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Queer Choirs in Corona Crisis by Thomas Hilder

Thomas Hilder, Chair of Kor Hen (Trondheim) and music researcher of LGBTQ+ music ensembles in London and Rome.

As news of lockdown precipitated suddenly in Norway on Thursday, 12th March, I cancelled, with a mixture of concern and reluctance, the weekly rehearsal of Trondheim’s LGBTQ+ choir, Kor Hen, of which I am chair. A week later, we moved rehearsals to Zoom. By May, once the snow had melted, we began to meet and sing in the back garden of one of our members. While the Norwegian government granted permission for indoor choral activity again in June, we have only just received the all clear from the school where we rehearse to return.

Our choir is a young addition to a larger international LGBTQ+ choral scene. This scene might trace its origins to the ANNA Crusis Women’s Choir, established with a feminist mission in Philadelphia, USA, in 1975. Inspired by social change in a post-Stonewall era, LGBTQ+ choirs formed rapidly over the ensuing years in different North American cities and eventually on other continents. In 1982, the Stockholms Gaykör (Stockholm’s Gay Choir) was founded, Europe’s first LGBTQ+ choir.

The size and reach of today’s continually expanding LGBTQ+ choral network – from Manila to Reykjavik, Seoul to San Francisco, Mersin to Mumbai, Odessa to Canberra – highlights choirs’ potential to cater to the needs of twenty-first-century queer citizens. These choirs celebrate the joy of communal singing; they curate safer spaces beyond trans-, bi- and homophobic wider society; they allow for LGBTQ+ people to build networks of queer kinship; through public performance, they create affective moments of advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights; they offer healing for those of us living with mental health issues; and they are creative, and at times chaotic, arenas in which internal divisions within the LGBTQ+ community are negotiated and wider solidarities with other activist causes are forged.

As the restrictions on amateur choral activity in many places around the globe continued through the summer Pride season, I became more concerned about the pandemic’s long-term impact on LGBTQ+ choral activities and the larger queer community. On one level I became conscious of how a pandemic renders the whole world united in some sort of common experience. Yet, I was soon alerted to how we were all experiencing, perceiving, and coping with this pandemic in different ways, depending on our location, immediate support networks, socio-economic situation, and of course factors of race, class, (dis)ability, and, not least, gender and sexuality.

Queer people often have a lot of experience with being alone and dealing with life crises, and I have found my queer siblings to be extremely resourceful and adaptable since lockdown. Many have themselves been at the frontline, inspiring action, developing medicine, and offering care in the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic that has led to the deaths of millions in our community. Forging spaces to meet in person and showing ourselves as a collective in public have been central in the history of LGBTQ+ community building and activism. Most Pride events this summer were either cancelled or moved online; some imagined new opportunities for visibility. Nevertheless, statistics have proven what we already knew and feared: that many LGBTQ+ people feel unsafe in the homes they live in, and that mental health issues, already acute in the LGBTQ+ community, have increased considerably, especially among youth.

Pink Singers and Rainbow Voices Mumbai performing at London Pride, 2018. Photo: Thomas Hilder

As different states drift up and down on waves of the coronavirus, we witness new and greater disparities between communities resulting from a global economy, already severely deregulated, now out of control. The livelihoods of those of us who work in the culture industry have been severely impacted, especially the livelihoods of many of our LGBTQ+ choir directors. Communal music-making is largely restricted, and public concerts still seem a distant reality in many countries. Amateur music-making has often been low on the agenda in discussions of post-lockdown measures and will likely be a lower priority in policy-setting over the longer term.

Worse still, during the initial confusions and anxieties of lockdown, journalists speculated on the nature of virus transmission and, following an outbreak in a community choir in Mount Vernon, Washington (USA), targeted choral activity as a particularly lethal pursuit. There has been a concern that community choirs will be one of the last things to be allowed to resume. Over the summer, research trickled through to the public, including a small study co-commissioned by my own department, that singing produces only slightly more aerosols than usual speech, thus representing a much smaller threat than originally feared. This has led in several countries to choir rehearsals being permitted to resume as long as they follow necessary precautions based on the new evidence, including in some contexts wearing masks.

