We lost more than just music during the year choirs were banned

James Gardiner
·5-min read

Before Covid, Polyphony was a community choir in Sydney that punched well above its weight. We filled the corridors of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Eveleigh Works with baroque and goth harmonies, and packed out Surry Hills’ Giant Dwarf to deliver a hilarious, fast-paced and soulful musical. Our repertoires were original, adventurous, and very often arranged by our members. Led by the daring and super-talented singer-songwriter Jack Colwell, we pushed our own limits and grew in confidence and professionalism at every turn.

Polyphony became just as valuable to me as a queer space as it was for the music

When the pandemic hit in March, Polyphony decided to move its whole operation to Zoom. I remember sitting at the small desk in my room, on the third floor of an old apartment complex in Sydney’s inner-west, and belting out the bass part of Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone over and over again. My housemate, a few metres down the hall, improvised a soprano harmony and for a moment I thought Zoom choir might just work. I wondered: maybe the neighbours will want to join in? Or, maybe we’ll get complaints? But Zoom is not built for singing together. Lagging internet connections and microphone feedback turned group singing into a jumbled mess. We could learn the bare bones of a song with each of us on mute, but that was as far as it could go.

Related: As a singer in the Covid era, it's hard to accept that something I love so dearly could be deadly | Ria Andriani

I’ve been thinking about those early pandemic months on hearing the news that restrictions on group singing have been eased in New South Wales. As of Saturday, up to 30 people can sing together in a room (up from 5), which makes choir rehearsal viable once again. But for groups such as Polyphony, as excited as we are at the prospect of restarting, it isn’t as simple as just picking up where we left off.

What we lost in those early months was more than the ability to practise singing. Our choir was a meeting place for people of different ages, careers and backgrounds. It was a space to meet new people (or partners, in my case), grow deep friendships and be part of a collective creative project that was more than the sum of its parts. Choir provided an alternative rhythm to the usual patterns of everyday life – a new cycle of anticipation, preparation and celebration to punctuate the weeks and months. And for those who were employed by the choir – our choirmaster Jack and accompanist Paula, among others – it provided regular income and professional satisfaction. Choir was an ecosystem: a testament to the power of community.

For me, choir was a rediscovery of belonging. Growing up in a deeply religious community, I was very involved in my church’s band. Rehearsals and performances were opportunities to not only improve my musical ability but also grow closer with friends and serve a wider community. Coming out as queer made that arrangement less tenable.

Moving from Sydney’s bible belt into the city, I tried to find that sense of belonging in the usual places – Oxford Street in Darlinghurst and Newtown’s King Street – but between the effects of gentrification, the lockout laws, and the often intense instances of objectification that occur in Sydney’s high profile queer spaces, belonging evaded me. There is only a very specific type of community that can be cultivated in a nightclub. As Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby asks in her Netflix comedy special Nanette, “Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?”

It wasn’t until I was invited to join Polyphony by a uni friend that I reclaimed the sense of belonging through music that I’d missed. Like any community organisation, a choir’s social make-up and dynamic are just as important as its achievements. Polyphony – which is not exclusively queer but is extremely queer-friendly – became just as valuable to me as a queer space as it was for the music.

To build organisations that encourage belonging and intimacy with others, we need the right social, regulatory and material conditions to do so. These “infrastructures of intimacy”, in the words of theorist Jan Filmer, are deeply felt and treasured. They don’t just apply to queer or creative communities, they’re relevant to everyone. Never was this more obvious than when singing in groups became officially illegal.

Related: I lost money, gigs and community in lockdown. Streaming on Twitch brought it back | Eilish Gilligan

There is no doubt that the Covid restrictions of the past 12 months have saved many lives. And it’s only because of the hard work of scientists, frontline workers, medical officers, and the sacrifices of the public more broadly that we are able to return to a phase of life where we can all stand in a room together and sing.

But let no one underestimate how important that change is, or how grateful we are. I’m excited to meet with my friends and create music together. I’m excited to breathe deeply together. I’m excited to make eye contact with someone in the middle of a song and smile at an inside joke. I can’t wait to hold a harmony together as a group and I can tell you, it’s going to be just as euphoric as any night on the dancefloor. I can’t wait to provide a regular income for the creative professionals that I care about, and to perform together once again.

• James Gardiner is a writer, researcher and PhD candidate whose work focuses on gender and sexuality, youth, belonging, literacy and housing