DEFIANT optimism reigns for York choir Prima Vocal Ensemble in the face of the pandemic.
“I’ve always been motivated by a challenge and there’s been no shortage of that in recent times,” says Ewa Salecka, Polish-born artistic director of the mixed-voice group.
Constantly on the front foot, Ewa has been aware from the outset of the negative impact that lockdown and isolation bring.
“Singing may be perceived by some as just a hobby but there is so much more to what it does to our general mental and physical health, and you cannot underestimate the never-ending benefits of group singing,now largely backed up by firm scientific evidence,” she says. “To some this is a genuine lifeline to their social and emotional world and vital for balanced mental well-being.
“Another May brought another anniversary for Prima Vocal Ensemble, and although 2020 denied us the chance to celebrate our tenth year of singing, defiant optimism is our overriding characteristic.”
From a musical perspective, Ewa and Prima’s dedication to consistent standards in community singing is undimmed. “The legacy of all the training provided over the past decade has not diminished and remains on a constant upward trajectory,” she says.
“Zoom and online learning hasn’t been a solution to the situation, but it has enabled Prima to stay connected, to adapt and continue working on new material ready for the inevitable freedoms post-pandemic.”
New realities bring a new focus to Ewa. “There’s never been a time in my life when I’ve been more dedicated to the study of vocal health,” she says. “Everyone has been singing to their computers for a year and naturally this will affect their voices. This increased need to help singers more than ever before has prompted me to gain new, complementing qualifications as a vocal coach and a vocal health practitioner.”
Teaching both in the community and tutoring students and private clients requires constantly updated knowledge. “The science never stands still, so neither must a vocal professional,” says Ewa.
“I’ve had to work so much harder for the past 15 months, trying to understand and navigate the constantly shifting restrictions. I didn’t plan solely for indoor rehearsals in June after learning how quickly the Government can implement sudden U-turns.
“No-one is saying it’s easy to run a country through this, but we can’t rely solely on mere rhetoric. The facts, the patterns of events, speak volumes and with new variants becoming a reality across the UK, we can’t claim to be surprised that a full return was in jeopardy. I took this on board and chose to direct my energies into ensuring a consistent plan for my members.”
Step 3 had been expected to facilitate the return of amateur choirs to singing indoors, albeit with social distancing still in place, but within days came the Government U-turn, ruling that no more than six amateur singers could do so together.”
Ewa is in complete agreement with the overriding sentiment of frustration among Britain’s choral organisations. “We were allowed to sing in Covid-safe ways during the gap between lockdowns last year [with 12 measures in place, from social distancing to hand sanitising, ventilating the room to ‘quarantining’ sheet music].
“In late-May, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden disclosed that only 15 cases of Covid were reported among the 58,000 people taking part in various test events, from the Brit Awards to the FA Cup Final [source: Evening Standard, May 25 2021].
“Now, with incomparably lower numbers of cases, a hugely successful vaccine programme and the general awareness of how to mitigate the risks at rehearsals, it is ridiculous that we cannot work in the same way.”
Despite these barriers, Ewa has strived to maintain a sense of community through a shared love of music and to lead by example throughout the pandemic.
In the safest possible way, Prima returned to live singing last autumn, and in December Ewa finished the year on a high by organising a live recording session with the Mowbray String Quartet, performing a new eclectic repertoire rehearsed over Zoom in the previous weeks.
In March this year, Ewa entered Prima in an International Sacred Music Choral Competition, held in Szczecin, Poland, as a hybrid event. “Competing against live and online entries by choirs from Norway, Spain and Poland, and judged by the professional, international jury, Prima won a bronze award for their online performances,” says Ewa.
The choir has returned to live singing, albeit outdoors, in eager preparation for summer performances, rehearsing new material weekly. “Throughout May and even before last month’s Step 3 easing of lockdown, I’ve been running test live choir sessions with varying groups of four or five singers outdoors, simulcast live to all members,” says Ewa.
“Every opportunity to perform safely in any group size, I will take. The beauty of the online world is that everyone can feel a part of every small success.”
Nevertheless, the role of a conductor is a somewhat altered reality in 2021. “During rehearsals, I used to focus on clarity of my conducting technique, the communication of musical nuance,” says Ewa.
“Now I’ve got to supplement that with ‘did I bring the right cable?’; ‘where’s that extra mic for Zoom?’; ‘is the wi-fi working?’; ‘did I bring the outdoor table?’; ‘hope I packed that camera stand?’, or even ‘do I need a roadie for all this extra gear?’. And that’s not mentioning the most obvious: checking the weather forecast every ten minutes!”
The choral and art world can and will thrive again, insists Ewa. “But let’s be realistic: there is a challenge ahead. Yes, we will have to exercise all our creative prowess and we may have to find new ways or chart new paths,” she says.
“Hopefully, this summer will bring the outcome we are all looking forward to with the substantial lifting of restrictions and freedom everybody has been waiting for so long and deserves.
“I believe that organised events can be delivered in Covid-safe ways and I wish us all a speedy return to familiar artistic pursuits. With warmer summer days there are so many ways to celebrate life through music.”
Reflecting on the Government’s “rule of six” for amateur choirs indoors, Ewa says: “I’d really like to see the scientific evidence which they’ve based their official advice upon.
“Since then, at least something has moved forward as there finally was a test choral event on May 30 with Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall, and we all look forward to the results of that.”