The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the working lives of UK arts industry professionals. In a wide ranging series of interviews, conducted during the UK’s ‘hard’ lockdown, I learn how creatives have adapted their practice and daily routines in order to maintain their creativity, solvency and sanity.
My final ‘musicians’ interview is with choir leader and musical director Katherine Tye. Based in Nottingham, she currently works for Rock Choir, the largest contemporary choir in the UK and runs choirs across the East Midlands. She has worked extensively as a musical director in musical theatre and also wrote the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe hit: The Final Act.
What were you doing in mid-March when the arts industry began shutting down and how was your work affected?
I was nearing the end of term with Rock Choir. I was still doing sessions as normal though numbers were noticeably decreasing. Given the broad demographic of my choir — the youngest is 18 and the eldest is 80 — there were many who decided to stop coming in, but even they suspected it might only affect the end of that term and we’d be back in business after Easter.
Then on that Monday, the week before official lockdown came in, we were told we couldn’t have any more group meetings. Throughout the day I received messages from members saying: “How can choir be on tonight? There’s no way I’m going to come.” So despite no official notice the members made the decision for us. Then on the evening lockdown was officially announced Rock Choir rightly made the call to stop rehearsing. To have that decision made for us (the choir leaders), took the pressure off. I think would’ve found it really hard if it was my decision whether or not to cancel.
Did it affect any upcoming performances?
We’d actually just done a concert so that was lucky. Everyone understood it was no longer safe to meet and no one was angry or upset. But it’s affecting us now as we often perform in the summer.
How quickly did you make the transition to online Rock Choir?
Lockdown meant we missed the last two weeks of that term which was frustrating although I had managed to teach every song. We put out a few videos to keep the choir members going, which also helped to get them used to being online. We then used the Easter holidays to plan an online summer term and began trialling Zoom.
How has your rehearsal structure and participation now changed?
Normally we do weekly 90-minute sessions. That would be too much in online form and you just can’t run it the same way. So now they get a 45-minute pre-recorded video of their vocal part and a 45-minute live session later that week to cover it and sing through other songs. But it’s now more of a social call to be honest. So they’re still getting their hour and half as normal as well as loads of other content — we’ve produced videos on pretty much everything and anything to keep them going.
I can see how many people have viewed the YouTube videos and it started out really strong, though I don’t know if it’s just the same person watching multiple times! As weeks pass views have slowly decreased but again it is hard to know exactly how many are engaging fully with each video. The live sessions haven’t changed too much, even though numbers are lower, and the people engaging have done so throughout.
How do live Zoom rehearsals work?
This is where it’s hard and will never be the same. I have anywhere between 25–60 people on a Zoom call, I open a little early so they get their usual chat time but once I start teaching I mute everyone. Singing together is pretty much impossible so 90% of the time people are muted. But I have found the syncing has got better as time goes on. Maybe Zoom have been improving something in the background.
Most of the session will be me going over sections I think might be tricky for them or answering specific questions. On Zoom at least, that’s a much easier way to rehearse than me listening to them sing.
Have you attempted any full group sing-a-longs?
Right at the start I did enjoy showing them what happens when we try to sing together. I’d count them in, let them go, and it is just amazing. Terrible, but amazing. It’s impossible to ever perfectly sync given varied internet speeds. However, we did sing Happy Birthday for someone last week and I have to say they were much more in time than I expected.
Not being able to sing together is a big reason why some don’t enjoy being online because for them choir is about the community. Turning up, seeing their friends and singing together. Many don’t class themselves as ‘singers’ as much as they do ‘part of a community’. And that unfortunately is what we’re unable to provide right now.
Describe your home working set-up…
Luckily I have an office, although I’ve moved everything around. I use my laptop for live sessions and a separate camera for pre-recording. I have my keyboard of course, which gets used just as much as before. To be honest my set-up is very similar to how it would be in a normal rehearsal with loads of people, it’s just now all through a computer. I also wear a Britney-mic as I would in a normal rehearsal.
The main problem of doing this from home arises when I play a track: if I share my audio in Zoom the picture of me conducting is behind the sound. I can be more in time by playing sound through an audio interface but the quality is much worse.
Do people have their pictures on during online rehearsals?
