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In 2009, Grammy-winning conductor and composer Eric Whitacre received a video from a fan singing the soprano part from one of his compositions. Whitacre posted the video on his website, along with the following idea: “what if hundreds of people did the same thing and then we cut them all together, creating the very first virtual choir?” The following year, the idea came to fruition with Virtual Choir 1: Lux Aurumque, featuring 185 singers from 12 countries. It was an instant sensation, receiving over 1 million views within two months of its release.
Whitacre’s TED Talk in 2011 featured a sneak preview of Virtual Choir 2: Sleep, which had grown to include 2,052 singers from 58 countries. Since then, Whitacre’s virtual choir projects have continued to expand in size and scope, including collaborations with Disneyland, NASA, and a premiere broadcast in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
Fast forward to March 2020.
Choral singing at EKU – and worldwide – was quickly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Singing was considered one of the easiest way to transmit the virus, in fact. 
“We had literally just started rehearsing the music for our final concert of the semester, and then – BAM – out of nowhere, everyone’s gone,” said Dr. Richard Waters, director of choral activities and professor of music at EKU. “For those of us who thrive on the powerful connection and community that choral singing provides, it was big blow.”
Back in Los Angeles, Whitacre began pondering a new virtual choir project as a response to the global pandemic. “If there was ever a time for one of these virtual choirs,” he said in a recent interview with CBS, “it would be now.” 
For Virtual Choir 6, Whitacre wrote both the lyrics and music. “With everyone unexpectedly far apart from each other, I found myself thinking about the virtues of empathy, community, and service, and a new Virtual Choir felt like a deeply human way to address all of those virtues.”
WatersWhen Waters saw the announcement for the new project, he immediately jumped on board. “I have known about Eric’s virtual choirs since the beginning and kept saying, ‘maybe I’ll do the next one.’ When this one came about, and with the speed of life grinding to a halt, I knew I had no excuses.”
Not only did Waters send in a video, but he invited the singers in his choirs to do so as well.
“After we had Bandermannto leave school, choir was lost to us,” said Marie Banderman, a rising junior piano major from Berea. “The virus took those moments of expression, collaboration, and unity that choir brings to me.”
Marie’s sister, Madelynne, a rising senior voice major, also participated. “After Dr. Waters sent an email encouraging us to join this virtual choir, I decided to go ahead and sign up. The fact that I was able to participate in something bigger than myself was pretty incredible.”
In Shelbyville, another pair of sisters who sing at EKU – Jillian and Suzanne Gayle – also took part.
“I decided to participate in this project because, although this is a confusing time for everyone,” said Jillian, a rising senior sport management major, “singing in the virtual choir could bring hope to others and allow singers from around the world to connect.”
Twin sister Suzanne, a rising senior psychology major, said, “It relieved the stress and fear of our current situation and replaced it with a reassuring feeling that as long as we stand together, everything will be okay in the end.”
None of them had participated in a virtual choir before. “It’s called a ‘choir’ because of the end result,” said Waters, “but it’s not at all like a ‘normal’ choral experience. You are all alone in front of a camera singing your part. It can be pretty intimidating.”
GayleEveryone quickly discovered some of the inherent challenges with this unique form of expression.
“The most challenging part for me was the many, many takes it took to make the video,” said Madelynne. “From fans running in the background, to people talking too loud, to a dog barking… but eventually, I made a video that worked.” 
“My recording space consisted of my laptop and phone propped up against the window seat in my bedroom so I could read the music, listen, and record at the same time,” said Suzanne. “I had the score next to me on the floor. Not having a ‘plain’ background that was needed, I ended up tying up a sheet to my closet door.”
“While I’m capable of sight reading on my own,” Jillian said, “it was difficult without the moral support of a choir.”
Marie added, “The biggest challenge for me was allowing myself to be vulnerable singing alone, trusting that the final product would be beautiful. This project really broke down that barrier, forcing me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It was worth it.”
Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently debuted on YouTube on July 19. The level of participation far exceeded Whitacre’s previous projects, with an astounding 17,572 singers from 129 countries. Leading up to its premiere, the project was featured on several national and international media outlets, including CBS Sunday MorningForbes, NPR’s All Things Considered, and BBC Music Magazine.
The Bandermans watched the premiere together with their family. “My heart was so happy,” said Madelynne. “Seeing all of the faces that participated and looking at all the names was awe-inspiring. I was filled with a sense of wonder, pride, and gratitude. We are part of a world that seems to be rather divided sometimes. When we sing together, we break down barriers and connect with others. This project allowed me to do just that.”
“Despite the uncertainties of the world,” Marie added, “music gives us strength.”
Gayle 2“When I saw the finished video,” said Suzanne, “it brought me back to something I always think about when I’m performing: no matter how small you may feel, nothing would be the same without you.”
“The opportunity to participate in a project like this, during this singular moment in history, was exactly what we all needed,” Waters said.
Waters acknowledges that things will not go back to “normal” for quite some time. “Singing is considered to be a super-spreader of this disease. For the foreseeable future, choir will not look like choir as we once knew it. Someday, yes, but it’s going to be a while. In the meantime, our challenge will be to find creative ways to sing and build community while taking every precaution necessary to ensure that we do it in a safe and healthy manner.
“We’ll likely even do a virtual choir or two,” Waters continued, “although certainly nothing of the magnitude that Eric and his team have just produced. Still, I can’t wait for that moment, whenever it comes, when we can be together, feeding off each other’s energy and making music in real time. There’s nothing else like it.”
Click here to watch Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently