Having prepared virtually for a pandemic-era recital for more than half a year, the Keene Chorale grew accustomed to frozen Zoom calls.
Even after recently resuming in-person rehearsals, the choir continues to battle “freezing” conditions. But its confines — a multipurpose room at Keene Ice on Marlboro Street — have created a much warmer environment for group members, who say they enjoy singing with each other again and reconnecting with old friends.
The weekly sessions, which began April 3, are the first time the choir has rehearsed together since last spring, when it had to cancel a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After postponing a concert originally scheduled for this month to later this year, the Keene Chorale is now preparing for a truncated recital to benefit a local food pantry in June.
The group had rehearsed virtually since last September, holding sessions every other week over Zoom in a COVID-related adaptation. Multiple other area choirs also paused in-person operations last year, citing health officials’ concerns that singing can project saliva droplets and spread COVID-19.
That arrangement proved difficult, however, according to Elaine Pratt of Swanzey, who has been with the Keene Chorale for about five years.
“You only heard yourself singing,” she said at Tuesday’s rehearsal.
When the Keene Chorale decided to resume in-person rehearsals this spring, Don LeRoy, president of the group’s board of directors, said he asked about using space at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and at a location downtown. (The Unitarian Universalist Church on Washington Street in Keene, where members rehearsed in the past, remains closed due to the pandemic, he said.)
The choir settled on the Blastos Room at Keene Ice, which can accommodate as many as 250 people, making it apt for social distancing among the approximately 50 people going to rehearsals this spring, according to LeRoy.
That figure is less than the Keene Chorale’s typical enrollment, but it’s about twice the number of people who had been attending virtual rehearsals, LeRoy said.
“By the end of the virtual stuff, it was about 25 attendees,” he said. “It was more of a social thing.”
LeRoy, a Rindge resident, said the in-person rehearsals have drawn several choir members who had eschewed the virtual sessions. The group has also added five members since last month and continues to welcome newcomers, he said. No audition is required, and the choir has waived its membership fee this spring to help anyone who is struggling financially during the pandemic, according to LeRoy.
Resuming in-person rehearsals at Keene Ice has been a boon to choir members — most of whom are seniors and fully vaccinated — according to their music director, Cailin Marcel Manson. The live sessions give the ensemble a more coherent voice, Manson said.
“We’re actually making music,” he said. “… When you’re in the room with somebody, you can feel their energy.”
The Keene Chorale typically performs twice a year — in December and in April or May — with several months of weekly rehearsals before each concert, Manson said in the fall.
After intending to perform George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” this month, the choir postponed that recital to December because it was difficult for people to prepare without singing together, according to LeRoy. Until April, members learned their parts from instructive materials online and reviewed the piece once a month with Manson and accompanist Vladimir Odinokikh.
Instead, the choir will hold a free public concert June 5 at Keene Ice, performing selections from “Messiah.”
Attendees will be asked to donate either cash or food to The Community Kitchen, a Keene food pantry, LeRoy said, noting that the pandemic has created financial instability for many people.
“It’s been a tough year for a lot of folks,” he said. “The Community Kitchen has been as busy as ever.”
Despite its benefits, rehearsing together has also created new challenges for the Keene Chorale.
The group fans out across the Blastos Room to observe social distancing, which Pratt, a soprano, said often makes it difficult to hear other sections or even members of her own section.
Manson said the new format has required people in the choir to refresh their vocal muscles — part of the reason why he chose selections from “Messiah,” a familiar tune after rehearsing for months, to perform in June. He has also struggled to provide instruction because the ensemble members wear masks at all times, even while singing. (Many in the group wear masks with an internal frame, which prevents the material from collapsing into a singer’s open mouth.)
“You can’t really tell if their jaws are hanging,” Manson said. “… Over 20 years of choir, I can take an educated guess.”
LeRoy credited Manson with keeping the sessions lively, describing him as “an entertainer, even during rehearsal.”
The group hopes to resume normal operations, rehearsing without masks at the Unitarian Universalist Church, when it begins fall rehearsals in September, LeRoy said.
For now, members are simply enjoying each other’s company again, which Manson said is the group’s primary motivation anyway.
Tim McCool, a Jaffrey resident who serves as the choir’s productions manager, said he’s glad to have that opportunity, explaining that his daughter’s choir in Connecticut has not resumed in-person rehearsals.
“Part of the experience of singing is the social aspect,” he said. “… We haven’t sung, except in showers, for a year.”