Singing is an important part of life in Adams County. Whether at a church, public business, or auditorium, many residents have either enjoyed or participated in local performances crafted by many of the county’s local choir and concert groups.
For residents like Marilyn Fitzgerald, being a member of a group like the Gettysburg Choral Society, a local, all-volunteer organization, is about more than just performing, however.
“It helps you bring enjoyment to other people,” Fitzgerald said. “Communicating and expressing emotion, all of this, is a value to human health.”
While singing has brought about a positive effect within the community, much of it has slowed or stopped completely since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gettysburg Choral Society has become one of several groups that has ceased rehearsals and canceled upcoming concerts based on medical guidance and state restrictions.
The changes come amid a public debate over when to resume choral singing activities. In late May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed its original recommendation that emphasized “suspending or at least decreasing use of choir and musical ensembles,” according to National Public Radio.
The advice had been based on evidence that singing could contribute to transmission of the virus through “emission of aerosols”. The decision to remove the guidelines came after a Washington state choir practice contributed to a super-spreading event and two deaths, according to the Los Angeles Times.
While some might be unsure of how to proceed with no concrete guidelines to follow, Gettysburg Choral Society director John McKay has continued to prioritize safety when it comes to making decisions going forward. Practice and rehearsals have stopped, and one concert has already been cancelled.
“It became rather impossible to have a rehearsal and be safe,” McKay said. “We’re at a standstill.”
Bill Serfass, director of Gettysburg Civic Chorus, Gettysburg’s oldest singing organization, has taken the same approach.
“We’re on pause, and I’m okay with that,” Serfass said. “If anybody in our group got sick because we rehearsed for a concert in December, I would be devastated.”
While he plans to ask some of the singers if they would like to perform a solo for the Trinity Church of Christ, an affiliate of the Gettysburg Choral Society, McKay has opted to stop singing as a group until it is safe to sing together again.
“We want to be close together, and we want to have a blended sound,” McKay said.
While Serfass and other members have discussed ways that the Gettysburg Civic Chorus could practice safely, doing so could be extremely difficult logistically, as well as hard for those who lack access or knowledge on how to operate current online programs like Zoom.
“You would have to have an accompanist, a model singer, and a director directing the Zoom lesson, but you can’t hear anybody else sing,” Serfass said. “It’s become ‘we’ll wait and see what works out.’”
One aspect that many local choir members miss is the community that each group brings when they perform together.
“I miss seeing all those people,” Gettysburg Choral Society member Don Walsh said. “Music is something you need to do on a regular basis. Skills deteriorate if you don’t continue to use them.”
While Kevin Cooley, also a singer for the Gettysburg Choral Society, understands that the “overall concern is for the safety of the group,” he misses meeting, singing, and spending time with other members.
“We don’t know when we’ll be singing together again, and that’s what makes it so frustrating,” Cooley said.
For Cooley, creating music together with others in the Gettysburg Choral Society has helped to create significant and exceptional moments.
“When the music comes together and you are part of a group where everything clicks, it’s a feeling that’s almost indescribable,” Cooley said. “When a group does that almost perfect harmony, feeling, it’s an indescribable feeling. It’s almost electric. And then you think, ‘I finally did something good, something outside me pulled something together.’”
Although the future still remains uncertain, Serfass is willing to wait to bring the Civic Chorus back together again. He states that the group, which has been singing together for 55 years, is part of a lasting tradition in Gettysburg, and will continue to focus on popular music and provide residents with performances once it is safe to do so.
“I love the singing, camaraderie, and social aspect of singing together,” Serfass said. “The tradition of vocal music in Gettysburg is fantastic.”
While the Choral Society is the newest choral group to be established in Gettysburg, McKay said they have seen a continuous and steady growth in performances and community support over the last several years, something he describes as “gratifying.” Although the group has had to cancel several performances, including one at the Gettysburg Seminary, McKay is expecting the group to continue to grow and perform once activities can resume.
“I know people are struggling to find a way,” McKay said. “I want to wait until we can all be healthy and sing together again.”
Returning in time to perform a favorite song or particular concert is another hope for some members. Cooley hopes to be able to sing at a Christmas concert, as well as perform in the spring concert and present patriotic numbers to the community.
“I’m glad to be able to sing here, and share good music with others,” Cooley said.