33 voices edited together into harmony



To record her part in the three-minute choral composition “T’filah L’Giborei Artzot Ha’B’rit,” Deb Shalom of Potomac found that the most soundproof room in her house was her closet.

She set her computer up on two stacked wastebaskets, propped up her phone and pressed “record” at least 10 times, she estimated, singing while listening to the piano track via earphones and watching video of Eleanor Epstein, director of  Zemer Chai, the Jewish Chorale of the Nation’s Capital, conducting silently to keep herself on time with the music.

Each member of Zemer Chai has a similar story of how they recorded their part that, before the coronavirus pandemic, would have blended effortlessly with 32 other voices.

Many of the members found the solo challenging; most made dozens of tracks, trying to get as close to perfect as possible, Epstein said.


The new piece, written by Queens, N.Y., Rabbi Gerald Skolnik about a decade ago, and composed by Woodbridge, Va., musician Russell Nadel, was streamed on Zoom last week. It was an aural and video tribute to America’s heroes — health-care workers, grocery clerks, delivery people, mail carriers — the essential personnel who keep the country running, fed, and cared for during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before attempting the composition, Epstein learned that the many videos depicting everyone singing or playing in unison and harmony in little Zoom boxes are recorded individually. Later an editor and sound engineer put all the single tracks together, mix the sound and smooth out any rough transitions. Many hours go into making even a brief video when singers and musicians can’t be in the same room together.

Joan Wolf, a longtime chorale member who also serves as its president, said, “I was absolutely a closet dweller. It was very weird to place a video of your conductor guiding you on top of a mountain of sweaters for balance and ballast. It is an airless, somewhat unfriendly and bizarre locale, but it treats the sound appropriately for recording.”

The result was edifying for Stephen Glass, who wrote the piano arrangement and edited the 33 tracks contributed by the choir members.

“The essence of choral singing is that you make an individual contribution to the larger group … and the group breathes together,” literally.

Russell Nadel, the Woodbridge.-based teacher and composer, created and arranged the music for the prayer. It was, perhaps, not the easiest piece to sing, he admitted, with its pauses and harmonies, particularly in this new virtual environment.

Glass, who engineered the piece, noted that each choir member fully rose to the occasion and he believes it will strengthen the collective voice of the group for the future.

For the video, which is now available on YouTube, Epstein collected photos of frontline workers, some members of the choir or their family members and friends. These images became a moving video collage, among them, choir members Ella Akkerman, a neurologist; Joshua Zimmerberg, a viral biophysicist; Emily Mackay, an emergency room nurse; and Cheryl Troy, a radiologist.

“All our lives,” Epstein said, “other people have been risking their lives on our behalf. We’re now just becoming aware of it.”




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