Over the past seven months, I’ve been busy working to help our congregation’s Chalice Choir continue to “perform” during the Covid pandemic. The work has given me surprising insights about the powerful human capacity for attunement.
Because of the need to physically distance, the choir now sings “virtually” — everybody sings alone and the voices are combined later to make a choral sound recording. To make sure we sound like a choir, we must sing synchrously, so our director, Michael Adcock, initially records a piano accompaniment called a “guidetrack” for us to sing to. Meanwhile, I use music software to create a long strip image out of the score; and UUCC member Ross Martin, who’s generously volunteered to videorecord individual choirfolk at his fabulous homebuilt, pandemic-safe studio, receives these resources and uses them to create a video scrolling score. (He has a teleprompter!) I post the scrolling score on the web for people who want to record at home.
After each singer records, their audio tracks (and video tracks, if there is video) go to me. I sync the audio tracks up together in audio-editing software to create the choral sound, and then I create a video for the “performance” using video-editing software.
Early on, we realized that even when I sync everyone’s audio up carefully to the guidetrack, the result sounds like rabble – it isn’t a unified choral sound like we get when we sing together in the sanctuary.
To be clear: it’s a hot mess.
We needed to do something to help the choir sound “together.” So Michael started videotaping himself, conducting to his own guidetrack. Ross receives the video and superimposes a translucent version, which some of us call the “Ghost Michael,” onto the scrolling score. The singers can read their music while Ghost Michael’s hands wave over the score, indicating the phrasing. This prep work requires many hours from Michael, Ross, and me. Surely this should solve the problem. Heck, we don’t have it that easy in face-to-face choir – there, the score is under our chins, and Michael is way, way over there, over the heads of other choirfolk. And mostly he’s conducting with his eyebrows because his hands are on the piano. When singing in the sanctuary, if we direct our attention to Michael, we sometimes lose our place in the score or sing the wrong lyrics, and when we carefully look down at the score we miss Michael’s signals.
We had high hopes that adding Ghost Michael would eliminate the asynchrony, but to our surprise and dismay, it didn’t – audio produced this way was still a hot mess. So, we added a choral sound to the guide track: nine of our more proficient singers create tracks before the rest of the choir. I sit down and carefully synchronize these 9 voices to the guidetrack, so the rest of the singers will be enveloped in choral sound, just like in face-to-face choir. Surely that will make all the difference, we thought.
But no. No matter how carefully Michael prepares the guidetrack, how precisely he conducts us in the video, and how carefully and skillfully we sing, we end up sounding like rabble.
To create a pleasing ensemble sound out of this painful asynchrony, all the voices must be lined up, syllable by syllable. I have to do it by hand, using software. Alan, my spouse, helps me, too. We’ve found that to do an adequate job, it takes us about 10-12 hours to sync one minute of audio. It’s exhausting. The video-editing, which is famously reputed to be laborious and time-consuming, is a walk in the park compared to the audio-editing.
Given all the support systems we offer, why do I have to spend 2 long days going half-blind staring at a computer screen at tiny blobs of soundwaves, to make a two-minute anthem? I mean, we don’t sound like rabble when we’re singing together in the sanctuary – we have the occasional screwup, but we sound like a choir.
Let me reframe the question: what kind of magic allows a face-to-face choir to produce, with seemingly minimal effort, the kind of synchrony that it takes me 20+ hours and a bunch of lost sleep to reproduce very imperfectly?
I am in no way any kind of neuroscientist, so what I’m about to say is rank speculation, but I think it hints at an important truth about human beings. Apparently, our species has cognitive and perceptual apparatuses which allow us to sensitively tune in to and micro-adjust to everyone around us –in the case of choral singing, the notes sung by others, of course, but also the micro-movements of everyone we can see. In choir, we must be tuning in to breath inspirations and exhalations, and to subtle changes of posture and facial placements of everyone we can see. The choir performs this magic in service of acting as one organism, to produce a choral performance. To do it, each of us must constantly microadjust to one another in a complex and reciprocal dance of adjustment and readjustment. I think our mirror neurons must be working overtime.
