Robin J. Freeman

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I cried as I watched videos of quarantined neighbors singing “Bella Ciao” together on balconies across Italian streets and alleyways. Voices reached for one another, meeting and mixing, filling towns and cities with song. I marveled at this musical response to isolation, pain, and fear as we were just beginning our lockdown in New York. Singing together reminds us that we are not alone.

People have long used singing and music-making to feel connected to one another. Studies highlight the positive impact of singing with others: group singing produces feelings of belonging, happiness, and inclusion.[1] When we sing together, our bodies synchronize and our hearts literally beat as one.[2] This bonding occurs in many social contexts: “The Star Spangled Banner” or “O, Canada” can trigger feelings of belonging in citizens just as singing along at a Beyoncé concert can make audience members feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, no longer isolated individuals but members of a community.

This is also true in religious communities. The music we use in our worship services does more than just catechize or beautify; singing bonds us together as people in communion, as one body.[3] Christian ritual is social in nature, and this is reflected in the language of many of the oldest liturgical texts, in which the first-person plural pronoun “we” appears throughout the prayers and praises of the clergy and the congregation.

But the COVID-19 crisis forced many religious communities to limit or even halt in-person group singing. Many communities have adopted new technologies in order to reach community members in remote settings. This paper explores some of the strengths and weaknesses of two common formats, from my perspective as a music educator and researcher: livestreamed religious services and Zoom gatherings.

Although a streamed service can provide remote worshippers with a sense of connection to their community, its one-directional format offers limited opportunities for community members to engage with one another. Drawing on the philosophies of Martin Buber and Alfred Schütz, I will suggest that interactive Zoom gatherings rooted in the musical activities of sharing, listening, and responding offer unique opportunities to encounter others in meaningful and transformative ways.

In an effort to bring people together for worship and prayer, some religious communities have chosen to livestream their services during the pandemic. This entails broadcasting a video feed of a service, often celebrated by a smaller congregation, or perhaps even just a priest and a single cantor. The video feed is broadcast on the Internet, so it can be accessed at home or on the go. Church services continue through the liturgical calendar, albeit with a largely empty building and only a few voices singing the collective “we.” Church members at home may take comfort in hearing familiar voices, prayers, and hymns, and may even sing along. Watching other members participate in the service can remind at-home viewers of important rituals, connect them with spiritual experiences, and maintain the liturgical rhythms of the week and year.

But what is missing when I “tune in” for a service? I may respond to the prayers and songs, but my response is not heard by the rest of the congregation. I can sing, but no one sees or hears me. Moisés Sbardelotto, a scholar interested in the intersection of digital culture and religion, has suggested that transferring liturgical services to online streaming may transform rites from meaningful, embodied actions into “mere spectacles,” differently affecting both those tuning in and those who lead services.[4] Streaming can be understood as an attempt to share the experience of church with those who cannot be present—but it can also reinforce our separation from one another.

What is missing from livestreamed services is the reciprocal nature of encounter. “All real living is meeting,” writes Martin Buber.[5] The stories of our faith are filled with meetings: meetings with God and meetings with one another. These “genuine encounters” shift our view of ourselves in the world and move us into dialogic spaces where we recognize others, consider others, value others. In a dialogic encounter, we come to know others, but we also come to know ourselves more deeply, more truly. To paraphrase Buber, the only way for me to know I am an “I” is to know that you are a “You.” Without interaction at this interpersonal level, we risk misrecognizing other people as objects and remaining within the shell of our protective egoistic self. We and they are, perhaps, diminished, not as fully human.

As a musician and educator who has broadcast livestreamed events to unseen “audiences” during the pandemic, I have often felt disconnected and disoriented. I am accustomed to hearing, responding to, and learning from others’ voices. As a conductor, I find myself craving the usual collaboration with singers that now goes unfulfilled when I broadcast a conducting gesture that only anticipates and never responds. So, how do we engage the individuals in our communities through the screen in an interactive, relational way to realize a more complete human experience?

Singing virtually together may bridge the real distance between people and the one-sidedness felt in livestreamed services. But it requires us to reintroduce the concept of music as dialogue into the online gathering. While we are living in this in-between time, when we cannot all worship, sing, or pray together, virtual or remote singing offers one way of experiencing the kind of encounter, the kind of meeting, that Martin Buber encourages us to seek. When people join the same meeting through a video conferencing platform like Zoom and sing together from their remote locations, a deep communion may form that can serve as a supplement or alternative to the less-relational viewing of streamed services.

