When the Covid pandemic arrived, award-winning author Julie Hodgson turned to virtual gospel choirs to keep up her spirits. She has now turned her experiences into new young adult novel Carry on Singing: Quarantine Choir. Here she reveals how she was able to dispel her worries of the virus by becoming part of a worldwide viral hit.
Since my early 20s I have sung in a variety of gospel choirs. That sense of camaraderie—joining a group with the same love of music—is a truly awesome feeling.
That shared enthusiasm for, and dedication to, gospel—solving what is essentially a musical jigsaw—makes your heart shudder with joy when you all get it right. As soon as you are handed that sheet of music and start learning your part, which in my case is soprano, the song sits in your head and you eat, sleep, sing until you have it perfected.
My first experience with this art form was through a youth choir when I lived in Sweden. I found then, and still find now, that singing every kind of gospel song, from all over the world, is a great way to learn a new language and make friends.
Since 2018 I have been living in Portugal and promptly joined the local gospel choir, Coro Gospel Ponte De Sor (Gospel Choir of Ponte De Sor). I see my fellow choristers as one big
family and we have performed widely across the country, loving every minute while raising funds for Portuguese community charity Acas.
Author Julie Hodgson (far left) performing with Coro Gospel Ponte De Sor.
That, however, came to an abrupt end in March 2020 when Covid-19, or the “zombie pandemic” as I jokingly like to call it, struck. When it arrived I suddenly, and unexpectedly, found myself at a total loss. I could no longer meet others and sing together. Like the rest of the world, I was trapped in my home wondering what was going to happen next.
It would be an understatement to say that the emergence of Covid and lockdowns has had a big impact on everyone’s mental wellbeing. In my case, however, I was able to find an outlet to keep myself occupied while continuing to pursue my passion for gospel.
Totally by chance, I spotted online that noted American composer Eric Whitacre was putting together a virtual choir to perform his song, ‘Sing Gently’. He had been arranging virtual choirs since 2010, involving singers from around the world. This would be entitled ‘V6’, as in ‘Virtual Choir 6’, and I didn’t hesitate to apply.
It was only days away from the recording session, and I freely confess it seemed quite daunting to sing on your own, having never participated in a virtual choir before. Thankfully, however, there were YouTube sessions where you could learn the song and any pressures I felt were more than compensated by the chance to get ‘back out there’, so to speak, and be part of this musical happening.
Recording was done via a mobile phone and it took many of us 10 takes (or more) to get it nailed. Singing from home I had to contend with barking dogs, sneezes, and a sliding mobile that I quickly had to try and rebalance on the pile of books serving as my tripod. Nothing less than ‘just right’ would cut it with the recording. It wasn’t like a live choir; you didn’t have others besides you to ‘take the strain’. I was on my own.
The outtakes from that recording session would definitely make for a good ‘It’ll Be Alright on the Night’ clips show but, with take 25, I finally got it. I even remembered to smile at the end. It was then time to upload, send, and wait.
The experience had been wonderful, allowing me the opportunity to ‘meet’ thousands of fellow singers all like me, desperately needing this outlet of music and friendship to sweep away the Covid blues. It was a truly powerful medicine.
The outcome, however, was wondrous. The final product was the most beautiful, heavenly sound, made from the contributions of more than 17,000 singers from around the world and stitched together by none other than NASA. In the space of this one song we all came together. You could not hear colour, religion, race, sex or age; just voices in perfect union, singing gently, each from their own room.
The video went viral soon after and has, so far, attracted more than 1.8million views on YouTube. Even now, a year on, I still listen to it, and I still get the same tingle of joy down my spine every time.
After that, I was unstoppable and joined many virtual choirs including SOS (Save Our Singing) Choir, The King Singers, and Facebook group Sing Out Strong, which was specifically set up in light of the pandemic to help people cope with mental health issues.
It’s been a blessing to learn many new songs. Perhaps the Swahili song ‘Baba Yetu’, written by composer Christopher Tin, has been the most enjoyable challenge so far. I can now proudly say a new language has been added to my singing repertoire.
Having spent the summer of 2020 in this fashion, and now being something of a virtual choir aficionado, I was inspired to write my latest novel, Carry on Singing: Quarantine Choir, as a sort of tribute to all of us who had plucked up the courage to sing our way out of lockdown.
I wanted it to be a fun story rather than a serious and sombre tale of coronavirus. There’s more than enough of that in the news. It’s a story about something that might have happened to any one of us so the protagonist, Rosie Wilkins, was the girl for me. She’s about my age and has a little of my character but mostly she’s an independent figure who just so happens to tackle the depression and loneliness of lockdown by, you guessed it, joining a virtual choir.
Relocating temporarily to Portugal after a confrontation with her husband, she ends up quarantined in a strange apartment with the neighbours from hell when lockdown happens. Connecting with others through the transformative power of music, however, enables her to reassess her life, her relationship and herself.
The members of my ‘real-world’ choir, Coro Gospel Ponte De Sor, were very intrigued as to who was who in the novel, and if I had weaved any of their characters or personalities into the story. As we still haven’t met again yet, I am sure I will be interrogated at length about this, but in the most adorable way, I can assure you. They’ll be happy in any case as I have dedicated my book to them, and “all the choir members and musicians out there in the world”.
Better still, proceeds from book sales are benefitting Acas, which has been doing vital work helping the needy in these especially difficult times.
As we now, hopefully, begin to emerge from the pandemic it’s so strange looking back to 2020—an unprecedented time when all the freedoms we had taken for granted were unceremoniously revoked, leaving us stranded.
It will, though, also be remembered as a time when we all pulled together, while staying in and staying safe. The virtual choirs were a fantastic way to do this and I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience to you all.
I met so many people who were lonely, fed up, and just in need of friendship. I think we all helped each other in our time of need. Gospel music—actually, any kind of music—is always a good way to propel yourself into a peaceful state of mind, guaranteed to take your cares and trouble away.
Of course I can’t wait for the day when I can meet everyone again, and we can all sing together once more as a group, making mistakes and laughing through them as we create sublime sounds.
Until that day comes, however, I’ll happily practice alone, and sing alone, in the knowledge that I’m not really alone—at least not virtually.
Carry on Singing: Quarantine Choir by Julie Hodgson is out now, published through Chave AB and available in paperback and eBook formats, priced £12.82 and £2.99 respectively. It is available on Amazon and via Books2read.com. Visit www.juliehodgson.com.