Editor’s note: The Virus Diaries is a series in which Mainers talk about how they are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Barbara Kautz of York rehearses for her part in the virtual Self-Isolation Choir that will perform Handel’s “Messiah.” Photo courtesy of Barbara Kautz

The coronavirus pandemic has shut down singing groups across the globe, be they famous choruses or small church choirs. Not only is it difficult to social distance in a choir room, evidence suggests that singing spreads respiratory droplets – the primary method of virus transmission – much farther than a normal speaking voice and choirs cannot expect to operate safely until a vaccine is developed.

For Sudie Blanchard, an ordained deacon, and longtime choir member Barbara Kautz, that means they cannot sing at their home church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in York, or with their secular choir, Seacoast Community Chorus.

But Blanchard and Kautz have found another outlet. They are among 3,800 people from across the world who have joined the Self-Isolation Choir that will perform Handel’s “Messiah.”

Dubbed the Messiah at Home concert, and including four renowned singers from the United Kingdom and an 11-piece baroque orchestra, it will be streamed at theselfisolationchoir.com on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

The virtual choir has given the two women, both choir singers since childhood, another way to lend their voices. It also has allowed them to join a worldwide group for twice-weekly rehearsals led by choral director Ben England, who is based in Bristol, England.

“This is the missing piece for me,” said Kautz, 73, a retired nurse who sings alto. “I write for two blogs, I’m making face masks (for family and friends), I’m trying to write a novel but the singing just really fulfills a need for me.”

Sudie Blanchard is an ordained deacon at St. George’s Episcopal Church in York. “Music has become sort of my first language with God,” she says. Photo courtesy of Sudie Blanchard

Blanchard, 73, a soprano, said that for her, “music has become sort of my first language with God. I most effectively communicate that when singing in choirs and of course the pandemic happened and we couldn’t sing anymore.”

Choir members paid a modest fee of just under $20 to participate. Their fees will be used to help musicians in England who, like their U.S. peers, are out of work in a world where crowds can’t congregate.

Since the Self-Isolation Choir was formed April 2, participants have been able to attend their online rehearsals either live or view them later. Both women said England has been an enthusiastic, energetic instructor who has the ability to make a virtual experience feel personal.

“The moment Ben England starts talking you feel like he’s in the room talking directly to you instead of to you and 750 other altos who have joined along,” Kautz said.

Kautz and Blanchard both chose to submit smart phone video/audio recordings of their own singing during some of the 20 choral movements in Handel’s two-and-a-half hour, 53-movement oratorio masterpiece.

England and his team of sound engineers will take the thousands of submitted recordings, choose the ones they want, then blend them and mix them to create the choir that will be heard during the performance.

The process of self-recording is challenging and a bit unnerving. While rehearsing, choir members are watching and listening to England and the backing music on their computer screen. But the recordings they make of their own voice is sans accompaniment. No supporting music. No backing vocals. Just one person’s singular voice.

“When you sing in a choir you hear everyone around you so you don’t hear yourself,” Blanchard said. “The process of this operation, I could hear the music and the accompaniment but the only thing (my phone) heard was my own voice. So I go to hear my own voice and I’m hear to tell you it wasn’t as good as I thought it was.”

Kautz sent in two pieces. Blanchard submitted 13. Blanchard’s husband, Peter, is also in the choir but did not submit a video recording. None of the singers will know for sure if any of their submissions will be used in the final edit. Both Kautz and Sudie Blanchard said whether their voice becomes part of the performance has become secondary to the enjoyment they have gained from nine weeks of involvement.

“I would have loved to have been a diva, but I don’t have a diva’s voice or training,” Kautz said. “I’ve been thinking about this myself. What is it about singing together that’s special, that fills this need in my soul? And, I think it’s being together and being part of something that’s bigger than you are.”

Even though the voice submissions have already been made, the final week before the production is being treated like a full rehearsal week. Blanchard said she has one more regular rehearsal Wednesday and then the full group will go through the entire production from start to finish for the first time in Friday’s dress rehearsal. On Sunday, all of the chorus members are expected to log on an hour early to mimic a real performance.

“I appreciate that. It gets us closer to an authentic experience,” Blanchard said.

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