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How it all began
The year 2020 was strongly marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and we can assume that nobody will forget this unusual year. We had all heard something about Covid-19 at the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020, and when we invited the World Youth Choir Board to Bonn for a meeting at the end of January 2020, we already had a cancellation by somebody who preferred not to fly because of the risks involved. Others, including myself, however, did quite a bit of travelling in early 2020: I was in Italy for a strategic conference of Feniarco, in Ljubljana for a meeting of the Music Commission (the last physical meeting of this commission until July 2021 as it turned out later), in Malta for a meeting of coordinators of European networks, in Valencia and Gent to visit potential host towns for Europa Cantat junior 2023, and in Berlin where we selected singers for our Beethoven 2020 project with Simon Halsey and where I celebrated a friends’ birthday for the last time in a while.
Italy was first strongly hit in Europe, but most people in the other European countries did not think that they could be affected in a similar way themselves. I remember receiving a message from my former colleague Giulia in February 2020, urging me to spread the word that the virus had to be taken seriously. In early March 2020, while we were visiting Gent, our Italian President called to ask if we really thought we could hold a physical Board and Youth Committee meeting in mid-March, and that he himself would certainly not be able to join. We quickly made a survey, most Board members were still planning and willing to come (and I actually had tickets to fly to Qatar and then Kenya a week later and was not considering a cancellation of this trip, either), while the Youth Committee mostly opted for an online meeting. And then within a week, everything changed, and on March 13th, 2020, when our Board meeting was supposed to start, only our German Board member was able to come to Bonn and the physical, then hybrid meeting had changed into a pure online Board meeting. Suddenly all documents had to be uploaded on Basecamp (the project management platform we already used before), and the methodology for a 2-day meeting of the Board and Youth Committee had to be designed within 48 hours.
Changed working conditions
With this weekend, our lives changed considerably – all travels for the coming months were stopped, first events such as the World Symposium on Choral Music in Auckland, New Zealand were cancelled, all staff was encouraged to work from home. We fought with airlines to get ticket refunds, with hotels to drop cancellation fees (partly without success), we had first choirs asking for legal advice on such matters, and we had to struggle with the technical setup that would allow all five staff members to work from home and have access to all the data and material they needed. Zoom conferences started multiplying like mushrooms (we had used Zoom occasionally already before, which helped a lot at this stage) and I had to upgrade my internet connection at home which was not strong enough for video conferences of this scope. We started buying software rather than using the limited free versions and discussed how we could keep in touch as a team despite the circumstances. While some offices did daily meetings, checked in and out digitally, we went for a more flexible model. We organised one “Zoom Fixe” a week, and we organised bilateral meetings to discuss specific topics. Basecamp helped us read what the others were doing and share our own topics and concerns online, sometimes also our inspirations. We soon learned to also use other online meeting programmes and we asked around left and right what other similar networks were using. Luckily, our team managed to stay in good spirits throughout the year, the staff appreciated that they were offered to work at flexible times, we started our meetings asking everybody how they felt and somehow got to know each other better than before.
While we were not able to meet physically in 2020 (except for one hybrid meeting in the Netherlands in preparation for the Leading Voices event), online meetings multiplied. We had more Board meetings, more project meetings, and we attended more conferences than before the pandemic. We missed the networking, the informal preparation of decisions over coffee or a common meal, but especially in groups that knew each other well, we also realised that online work could be more efficient than we had imagined. However, the pure number of meetings sometimes became too much: during the most intensive period I had days with 6 or 7 consecutive online meetings, leaving me drained in the evening. International meetings often started at 10 p.m. and sometimes lasted until 1 a.m., the borders between work and private life started dissolving.
Sharing is caring
Already during the Board and Youth Committee meeting in March, it became clear that also the focus of our work would need to shift due to the pandemic. We immediately started a “sharing is caring” campaign on social media, encouraging our members to share their experiences with online tools or ask questions to others. The most common question on Facebook soon became “With which programme can you sing together online” and the answer was “this is not possible”. With time we learned that there were programmes that could be used if singers had a good internet connection and decent equipment – and in May 2020 we decided to support the development of the “Digital Stage” programme. In parallel, we experimented with other programmes and tested the limits of online music-making.
