From doorway to doorway across Milan, voices rise and fall, calling and answering. The words are familiar and imploring – people of all ages and backgrounds are singing together while staying apart, facing a pandemic that is making unfathomable changes to life as they know it.
Have you seen the viral video of that?
In fact, you can’t have seen it. That singing happened in Italy more than 400 years ago, during an outbreak of plague across Europe that lasted nearly two years.
But these voices are from just two weeks ago in Siena, Italy. As I write this, the world has reached almost 1.5 million cases of covid-19. More than 130,000 Italians have contracted the deadly respiratory illness from the novel coronavirus, and 17,000 have died there. (See the latest numbers here.) The entire nation of Italy was put under a lockdown on March 9.
And that’s when the videos of singing began to appear.
The physical act of singing is good for us, we know – the breathing boosts the oxygen in our blood and our brains. Singing together is really, really good for us, in so many ways. For starters, it releases dopamine (activating pleasure centers) and serotonin (fighting depression). Who couldn’t use more of that when there’s a deadly virus going around?
But even more than the physical boost, research has shown that singing together heals our spirits.
That’s what they believed in 1576, too, when plague struck Milan. The wealthy fled the city and people dropped in the streets. Plague was believed to be punishment for the sins of the whole community and singing together in prayer was a search for a remedy.
To prevent people from gathering in churches or processions that could spread the plague, bells would signal the 300,000 people of Milan to sing from the doorways of their homes. And sing they did, “sending up an harmonious voice of supplication for deliverance from their distress,” according to a witness at the time. Simple, familiar, call-and-response songs of prayer connected homes and streets across the city. It was a communal ritual in a time of danger and separation.
We are in our own time of separation and danger, and our singing echoes those ancient voices.
It started back in January, in Wuhan, China, then the epicenter of covid-19, which the World Health Organization has designated a global pandemic. People shouted the Chinese phrase “add oil” from building to building, meaning keep fighting or keep going. They sang patriotic songs on balconies, too, until fear of transferring the virus via falling saliva droplets put a stop to that. By early March, the virus had spread to Europe, the Middle East, and North America, and so had the city lockdowns and the singing.
In Milan, quarantined people sang the Italian national anthem from their windows and balconies. In Edinburgh, neighbors sang “Sunshine on Leith.” Apartment blocks in Spain sang along to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” while Israelis in a raucous balcony party sang about sisterhood, brotherhood and being part of a tribe. To show support for Italians under coronavirus lockdown, Germans sang the Italian resistance song “Bella ciao.”
Somehow, music has the power to helps us deal with this vast, frightening unknown. What will our world look like in a year? In a month? Music bridges the distance between us – across a road between city blocks and across the globe via streaming and social media. Music can even build a bridge across time, like the voices of sisters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, singing on March 19 from a rooftop in Rome, praying for the people of their city and the world and sounding right out of 1577.
One couple in Chicago built connections both in person and online. They set up the Chicago-Wide Window Sing-a-Long, using Facebook to invite people across the city to sing with Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” on March 21. The idea took off – more than 18,000 people expressed interest, a local radio station played the song that night at 7, and Jon Bon Jovi himself recorded and shared a video supporting the event. People sang from apartment to apartment, played along on their porches, and shared their videos online.
Many choral directors are putting together virtual choirs in the style of composer Eric Whitacre: Individual singers record their part and send a video, which then gets edited with others into a whole. Students at Berklee College of Music in Boston created an inspiring version of “What The World Needs Now.” Choir members from a Lutheran church near me (including a friend from my community chorus) put together the appropriate “How Can I Keep from Singing.”
Multiple British groups are going large-scale with virtual choirs. Choir celebrity Gareth Malone livestreamed the first rehearsal of his Great British Home Chorus on March 23, with more than 15,000 people (including me) watching. Learning “You Are My Sunshine” in four-part harmony over one week, singers are submitting their recordings, with the final mixed version still to come. Next week they’re preparing an Elton John song. On the classical side, the Stay At Home Choir worked up Vivaldi’s “Gloria” its first week, and is partnering with the King’s Singers in its second.
But at some point, people seem to want to move away from screens and be physically present with other people. “Choir isn’t something you can do alone with a webcam on your computer. It just isn’t,” wrote Joan Riddle Steinmann, a chorus teacher from Salt Lake City.
Angela Alsobrooks, county executive of Prince Georges County, Maryland, described walking through her neighborhood during this pandemic and seeing “children in driveways with sidewalk chalk, people in lawn chairs, people walking. I had never seen this many people sitting outside before. Just people drawn closer as families.” I’ve observed the same while out with my dogs.
Neighbors are standing on stoops and sidewalks (but not too close) in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and joining their voices, some meeting each other for the first time this way. I led a driveway sing on my street and had a few neighbors I’d never met come out to sing “America the Beautiful” and “You Are My Sunshine” with me. We know that singing in groups strengthens a community, and maybe these new neighborhood connections give a glimpse of a way the world can be different after the pandemic.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better, they’re telling us. In spite of this, I have hope that people will keep turning to the sustenance of singing, despite our losses and our separations. We don’t need instruments or electricity or technology. We can make music from nothing but breath and heart. No matter how bleak things get, we can sing together even when we cannot be close together.
As Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1939:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
These are dark times. Let’s keep singing.