The singing group has turned to Zoom rehearsals in the hope of returning together when the pandemic's done.
It’s a slightly tired sentiment, but a real one — it’s hard to make friends in a pandemic.
Which is why Ken Rear, Chapter President of the Sarasota Chorus of the Keys singing group, feels very fortunate, indeed.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and technical hurdles, Rear meets with many of his chorus group friends and members each week for an evening Zoom practice session. Though they aren’t able to meet together and sing loud and proud as they were once used to, the group cherishes the meetings as a way to warm-up their voices, sing new songs, and keep in touch with each other.
“We only missed probably two weeks of rehearsal in March,” Rear said. “Since then, we have not missed one rehearsal.”
It’s a time for camaraderie that Rear deeply values. His involvement with a capella singing started 40 years ago, when he was wandering a shopping mall with his wife in Langley, British Columbia. Suddenly — like out of nowhere — he says he heard the most beautiful harmony singing he’d ever heard.
“Lo and behold, there was a group of guys in white shirts, red and white stripe vests with strap holders," he said. "Just like you see in the movies.”
He’s been a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society ever since, he says he’s going 40 years strong. Though most people he knew in those days had an instrument and could carry a tune, Rear always felt his voice was too deep to sing the folk melodies that were popular. With a capella group singing, he found his groove.
“I found a spot where I could actually see and make a difference,” Rear said. “Instead of trying to sing a melody, I sang harmony. It was perfectly suited for my voice, and for what I wanted to do.
He joined the chapter in British Columbia and then the Sarasota Chorus of the Keys chapter when he moved to Florida in 2008. He took some time away and picked it back up in 2018.
The Sarasota chapter has a long history of activity. It was chartered in 1948, 10 years after its parent group the Barbershop Harmony Society started in 1938. It’s a competitive organization that aims to win singing contests, but Rear also loves its structure and how it enables members to get better at the art form.
“It’s designed to allow people to improve their hobbies,” Rear said. “It's a hobby that people that get infected with the bug and become very passionate about it.”
The group had around 45 members including snowbirds upon Rear’s return to the group in 2018, and would perform at local venues like assisted living facilities. It’s been a fluid membership list for years with members always coming and going, but with a handful of longtime members that have stayed for years.
The group performs an annual show in February, which was good timing as everything shut down just a month later. The group had been ready to tackle district competitions in Orlando but instead turned to a new challenge — reorganizing their group’s structure to practice singing together in large groups on Zoom. Figuring out Zoom technology and uniting the many members together was quite a challenge going into the initiative, but Rear felt it was worth it to keep his friends performing.
“We're a group of a bunch of older guys but there's a lot of musical experience in this group,” Rear said. “I said ‘We can't stop because if we do, we'll lose them.’ ”
Around 20 to 25 members now log on each week and go through new songs and old favorites. It was a difficult challenge at first, though, to find a way to rehearse together with an online service that only lets one person speak at a time.
The key, as it turned out, is the mute button. Though it may seem against the spirit of harmony singing, the way Chorus of the Key has found to practice together each Tuesday night is to have one member lead off practice tunes and methods, and then have every member sing to themselves on their respective muted zoom calls.
It’s a different approach, but a consistent one where Rear’s members have assembled week in and week out for months.
Rear was recently given an award for his efforts organizing the weekly meetups in December, something that flabbergasted and honored the chapter leader. It’s been a labor of love for the chapter leader, and he’s just glad his members feel the same way.
“I am so gratified and that's all of these guys stuck with us,” Rear said. “We found out I think over these last months, is that they weren’t coming just from the music. Yeah, they were coming for the camaraderie because that's what this society is all about. It's about family. “
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