By Rebecca Lord
As conductors urge each other on during these perilous times, one phrase is repeated time and again: “think outside of the box!” Creative minds are taking on the challenge, and the potential life-and-death consequences of “normal” choral singing have spurred conductors toward innovations that will forever change the face of choral music. Conductors are finding that while penned into the walls of the web, their reach can easily fly past the boundaries of space. Collaborations and friendships are being forged around the world as we are united by this global experience. Technology is being used in ways that will provide long-lasting benefits in teaching and performing. Although people everywhere hope and pray for an end to this tragic time, there is beauty coming from the ashes.
TOUCHING OUR NATION’S YOUTH
Free Summer Music Camp
This summer, the Rhode Island Children’s Chorus (RICC) launched a virtual summer music camp, offering free weekly classes to children ages 7-18. The brainchild of Dr. Christine Noel, RICC’s founding artistic director, it served over 400 students in its inaugural year. Dr. Noel reports, “we’ve been able to reach so many more students… not only in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but all over the country!” RICC conductor Sarah Prickel-Kane mentioned the benefits to families of having flexibility built into the program and no tuition.
Dr. Noel additionally kept her RICC season going on schedule, transitioning to Zoom rehearsals and supplementing with an array of other enriching activities and resources. Feedback from parents and singers of both the Children’s Chorus and the summer camp has been “unbelievable!… I thought we’d have people dropping out. The parents have said this was the highlight of the child’s week… it provided continuity… live instruction rather than assignments to do on their own.”
Dr. Noel observes that while the pandemic is a true horror, the silver lining is that “we know how much more we can offer that is supplemental to the in-person experience. We’re going to continue to use some of these technologies.”
New National Academy
The National Children’s Chorus, (NCC), which serves singers ages 5-17 with choirs in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, also held their first virtual summer camp this year and is launching a virtual national academy for the 2020-2021 season. CEO and Artistic Director Luke McEndarfer reports working as an artistic team through the spring and summer months “to design a new regimen that flows beautifully on a digital platform.” Classes have been adjusted in length, content, and size, enabling students to feel like they may “easily ask a question, express thoughts and feelings, and/or receive direct feedback on their vocal performance.”
Mr. McEndarfer emphasizes the NCC’s vision of providing a “highly specialized, personal experience where students build skills… a strong sense of community… [and] passion and love for music.” Children receive training in vocal technique, musicianship, and recording skills. This season, members of the NCC will have the opportunity to participate in two digital world premieres by Eric Whitacre and Sarah Quartel!
Mr. McEndarfer noted that the feedback regarding their virtual summer program was incredible, signaling to them that the NCC was on the right path with their new program. “Despite the fact that camp was six hours per day for two weeks… we had many students tell us they wished it would continue… What this taught me was that… we can… create a quality online program that is truly effective and engaging… Our team does not look at online learning as a downgrade from live rehearsals and performances, but rather as a unique opportunity for us to connect with our students and enrich their education in new and meaningful ways.”
REACHING AROUND THE WORLD
Ablaze International Youth Festival
Also in the realm of children’s choirs, Nina Revering, founding artistic director of illumine (Austin, TX), is preparing to launch “Ablaze,” an international choral festival for young singers. Ms. Revering’s vision for this festival was born of her experiences conducting and advocating during these troubled times. This summer, she led illumine’s first virtual summer program, which was beautifully received by her young singers. As she has paved new roads, weathering inevitable storms and challenges, she has also sought to bolster her colleagues. “I’ve been on quite a serious soapbox. I tell my colleagues, ‘for the health and brains of the children, we have to do this!’”
Ms. Revering has put those words into beautiful action, creating a rich musical opportunity for individual singers and youth choirs around the world. From October through December, participants will gather virtually on Saturdays to “make connections, build repertoire, extend relationships, [and] grow in technique and expression.” Singers will learn from guest clinicians and conductors of participating choirs. They will socialize online, post videos, and create music and art. The festival will culminate with a professionally edited virtual concert featuring artwork, poetry, music, and comments from singers, vistas from the home countries of participants, and the virtual performance of a commissioned work! This festival is still open to new participants; information can be requested here.
Stay at Home Choir
Another international choral “offspring” of the pandemic is the Stay at Home Choir. Co-founded by Tori Longdon and Jamie Wright, this virtual choir organization was created as a platform to keep home-bound musicians around the world connecting and making music together. Ms. Longdon humorously explains, “we call it Flubber because it created itself and we’ve spent the rest of lockdown chasing after it.”
