Singing Together Apart


From tentative beginnings early in the first COVID lockdown, Banchory Singers went on to make good use of online singing to sustain the choir and add to the learning experience of its members.

Banchory Singers are a community choir, drawing its members from the Aberdeenshire town of Banchory and its rural hinterland. When the first COVID lockdown hit, our musical director, Tara Leiper, was quick to sound us out about continuing to meet and rehearse online using Zoom. Although none of us knew how this might work most of the choir were keen to give it a try. As Tara said herself, she “was unsure if we would be able to sing together in a meaningful way that would keep the singers’ voices toned up and provide musical and social stimulus to keep everyone motivated to attend”. For Tara this was a period of rapid learning using YouTube training and, mostly, trial and error. As every singer now knows (if they didn’t before), it is impossible to sing simultaneously online because of the varying time lag experienced as each signal travels over the wires.

In the early weeks we kept our ambitions low whilst we all became familiar with the basic online operation. Tara billed it simply as a ‘singalong’ and, with some basic pointers on how best to sing each number, we aimed to do no more than sing some favourite songs in the virtual company of all the little thumbnail screens showing our fellow choir members. Tara provided us with the words and a recorded accompaniment so that we could practise between sessions. In the group sessions she played those tracks, or live keyboard, whilst we muted our microphones and sang along. In spite of lockdown, choir was still a fun part of our week when we could ‘give it laldy’ to well-known songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water, the Lewis Bridal Song, We’ll Meet again, Weigenlied, Boyce’s Alleluia, Thank You For The Music, Walking Back to Happiness and many more.
At the end of most sessions, we would all take off our microphone mutes to sing one last chorus together. The resultant cacophony, caused by the time lags, always reduced us to laughter and we said our farewells with big grins on our faces. A real tonic in those difficult times.

We also wanted to maintain our social connection and adopted a couple of regular interactive features. Each session (we began with two 40-minute sessions a week – yes, the free Zoom option) included a five-minute break when we divided into random breakout rooms of four or five members for a quick ‘news’ about how we were getting through lockdown; and occasionally members were invited to take a turn to address the whole choir on a subject of their choice. This way we got to know more choir members than only those we sat beside during pre-lockdown rehearsals. In addition, we heard about people’s hobbies, stand out holidays, musical tastes and even life stories. We even had a social night with quizzes and games, again making use of the breakout groups feature, …and the drinks and nibbles were always our own choice!

The ranks of our choir swelled at this time as we welcomed singers whose choir had not continued online, ex-choir members who had moved away, and far-flung friends and relations.

By the time summer 2020 arrived we were all quite confident with the technology and the choir committee met with Tara to decide on where to go next. Tara proposed that, as usual we should work towards a Festive Concert at Christmas time but in the knowledge that it would more than likely be a virtual concert. This was agreed, as was an investment in Tara’s Zoom subscription so that we could run rehearsals for a whole hour.

Tara had been thinking about the pros and cons of online singing and this is how she put it in a paper she wrote.
“When working on repertoire I use several practice strategies. The first is leading from the piano and singing/playing a vocal part while the other parts either listen or sing their part against me if they know it well enough. This is great ear training because usually in rehearsals individuals do not have to keep a single line by themselves, but the online platform means that individuals are all singing solo at home. Singing solo at home means there is no team vocal support around the singer and this can be disconcerting and affect confidence as you get no feedback as to your accuracy, but it does mean you are not under scrutiny and so for some singers they can let go a bit more and really sing out and enjoy and not worry about the sound they make. “ (Tara’s full paper is available here)

It was also clear to us that Tara was putting in a lot of effort to make online singing work. She admitted that it “was very labour intensive for the MD and more tiring than face to face singing”. It was time for a short break before the concert rehearsals began.

Our autumn term looked more like our usual MO as we worked on the concert repertoire with guide tracks for each part and rehearsals that were more focused on producing a good sound. A new activity for the choir members was to begin recording their individual contributions to each song. This was quite intimidating for many of us, not being used to hearing ourselves, but we got there. Tara took all the individual tracks and mixed them together with our accompanist’s track to produce a recording that reproduced the full choir sound. Several songs were given a video track composed of a slide show of thematically chosen photographs contributed by the members. Others had a recording of us all appearing to sing together on Zoom. A high point was a song, We Are Stronger Than We Believe, which Tara composed using quotes from choir members reflecting on how we all made it through lockdown. The Festive Concert was a big success. We sold tickets on Eventbrite and had a large world-wide audience.
After the festive break we went through the same process again to produce another virtual concert in May.

In July of 2021 we had our first get together in over a year – an outdoor rehearsal. This was good fun on a sunny summer’s day, but we realised that it would not be a viable option as autumn wore on. Our eventual solution was to split our weekly two-hour rehearsals doing one, with social distancing and mask wearing, in our usual venue, preceded on another day by a Zoom rehearsal which prepared us to make best use of the short live rehearsal. This worked well and in December we held a single Festive concert with a smaller than usual, mask wearing socially distanced audience. It wasn’t back to normal, but it was great to be singing live together.

Carol singing together on Banchory High Street in the rain wasn’t quite so great but we still smiled through it.

Since the new year began, we have returned to two hour live socially distanced indoor rehearsals where individuals choose whether to wear a mask. Now, as our Spring Concert approaches, we feel closer to how it was pre-Covid and are grateful that, thanks to our MD, we were able to find a way to keep together and keep singing through all the challenges and disappointments of lockdown restrictions.