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The Sydney Philharmonia Choir this year celebrates its centenary. What was intended as a jubilant year of performing has been transformed into Zoom rehearsals and learning music with the mute button on. Two longstanding members – lawyers Judith Edwards and Robert Green – tell us how they maintain the rhythm of performing during a pandemic and are keeping the magic of music alive. Photo: Jason McCormack

Zoom meetings are not renowned for their stellar acoustics. So, when the Sydney Philharmonia Choir (SPC) logs in to rehearse, only one thing is banned – microphones. Counterintuitive as it may seem for a gaggle of chorists, allowing only choirmaster Brett Weymark to leave his microphone on allows the entire dozens-strong choir to rehearse in the comfort of their own home. Keeping up this routine means their vocal cords will be well and truly warmed up for the resumption of many disrupted events. 

The SPC, which several lawyers and even NSW District Court Judge Robyn Tupman are a part of, has, like many organisations, adapted to the challenges of COVID-19. The mute button has become a valuable asset. 

“All performers can hear the choirmaster, but they turn their own mute button on so no-one is distracted by the feedback or time lag of an individual computer,” explains lawyer and soprano Judith Edwards. 

At-home practice is also necessary to maintain consistency in a typically rigorous rehearsal routine. 

“There are an average of 400 rehearsals each year if you sing in every performance,” she says. 

“We are the principal choir for Sydney Symphony Orchestra when they are performing a work that requires choral input. We also run our own concert series.

“It’s a bit lonely singing on your own, and normally you would just do that to learn a few pieces. So, doing it that way 100 per cent, it’s not quite the same but it’s better than nothing.”

Edwards and her friend, fellow lawyer and bass chorister Robert Green, reunite after weeks of virtual practice for a socially distant photoshoot with LSJ. Their history of performing together stretches back to school days, when Judith starred as Eurydice and Robert stage managed a performance of Orpheus in the Underworld jointly put on by their two high schools, SCEGGS Darlinghurst and Sydney Grammar. 

“Judith reminded me of that connection,” Green laughs.

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The Sydney Philharmonia Choir maintain the rhythm of performing during a pandemic and are keeping the magic of music alive.

Property lawyer Green, who runs his own practice in Sydney’s Martin Place, has been part of SPC for 25 years. “Singing is what I do when I am lost in words,” he says. 

“It is the coming together – the really being part of making music together and that community – that you miss, and it doesn’t feel the same doing it online at home.  

“But it’s still a bit of a communal feel, you know that you are doing it in the moment with others.” 

Edwards, the principal lawyer at the Workers Compensation Independent Review Office, has been a member of the choir for almost 30 years. She was encouraged to audition after singing at friends’ weddings, around the house, and occasionally at St Mary’s Cathedral. 

“Some of our members have sung with SPC for more than 40 years. I have found tremendous benefit attending choir practice after a busy day or week in private practice. It is a very exciting choir to be a member of,” she says. 

The standards are high, so amateur shower stars need not apply. Even long-term members must re-audition every two years. 

2020, the choir’s centenary year, was scheduled as a busy one. It had three concerts lined up for this year, which have all been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included a centenary concert due to take place in June with a performance of Brahm’s German Requiem. A planned international tour of Europe in September and October has also been spiked. 

While in self-isolation, the chorists have committed to learning 100 minutes of new Australian music by recording themselves at home and then emailing the audio track to choirmaster Weymark. Among the pieces are innovative debut works from Indigenous Australian composers. 

Virtual meetings have replaced the traditional, three-hour Tuesday night rehearsals, with more practice required on the eve of a performance, including all day on weekends, a time that is usually a rare chance for many lawyers and members of the judiciary to relax. 

But a busy and high-stakes performance schedule requires dedication. The choir performed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, as backing vocalists for Barbara Streisand in a Sydney show, annual Christmas carols in Sydney’s CBD, and the memorial services for former Australian Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam. They even recorded some backing tracks for popular Australian movie Happy Feet. 

“I could have a really stressful day and then I arrive at choir practice and it’s like yoga for me,” Edwards tells LSJ.

“At the end of the practice, you feel so invigorated and it is such a good outlet. It mentally takes you away from your day. We concentrate on making music together, which can be very gratifying for the soul. 

“Our choirmaster will often say to us that you never know who in the audience really needs this music right now. It can lift you to a different place and bring together people from all walks of life.” 

It can, Edwards acknowledges, be a very demanding commitment. Members are expected to participate in 80 per cent of the program to continue their membership, although there is some flexibility and understanding around busy work and life schedules.

There is no worry that a busy day in court and with clients would take a toll on vocal cords, Edwards says, if you are singing the correct way.

“Singing properly means using your diaphragm,” she says.

“It has taken me a long time to learn that, and I’ve had lessons over the years. The choir also offers some tuition along the way. I have certainly improved in terms of my ability and the choir has been a great education for me. We are always striving to improve.”