This week’s blog is sharing highlights from a conversation with Amanda Stevenson, founder and artistic director of Omaha Children’s Choir (OCC), an organization focused on making choral music education accessible to all children. OCC just wrapped up their 6th season (2020-21). You can read more about OCC and their amazing work here.
In late January 2020, Ms. Stevenson was wrapping up an OCC retreat, where singers worked on the organization’s first big commission. The kids had been highly involved in the artistic process, including helping to decide the focus of the text. The composer was brought into the retreat. This 2-year-long process also involved collaboration with a local, non-music organization; the premiere was scheduled for April 2020.
When COVID-19 shut down community gathering, it was hard. Not only was the premiere paused, but OCC serves a wide range of families, including many that don’t (or didn’t) have access to the internet or devices. Some parents don’t speak English or they work multiple jobs (or both). One of the central tenets of OCC’s mission is about access, but they didn’t have the means to provide access to everyone, and they were not prepared to go online. Remember, OCC is a younger organization, and it follows a different type of financial and musical model. Instead of moving choir online, Ms. Stevenson and the OCC board decided to reach out to their community in another way– through bringing families food who needed it and creating activity boxes for the singers to stay connected. They attempted a few meet-ups over Zoom in the summer, but there was no singing yet. And still, it didn’t feel like OCC because they were missing so many singers in their community.
At the end of September 2020, OCC began meeting twice a month over Zoom. They didn’t rehearse and instead explored musical topics. Most importantly, these meetings were a way to check in with the singers. Still, Ms. Stevenson said, most of the refugee families in their community weren’t with them. She had stayed connected with them, and they wanted to return, but didn’t have the ability at that point.
In December, OCC had two virtual caroling sessions. That is when the kids said “When can we sing? We don’t care if we are online!”
Starting in January 2021, they began rehearsals on Zoom. In April, they moved outdoors and had 4 “outdoor singing gatherings.” Low key and without an audience, it was a chance to engage in communal singing with a community they loved. Performance wasn’t an end goal. It was seeing the kids desire to be and sing together that mattered.
“Hearing from them and seeing their desire to continue… the importance of joining our voices together and how powerful that is… [even] outside of what your choir can or can’t do musically,” Ms. Stevenson said of what kept her going. “Process over product” is what she has always subscribed to, and COVID-19 gave this mantra an entirely new meaning.
But really, it was all about the community. And that, she says, is what the singers need the most. They need community even more than they need the singing. It’s been lonely for the singers, and they’ve been through the loss of family members and neighbors. Parents were reaching out to Ms. Stevenson often. This community was a lifeline.
As OCC and Ms. Stevenson look toward the future, there are many considerations. There are no solid plans in place yet, but she’s hopeful they will be in person, as long as their rehearsal spaces are open to the public again. The organization is navigating safety, and will reach out for feedback from their community. It will be a rebuilding year. While Ms. Stevenson could potentially see the use of Zoom rehearsals or recording future rehearsals, she understands that technology doesn’t replace in person choral singing, and the use of this technology would leave some families out.
As Ms. Stevenson looks toward OCC’s future, she recognizes the challenges in front of them. The organization is small and young, which means many resources that are available to larger and more established organizations are difficult to access. In addition, OCC doesn’t follow a traditional model, which means the resources that are available aren’t always the resources OCC needs. Beyond that, there aren’t many models for OCC to follow. How can OCC continue to be sustainable while keeping accessibility a priority? Beyond financial accessibility, music is a big consideration. There is not a lot of music available that fits the mission and needs of OCC and the singers– it needs to be centered around social issues written for children.
“When we are talking about equity, we have to define that,” Ms. Stevenson says, “Equity is not a marketing [ploy].” Financial accessibility, organizational access and equity, music accessibility, rehearsal spaces (location, spaces that aren’t affiliated with a religious institution)… “Who has benefited the most [from traditional models of communal singing]? Who have we actually left behind?”
While the next season for OCC is still being planned, Ms. Stevenson is very clear with her priorities: “It’s about building that community [and] those relationships. You can’t have a community without relationships.”