Although this responsiveness is, to a limited extent, conscious (to be sure, Michael, like his predecessor Tom Benjamin before him, occasionally has to remind us to do it), it’s impossible to deliberately focus on 30-plus separate people while performing all the other functions of a choir singer – no, this dance of attunement must be largely unconscious, and much of it feels pleasurable and almost effortless. When this dance of reciprocity is not present, as with virtual choral singing, it requires a huge effort to try to replace it, hence the 20+ hours of grinding audio editing.
I think the act of singing chorally must also release a torrent of hormones – particularly endorphins and prostaglandins. The endorphins have us all leaving choir rehearsals on a high (no matter how bad we felt going in; post-choir euphoria is a widespread phenomenon), and the prostaglandins create a singular kind of intimacy common to well-functioning choirs. I think these allo-intoxicants are, in evolutionary terms, nature’s way of ensuring that our social species is motivated to act collectively, while maximizing our degree of attunement.
It is so painful to be trying to make choral music without this beautiful dance of sensitivity and reciprocity – and the hormonal rewards that it produces – that some of our choirfolk have decided to sit out the virtual choir. They care very much, and want to help, but trying to participate is too intensely painful a reminder of what they are missing.
There is a larger lesson beyond choral singing — for us, for our congregation, for our community and for our nation and world.
Even before the pandemic, our relationships had partly moved out of physical space and into virtual space. And we live in a time (in the larger world) in which the challenges of acting in synchrony are more and more acute. We find it relatively easy when we interact with people whose life stories are like our own, but we’re not so good at it when we try to walk in the shoes of those whose lives have run in very different circles. We know less about the other person, what motivates them, what trauma they have suffered, and what causes them harm (though a subset of us, the victims of oppression, have had to learn a higher degree of attunement to others as a survival skill).
To be truly relational, and reciprocally sensitive, in bigger tents, we have to be imaginative, creative and nuanced, as well as sensitive; we have to listen very, very carefully; we have to be able to go away and process interactions that seem, at first blush, discordant, mad, or gratuitously incivil; and we have to constantly examine our own perceptions, priorities and belief systems. We may not (at least not at first) experience any rush of prostaglandins or endorphins; indeed, instead we may feel defensive or ashamed (like I occasionally do when I’ve flagrantly botched a choir rehearsal and can see the entire choir stare at me). Right now in the larger world, it’s fair to say, people struggle to be sensitively reciprocal, and trust has taken a huge hit. That damage trickles down, making the occasional screw-ups much more destructive.
In choir, I learned that it didn’t matter, at some level, that I screwed up when singing. I was accepted into the community because I sought to support the full enterprise and strived to improve (and showed by my efforts that I could be trusted to do so). And this is another lesson: mistakes are inevitable, and occur in a community with frequency; but without earning the trust that you will listen seriously to the concerns of others and do the work to improve, relationships break down.
We have had discord at UUCC over the past several years, but the discord is a positive signal that we are trying more earnestly to build our tent bigger. It has been difficult for many of us to walk in the shoes of others — to realize, for example, that an affront we ourselves think is slight can land with far more serious harm when it happens to someone else. We initially may lack the context to understand these differences, but we possess the cognitive equipment, the digital and literary resources, and the knowledgeable community members to support us in rectifying our shortcomings.
It seemed as if we functioned better when, metaphorically, the music was simpler. But now we’re attempting far more challenging work. Building the Beloved Community is like the choir working on a more complex and demanding piece of music – we can succeed by tuning in, listening very carefully, becoming aware of our own missteps, accepting suggestions for improvement openly and warmly, learning new skills, applying them, rectifying harms where possible, and gradually improving — by these actions, earning and maintaining the trust so essential to preserving a community. And as we begin to feel the flow of that dance of sensitivity, attunement, and reciprocity, we will feel the euphoria and the bonds of love flow again.
It’s the great human miracle — may it be our constant refrain in 2021.