Yes, most do because it’s that thing of still being able to connect with others. It’s funny because most still treat it as ‘going to choir’. I can see them wearing Rock Choir t-shirts with lyrics printed out and ready in their hands. And although I make myself big on the screen, so they’re just looking at me as I begin the session, I often see them switching back to gallery view. It’s interesting that in this new context it’s more important for people to be able to see each other and they’re not as bothered to see me.
The really useful thing about gallery view is that I can clearly see when people are struggling. They’ll be looking at lyrics or doing a move and suddenly look super confused. It’s much easier to spot those moments in this form, when you’re in the same room you can hide a lot better. They love it because I always point them out: “Ah that’s a bit you didn’t get… I can see you fafffing!” They all have a little laugh and it’s a lot of fun.
The social aspect of choirs is so key to why people participate, have you managed to retain that in any way?
They’ve got Facebook groups where they chat and sometimes they’ll do their own Zoom sessions. Unfortunately with Zoom there is that awkward thing of everyone taking ages to say goodbye, so now I’ve got used to just ending it. I’ll say: “Thank you, see you next week!” Then just end the session. And while some people always log on early to have a chat some only log on for the session itself because it can be a bit awkward with so many people on a call.
Have you had to buy any new kit to be able to work through lockdown?
I bought a new audio interface because while I already had a big mixing desk it’s just too cumbersome to use every day, so I decided to get something newer and faster. I’ve learnt more about dealing with sound. While I’m lucky to work for a company very willing to help you out, no one can just come round and show you how to do it. So it’s been a good learning curve.
I have to say though, I don’t at all enjoy this way of working. It’s just not natural for me. I’m much more about that live rehearsal experience, that’s where I work best and it’s what I enjoy the most. I’m sure that’s the same for most musicians because it’s what we thrive on.
Is there a roadmap for Rock Choir to return to the rehearsal room?
It’s difficult and we are working on multiple scenarios, it will depend on the level of restriction on large groups come the start of the new term. I have different sized choirs, anywhere from 50 to over 100 members, that obviously is way over what we’re probably going to be allowed in September. We’re just going to have to wait and see. But no matter what happens we’ll continue to adapt as we’ve already been doing.
What have you been rehearsing and have you discovered any lockdown anthems?
Most of our repertoire was actually chosen before we locked down. We usually teach four songs in a new term, as well as doing lots of our old ones, but we did add an extra song this term because you can learn a lot more in this situation. You get through content quicker when people are learning on their own, as it were.
This week we’re starting Bridge Over Troubled Water and I’ve seen a lot of other choirs recording that lately, so it could be something of a lockdown anthem! We’re also doing We Are The Champions, A Hard Day’s Night and Higher Love. Something we’ve done with a couple of those songs is edit together members’ individual recordings so they have a record of singing together in lockdown. That’s been a really nice thing to do.
Have you undertaken any other work during lockdown?
Just before all this happened I agreed to MD a show next April. That was lucky! It’s with teenagers aged 12–18 and we’ve had some online meetings. Their age means it’s been a completely different experience to Rock Choir. I’m very used to working with young people in person but online it’s different. They’re very tech-savvy, better than me in fact, so if I ever make a mistake they’re quick to tell me what I’m doing wrong. It’s noticeable how much shorter their attention spans are. With adults I can run through each part with people patiently waiting their turn but if you do that with kids then no way, they’re just not going to listen. Shorter sessions are the key and just keep it moving as quickly as possible. It is nice though, they’re all always there even though it’s on a Saturday morning and you think maybe they’d still be in bed. It’s great to see them engaging.
Have you been able to find time to do any pure practice on your keyboard, or perhaps just playing for fun?
I would say my intentions have been to practice more because why not? But actually I’ve done less. I think it’s because I spend hours in here recording and editing so when I finish I just want to get out. When I have managed to sit down just to play something different I’ve really enjoyed it. But it’s sometimes difficult to find that motivation. I think that’ll change now that I’m relaxing and getting used to this. By just accepting that this is my life now, I think I’ll start doing a bit more.
How Katherine is Keeping Busy
20 Feet From Stardom Netflix
All Or Nothing Amazon Prime
Theatre & musical live streams
Grounded by Louis Theroux podcast
Merrily We Roll Along Sondheim
The Towersey Festival Podcast
Embroidery and crafts with Makebox
Recipes with Mindful Chef
Riddles for quizzes
Writing music for friends
Writing letters to pen pals
Originally published at jamesrmcandrew.com on July 14, 2020.