I have some friends who are musicians. Recently one of them, who had participated in some virtual choirs both before and during the pandemic, put me onto this interview by Eric Whitacre, who apparently invented the concept of virtual choirs long before we ever heard of COVID. (But his business is, as they say, booming right now).
Even Whitacre, though, noted that it was a substitute, not a replacement:
The only hesitation I have is people who don’t know what they’re seeing, thinking that this is a replacement for actual music making together. You know that phenomenon that happens when you’re standing with people… It’s not only that people breathe at the same time, they breathe the same way. It’s a genuine conspiracy, right? It’s not just a breath. There’s so much information being shared back and forth in just that single moment of a breath coming in.
Having sung in choirs myself for most of my life (the earliest experience I remember was in the first grade), Whitacre is right. Singing isn’t just about singing. It’s about breathing. My college choir director, Donald Morrison of blessed memory, used to say “Use the breath” to remind us to not sing as if our voice was a laser hitting a brick wall, but as if it was a living thing.
Virtual choirs made me think of virtual church. I love my church. They have persevered and kept showing up on Zoom and we love to see each others’ faces and we pray together and we share together and we read Scripture together. I’ve even joined in virtual Bible studies that I wouldn’t have been able to join otherwise, and listened to sermons from pastors I would normally never hear.
But we are not in the same room. We are not breathing the same air. We are not singing together. We are not receiving Eucharist together. We are not part of that genuine community conspiracy. (By the way, part of being a Slytherin for Jesus is knowing that taking the Eucharist together makes you part of a divine conspiracy. More on that some other time.)
And this, I think, is at the root of what makes us so uncomfortable with the socially distanced community we are forced into now. We know so much more about how the virus is transmitted than we did in March, which is wonderful; but what we know is that it is transmitted mainly when people gather together in crowded, mostly indoor spaces and emit lots of droplets and aerosols.
All in one room talking, singing, and yelling: you couldn’t do any better if you had designed a virus precisely to take out all the things most constitutive of human community – live theatre, music-making, dining together, worship. There’s a quote from Pride and Prejudice which I really dislike because a certain kind of conservative dudebro always uses it to argue against the ordination of women, but which actually seems applicable at this moment:
‘I should like balls infinitely better,’ she replied, ‘if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of they day.’
‘Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.’
When I think back over some of the happiest moments of my life, they involve breaking bread with dear friends and leaning in close to catch their voices over the murmur of the crowds at the best kind of local watering hole. They involve rocking back and forth in my chair with laughter as my daughter’s perfect comic timing slayed the audience when she played Grandpa in You Can’t Take it With You. (“Seems I died. [Beat] Eight years ago.”) They involve the breath everyone took at our choir reunion as 300 people began the second verse of our alma mater. They involve the first moment I ever stood behind the altar as a priest and looked down into the chalice of wine I had just filled and then looked out at 35 people in a little sanctuary in Northern Indiana and said “Lift up your hearts.”
They involve breathing other people’s air, every last one of them.
It is much more rational right now to mask, social distance, forbid singing, invent new ways to do church and theatre, get takeout, delay the Eucharist, and continue to endure with patience the days of waiting (yes, that last bit is a Lord of the Rings reference).
But God bless it, it is not so much like a ball.