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Singing – the most dangerous thing you can do in 2020?

by Amanda Kauranne

A wall of sound produced by a choir, when done just so, can pierce the heart and reach right up to the tear ducts. Singing familiar songs together fosters a sense of community, linking us to a generational chain of singers of bygone times as the shared joy of raising our voices together generates positive energy. Scientific studies have shown that singing together has measurable health benefits. In the Year of the Coronavirus, however, singing has suddenly been deemed a dangerous activity, and as such has been restricted or banned outright. Nevertheless, singing did and does go on, even under these exceptional circumstances.

Finland has a lovely tradition, established in 1973, that brings light to the darkness of midwinter. It is called Kauneimmat Joululaulut [The greatest Christmas carols], and it is a simple concept: a sing-along of Christmas carols where lyrics booklets are provided by the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM), which also collects donations for the children of the world at the events. As it has evolved into a national institution, a great many events under this rubric are held around the country every year in the run-up to Christmas.

Päivi Mattila, Senior Advisor in Music and Arts at FELM, reports that one in four Finns attend these events. There are no exact attendance statistics, but there are 400 Finnish-language parishes in Finland, and each of them organises anything from 1 to 35 sing-along events, depending on the size of the parish. The print run of the lyrics booklets is generally about 800,000 copies per year, but this year the one-million mark was exceeded for the first time: 1,199,000 copies in Finnish and 68,700 copies in Swedish were printed out and in most cases distributed to households with parish newsletters.

Have yourself a virtual little Christmas

“As recently as in the early autumn, we tossed around ideas of drive-in concerts and outdoor events as we discussed this topic in webinars with parish employees. I had a vision of a cemetery in twilight full of people, candles twinkling and everyone singing Maa on niin kaunis [a popular Christmas hymn in Finland, known in English as ‘Fairest Lord Jesus’, ‘Beautiful Saviour’ or ‘Beauty around us’]. But with the newly imposed lockdown in place, I don’t think that even this will be possible this December,” says Mattila with a sigh.

Instead, on Sunday 13 December FELM posted a virtual event on its YouTube and Facebook channels. Titled Koko Suomen Kauneimmat Joululaulut [The greatest Christmas carols for all of Finland], it remains accessible until Epiphany, 6 January. Recorded at the Mission Church in Helsinki, the event features Camilla Bäckman as vocal soloist, accompanied by an eleven-member orchestra conducted by Antti Vuori. Viewers are encouraged to join in at home. There is also a Christmas carol karaoke online: FELM’s collaboration with karaoke producers MaestroPro, which began in 2019, was continued and expanded this year.

“Beyond this, every parish is of course thinking of their own virtual ways to replace the live events. They’ve come up with some lovely and inventive solutions. Videos and streaming are this year’s thing!”

Lahetyskirkon Kj 2020 2 Hannes Honkanen
Camilla Bäckman and the chamber orchestra at the Mission Church.
Photo: Hannes Honkanen / FELM

From a nation of choirs to a nation of karaoke?

Mattila considers that Finns are a nation of singers – or at least used to be. “Whether we still are, to such an extent as for example the Estonians, is another question. We definitely have music in our blood: just look at our many fine choirs, orchestras and opera singers. Singing competitions and karaoke are popular. But where do people sing together these days?” asks Mattila. “Singing together is a life mission for me. The greatest thing about Kauneimmat joululaulut is the feeling of community, when a church is packed with people all singing familiar Christmas carols that prompt an emotional response, evoke memories and touch something deep within us.”

“Singing is a basic human need,” says Ilona Korhonen. She is a folklore specialist, singer, choir conductor and composer and also has a Doctor of Music degree. “Today, choral singing is giving way to karaoke but is still going strong. You can scarcely find a community in Finland that has no choir!” she says with amusement. “And new ensembles crop up all the time. Traditionally, choral singing is regarded as a symbol of our shared human capital. Choral singing has benefits that many people want to find in their leisure activities.”

Korhonen feels that appreciation of singing should be enhanced in comprehensive school teacher training. “The number of hours allocated to music in curricula is too low, as the main focus is on theoretical and technical subjects. Society is changing, but that does not mean that it should happen at the expense of things that have proven to be good.” Nils Schweckendiek, Professor of Choral Conducting at the Sibelius Academy, concurs. “It is important that children really get to sing at school. We need to work hard to make sure that the choral scene will be in as good a shape in 50 years’ time as it is now.”

A singer’s lockdown

Just before the pandemic began, Korhonen and her spouse Taito Hoffrén released a disc of runo singing titled Minä Paraske, sinä Arhippa [Me Paraske, you Arhippa]. “I managed to have some small live gigs in the summer, followed by a number of streaming performances and videos in the autumn. But gigs have basically dried up, not just because of the singing but because you can’t let an audience in.” The Vantaa Chamber Choir, which Korhonen conducts, cut its season short in the spring because of the lockdown and reconvened in the autumn with only half of the choir present at any one time. “Although every rehearsal was streamed for the other half to see and hear, a two-week interval between live attendance at rehearsals is a long time for amateur singers.” The choir eventually decided to cancel its planned streamed concerts, even though the Christmas season is a major source of revenue for choirs.

“Choral singing of a professional quality is practiced in various places in Finland, and mainly by amateurs. Choirs pay their conductors and gain revenue through concerts and membership fees. This is anomalous, and the Year of the Coronavirus has exposed just how crazy the situation is. Choirs want to have a lot of activity, both because it is gratifying and because choirs need to maintain a high profile in order to gain revenue, funding, new singers and new gigs. When everything shuts down, freelance choir conductors suddenly find themselves wondering where their next meal is coming from. It is a facile thought to imagine that the cultural sector is somehow superfluous to the economy. Shops and shopping centres have not been shut down, because that would result in unsustainable losses, but we in the cultural sector are just as much part of the economy and sustain losses just the same!”

