“All the Gold in California” by The Gatlin Brothers is the only song I can sing harmony to on my own.
For some reason, on that song, and that song alone, I can sing tenor — and even though my efforts may sound poorly, doing so brings me great joy. I am not alone. Singing in harmony (even when I’m singing the melody) with other people creates beauty.
For me, adulthood has taken a toll on the joys of singing with others. Growing up, I sang in a choir and with people multiple times every week. The experience of being a part of that beauty endures even though I haven’t sung with a choir for years. Lately I’ve thought a lot about the joy singing with others brings — which makes me consider, as most everything else does these days, COVID-19.
I knew that William Plummer Ph.D., director of choral activities at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, would have thought through and researched the topic much further and deeper. I was right.
“The essential thing is for people to separate what they want — from the reality,” Plummer told me. “Ultimately, as a human being, I want live music in my life, but the risks are high for that right now.”
Plummer told me that the danger lies in people wanting to see and hear what they want to see and hear.
“They want to assume that things can’t change, but the defining feature of our species is our adaptability. The important thing is realizing that things can change,” he said.
He gave the examples of sitting in a house with air-conditioning — as compared to the thousands of years that people endured whatever the climate was. Or the ability for most of us, with the twist of a wrist, to have access to clean running water — unheard of for thousands of years.
The point is — things change.
“Normal after this pandemic will look different,” he said. “The hardest thing is to balance the economic needs with the safety needs — and mitigating the risks.”
He and I agree that the reason most everyone likes music is the experience of making and listening to it, usually with others — and at this point, we all are at risk in a group.
Plummer says that power of coming together to create something amazing is the reason most students major in music.
“But without my choir members, I’m just standing in a room, waving my arms around and there’s no music,” he said. “My goal is to try to preserve a collaborative experience, mitigating the risks.”
To do so, he will recommend that his students wear masks (yes, while singing — and he offered a video of Czech students doing so effectively as proof that it can be done easily), maintain social distance, practice outside and not using chairs or music stands that anyone will need to touch or move.
For now, he’s working under the premise that live performances are not possible. Instead, he will lead students to perfect one piece at a time and then record the performance to share virtually.
I felt more hopeful after speaking with him. Our conversation reminded me of another recent chat with Cathy Pratt Curtis, my college roommate and dearest friend.
She told me her favorite song is called “In Meeting We Are Blessed,” written by Troy Robertson, a choral director in Texas, for a meeting of the Nairobi Chamber Chorus and the Festival Singers of Florida in 2014. Cathy introduced me to the song a year ago.
Its melody and lyrics, written by R. Gatsnahos with the English poet John Donne, touch my soul.
We are met together and in meeting we are blessed. Peace in coming and in going. Peace in labor and in rest. Hold on, dear brother. Hold on, dear sister. Hold on to me. You’re not alone. And you never more will be. I will be with you, and I will carry you with me. Friendship endures. Surely, we will prove — it’s not ourselves, but our bodies that move.
My children are embarrassed for me — at the number of times I’ve watched videos of choirs singing that song. I am not. The song is about the power of being together — something so many of us long for, but it’s also about the power of staying connected when our bodies move and we are apart.
As Plummer said, we have to separate what we want from reality. He and others have figured out ways to persevere professionally. The rest of us have to do the same, especially with relationships.
To keep relationships and connections alive, we have to make the effort and contact friends and loved ones. Stuck inside our homes, one day falls into the next. We lose track of time. Setting reminders of special occasions for others is a good idea — as is making a point of connecting with at least one friend a day, by whatever means works. Snail mail is powerful these days. Handwritten cards and letters are particularly meaningful. Flowers are also a good idea.
The mere mortals among us may not be able to sing in harmony or unison as we once did for months to come, possibly even a year.
Even so, friendships can endure.