Over a year after coronavirus health restrictions forced a community choir to suspend in-person rehearsals, members say their time physically apart has made them stronger than ever.
Like most performing arts groups, the Shireinu Choir of Long Island has operated fully remote since March. But that didn’t stop Deborah Tartell, the choir’s musical director, from performing online.
“I was determined to finish out the year on Zoom,” Tartell said. “I wanted to continue not just with the music and our repertoire and the learning process, but I felt that people needed the connection.”
That determination culminated into an end-of-season project in which nearly all the singing members performed a rendition of “Heal us Now” on YouTube, with nearly 6,000 views.
“It was just the perfect song for our times,” Tartell said. “Basically it covered it all – heal our body, heal our soul, heal our people, heal our country.”
Putting together the performance meant lots of practice hours, both individually and as a group. In making the performance the best it could be, Tartell worked with the ensemble both as a group and in private.
“They had to raise their level of musicianship to participate in this,” Tartell said. “You have to be accountable for knowing it [their music] extremely well, and I really believe it raised the whole level of musicianship in the choir.”
Growth in musicality wasn’t the only thing that occurred during the past year’s virtual rehearsals, according to Tartell, who pointed out the vocalists’ growth in companionship despite being physically distant.
“We would leave opportunity at the end of rehearsals to have people unmute and chat, because when I’m saying this choir has become a family – it has,” Tartell said. “It was a way to keep us growing not just musically, but as a family.”
For some members of the choir, having Tartell as musical director is part of the reason for the ensemble’s success. Jemi Goldstein, a vocalist with the choir, gave Tartell credit for advancing the group to greater goals.
“She [Debbie] is a force to be reckoned with,” Goldstein said. “She instills in us the feeling that we can accomplish whatever goals she sets for us.”
Tartell previously was a choral teacher in a public high school for 10 years, as well as director for community theater musicals. A founding member of the ensemble, Tartell said the idea for forming Shireinu came after she met others interested in Jewish choral music at the North American Jewish Choral Music Festival. Three seasons later, members of the choir hold the group’s activities as a special part of their routine.
“It’s really been special,” said Dahlia Dressler, a vocalist with the choir. “I’m with people that I wouldn’t necessarily come across or get to know, and yet they’re all incredible.”
With members between the ages of 25 and 91, intergenerational friendships that might be uncommon in daily life happen more frequently in the choir.
“For me it’s been really fulfilling but I think for the people that we perform for it’s really fulfilling as well,” Dressler said.
Prior to coronavirus health restrictions, vocalists like Alise Kreditor particularly enjoyed the closeness of singing shoulder to shoulder alongside musicians in her alto section, saying it led her to develop new friendships with people she had not known before.
“All of a sudden I am spending an intense two to three hours a week with these people,” Kreditor said. “The choir became much more than just an opportunity to sing, but an opportunity to lift yourself up with everybody else.”
Research on a connection between mental health and choral participation may support the anecdotes of Shireinu members. A 2018 study commissioned by Chorus America found nearly three-quarters of vocalists reported choral singing helped them feel less alone or lonely.
That study also found choral vocalists to be more active members of their community, including as more frequent volunteers and more civically engaged than the public.
“A big part of our choir’s mission and reason that we established was so that we could create something and share something with the community,” Kreditor said.
Those intentions came at a fitting time, according to Goldstein, who pointed out the difficulty in maintaining high spirits during the pandemic. Her hope was to uplift the community through music.
“What we hope to bring to the community and to our audience is a moment in their lives when they can let the air out and just be uplifted by the music,” Goldstein said. “To replenish their souls, literally, to give them a moment in time where they can float on the music.”
While the Shireinu choir was founded as an organization to support the community through song, members say they have also supported each other. This was especially true while physical distancing restrictions kept the choir from in-person rehearsals, making a “tremendous difference” for the lives of some vocalists.
“Everyone in the choir who hears about someone struggling with some[thing] reaches out,” Goldstein said. “Whether it’s a text, or an email, a phone call, a card, a meal, in some way to let that person know that they’re supported, that they’re not alone.”
Even for those not struggling, vocalists like Sherry Husney said how “having that contact during this time, even if it’s only via Zoom or telephone, has been critical to maintaining a healthy outlook on life.”
While the choir’s spring season has concluded, Tartell is keeping her fingers crossed for resuming this fall. In-person activities for the choir can only happen in accordance with CDC guidelines, which currently outline how singing can increase risk of COVID-19 infection.
Vocalists like Dressler are eager to meet their fellow members in person.
“Even that would be such an amazing accomplishment,” she said.
As for the choir’s accomplishment’s so far, Tartell said her work with Shireinu is what she is most proud of in her career.
“Making music is fun,” Tartell said. “That’s why we do it.”