the musicians that inspire and move us, shaping our emotional journey and lifting our spirits, that transform the mundane to the magical. People give the building meaning, not the other way round.
We’ve kept singing in isolation. 366 people took part in our online programme, and 16 new arrangements have been created, learned, and shared. We’ve made original work, commissioned front room ready dance routines, and produced 3 films with brave singers recording themselves on tablets and phones. We collaborated with a professional opera singer in Berlin, with the renowned Scottish musician Mairi Campbell from her West coast cottage, with the English folk singer Emily Portman, and we piped outdoor Christmas hymns into people’s homes. We’re very proud of the offer we’ve been able to make, proud of our adaptability and thankful that our singing community supported us and came with us.
But what now? The doors open to us on Monday and it’s a whole new adventure. Here we go again.
276 people are signed up for our hybrid autumn term. It’s a bespoke service and consultation has been key to our planning. We’ll continue to keep people safe – that’s what our 567 days of absence denotes – but we also need to adapt to a community with diverse needs, as much in terms of their well-being as in clinical health and Covid safety.
During the first lockdown I wrote about why and how we designed the first online term and asking Who is important and what do they need? still holds true. It’s the foundation for realizing any person-centered practice; meeting and working with people’s values and beliefs and how they feel in the moment, engaging the community in shared decision making and responding with a sympathetic ear.
Some people aren’t ready to re-engage with large groups or to come back inside. There are a multitude of equally valid levels of risk, and people must take responsibility for this themselves, but we’re trying to respond with empathy and offer a practical solution so no one is left behind. That’s the motivation behind our exploratory and experimental hybrid term.
The hybrid delivery model
Each week we’ll run two one-hour sessions at the Usher Hall with a much-reduced capacity of 65 people per session; 300 for two hours was the old norm. An 8-week term means that people will visit the hall on rotation to sing together in-person. But the onstage work is only part of the jigsaw.
One of these sessions each week will be broadcast live to our online community. We’ve invited four professional singers to join me and our pianist Dave Milligan, and singers at home will be able to choose from multiple camera angles and hear a professionally live-mixed audio of rehearsals. We’ll bring the online community onto a screen in the hall so we can interact directly with them and send the live-singing experience back into their homes. This is all new territory.
From April 2020, we’ve developed an enhanced set of online resources for each of our songs to support individual learning. People can access them when they want and as often as they need, including audio recordings, captioned film tutorials, and conducted films with scrolling lyrics. The resources have been well used and valued and, for now, we’re keeping these going.
The hybrid model means that those who only want to sing in-person or take part online can do that, and those who are able to do both can experience both worlds. In other words, putting accessibility first, within our capacity and within a considered framework of compromise and care, we’ll try to meet people where they need to be met. So, every member of the choir community gets a bespoke offer of engagement, and make no mistake, it’s been a logistical head twist – we can prove it too, with the mothership of all spreadsheets.
The testing and tweaking of this way of singing together will continue through the term. It’s all new: a new way of teaching, of engaging, of singing together, of building resilience for our community, of staying connected. Who knows how it will feel? I am clear that it will not be the same as before. It’s likely that it won’t work for some, and we must accept that. But it’s what we are able to do now.
Wish us luck!