As I navigated the new challenges of LGBTQ+ choral singing – both as chair of Kor Hen, and as a researcher of LGBTQ+ music groups in various European cities – I decided to reach out to colleagues and friends in London and Rome whom I have had the honour of meeting through my research. I invited them to contribute brief texts to this blogpost about their experiences since March so that we may share perspectives and resources as well as show solidarity and support. The touching stories they recount draw attention to common challenges, a diversity of experiences, caution and concern, as well as bountiful resourcefulness and resilience. Some choirs have had to stop singing altogether, others have moved to online platforms. Rehearsals have taken a different shape, often focusing on new priorities and ways of making music communally. Members have had to imagine alternative ways to maintain a sense of community and partake in LGBTQ+ activism. National LGBTQ+ choral festivals like Cromatica in Italy, had to be cancelled, while Proud Voices UK and Ireland, has recently organised its own virtual Hand in Hand festival. The following accounts highlight queer creative strategies in the face of crisis.

Kathleen Holman

On behalf of the trustees of The Fourth Choir (London)

The Fourth Choir moved to Zoom rehearsals in March and postponed indefinitely our spring and summer concerts. We’ve continued to have weekly virtual rehearsals because we took a survey and members said they wanted that. Everyone felt it was important to keep in touch with each other, so we could be supportive of each other during this difficult time. We also wanted to remain ‘vocally fit’ so that when we do get back together in person, we won’t have lost too much from not singing together.

Because we have continued to provide musical and social benefits to members, we have also been able to raise donations and provide income to Dominic Ellis-Peckham, our Artistic Director, who, like all professional musicians, has been financially affected by the lockdown. Supporting professional musicians has always been something the choir leadership is passionate about.

Our Zoom rehearsals start with an extended warm-up led by Dominic, with vocal and physical exercises – which people say is one of the best parts of the rehearsal.

After the warm-up, we have ‘Sing Share’. During the week, members are invited to record solos in a common genre – like folk songs, oratorios, or musical theatre. This is a continuation of a long-standing tradition the choir has of holding cabarets and recitals at our end-of-term parties and weekend retreats. We then play these recordings to the other members attending the Zoom rehearsal. Usually 3 to 4 people submit a solo recording each week. Sometimes it becomes a mini masterclass, with Dominic giving vocal feedback to the singer. Some members experiment with singing multiple voice parts on the Acapella app, and the results are fantastic. This has been a wonderful way to build trust and get to know each other better as well – we’ve even been able to integrate several new members this way.

Dominic then leads us in a choral exercise that is suitable for Zoom. It may be a sing-through, or notes on a virtual project we are recording in lockdown, or technical instruction on a song we want to perform in the future. We might also listen to a few recordings on a familiar piece and discuss what we have heard.

We have recorded a few choral songs in lockdown and these have culminated in a video that we published for Pride. We did this because we thought it was important to keep in contact with our audiences and supporters, as well as to have something for the choir members to be proud of from this time. And the weeks leading up to the premiere were a bit more pressure-filled and exciting, just like a real concert would have been. As an LGBT+ choir, we have a lot of context to draw from in our musical choices, our commissions, arrangements and content, and this is reflected in our virtual Pride celebration. You can view our Pride event below.

We haven’t set out to learn any lessons along the way – we are just keeping familiar aspects of the choir culture going in a virtual format. We have had to accept that this is the norm for the time being. As any start date is out of our hands, we just need to make the best of this situation. However, individuals have found making their solo recordings and working on the virtual projects challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

Our virtual connections are a reflection of how precious our communal experience has become to choir members. Like all other choirs, we don’t know when and how we will be able to meet in person again. But until then, we will most likely carry on with virtual rehearsals and evolve our format, as well as make a few more recordings together.

On September 10, the Fourth Choir began in-person rehearsals again. After the government released new guidelines, the committee undertook a thorough risk assessment, devised safety measures for rehearsals (including a transparent screen for Dominic) and found a more spacious rehearsal space. They strongly recommend choir members to wear face masks during rehearsals. The choir is grateful for every rehearsal as they know that the every-changing guidelines could force them to go digital at any moment again.