“Chasing” their new creation has propelled Ms. Longdon and Mr. Wright into unchartered territory as they have sought innovative solutions to musical needs and fears expressed by individuals around the world. Knowing they will never replace physical choirs, their focus has been on creating “something different… that could sit alongside [those choirs] in a useful way.” They have prioritized connecting world-class guest artists with singers, including The King’s Singers, Sir Karl Jenkins, The Swingles, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Sixteen, and VOCES8 (current project). Singers perform and interact with these guests through online rehearsals, socials, drop-in lounges, and other offerings.
The Stay at Home Choir is impressively managed entirely by a small team of friends and colleagues. “We’re… alumni of the same youth choir,” explains Ms. Longdon. “We’ve… diversified into having different skill sets… they are professional editors, and they’re immensely talented, but they’re also our mates.”
ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY
While many of us are learning to use technology that is new to us, others are creating new technology! Here are two exciting examples.
Co-founder of the Stay at Home Choir, Jamie Wright, says “There are a number of unique challenges in creating projects of this scale, and one way that we’ve tackled the challenge is writing custom programs to help make the task more manageable.” He and the small team of editors at the Stay at Home Choir have created systems to help them manage files remotely more effectively and deal with the very specific challenges that virtual choir projects present. So far they’ve developed mechanisms that can cut certain tasks that used to take days down to minutes! When asked about the possibility of sharing their findings with the world, Ms. Longdon explains that at the moment they are not able to. “It’s not very easy… to transfer the script between computers, so it’s not possible at the moment, but it’s something we’ll think about later on down the line.”
WebEx Developments in Real-Time Video Communications
The Indianapolis Children’s Choir (ICC) is partnering with WebEx to explore possibilities for real-time video communications. Artistic Director Joshua Pedde explains that plans with WebEx will roll out in phases beginning this fall. Initially, WebEx devices and equipment currently installed at Butler University will be used, and eventually individual computers in homes will be incorporated. WebEx engineers have advised Mr. Pedde that strong internet connections (e.g. via ethernet cables), good microphones and headphones will be needed by each singer to make the system work well, but hopes are that, with these in place, WebEx will be able to find solutions enabling singers to see and hear each other in real time without lag.
FOCUS ON EDUCATION
Maximizing learning opportunities has been the focus for Dr. Randall Kempton, director of choral activities at Brigham Young University-Idaho. His Collegiate Singers used their spring semester (April-July) to pilot new approaches for the 2020-2021 academic year. In a journey he described as “flying by the seat of our pants,” he invited his singers to navigate and co-pilot with him.
- Mini virtual choirs: singers were divided into small ensembles (three to six) and tasked with creating their own virtual choir performances. This was an initiation of sorts, helping the singers “[get] their feet wet” with the full experience, from selecting repertoire to rehearsing, recording, and editing. Individuals with experience or talent in editing were easily spotted and able to help with later projects larger in scope.
- The choir was divided into research groups focused on finding solutions for the unique needs of the day, including auditions, effective rehearsals, virtual choirs, and low-latency communication options. Findings were shared and experiments conducted, often led by students, all while continuing to rehearse.
Dr. Kempton applauded the energy, dedication, and resourcefulness of his singers as they rode up hills and down into valleys, celebrating the successes and gaining flexibility and resilience from the failures. Dr. Kempton noted that while the journey was a new kind of choral music experience, his singers were “staying in love with music and the creative process.” Comments from the singers during their final Zoom class reflect the richness and diversity of their experiences:
- “We get to do research!… Coming together to solve a problem that’s meaningful to all of us really brings us together” (Anna Dayton).
- “[As a] kamikaze tech researcher… it was very fun for me to be able to re-explore that side of my abilities!” (Glen Bourgeois)
- “I really enjoyed [making] our own little mini virtual choirs… doing a big virtual choir is…fun, but you can sometimes feel really small …” (Louisa Campbell).
- “My satisfaction level has come from the learning… One day I’m going to be a music educator, so I’ve enjoyed learning as much as I can…” (Sarah Bradbeer).
- “As we have recorded… I have improved in my self-awareness. I am aware of my rhythm, if it’s exact; I am aware of my pitch and my breathing. I have also been better at listening to others. While I have been editing, I’ve realized how important it is to be perfect in our execution when we record” (Daniel Dyer).
- “Dr. Kempton keeps us singing! We sing every class period which is super nice, especially when we do not get to sing as often” (Nikki Green).
Dr. Kempton’s focus on education resulted in frequent dialogue with the singers about what was being discovered, both musically and non-musically. During their final Zoom meeting, he reminded them of life lessons they had learned together. “You can’t plan every moment, but you can plan to be prepared for whatever opportunities and challenges life throws in your path.”
Cultivating Creativity and Innovation through Improvisation
Looking toward the fall, Dr. Kempton is considering adding an element of improvisation such as improvised opera, where singers “converse” about a subject accompanied by Mozart recitative chords. He notes that while not everybody has experience with improv or composition, all can benefit. These are times that artists need courage, the willingness to try new things, to not be afraid to fail. Teaching improvisation can cultivate that musically and in other ways.