Korhonen Hoffren
Ilona Korhonen and Taito Hoffrén
Photos: Sami Repo

Safe distancing

As of yet, the coronavirus pandemic has not put a complete stop to choral activities or choral teaching in Finland, reports Schweckendiek, who is also the artistic director of Finland’s only chamber choir consisting of professional singers, the Helsinki Chamber Choir.

“When a group sings in an enclosed space, you have to observe certain precautions. But if those precautions are observed, I cannot see singing as being all that dangerous. I have been monitoring research in the field in my professional capacity and have noted that there are two important things: safe distancing and ventilation. We have been very strict about these. One of our singers developed symptoms one day after a rehearsal and was diagnosed with coronavirus. When the coronavirus tracers heard about our safety measures, they decided only to quarantine those singers who had been immediately next to the infected singer, albeit even they had been a safe distance away. None of them developed symptoms or was infected. It was unfortunate that the one singer fell ill with coronavirus, but this case did demonstrate that our safety measures are effective.”

Other professional choirs have had similar experiences. “The safety measures adopted have been so effective that I haven't heard of a single case of coronavirus being transmitted at an event where safety measures were taken seriously. In Germany, all public events are now banned, and artists are just as furious there as they are in Finland. It is important to act responsibly, and if you are prepared to act responsibly, then you should be allowed to act.”

The choir is its own kind of instrument

The Helsinki Chamber Choir has continued to work through the autumn, even though its ticket revenue has diminished and some performance invitations have been cancelled. “We have considered it important for the singers to have some income and to maintain their skills.” The choir’s commissioning programme is also progressing as normal. “The compositions we have commissioned will not be completed until a year or even two years from now, and we are proceeding with the assumption that things will get better.”

The challenge now is to find rehearsal spaces large enough for safe distancing to be possible. “In Pärt’s Passio, we had 28 musicians, and in rehearsals the choir was scattered around the huge space of Kallio Church. We have mainly been doing smaller scale productions with 12 singers, because we can just about fit them into our usual rehearsal space with distancing. Some singers have found it pleasant to have more space for their own voice and to be better able to hear how it fits in with the others.”

The Sibelius Academy switched to distance learning in the spring, and it was soon discovered that while it was possible to teach music analysis, languages and repertoire study in this way, the core of choir conducting teaching did not lend itself to a remote connection. “You have to have a live situation to teach conducting. A choir is its own kind of instrument, and if you cannot perform on that instrument, your skills decline.”

In the autumn, students have conducted the Sibelius Academy Vocal Ensemble from the stage, with the choir being scattered around the auditorium. “When the singers are suddenly further away than we are used to, clarity in conducting becomes even more important than before. It has been very instructive for the students.”

Helsinki Chamber Choir and Nils Schweckendiek rehearsing Pärt's Passion at Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki, August 2020.

Future and hope

Korhonen eagerly awaits the day when the Vantaa Chamber Choir will again be able to sing together in an artistically feasible way. “We will have to go back to basics and learn what it is like to sing together. The important thing is for us to become ‘us’ again. A choir has an important social function. As for my own artistic profile, I very much hope that I will not grow old before my time during the lockdown, now that I am not able to do the things I know how to do. I have doubts about whether my work will be as good as before when all this is over, even though I try to maintain my skills and my voice as best I can. On the other hand, I also feel that us culture folk will be needed more than ever once people can finally go back to doing the things they love and have missed.”

Schweckendiek fully agrees. “The desire to sing will never go away. I have hope that once we can return to a life rather more normal, audiences will return and people will begin to sing in choirs again. The need for music is a profound human need, and we have become all the more aware of this now that everything has been prohibited.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Hannes Honkanen / FELM: 
Camilla Bäckman singing at the 'Koko Suomen Kauneimmat Joululaulut' in 2020.

Follow thy neighbour

Sing-alongs are also a big thing in Finland’s neighbouring countries Sweden and Estonia, but in their cases the big, popular sing-alongs take place in the summer rather than at Christmas. Sing-alongs have been held at the Skansen park in Stockholm since 1935. These events have been annual since 1974, and since 1979 they have been broadcast on Swedish TV (SVT). Allsång på Skansen [Sing-along at Skansen] has acquired a viewership of up to two million. On summer Tuesdays, as many as 10,000 to 25,000 people turn up to sing together and to listen to guest artists perform.

Estonia has been holding massive song festivals since 1869; indeed, the event is included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Held every five years, it is a three-day gathering that brings together tens of thousands of people to listen to choirs and, ultimately, to sing together. The 150th anniversary of the song festival was celebrated in 2019, with 35,000 choral singers and 62,000 audience members congregating at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn.

Finland also has a song and music festival held every five years, organised by the Finnish Amateur Musicians’ Association (Sulasol), but it is a much smaller event with attendance in the low thousands. The city of Tampere used to have a sing-along event modelled on Allsång på Skansen, titled Tammerkosken sillalla [On Tammerkoski Bridge], from 1995. This gradually evolved into a four-day festival which in 2019 was rebranded Iskelmäkesä [Schlager summer] and reduced to a two-day event with the addition of entry fees. However, a smaller sing-along event was held that same year under the name Tammerkosken rannalla [Along Tammerkoski], with a crowd of a few hundred, and in summer 2020 another sing-along was held at Tornihotelli in Tampere and subsequently broadcast on AlfaTV.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo by Merili Reinpalu: Estonian Song and Dance 2019.