The story about the chorus landed like a punch. On March 10, 55 singers, none of whom had any symptoms of Covid-19, crowded into a Presbyterian church in Mount Vernon, Washington, for their weekly rehearsal. By the end of the month, more than three-quarters of the group had tested positive for coronavirus, and two were dead.
For years I too have filed into a Presbyterian church every week for chorus rehearsal, joining 100-plus other amateur singers for a few hours to prep for thrice-yearly classical music concerts. Choral singing is a good way to spread a virus around: We stand close together and inhale and exhale vigorously. It’s exhilarating to gather with a group of people and together produce sound that you could not possibly make alone. One of my favorite moments last fall was standing in a rehearsal in mixed lineup—meaning, each vocal part standing next to someone on a different part—and singing the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Magnificat from memory. In much of Bach’s choral music the parts are tightly integrated: You have to hear exactly what the altos are doing in order to sing the soprano part correctly. And that deadly Washington chorus rehearsal meant that this kind of tight-knit singing—or any kind of communal music-making—wouldn’t happen again for a very very long time.
My chorus had planned to perform Brahms’ Requiem at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in August. Five years ago the group presented the same program, but I’d dropped out at the last minute when my father-in-law passed away. I was looking forward to having a second chance with the piece. But now, the group is planning a “sing-in,” where we’ll rehearse Mozart’s Requiem in small groups over Zoom and then “perform” it by singing along while muted in our houses, to a recording we made of the same piece a few years back. My family members and neighbors may hear me singing live (let me apologize to them now for that troublesome jump to the high F in the Lacrymosa movement), but anyone who tunes in won’t; latency issues in video-conferencing make a synchronous performance at best uneven and at worst unlistenable.
This orchestra playing a socially distanced Ode to Joy are not playing all at the same time. Rather each person filmed themselves playing their part, using a metronome set to the same speed, and then the video was synchronized.
I’m not the only person in my household coping with a radically rethought approach to collaborative music. My 11-year-old son, who asked to be called Picklequack for this article, plays the keyboard in an all-kid band called Yzarc—that’s “crazy” spelled backwards, obvs—through a local San Francisco treasure/music school/gang of weirdos called Rock Band Land. In the B.C. (Before Coronvavirus) era, he’d meet weekly with his band, which for reasons I can’t explain includes one guitar player, one singer, one bassist, one keyboardist, and five drummers, in a building whose front door advertises “Pat Clabernathy’s Indoor Donkey Farm & Retirement Home For Children.” Yzarc members, who are ages 10 and 11, come up with original stories, lyrics, and songs. Their song “The Hand Witch Thief” includes the lines, “The Pizza Guy was a witch/ Who stole hands from little kids/ To make chairs to massage/ His aching back.” (If you are a parent in need of yet more ways to occupy your children, Rock Band Land’s weird and wonderful original stories are available on Soundcloud.)
A few times a year, dozens of the Rock Band Land kid performers stream into an old Italian-American social club in San Francisco’s Mission district to play The Big Show. There are rock show lights, rock show volume levels, bowls of earplugs, and Shirley Temples and adult beverages at the bar.
But this year coronavirus happened, and with it the cancellation of a Big Show, and of everything. To parent during a pandemic requires disappointing your child all too frequently: Your precious family camp in Yosemite won’t be operating; school won’t resume in person until the fall, we think; we have to shelter in place for another month; summer is one big question mark.
The kid activities that have moved online have done so with varying degrees of success. Piano lessons over Zoom: pretty decent; futsal practice: maybe if our backyard had grass and several hundred more square feet. Online Rock Band Land is … unexpectedly quiet. Instead of rehearsing for two hours every Saturday, Picklequack’s band meets over Zoom. They brainstorm lyrics but then retreat to their instruments, offline, for the actual making of music. The kids come up with riffs and email ideas to their teacher, Kyle Nosler; one kid used pots and pans to create a drum part, since their regular drum set wasn’t available.
Normally Yzarc rehearses and records their songs at the donkey farm. But recording from home isn’t a viable option for most band members, since it’s difficult to create acoustically decent versions of individual instrumental parts without decent home audio equipment. Tracks of the singers, however, can be acceptably recorded with a smartphone voice-recording app. The most important part of Rock Band Land—the actual communal making of music—turns out to be the most difficult thing to do remotely. Yzarc won’t be able to create a version of their new song, “Pets,” until they’re all together again.
