Of the most traumatic events of the last half-century, none has affected the performing arts as much as COVID-19 undoubtedly will. Weeks after 9/11, concerts were held to fill a need for people to commune with each other, and many people first learned the words to “God Bless America.”
On the heels of the 2009 recession, performing arts organizations were stress-tested, and the ones that survived were those that continued performing new and exciting works and thinking about unique ways to market their art. Those that played it safe did not fare well.
What didn’t change, however, was the way the arts were delivered. In many instances, in fact, the arts were opened to more people in more unique spaces: witness the rise of A-level performances in bars and airplane hangers, one-time participatory events, and many more free and low-cost productions than ever before.
There are more than 270,000 choirs in America, and one in ten Americans sings in a choir. It is by far the most participatory artform in the United States. Singing together is also universal; though the spoken and musical languages may differ, every culture on the planet shares one thing: we come together to sing. And, despite some successful efforts to bring the choral world online, the art has remained an analog one.
Choral singing is not just an analog art because we have failed to find the right tools to adapt it to the online world. It is an analog art because it is about congregating. Humans have a need to come together for shared experiences, and through the millennia these experiences have taken the form of religion, sports, and the performing arts. A particular benefit of participating in choral singing is that it is a life-long pursuit for those who wish.
There are heaps of research about the health and intellectual benefits of choral singing, as there are with participation in music in general. There is also a study from Chorus America that shows a very high correlation between choral singing and community service, voter participation, academic achievement, and general community engagement.
It’s not hard to draw some conclusions about why this is: for one, the naturally limited size of each of these micro-communities (about 12 to 150 people) fosters a sense of tribal pride and the need to take care of one another. Furthermore, choral singing encourages the flexing of the empathy muscle: through the act of purposeful listening and the inhabiting of another’s words, notes, and rhythms, singers walk for a few moments each day in others’ shoes.
The need for analog community engagement has never been more pressing: as just one example, suicide is now one of the leading causes of death for teens, and not a few researchers have linked this terrifying fact to the increasing prevalence of smartphones and social media.
Unfortunately, given the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control as well as state and local governments throughout the world, analog, in-person engagement is exactly what we’re meant to avoid. This has caused unprecedented disruption in every sector, but nowhere more so than in the so-called congregational arts. By now, most every arts organization has cancelled or indefinitely postponed their season, and many are now going to begin a fight for survival in a climate where presenting art is prohibited and market insecurity is likely to lead to a significant drop in philanthropic giving.
Furthermore, where most for-profit corporations and government entities have embraced the challenges of telecommuting, retooling factories, or developing entire new lines of services, the live arts sector has had our product declared ‘on probation’ for the foreseeable future. It is also highly likely that, whether the social distancing recommendations last for six weeks or six months, people will still be hesitant to come together in large groups for an extended period of time after the restrictions are lifted.
As an arts leader, I have witnessed a trend over the past decade wherein we see younger people - Millennials and Gen Z - opting to consume the arts as participants rather than as spectators. In my choir - the Cathedral Choral Society - fully 30% of our singers are under the age of 30; yet, my audience looks like many others in that the age skews somewhere between retirement and Requiem.
Love of the arts among young people needs to be nourished. If young people desire a participatory experience, then we need to double down on our commitment to in-person, community arts events.
When this is over, we will not have our single healing concert, as many organizations did after 9/11, and then get back to business as usual; we will instead slowly put the pieces back together, letting people know that the time is right - and it is safe - to once again come together to sing. It will take time, and trust, and no small amount of solid fiscal management for organizations to get back on their feet.
Despite what many organizations - mine included - are doing digitally to stay present and relevant during this congregational prohibition, at some point the performing arts will need to reenter the analog world. For choral singers, it is the opportunity to take a breath together and feel the energy of a hundred voices around you, a community united for a common purpose.
Despite the fear and challenges surrounding the devastating outbreak of COVID-19, now is actually a great time to start considering how we want to live the analog parts of our lives again. First, we must support our at-risk populations, our healthcare workers and first responders, and those on the front lines fighting this horrible illness. But the time will come before too long when we need to make plans, once again, to congregate. In the meantime, we need to support our arts organizations through what is going to be a crippling time, and cross our fingers that this crisis doesn’t go on so long that we will be unable to recover this crucial part of our world culture.
Christopher Eanes, DMA, is the executive director of the Cathedral Choral Society, the choir-in-residence at Washington National Cathedral.