Normally, the Safaricom Choir meets every Thursday to sing together. The choral group of 65 members, usually has a busy performance schedule. Rehearsals, therefore, are important especially in the run up to celebratory seasons like Easter and Christmas.
But in mid-March last year, when the world changed due to COVID-19, everything suddenly stopped. There were no performances, no rehearsals and no Thursday evenings together.
The nature of choral singing is making music together as a group, but today and every other day since the pandemic, it has not been possible for the Safaricom Choir
“The pandemic has been such a disrupter. We cannot meet and make music together. Before the pandemic, rehearsing together was amazing. And we always looked forward to meeting in the evening after a long day in the office, and putting away all the stresses of the day,” says Ken Wakia, the Safaricom Choir Director.
It’s a sentiment that choir member Joyce Nyaga echoes. She says she misses “engaging with my friends and catching up. It’s not the same when it’s done virtually,” On top of that, she misses the one on one classes which she says were a lot easier in person than virtually.
At first, there was an emptiness of not being able to connect on a weekly basis. But that challenge, Ken says, quickly got the choir to find creative ways to continue singing, together, albeit physically apart.
And so, through Google Docs and Zoom, the weekly choir practice once more were blocked for Thursday evening.
Rehearsals are held virtually and every week, Ken gives out assignments to the choir members which they are expected to hand in, in the form of audio recordings. On the day of rehearsals, Ken, with his appointed team of mentors, will listen to each choir member’s recording individually. And if any one of them does not get the rhythm in a line of piece of music right, they will have to record again, and send it either to Ken or the team leader until it is perfect.
It’s a tedious process with longer sessions to learn the songs compared to before.
But Ken, is glad all the same for the chance to continue singing and making melodies.
“On the brighter side, the pandemic has brought with it a lot of good things as well, such that each singer has had to work on their own. We get to know each singer’s strengths and weaknesses. This has been very useful for us in developing and growing their talent,” he says.
The choir tries as much as possible to mirror their in-person rehearsals to virtual rehearsals like they used to before the pandemic hit.
So, every practice session, Ken and the mentors will meet the entire group virtually on Zoom. Then after about 15 minutes or so of catching up the different voices will break out into appointed rooms in the application.
There, in the breakout rooms, just like they used to do it at the Michael Joseph Centre, they will talk about what piece of music they are working on or play a recording from a previous performance and begin to analyze it and see how they can make the song better.
It wasn’t smooth sailing at first, choir member Anthony Amina, who sings second bass, says the first few rehearsals were disastrous to say the least.
“Our music requires synchronized singing; we would all start at the same time but by the time we got to the end of a song it was just terrible, hilarious even,” he laughs. “It was because of internet issues and everybody is using different gadgets. We also realized that some of us, like me, had poor quality smartphones so I had to upgrade to get a phone with good audio and a nice camera for the sessions,”
Most of the choir members faced a few hiccups that got in the way of the online rehearsals before getting the hang of it. There are some, who couldn’t record because they have toddlers to take care of. And those who could record like Joyce, had to resort to hiding in a room for the duration of the rehearsals. Still, that didn’t solve all her problems.
“Recording at home is tricky because for one, the space is confined and two, there are a lot of distractions. Sometimes the baby would just burst into the room, needing my attention, and I’ve only recorded ‘Take 1’.Or the kids in the neighborhood are playing loudly or that’s when you hear someone banging pots and pans in the kitchen. So I had to start recording late at night when everyone in the house is asleep,” Joyce says.
On his part, Anthony had to get over being camera shy as the director needed to see everyone present on the call. At least with his new phone the rest of the class would get top see a better quality image of him.
So far, since last year March, the choir has recorded about 10 songs and done two virtual concerts. And during Easter, the choir recorded a one hour performance.
There have been a few technical hitches, like voice delays due to the latency on the connection or calls dropping, but the choir members have learnt to adapt. However, the biggest challenge for the Easter concert was putting the performance together.
“The other thing that we never knew before, was after people have done all these recordings which they do on their phones, we send it to a technician who has to put it all together. Now, not many people have done this before. In fact, the only successful virtual choral master that I can think of is an American known as Eric Whitacre, who has done a virtual program for his choir for thousands of voices together,” says Ken.
He continues: “Technicians have had to learn to put all these 50 videos together, something they had never done before. The first video we had was a real flop. But now technicians have done more research and they have found out various software that that can help stitch the videos. As of last month, I know that there is another software that has come out specifically for choirs, during the pandemic, that has reduced the virtual delay when you’re having a virtual rehearsal.”
For now, until it’s safe to have in-person gatherings again, the Safaricom Choir will continue to sing together, yet apart.