At its core, singing with others is a form of communication, where we listen, receive, and join together.  In his influential essay, “Making Music Together,”[6] sociologist and philosopher Alfred P. Schütz argued that shared music making is intrinsically a form of dialogical encounter.  Drawing on Martin Buber’s philosophy, Schütz observed a string quartet’s ways of interacting while playing together, noting how the process of making sound together in time transformed the group. The musicians appeared to enter and share each other’s conscious experience of time, “growing older together while the musical process lasts.”[7]

Schütz suggested that, through musical activities like attentive listening, creating a musical sound together, and acknowledging other musicians through body language, musicians engage in a form of reciprocal communication that fosters connection. He described this unique social relationship as a mutual tuning-in relationship. Virtual singing through a platform like Zoom makes it possible for individuals to meet online and engage in this mutual tuning-in relationship, to encounter one another in sound, and to experience togetherness.

However, Zoom is, in many ways, a terrible platform for communal singing.[8] Latency issues create delays in sound, so your voice can take seconds to come out of my speakers. This makes singing together unpredictable and difficult, creating a jarring sonic experience. When many people are unmuted in a Zoom meeting, Zoom’s algorithms select only a few voices from the full texture, making it impossible to hear every voice sounding together at the same time. Individual microphones on devices often distort sound. Internet connections can be unreliable, which can cause people to freeze or simply disappear. It is a messy affair.

Choral directors, if they use Zoom for music-making, may choose to keep singers muted most of the time to avoid this chaos, inviting them to sing along to a prerecorded track or to a single singer on the call. This type of group online singing is a little better than a livestream—I can see you and you can see me—but we are not truly in dialogue if one side of the conversation is muted.

In practice, what is it like to sing dialogically in this environment? This fall, I formed a non-auditioned community choir of ten adult singers from across the country, who gathered weekly over Zoom as part of a research project (Zoom was the best option for us to use, given our financial, technological, and geographical constraints). I played it safe in our first rehearsal; I sang while the rest of the singers sang along on mute, and we talked about the possibility of creating virtual choir performances in the future.[9]

But the singers were longing to sing with each other at the same time in a way that felt familiar and immediate. “It’s sort of weird sitting here and hearing just myself,” Lisa, a soprano, said with a smirk.[10] When we all unmuted our microphones and tried to sing the same pitch together, there was a mix of confusion, joy, and concentration on the faces in my Zoom gallery view. We could not hear a blend of sound like we would if we were gathered in a choir loft; at most, we could hear three voices at a time, and the Zoom algorithm was constantly shifting whose voices we heard.

We realized that our singing online would not be like singing in person. That was a difficult realization, but it was also a turning point. We started to think less about what we couldn’t do and began to think more about what we wanted to prioritize. We moved ahead, emphasizing participation over perfection.

We started small at first—singing individual lines of a song, passing around solos. The pleasure of hearing a voice like Anthony’s—a rumbling, rich baritone so different from my own voice—brought tears to my eyes. From there, we sang slow-moving harmonies unmuted, allowing the edges of the chords to bleed over into one another. Singers complimented one another with exclamations like “I heard you—that was beautiful!” People started bringing instruments like guitars, improvising echoes and duets, and rewriting lyrics as a way to meditate on the grief and loss in their lives.

Sometimes, though, the musical and technical approaches we tried fell short. There were times we could not hear one another, times when computers froze, and times when a piece just flopped. But it was acceptable in this context because we were not looking for perfection. We were looking for connection. Singing together in this emergent online community served to remind us that we were not alone.

Despite its many challenges for live singing, Zoom became a space for healing in ways that mere livestreaming could not be: for listening, for sharing, for joy—for being in relationship with others in a time of great trauma, loss, and uncertainty. Mary Chayko, an interdisciplinary scholar whose work focuses on how technology builds social life, describes online meeting places like these as sociomental spaces.[11] Sociomental connections occur between people who do not or cannot meet in one another’s physical presence, resulting in what Chayko calls sociomental bonds. These bonds are not inferior to those created in physical meetings:

They are the manifestation of an absolutely genuine and often deeply felt sense that, despite physical separation, a closeness among people, a nearness, exists; that while the physical distance separating people may be great, the social distance between them may be very small indeed. They represent an experience of communion with another person, one that does not depend on face-to-face meetings to be initiated or maintained.[12]

Chayko insists that powerful encounters need not be limited by our remote physical locations or our isolation.