The Rock Band Land staff has a new system for online music-making for its reimagined summer camp season—using a click machine, metronome, or metronome app, all set to the same speed, to help everyone sync up—but back in mid-April Kyle sent the “Pets” musicians a scratch track, which he assembled from recordings of himself playing each instrumental part. Each kid was instructed to practice playing along and then make a music video. The other night my son prepped for filming. He moved his keyboard into our dining room, where he could play with a blank wall behind him. He safety-pinned a bright orange throw blanket around his shoulders to mimic a Dungeons & Dragons cape and made his quarantine hair look as crazy as possible (it didn’t take much). I blasted the scratch track on a wireless speaker and filmed him as he played along, with a few false starts thanks to our shared tendency to giggle uncontrollably for no reason whatsoever. When I gently noted that he missed a chord, Picklequack dismissed me. It doesn’t matter, he said, we won’t be heard on the recording; it’s just the video that matters. The video mattered; the music kind of didn’t.
In the absence of sports games and camping trips and dinner parties, our family has added another musical activity to our weekends. Every Sunday afternoon we gather with relatives on Zoom for what we call the Pearlstein musical jam. It’s a pastime with a long history. Before our ancestors emigrated to the US and Israel or were murdered at Treblinka, the Perlshteins, as they were known then, a family with nine children, comprised the main orchestra in Wasilków, Russia. They played music to accompany the silent films broadcast at the movie theater they owned, providing entertainment for the local Jewish community.
“Suitable music was played by a small orchestra to synchronize with the actions on the films,” explains a history of Wasilków, translated from Yiddish. More than 100 years ago, the action and the music could coalesce only in person, not on screen.
Today, since we can’t coalesce in person, we scramble to synchronize from our screens remotely.
Instead of balalaikas, violins, guitar, and mandolins, today’s geographically distributed band of musical Pearlsteins plays guitar, piano, and sings from homes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Performers range in age from 11 to 75, and we often chat about where to find toilet paper or last night’s Saturday Night Live before someone shares a song. My cousin Frank dons funny glasses before he sits down at the piano to belt out some Elton John; my brother Rob, who plays guitar in a band, tends to play Jack White or blues guitar. Frank’s brother David might perform New Orleans-style boogie woogie, my aunt Dorie might offer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I’ll sit at the piano to fumble through a Chopin Nocturne or the Maple Leaf Rag. Sometimes David will improvise on the piano with my brother on the guitar, or my brother and I will sing our dad’s favorite Willie Nelson song, “I Gotta Get Drunk.” But we can’t keep proper eye contact, so it’s hard to signal when we should skip the last verse, and we’re never perfectly in sync.
Our weekly Zoom gatherings can only mimic the jam sessions that typically conclude holiday dinners, when my parents’ living room might host a couple of people on piano, my brother on guitar, and my 99-year-old great uncle, a drummer, tapping along on his knee, while my son and nephews sneak extra dessert in the kitchen. But the virtual meetups still give our family a chance to connect and let my parents see their offspring. I’ve hung out with my cousins virtually more in the past several weeks than I have in person during the past year. Last week we invited our family abroad to join. On Saturday morning 25 people in a dozen homes—in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, and Capetown, South Africa—convened on Zoom to reconnect or, in many cases, meet one another for the first time. The call ended with my cousin David jamming on “Shalom Aleichem” with our cousin Schmulik on an electronic wind instrument, 7,500 miles away.
For consumers of digital culture, the pandemic isn’t a total wash. The parodies and home-based pop-up news shows and fundraisers can be great. But it’s a disaster for most culture makers, and even those able to take their craft to the small screen may not find that outlet sufficiently lucrative or satisfying. The performers at Marie’s Crisis Cafe, a sing-along piano bar in Manhattan that’s my favorite place on earth, have moved their shifts to Facebook Live, singing and playing piano for Venmo tips. People who love Marie’s love musicals, and that ridiculous but delightful moment when all of the characters suddenly know the exact same words and music and choreography. At a grungy bar in New York, the analog of that moment is when half the room starts belting out the part of Marius in “One Day More” and the other half sings the part of Cosette. I may be able to log in and sing along in my kitchen, but I have to sing all of the parts myself.
The feeling of singing with a group, whether it’s crowded into a West Village basement or a drafty church in San Francisco, fulfills in a way that singing along in your kitchen doesn’t. Maybe when I rehearse the Mozart Requiem next week, I’ll find that wearing great headphones and seeing the faces of my fellow choristers on my laptop screen will magically trick my brain into thinking I’m standing next to them. Maybe the audio latency won’t be that bad.
If I’m disappointed, I won’t tell Picklequack. He isn’t complaining, yet, about his changed musical circumstances. I don’t know when or if Yzarc will return to its precise B.C. form, given that concerts are probably the last type of activity that will resume post-quarantine. I haven’t told him that yet. For now, let him do the Zoom collaboration and make up funny stories with his bandmates. He’ll play his part along with a scratch track, while wearing a throw blanket as a cape, and perhaps discover a new kind of joy.
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