When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Young@Heart, the western Massachusetts chorus whose youngest member is 75 years old and oldest is 90, was forced to cancel in-person rehearsals. They started meeting online and making "quarantine videos."
Just like people a quarter of their age, the 25 singers sometimes stumble through the Zoom setup. Their technical director, John Laprade, often directs them to push a button, or reminds them to hang up their phone.
At rehearsals, before any singing begins, there's at least 10 minutes of cacophonous greetings. People are clearly glad to see each other from their kitchens and dens in Springfield, Northampton, Wendell and Chicopee.
Bob Cilman, who has directed Young@Heart and its changing roster of singers since the early 1980s, gets past the greetings and then begins rehearsal with warm-ups. He asks everyone to mute their microphones, so they can hear the octaves on his piano — and hear themselves.
Cilman then moves the singers through song after song. Some are new; others they’ve done before. The music is recorded, but the musicians also play along. There’s almost always a soloist.
Jerry Little sang “Genesis,” by Jorma Kaukonen, with Cilman shouting directions midway: "Bring your player down and bring your volume up.”
While they continue to wrangle with the technical logistics, things have smoothed out considerably over the past few months.
The rehearsals are not just to keep busy; the singers are getting ready to perform an online concert in October. Cilman wants everyone to dress up for the virtual performance, and he hopes it brings in some money. Young@Heart had to cancel their May event because of the pandemic — losing about $50,000, Cilman said, money that pays for rehearsal space, the band and tours around the country and overseas.
It’s hard not to be moved by Young@Heart in "normal" times. Now though, almost every song these elders sing takes on deeper meaning.
At one rehearsal, Norm Moreau sang the lead track of Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation,” with a new layer of Cilman on harmonica.
They are all keenly aware how deadly the coronavirus can be to people their age. One of the oldest members of the group did get sick and is still recovering.
Before a recent rehearsal, Cilman asked the chorus what thoughts they had about the future. The shows are their bread and butter, he said. What it would take for them to feel comfortable rehearsing in a building?
Byron Ricketts, Jr., went straight to the point.
“I would need a vaccine,” he said.
If not a vaccine, Sonia Nieto said she wanted to see the number of infections go way down.
“You know what I've been hearing lately is, one of the most efficient ways to spread the virus is by singing together, and so that really concerns me,” Nieto said.
Others said they wanted singers to be tested before coming to rehearsal, have their temperature taken, or — as Joel Spiro suggested — maybe instead of meeting as one large group, the chorus could meet in smaller groups.
There are upshots to singing in this pandemic; everyone shows up more regularly to rehearsal. For the oldest among them, they don't have to drive anywhere or arrange a ride.
The singing had taken their minds off not being able to see their kids or grandkids, or not being able to meet up with friends. Then, a few weeks after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Young@Heart members spent time at a rehearsal talking about the ongoing protests. Several members said they'd been here before.
“In the late '60s very early '70s, I was in Philadelphia which at that point perhaps had the worst record of police harassment and brutality of blacks, Latinos and any hippy with long hair in the country,” said Jon Steinberg, who is white.
Young@Heart drummer Billy Arnold spoke about how rough it was to be a black musician in the U.S. in the 1960s.
“Playing in some of the clubs in the Midwest, we weren't allowed to socialize the with people. We had to sit in the kitchen,” Arnold said. “I remember they were calling us all kinds of the N-word on the stage.”
Arnold had just gotten out the Army and he said the treatment was unbelievable.
When Arnold first started playing with Young@Heart in 2002, he said he showed up and saw an all-white band. That made him nervous, but he said he quickly found his place among everyone.
“I think things like this can really help the country,” Arnold said. “Through music you can feel each other more so than [a] politician’s word,” Arnold said.
With what they’re seeing in the size and racial diversity of the recent protests, some singers expressed hope. And they considered what changes their own group should make to bring more people of color into the chorus.
For years, Young@Heart rehearsed in Northampton, which is predominantly white, as is Hampshire County. Someone suggested maybe they could rent a bus to rehearse in a variety of places in Hampden County, which is more racially diverse, including Springfield where singer John Rinehart lives.
Rinehart moved to the city from the South, as a teenager in the 1950s. Over the decades, he said, he’s seen black people killed, and along come the marches and protests, and then it gets quiet again. But this time Rinehart, who is black, said it feels different.
“I think the whole world this time has been polarized from George Floyd's death. And I think things will change. They won't change overnight, but,” he said, pausing very specifically, “I believe a change is going to come.”
His fellow chorus members chimed in and agreed, knowing why Rinehart used that phrasing.
Just a month ago, he was the lead singer on a video of “A Change is Gonna Come.” They sung the Sam Cooke song along with the Chicago Children’s Choir.
It was put up on YouTube a few weeks before a police officer killed George Floyd.