After the first full lockdown, the most common question from our member organisations was “how can we restart collective singing safely after the lockdown?”. Due to media reports about outbreaks in choirs at the beginning of the pandemic, singing was considered “dangerous” by many people, and choral organisations were worried about how rehearsals and concerts could start again without endangering singers. Collecting research results as well as sample hygiene protocols, we started an online document that was regularly updated and through which we shared all the information we could gather, as well as examples of good practice. I was also invited to several online meetings and conferences to share these examples which included car rehearsals, creative virtual choir videos, first choirs singing with masks, one-to-one concerts and much more.
Being the voice of the sector
We soon also realised how important it was to collect information and speak on behalf of the sector during these difficult times. We were often asked by other organisations how the pandemic had impacted choirs in Europe, so we designed several surveys and collected data and impressions from the different European countries which showed a huge diversity: While singing remained possible in some European countries throughout the pandemic, choral life came to a stillstand in many countries and even though many choirs used online conference programmes as well as other software to stay in touch, learn new repertoire and try to keep the choir alive, many choirs stopped activities altogether and we know that not all of them survived the pandemic. We also advocated for the need to financially support freelancers who were not earning any money because of the lockdown, and for the need to support the reopening of choral activities under safe conditions.
After some hesitations about whether it was the right moment to do so, we decided to continue planning the campaign on the benefits of collective singing, which was to mark the end of our 4-year project “Upgrade – Connect – Reach Out: Raising Awareness for Collective Singing in Europe”. The idea for the campaign was born before the pandemic – could we go ahead with it even though collective singing was considered dangerous due to the spreading of aerosols? In the end, we decided that it would be more important than ever to point out the individual and social benefits of collective singing, so we continued to prepare the campaign which then started in 2021.
Webinars, Zoom Cafés and other online gatherings
We had already foreseen to offer Webinars before the pandemic hit, thanks to the pandemic they received more attention, we had higher numbers of attendees and we offered more webinars than planned originally. In addition, we started offering online meetings which we called “Zoom Cafés”, some without specific topics, some centred around a certain topic, sometimes inviting guest speakers. They allowed us to stay in touch with our membership and to encourage peer-to-peer exchange, and strangely enough, this led to the fact that we saw more of our members than in pre-pandemic times and felt that the membership needed a network more than ever. Since international physical meetings were not possible in autumn 2020, even though our members would have loved to meet in Galway, Ireland, we had to organise an online Membership Weekend in the end, with a digital project presentation session, online discussion rounds on important topics concerning the future of the organisation, as well as an online General Assembly. The project presentation session attracted so many members and went so well that we decided to keep it online in future, even when physical Membership Weekends would become possible again. During the breaks and after the formal General Assembly we offered breakout rooms to allow members to informally meet and chat, and we decided to end the year 2020 with an informal end-of-year meeting with no schedule. Our members had gotten used to the online formats and enjoyed spending time together, even if it was only online.
Cancelling events, reshaping events, flexibility above all
The saddest aspect of the pandemic in 2020 concerning our work was the fact that we had to cancel so many activities and we had to disappoint especially young people again and again. We also quickly learned that the huge insecurity (How long will the pandemic last? What will be the rules in some months’ time? Will international travel be possible again? Will collective singing be allowed? Will it be possible to have an audience?) meant that we had to work more for each event, have plans B, C and D, permanently adopt budgets and schedules and be more flexible than ever. The EuroChoir session in Ireland had to be postponed to 2021 (and in the end moved to Slovenia), the session in Switzerland moved to 2022, Europa Cantat junior could not be organised as a festival and was directly moved by two years to 2022, though our Lithuanian partners were able to organise a junior week with local children and some invited conductors. The World Youth Choir was not able to join the German National Youth Orchestra to celebrate Beethoven’s anniversary, the project could not be postponed, and it was impossible to plan international sessions even for 2021 or 2022. We auditioned great young singers for the final concert of the Beethoven Anniversary Year with Simon Halsey and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim, only to finally inform them that the project could not be realised, and the orchestra would need to work with a German professional choir or without choir due to travel restrictions and other Covid-19 rules in place. And the planned singing week “in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven” had to be reduced to a weekend with only local participants – our first attempt at organising a “hybrid” event, but at least we were able to welcome Jan Schumacher in Bonn and have physical rehearsals with a small group of singers.
At the end of 2020, we were convinced that the pandemic would be over soon and that our Europa Cantat Festival in Ljubljana in July and other summer activities in 2021 would happen thanks to the vaccination campaign starting in December. Little did we know … our hopes for a better 2021 were soon destroyed, but this will be part of the Annual Report 2021 when we will look back at the 2nd year of the pandemic which brought about new challenges, and new opportunities.
Written by Sonja Greiner