Christmas music and COVID-19: How to adapt when group singing isn't safe

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When you think about the holidays, what comes to mind? Family time, snow, presents, good food, a tree, Christmas music and carols, perhaps?

“It’s the central nervous system of the holiday season,” said Joyce LaBriola, vice-president of brand and experience with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Winspear Centre.

“Everything is linked — everything. The way you feel, the way you reflect, the way you think about the holidays is linked to music and how you experience it.”

“It anchors it… that musical foundation,” echoed Tyler Fitzgerald, a professional opera singer and choral conductor based in Calgary.

“There’s this long-standing tradition… Whether or not you connect with it in a religious context… There’s a lot of people who go to church and enjoy traditionally religious music that relates to Christmas. And we’re just not going to be able to do that.”

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In mid-November, Alberta Health put a temporary ban on group performance activities in targeted areas, including Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer. The targeted restrictions included a ban on singing, dancing and performance activities.

Singing is a risky activity right now, since respiratory droplets — the primary route of transmission for COVID-19 — are released.

“The risk of COVID-19 transmission is increased when people are singing together in-person,” said Tom McMillan, spokesperson for Alberta Health.

“This is especially true for large groups, spaces that do not allow for adequate physical distancing, indoor venues with poor ventilation, and when microphones, music stands or music binders are shared.”

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So, choirs and caroling are out. Then, on Nov. 27, auditoriums and concert venues in enhanced regions were shut down.

Fitzgerald has had five opera contracts cancelled and New Directions Choir has been on hold since March because of the pandemic. But, as the holidays approach, he’s coming up with innovative ways to tap into the tradition, nostalgia and emotion music continues to offer, including online instruction and a virtual Christmas concert for charity.

“There’s an ethereal nature to Christmas music,” he added.

“That connection is there and can still be there even though we can’t listen to it live.”

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Edmonton Symphony Orchestra musicians also had to reassess when Alberta’s first lockdown in March closed the Winspear Centre.

There were no formal concerts through spring and summer but, when warmer weather hit, performers hit the road to bring music to neighbourhoods.

ESO musicians went to parking lots, driveways, cul de sacs, backyards — 180 community concerts across central and northern Alberta.

“It was a true community campaign, which was really beautiful,” LaBriola said.

In the fall, the provincial rules changed and the Winspear put the wheels in motion to host a re-imagined season, respecting 100-person capacity limits by performing each program more frequently but to smaller audiences.

Almost every show was sold out, LaBriola said. They got through six programs before the Nov. 24 rule changes forced them to close and pivot once more.

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The Winspear and ESO are now focusing on virtual offerings: a variety of offerings on its website and YouTube page including solo performances and full orchestral numbers.

Music appreciation courses are also being offered online this winter. A History of the Broadway Musical starts Jan. 18 and Pops, Politics and Protest begins Feb. 9. There’s even online classes for little ones. Music Box Babies is a weekly class for babies and toddlers between zero and 48 months old.

And, if you’re missing your symphony orchestra fix over the holidays, you can hire an ESO musician for a virtual one-on-one session.

“You can book an hour with a musician where you get virtually connected… virtually home for the holidays,” LaBriola said.

“It’s a really intimate one-on-one chat with a musician.”

They could incorporate some musical performance or you could simply pick their brain about a career in music.

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While singing in a choir or getting a group together to go caroling can’t happen right now, that doesn’t mean the holidays will be void of music.

“You have to shift and you have to pivot with the way the world is going,” Fitzgerald said.

He’s taking choral instruction online. While he acknowledges it won’t replace the in-person experience, he hopes New Direction Choir will be able to offer “the most exhilarating virtual choir experience.”

Fitzgerald is also exploring online symposiums and courses on music basics.

“We can’t be together but you can grow and adapt and study on your own. Use this time to propel your own musical journey forward.”

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Ways to incorporate holiday music safely

  • Play an instrument — Learn some carols and lead a festive sing-song with your household
  • Turn on the fireplace (or TV channel fireplace) and put on a favourite holiday album (Mariah Carey and Nat King Cole are classics)
  • Many religious groups are offering online services
  • Watch a Christmas service online
  • Hire a local musician to give a virtual performance to you or your immediate family
  • Take an online music course (ESO offers some)
  • The Citadel Theatre is developing a digital version of A Christmas Carol
  • Edmonton’s Ukrainian Shumka Dancers is repurposing a 2017 performance of The Nutcracker you can watch from home
  • Play a holiday-themed music playlist (ESO has curated one available on Spotify)

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History of Christmas carols

Music has been part of the seasonal celebration before it was even known as Christmas.

Pagan carols were sung at Winter Solstice celebrations, which took place surrounding the shortest day of the year, usually around Dec. 22.  Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has remained.

Saint Francis of Assisi started Nativity Plays in Italy in 1223, which included songs, choruses or carols. The audience could join in and the music was usually in the language they spoke and understood.

That’s when these new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other parts of Europe. And, by the Victorian period, many orchestras and choirs were popping up, which brought more popularity and demand to carols.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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