Baritone Keith Lam performing with Tafelmusik, November 2019. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

In The New Normal—our interview series—we speak to the musicians and staff of Tafelmusik, to ask how working and performing in new ways has changed our routines, and our operations as a performing arts organization.

In this edition, we speak with choir member and baritone Keith Lam, about the ways the pandemic has affected his work and his life.

Tafelmusik: The phrase “the new normal” has become a staple of our everyday vernacular. What does “the new normal” mean for you, as it relates to your life, and your work with Tafelmusik?

Keith Lam: Funny enough, my “new normal” has become most people’s “regular normal”. My part time day job has become almost a full-time job. The 9-5 has given me stability, something I’ve never had in the 13 years of my career as an artist.  I’m kind of enjoying it, at least for now.  The fact I’m able to work from home means I have extra time to do things other than spending it on the hustle and bustle.  It has forced me to be even more mindful about how I spend my income.

TM: As a baritone, how did you—or do you—keep your voice exercised from home, when we were unable to gather? What does practice during a pandemic look like for a professional choir member?

KL: There’s actually not much of a difference in practicing choral music pre or during pandemic.  Of course you have to be prepared for rehearsals, making sure your notes are learned—but the real challenge is working together with your fellow colleagues on blending the sound together. Luckily, I haven’t had any complaints from my neighbours.

TM: How do you feel about Tafelmusik’s Chamber Choir returning, and releasing our first choral concert of the season, A Tafelmusik Christmas?

KL: I feel extremely lucky the opportunity is there, anyone should feel privileged to be able to create art at this point.  Unfortunately, due to the new restrictions, half the choir won’t be able to join us. So you’ll only get to see the other half in our first choral concert of the season—and I hope y’all still tune in!

TM: What do safety measures look like for choir members? Have there been any parts of the safety protocols which were surprising or challenging, as a singer?

KL: It’s very technical.  Contact tracing is implemented, we all have to sign in each time we gather. Every single member has their own designated spot for personal belongings. We all sit at least six feet apart with a clear partition in between us. We take smaller breaks to clear the rehearsal space to air out the room. Yes, we do sing with masks on. There are specially made masks for singers which you may or may have not seen: if not, you’ll definitely see in this concert. I nicknamed it the “duck mask”, you’ll see why! 

Singing with masks on is actually not bad: singing consonants may take a little more effort but I have not found the sound to be obstructed. As I’ve said before, the real challenge is blending. The distance in between each singer does make it more difficult for us to hear each other. This is why more than ever, we need Ivars as a visual reference because we can’t only rely on hearing each other.

TM: What have you missed most about being away from our physical space, our home base at Trinity St-Paul’s Centre?

KL: I missed my partner-in-crime, Graham Robinsonm, who I often sing next to in the bass section. He’s always been a great colleague and a friend. I call him my rock, I feel I sing better with him around. Oh, and I have also missed our resident-kitty cat at Trinity St-Paul’s Centre, Meesha.

TM: How has the “new normal” affected your work outside of Tafelmusik?

KL: I also work for the Canadian Opera Company in the box office, I have so much gratitude for them because they’re essentially keeping me from living on the streets during these times. It took a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic but the company was eventually able to set up the staff to work from home via technology. Like many other arts organizations right now, the struggle is to stay afloat until we’re all safe to gather. 

During the past months, I’ve had numerous opportunities to speak with so many patrons. Some are also struggling financially but I was pleasantly surprised to see how many are able and willing to donate their ticket funds back to the company. I am forever grateful to those who continue to support any arts organizations now across the world.

TM: What aspect of A Tafelmusik Christmas are you most looking forward to, or most excited for audiences to hear?

KL: It’s wonderful that we’ll have a chance to revisit a little bit of Bach, but I have to say Charpentier has always been my jam. 

Here at Tafelmusik, we certainly have done a lot of his works. But it was a joy to find out that "Source de lumière et de grâce" was picked for this concert. I wasn’t only on a hiatus from making baroque music, I stepped away from listening to it during the whole pandemic. To be completely honest, I felt incredibly unmotivated to be creative. I needed some time to reflect on my career and also figure out how to move forward during these uncertain times. But the moment I started revisiting this music, I was reminded again why it must be done and heard. 

The way Charpentier wrote and how he layered the music for different voices… this is cliché, but his music really feeds my soul. It reminded me so much of the Baroque Summer Institute where each summer we would perform one of Charpentier’s big masses. I’m so thrilled we’ll be recording in the same church at Grace Church on-the-Hill, where a great deal of wonderful memories were made.

TM: Are there any socially distant activities you have been enjoying?

KL: In the summer for sure, I took full advantage of it. I would often take long bike rides and each time would be a different route. I’ve discovered so many green spaces in Toronto that I never knew of. We have no excuse to gather all together in one park. Trust me, Toronto has a ton of these “hidden gems”. I went to the beach a lot, and to the island. 

Now the weather has gotten colder, I’ve resorted to swimming in my apartment building’s pool and continue to cook up different recipes. It’s been a great time honing on my kitchen skills. The mortar and pestle is my new favourite toy and I’m still working on making that perfect pie crust.

TM: Do you have any favourite holiday music—choral or other—that you particularly enjoy, which you’d like to share with us?

KL: Since I started singing baroque music ages ago, Handel’s Messiah really has become a staple. And since joining Tafelmusik, I’ve made my parents join in on the traditional Sing-Along Messiah concert each year (yes, they do bring their own scores). Unfortunately, we all have to take a year sabbatical, but I encourage everyone to join us for our online Sing-Along on Screen presentation: we will be sharing a filmed version of Sing-Along Messiah for a full week, December 17 to 26, for free on YouTube. 

Remember that this is all temporary. I’m positive we’ll be back next year to share it with y’all together again! If you’re in the mood for something… different, head to YouTube and search for the “Young Messiah” from the 1980s. And you can’t go through December without Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”. I hope you all continue to be safe and healthy!