Luca Pellegrini

Musical director of Parruccoro (Rome)

When in Italy (it was February) people started to talk about COVID-19, we in Parruccoro decided, given the general chaos of conflicting information (“it’s just a flu”, “no, it’s a deadly virus”), to continue with rehearsals. Then the government extended the so-called “red zone” to the whole of the country and we had to stop. For a month we weren’t able to carry out any choral activity; then, organising ourselves via an online platform, we resumed seeing each other and singing, each one of us at home. Of course, this isn’t the same. Partly because it’s impossible to sing all together when remote; the sound arrives late and those same platforms have a mechanism whereby they select one voice at a time in order to avoid overlaying voices, which singing actually requires. And then, for a conductor, working remotely is very tough. In fact, isolation at home deprives the group of all the emotional and relational aspects [of choral singing] – in the end we all become faces on a screen – and trying to keep the group united in these conditions requires a lot of love and a large spirit of sacrifice. Studying pieces without working towards concerts or participation at festivals doesn’t always work as an incentive to participate: many singers lost their motivation, others resented the climate of distress and insecurity which emerged over the long period of quarantine and they stopped participating in the virtual rehearsals. In order to try to motivate the group, I conceived – based on what other choirs have done – a “virtual choir” of a Gregorian piece, “Stella Coeli Extirpavit”, a work that had been performed during the Middle Ages to fend off the plague. It was a very fun experience and the end result – still visible on YouTube (see below) – was good, but the work involved in preparing and editing it was enormous (and not all members of the choir participated). In reality, it was the only “public” output Parruccoro managed in six months. The good news is that we are all well, so the isolation has had an impact! After the summer we’ll try to return to a normal rhythm of rehearsals, assuming the regulations concerning choral activity – which are extremely confusing in Italy and tend to not take the phenomenon of amateur choirs into account – allow us to reunite indoors without putting too many hurdles in the way. What we are all hoping for, as an LGBT choir, is that all of those activities we used to engage in and which the pandemic has put a stop to will soon resume in some way, and not just musical activities – from the Cromatica Festival to various national pride events, where choirs have always had a strong presence – because one thing we haven’t lost is a strong desire to claim our rights and to make our voices heard. Above all, we hope we can return to singing together and experience again the other aspects of being involved in an LGBT choir that disappeared with the need to maintain isolation. The hope that we return, well, to share music, experiences, moments of fighting, and also affection.

Translated from Italian by Thomas Hilder

Matthew Cook

Chair of Diversity Choir (London)

To date we haven’t rehearsed at all, as Jan (musical director) didn’t feel online rehearsals would be of much value and certainly not a choral experience for anyone. Each section have been having regular Zoom meetings and there has been a weekly Zoom meeting for the whole choir to join if they want to.

We’ve continued to pay Jan and Phil (accompanist) as normal, as we felt that was the fair thing to do. From June we decided to allow members to stop payment of subscriptions until September if they wished, as we realised that some had lost jobs and may be suffering financially.

We’ve decided to try and do a virtual choir recording, but only about 20 of 55 members are interested in participating.

The committee has met a couple of times online to discuss financial matters, and we hope to be back rehearsing in September, although that will be reviewed nearer the time.

My fears are that if we have to abandon all choral activity for the whole year, we will see a big drop in membership. People will not see the point in being a member of a choir that cannot meet.

Diversity Choir performing at Hand in Hand, Cardiff, 2019. Photo: Thomas Hilder

Annamaria Pompili

Committee member of Roma Rainbow Choir (Rome)