Encountering one another via Zoom can happen (and is happening) in many ways, which are not necessarily musical. “Reaching to the other,” in the words of Buber, can happen in study groups, small group meetings, and fireside chats—anywhere dialogue and relationship occur. We might boldly reimagine our online church as something more interactive than streamed services, as a setting where people are seen, heard, and recognized.

Or perhaps we continue livestreaming services but develop parallel online spaces for listening and relationship building. Some communities host virtual “coffee hours” on Sundays after the conclusion of their livestreamed service, allowing people a chance to see and chat with one another as they might in a church fellowship hall, where friends smile and laugh as they catch up on the week’s events while children gallop around.

The logistics of arranging and moderating these online gatherings need not fall on the shoulders of the pastor or music leader (who are probably already approaching burnout by this point in the pandemic, even if they have been quiet about it). Communities may choose to develop an internet ministry team to facilitate online meetings, offer tech support, and help new members enter online spaces. Even when we are able to return to in-person gatherings, there will still be members of our communities (as there always have been) who cannot physically attend services due to age, health, or disabilities. For those who will still find themselves on the outside looking in, perhaps internet ministry teams can continue to facilitate relationship-building online.

Time will tell whether our various digital gatherings will continue once the pandemic ends, but it’s certain that our need for human connection will remain. Singing together and responding to one another reinforces and builds community, and this can happen online  as well as in person. The digital spaces we create now for dialogue, whether musical or non-musical, have the potential to draw us into deeper relationships with one another, and the social bonds we create in these intimate, sociomental spaces are real and meaningful, strengthening and supporting us. Singing together—however imperfectly—reminds us that we are not alone.

Robin FreemanRobin Freeman (M.M., M.Ed.) is a choral conductor, singer, and music educator. Her research explores social dimensions of group singing and how choral music can be a conduit for societal change. In 2020, she organized an international virtual music conference that brought together hundreds of practitioners, researchers, and pedagogues. She is currently completing an Ed.D. in College Teaching of Music at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is examining how choral experiences for adult singers—including the popular “virtual choir”—can become more collaborative and transformative.

[1] Hilary Moss et al., “Exploring the Perceived Health Benefits of Singing in a Choir: An International Cross-Sectional Mixed-Methods Study,” Perspectives in Public Health 138no. 3 (May 2018): 160–68.

[2] Viktor Müller et al., “Cardiac and Respiratory Patterns Synchronize between Persons during Choir Singing,” PLOS ONE 6, no. 9 (2011): e24893.

[3] Robin J. Freeman, “’With One Voice and One Heart:’ Choral Singing as Embodied Ecclesiology,” Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music 4, no. 1 (June 2020): 118–127.

[4] Moisés Sbardelotto, “The (Re)Discovery of the Digital Environment for Living and Communicating the Faith,” in The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online, ed. Heidi A Campbell. (College Station: Digital Religion Publications, 2020), 75.

[5] See Martin Buber, I and Thou. Translated with prologue and notes by W. Kaufmann. (New York: Scribner, 1970), 23.

[6] Alfred Schütz, “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship,” Social Research 18, no. 1 (March 1951): 76–97.

[7] Schütz, “Making Music,” 93.

[8] It is, however, a relatively easy platform to use and has advanced audio settings which improve the online music making experience. There is lower-latency audio software available that can be paired with Zoom, but not all choirs will have the logistical and financial capacity to use these solutions (see how C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective utilizes Jamulus; Ian Howell’s ongoing work with SoundJack; or Stanford University’s development of JackTrip and beta testing of Virtual Studio). Regardless of the hardware and software, home internet speed and service can always cause unexpected disruptions and disconnections.

[9] The “virtual choir” is a form of music-making made popular by American composer Eric Whitacre, in which individual musicians in an ensemble self-record and submit an audio or video file to someone who mixes, masters, and produces a final “performance” of the entire group.

[10] Singers have been given pseudonyms.

[11] Mary Chayko, Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

[12] Chayko, Connecting, 1–2.