“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
What happens when we prepare to start a new job?
We do the research, find ways to build trust early, hold off on making big changes until relationships are established, and get creative about making music successfully as soon as possible (like day one).
What happens when we return to in-person choir after a year and a half of an ongoing global pandemic and fully virtual experiences?
The same thing.
A few weeks ago, I returned to campus after 18 months away, having taught our choirs and a methods course last year completely via Zoom. Like every fall, I looked forward to greeting new students and building our ensemble community, knowing there are always learning arcs as we shape our collective understanding of our mission, the practical aspects of how we work together, and our choral sound.
But what I hadn’t fully processed until we started was that these singers have had little to no performing history with me.
In normal fall semesters, we count on the returning singers, those who have sung many concerts with us and perhaps have toured or done special events together, to be an important part of our relational foundation with the choirs. They “get us,” they lead their peers by example, and set the tone for the year ahead. They carry the history of who we are, built on the shoulders of so many who came before them.
But it occurred to me that this year’s seniors had just three semesters of collegiate concertizing in person, and the juniors, only one semester, before the pandemic cut our season short (a long time ago). Sophomores only know me through Zoom, so they have never even sung in our concert hall (“how do I get up to the loft?”). And as always, new students are, well, new.
Uh-oh. I have a new job.
In many ways, it’s as though I have started an entirely new position (though I am actually returning for my 28th year at this institution). I am learning many more new faces (or eyes and foreheads above masks), a process surprisingly impacted by misperceptions that come from teaching via Zoom (some students who I envisioned as tall are actually short, or vice versa). I am rethinking how to structure our time and methodology to ensure we have a common basis for our work together rather than assuming past history will jump start us. And I am teaching, encouraging, and modeling how to physically be in the presence of others so that these singers can trust me, each other, and the process of making authentic music.
We are beginning, again.
“Beginning again” can mean a return to what we have always done as a matter of routine, comfort, or calendar, or beginning again can invite us to see with new eyes, the eyes of a beginner not locked into past practice, at least not without examining it anew.
This year, we have no choice but to see anew because this is unlike any time in our history. We need to do the research not only on suitable and meaningful repertoire but also on safe practices for rehearsal that can go a long way to protecting everyone and ensuring our in-person music can continue. We must consider the singers’ need to rebuild their physical stamina and overall mental wellness as they develop trust with the in-person experience, releasing their voice, their breath, into the mask and beyond. We need to create a sense of security so that singers feel safe to build relationships with us and each other as they re-emerge from the pandemic cocoon. And we need to tap into our creative well to find ways to make music successfully, simply, and soon, because all the team building and ice-breaker games in the world can’t compare with Making.Music.Together.
Seeing with the eyes of the expert can bring experience, discernment, and humility to help structure our next chapter. Seeing with the eyes of the beginner invites curiosity and possibility and openness to new ideas. If, in beginning again, we can hold space for both of these perspectives, we can forge a new path towards a musical experience we have not felt before, or at least, not for a very long time. A path towards regaining hope, so very much needed in our lives right now.
We begin, again. But ever anew.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
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