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'Zoom Choir': Bay Area Children's Choirs Keep Singing Through Coronavirus

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Members of the Redwood City-based Ragazzi Boys Chorus, which provides choral training to around 250 youth aged 5 to 18. (Courtesy of David Allen)

Beth Wilmurt is used to coaching the Community Music Center Children’s Chorus from a big, airy room with a grand piano at the group’s Mission District campus in San Francisco.

But now the chorus teacher is working from home, creating short instructional singing videos to share with her group of 8 to 12 year olds.

“Hi everybody! It’s just me and my ukulele, saying hi," says Wilmurt in her video. "I thought you could sing with me,” she adds, and then launches into a series of warmup exercises geared specifically for kids.

The statewide order to shelter in place to help slow the spread of the coronavirus has put in-person rehearsals and concerts on hold. So children’s choirs across the Bay Area, like the one Wilmurt leads, are finding creative ways to keep kids singing, even as they’re stuck indoors.


Wilmurt is hoping her students will use her videos to practice singing on their own time, because virtual rehearsals aren’t really an option. Some of the kids she works with lack home internet access. And standard video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts don’t work well for groups that want to sing together in sync, rather than talk in turn.

"We can't do it with the technology yet," Wilmurt said. "We can't sing in time. There's a delay."

But Wilmurt said it’s important to keep her students singing, even if it can’t be in person. "This joy, of connecting through music," she said. "It's palpable."

And the families whose children she works with agree.

"Days can really blend one into the other here," said Yaron Milgrom, whose three children are all in Wilmurt's group. "Music and singing songs, it's just part of keeping a sense of normalcy."

"For young singers who are finding themselves home from school and away from their friends and routines, it's especially important that they can be part of something that allows them to express their emotions and feel connected to others," said Catherine Dehoney, president and CEO of Chorus America, a national choral advocacy nonprofit. "It's been amazing to see choruses step up and pivot quickly to find creative new ways for their singers to sing and be in community."

This new reality of singing-in-place is inspiring a variety of responses from Bay Area children’s musical groups. The Redwood City-based Ragazzi Boys Chorus, which provides choral training to around 250 youth ages 5 to 18, is having its members create and send videos of themselves practicing at home to their coaches.

"We aren't always able to spend this amount of individual time on our choristers," said Kent Jue, Ragazzi's executive director and artistic director designate. "Some of the recordings have been really impressive. I've been very taken by the progress that they've made."

Ragazzi member Elliot Lee, 10, said he likes the individual feedback.

"The teacher can hear me alone to know what I need to improve at, and what I'm good with," Lee said.

Some groups, like the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, are even gamely forging ahead with virtual rehearsals, despite the technological challenges.

Around 290 children, mostly from the East Bay, are enrolled in the organization's 12 vocal groups.

"Even though the online format is different and we can't all sing together and revel in hearing each other's voices, we can continue teaching and learning music," said Eric Tuan, the organization's artistic director.

"There are ups and downs with the online forum, but it still keeps them connected and it still inspires them to sometimes break out into song around the house," said Aparna Rao, whose daughters Amba and Kiran Beattie sing in the children's choir. "It also makes me feel less isolated as a parent."

Because of the technological shortcomings of the virtual platforms, the students mostly have to keep their video feed on mute throughout rehearsals. They can hear Tuan playing the piano and singing. But not each other.

Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir artistic director Eric Tuan leads a virtual rehearsal via Zoom on March 30, 2020.
Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir Artistic Director Eric Tuan leads a virtual rehearsal via Zoom on March 30, 2020. (Zoom screenshot)

"Zoom choir is fun but very, very different," said 10-year-old Kiran. "We still see everyone else. But we don't hear anyone except for yourself and sometimes the conductor."

"I am definitely most looking forward to being able to hear other people's voices. That's part of what being in the choir is all about," said 13-year-old Amba. "And that is something that we haven't gotten the chance to do right now."

Tuan said he can’t wait to get everyone together again to sing in person.

"We don't realize how precious that is," he said. "Until we can no longer take it for granted."

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