Craig Hella Johnson, artistic director of Grammy Award-winning Conspirare Company of Voices and an expert in improv, adds, “I would just underscore the value and importance of improvisation in terms of reminding people about their own musical impulses. In classical training we get so far away from it…. [It can help if we realize] that the whole thing we’re doing right now is improvising.”
Specific ideas Johnson offers for online learning: while “we can’t be synchronous… we can absolutely be sequential. Let’s say there are 12 people on a call. Go around the ‘Zoom room,’ sing a riff [or] try a phrase, and encourage and cultivate a sense of safety and freedom… Finish and pass it on.” The next participant incorporates an element, “responding” and adds his or her own ideas. Johnson also suggests utilizing apps for improv practice. An initial singer could be assigned to lay down an improvised rhythmic track, and each subsequent singer in a group would add a layer. He also suggests video improv “discussions” on a platform such as Flipgrid. A singer can post a clip of an improvised riff or phrase, and a teacher or another singer can post a video response. “Here’s what you said. Here’s my response.”
BEYOND THE BOX OF THE CHOIR
While many innovations are taking place within the structure of rehearsing and concertizing, some conductors are exploring ideas beyond this “box.” In his leadership of Conspirare Craig Hella Johnson reports, “we are doing everything we know how to…stay connected.” This outward reach has led to new virtual collaborations with artists around the world and an array of other initiatives, including:
- “Songs and Poems and Connection,” an evening of poetry and music “from Craig’s home to yours.”
- Big Sing at Home: Johnson and 14 members of Conspirare pre-recorded a virtual sing-along for the community featuring well-known tunes (e.g., patriotic songs, popular classics, and excerpts from Handel’s Messiah). 750-800 people sang along online and community members wrote in, expressing appreciation for the renewed connection.
- Songs of Connection: Johnson and Conspirare are collecting new songs from composers around the world. Johnson observes that it “really feels like a song movement. We’re trying to shine a light on the creation of songs… At some point there may be an actual book, but right now it’ll be a database of songs online. We’re asking composers if we can use it freely, like public domain, to make the songs available for all.” Johnson’s vision is to collect 200-300 songs over the next couple of months that will bring people “closer to a vision of real unity… liberating, empowering, comforting, inspiring…”
GIVE YOURSELF THE FREEDOM TO EXPLORE
Beautiful and inspiring, these examples are just a few of many individuals around the world, thinking outside the box and paving new musical trails. Untouched vistas abound, waiting to be explored. How many other new roads will be created, shining a light for others in the darkness?
The invitation is open to all. Dr. Randall Kempton shares his thoughts that this time is “like trying to fly to the moon in the 1960s. It’s like trying to cross the plains with pioneers. This is our pioneer moment. This is our ‘go to the moon’ moment.” Craig Hella Johnson beautifully observes, “In the midst of really difficult times, there are wonderful gifts…” All it takes is a willingness to “try things and to let go of the outcome and to be free to fail.”
In recent years, Rebecca Lord has served on the choral/vocal faculty of Brigham Young University-Idaho and as Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of California, Los Angeles where she earned MM and DMA degrees under the tutelage of Donald Neuen. She also served as Chorus Master for Arizona Musicfest and Assistant Conductor for the Hour of Power choir. She has a background as a professional violinist, soprano, dancer, and actress. Dr. Lord is temporarily teaching part-time, as she is enjoying being a new mother.
- Brigham Young University-Idaho Collegiate Singers, Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 8, 2020.
- Christine Noel (Founder and Artistic Director, Rhode Island Children’s Chorus), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 11, 2020.
- Craig Hella Johnson (Founding Artistic Director, Grammy Award-winning Conspirare Company of Voices, Music Director, Cincinnati Vocal Arts Director, Professor of Practice, Texas State University), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, August 28, 2020.
- Joshua Pedde (Artistic Director, Indianapolis Children’s Choir), e-mails to Rebecca Lord July 23 & 26, 2020.
- Luke McEndarfer (Artistic Director, The National Children’s Chorus), e-mails to Rebecca Lord, September 5 & 8, 2020.
- Nina Revering (Founding Artistic Director, Illumine), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, August 27, 2020, e-mail to Rebecca Lord September 2, 2020.
- Randall Kempton (Director of Choral Activities, Brigham Young University-Idaho), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 8, 2020.
- Sarah Prickel-Kane (President, American Choral Directors Association Rhode Island Chapter; Conductor, Narragansett High School; Conductor, Rhode Island Children’s Chorus), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 13, 2020.
- Tori Longdon (Co-Founder, Stay at Home Choir, Conductor and Adjudicator), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, August 21, 2020, email to Rebecca Lord, September 16, 2020.