We found ourselves right in the middle of a rehearsal preparing for our contribution to Cromatica 2020, the festival of Italian LGBT+ choirs, which was to take place in May in Milan, when the news of lockdown caught us by surprise. We were preparing a medley of songs from the South to convey, through the metaphor of migration, how an internal change may lead toward a feeling of pride in our own identity. Like every year, we couldn’t wait to leave, we were making plans for travel and booking hotels. Cromatica, alongside Roma Pride, is a central event in the choral year for us, and we couldn’t imagine not participating. We are very connected to the other Italian choirs and this is the occasion when we can all see each other again. Instead, for the first time in the history of Roma Rainbow Choir, we found ourselves in the situation of having to cancel rehearsals, denying ourselves an activity that is both a pleasure and, for us, a political engagement above all else. After the preliminary bewilderment, as soon as we understood that the lockdown would last months, the choir members revealed unexpected talents. Everyone made themselves available to the community, sharing not only their singing talents (we continued to sing and carry out rehearsals), but also talents that up to that point had been hidden. In a few short weeks the choir found among its members directors, comedians, editors, sound technicians, artists, computer scientists, creatives. The first objective quickly became keeping choir members’ spirits up, so we decided to organise recreational musical activities, starting with a parody of the festival of Italian popular song, Sanremo. Thanks to the creativity and the contributions of all, we put on – through Zoom – a real talent show, complete with a home voting via smartphone. From the more playful to the more politically committed, we participated in virtual events organised by Circolo di Cultura Omosessuale Mario Mieli, including our own Virtual Pride: with lockdown ended but social distancing measures still in force, we decided to march individually on the streets of our own neighbourhoods in a virtual march with face masks to demonstrate that we are not alone. Though distant, participants continued to share the struggle and share songs. Then we decided to meet in the park, in small groups, to begin once again to taste the flavours of polyphony and to test working with a new conductor. It was moving to see each other again. Singing together conjured a thrilling and priceless emotion. Maintaining harmony in delicate balance, each of us tried to tune in with the others; the choir sections discussed the pieces among themselves and provided support to one another in memorising their parts. In September our activities will resume; regardless of the uncertainties of the anti-COVID-19 restrictions, close or distant, we have chosen to continue to exist. Probably we will meet in smaller groups, or we’ll continue to make the most of the good days outside. The most pressing aims are participating in Transgender Day of Remembrance in November and our annual concert, Music Rainbow against AIDS, which we organise each December. We don’t yet know whether it will be virtual or in-person, but we know that we will be there, we know that we are a community and we are united. And We Shall Overcome.

Translated from Italian by Thomas Hilder

Hsien Chew

Chair of Proud Voices UK & Ireland, LGBT+ choir network

Singer in Pink Singers and Barberfellas (London)

It has been nearly 5 months since lockdown in the UK and Ireland, 5 months in which the world has both entered a state of suspended animation and changed fundamentally. This disorienting dichotomy is the experience of the LGBT+ choirs in the UK and Ireland. The British Isles are lucky to have a rich tradition of community choirs. Thousands of singing groups have formed based on music style or social context such as work or place of residence, but LGBT+ choirs belong, with few exceptions, to a niche branch of the choral phylogenetic tree: the activist choir. This means that while making music is our shared root, our particular branch or "purpose" is to create a safe space for marginalized people to gather, and to express LGBT+ Pride to the wider communities of which we are a part. Like an overzealous gardener, the pandemic has hacked off both these activities at the trunk. Will that stump ever regrow?

I am fortunate in that I both sing in a few choirs of different sizes and compositions and have regular conversations with other choirs in the Proud Voices network, which gives me a broad perspective on how choirs have coped with this existential crisis. When the news of the pandemic first broke the challenges each of the choirs faced were similar - how to try to continue with some semblance of normality when face-to-face meetings were no longer permitted. Everyone turned to video conferencing, which is a way of at least seeing each other’s faces. We soon discovered its limitations, not only in terms of rehearsal, but in fulfilling the social roles of the choir. The turn-by-turn nature of conversation in such a large group, having to navigate the unfamiliar etiquette of group video conferencing and a digital divide which excludes those without ability or access meant that the ability to socialize and just hang out with old friends was curtailed, and welcoming new members to the group was nigh-on impossible. Many choirs have seen a drop in attendance because of this. A second blow came later with the cancellation of events at which our choirs were due to perform: our own concerts, performances in support of other LGBT+ charities, awareness-building events and the cancellation of Pride. How could we then fulfil our role in talking about diversity? Things started to look very grim indeed.

Our choirs have responded with an unsurprising resilience. The inadequacy of video conferencing as a medium led to the quick abandonment of the act of singing live into a microphone and praying for an acceptable internet lag (hint, it never is!). Most choirs now sing along to pre-recorded tracks with the more adventurous and technically skilled ones mixing individual voice recordings from session to session in an approximation of a face-to-face rehearsal. As lockdown started to be lifted and gathering outdoors in groups of up to six people started to be permitted, the smaller choirs began getting back together, identifying venues such as car parks and housing estates which, weather permitting, provide the acoustics to hear each other when socially distanced. We started putting together virtual choirs, projects which both gave us a sense of purpose and reminded us of what we had lost. Melodies and harmonies started to be heard again.

Early on in the pandemic, Proud Voices and Northern Proud Voices, the organizers of our next face-to-face festival Hand in Hand Newcastle, realised that the combination of the ban on face-to-face rehearsals, funding cuts, restrictions on travel and gathering in large groups and an anticipated increase in unemployment would make our planned event in 2021 an impossibility. It was with heavy hearts that we have postponed it to 2022 in the hope that most of the fallout from COVID-19 will have dissipated by then. In the meantime the Proud Voices development group has used this opportunity to organize a series of roundtables for our choirs to share the strategies we had developed for keeping our choirs together. These #ChoirsVsCOVID conversations have been lively and wide-ranging, covering everything from the practicalities of rehearsal, to member engagement, to managing choir finances, to returning to face-to-face rehearsals.

What has emerged is that LGBT+ choirs are continually innovating. About 2 months into the lockdown, rehearsals took on a different tack, with choirs using the opportunity to take stock of themselves and reflect on where they are. In general, the enforced slowing of life due to lockdown has encouraged a review of both personal and choral priorities. For instance, 2020 saw the Pride season coincide with global Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. This threw into relief the important allyship of our marginalized experiences. Our choirs are justifiably proud of their diversity – it is our purpose after all – and we have a range of genders, sexualities, ages, abilities and, yes, ethnicities. Whether this has been by accident or by design, many choirs are taking the time now, when the pressure to prepare and put on performances is absent, to understand the needs of their members and to review and formalize systems to keep building on these goals of accessibility and representation. These steps will ensure that they are stronger coming out of the pandemic than they were going in.

There is no doubt that there are some LGBT+ choirs which remain in a precarious position, particularly new and fledgling groups, whose communities have not yet fully formed, and those on an unstable financial footing. Squinting down the road there is sadly still no end in sight for the ban on traditional rehearsals. We are holding our breath for the science to be done and the outcomes to filter through to government advice; with a second wave seemingly about to hit, spring 2021 is optimistically the earliest that we will be able to meet in person again. As dour as this is, there are signs of growth and recovery. Proud Voices is putting together a virtual Hand-in-Hand festival this autumn to allow us to keep connecting with each other and engaging with the communities in which we are embedded. While the pandemic has brought about a vigorous pruning, with this comes the opportunity for a judicious regrowth, and the emergence on the other side of a choral branch which is stronger and more verdant than before.

Thomas Hilder is a writer, teacher, researcher, musician, and activist. Currently he is researching LGBTQ+ music ensembles in London and Rome, where he traces the emergence of these musical scenes, the globalisation of LGBTQ+ subjectivities, transnational networks, and notions of queer European citizenship. He lives in Trondheim, where he is chair of the local queer choir, Kor Hen, and Associate Professor in Ethnomusicology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

References and Further Reading

Attinello, Paul. 2006 [1994]. "Authority and Freedom: Toward a Sociology of the Gay Chorus." In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Gary C. Thomas and Elizabeth Wood, 315-346. New York & London: Routledge.

Balén, Julia. 2017. A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice: Rutgers University Press.

De Quadros, André. 2019. Focus: Choral Music in Global Perspective. New York: Routledge.

Hilliard, Russell E. 2008. "A Social and Historical Perspective of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus." Journal of Homosexuality 54 (4):345-361.

MacLachlan, Heather. 2020. Singing Out: Gala Choruses and Social Change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Miyake, Esperanza. 2013. "Understanding Music and Sexuality through Ethnography:Dialogues between Queer Studies and Music." Transposition 2013 (3):1-20.

Strachan, Jill. 2006. "The Voice Empowered: Harmonic Convergence of Music and Politics in the GLTB Choral Movement." In Chorus and Community, edited by Karen Ahlquist, 248-261. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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