By Corey Carleton
The treble voices are clear, strong, and at times overwhelm the acoustics of Fellowship Hall at a Presbyterian church on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. It’s a large, live room.
“Are you heavy or light?” Fernando Malvar-Ruiz asks his Concert Choir. Malvar-Ruiz is “Mr. Fernando” to his singers, and Artistic Director of the esteemed Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC).
“Heavy,” several choristers respond. “OK, what can you do to keep this from being heavy?” A few singers call out, “Support.” “That’s right. You need to support your breath,” he agrees. Then adds in his charming Spanish accent, “Let’s see if you can fix it,” he calls from the piano. They try again “Better,” he says.
It’s a Tuesday night in late February and the Concert Choir of LACC is rehearsing for an upcoming gig. The Concert Choir is the organization’s professional treble choir that performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Opera, and other A-list classical acts in town. The singers are mostly teenage girls, with a few boys in their soprano prime. Members audition every year to make sure they have a spot in the choir, or move up the ranks of the three apprentice choirs that develop these young musicians into proficient singers. It is not going too far to say LACC’s Concert Choir has one of the most beautiful ensemble sounds on the West Coast.
Now he gives them a new vocal exercise on the vowels “see-ah” – ascending legato arpeggios on “see” followed by staccato arpeggios descending on “ah.”
“Nice!” He encourages his singers enthusiastically, “Very good! Can you do it again?”
Mr. Fernando’s language is respectful. His rhetoric positive. This is how he drives a roomful of middle schoolers and teenagers beyond their perceived limits. The scene unfolding before me is a best-case scenario of how the art of choral singing is passed down from one generation to another.
On March 4, just over a week before Los Angeles began sheltering in place, LACC’s Concert Choir was at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, warming up to rehearse for an NPR live radio show, From the Top, co-hosted by Peter Dugan and violinist Vijay Gupta. I dropped my son off in the afternoon for a dress rehearsal, and returned that night for the performance with a last-minute ticket in the front row. I sat next to a CEO, who introduced himself. Inches apart in our theater seats, we opted to literally rub elbows instead of shaking hands, because, you know, COVID-19, we told each other.
The show was one classical music youth act after another. High school boys playing a saxophone quartet, middle schoolers playing Chopin on the piano, or Brahms on violin. One girl was a high school junior and a gorgeously refined cellist. Each act was interviewed by the duo, who asked them about their personal experiences of mastering an instrument. Artful music making was being embraced by a younger generation before our very ears and eyes. We were elated after the first act, only to be awed with each subsequent offering on the program.
LACC’s Concert Choir was last on the program. They sang two well-known pieces by J. S. Bach and Harold Arlen – composers who are important to Western music and are centuries apart, chronologically and stylistically. The ensemble of young voices brought new relevance to these old favorites – breathed fresh life into familiar tunes. The effect was infectious. Audience members were on our feet cheering after the last chord dissipated. The CEO and I excitedly expressed our delight with the show to one another, rubbed elbows one last time before I searched backstage for my son to drive him home on a school night. At that moment I was a mom filled with gratitude that my teenager was a part of something so inspiring. As a musician, I was awed that he had opportunities to expand and be a part of an art form that is larger than the individual.
Little did anyone know that night that this was the choir’s final performance of 2020. When Los Angeles first settled in to shelter in place, we thought we would be down for a month, tops. But a month in, LA’s numbers were still rising. Within weeks, news broke of a choir in Washington state that spread the virus to 60 percent of its members in one rehearsal. A month after that, in a webinar co-hosted by NATS, ACDA, Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medicine Association, participants heard scientists say that there was likely no safe way to hold traditional in-person choir rehearsals in the fall, or perhaps until a vaccine is developed. At about the same time, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom announced there would be no live performances until 2021, with no guarantees for the future.
Information was coming from all directions about how the act of choir singing was a “super spreader” event. Even small ensembles with one or two singers were cancelled. If you sang, you were out of work. In an age where social media amplifies our voices, singers were silenced.
By the end of May I watched as my network of singing colleagues grieved on social media about lost performances and opportunities to sing together. Not that anyone thought it was a good idea to keep working. The disease attacked the very thing singers rely on – our ability to control our breath. The irony that COVID-19 killed singing, the pandemic that attacked your lungs and left them with possible lifelong damage, was not lost on singers.
In rehearsal Mr. Fernando’s singers face each other for a sustained exercise on “ooo.” “Are you heavy or light?” he asks again. “Heavy,” comes from a few singers. “Let the sound pour outside you,” he tells them. What happens next takes my breath away. They produce a beautiful, homogenous sound, with gorgeous blend, and they keep the quality going to the bottom of the scale. For readers who are not singers, this is no easy feat.
“That was far better!”
This scene of positive rhetoric shaping young singers is gone now for many of those teenagers.
There are countless studies about how important music is to young, developing minds. Setting aside the years of practice it takes to master an instrument, music is a mental workout with just the melody, harmony, and rhythm. It is in the camp of performing arts that requires you to work both on your own and in a group. You are responsible for your artistry, but you must rely on the artistry of your colleagues to put together an intricate piece of music that requires multiple musicians to perform. You are both alone and part of a whole all at once. I honestly cannot think of a better metaphor for life.
When the shutdown began, I was one of thousands of musicians and performing arts organization board members in California caught off guard. By April, we knew our gigs through June were cancelled. By May, all performances of 2020 were cancelled. I read my daily email with a sinking heart as the news came in. I watched from the sidelines as arts organizations mobilized to put together grants for musicians who they knew would fall through the cracks of federal relief funds. As a board member of an arts organization, I was grateful for something to do. We fundraised to ensure we could pay our musicians in full for cancelled concerts.
I cannot imagine being a talented teenager with a calendar of life shaping opportunities unceremoniously cancelled. As adults, most of us can wait for a safe reopening. That’s not to say it’s not excruciating to watch gigs tick by unsung on your calendar. But, we are adults. We have already had the experiences that formed our dreams and desires. When I think of how brief a time you are a teenager, and how those years inform your being throughout your adulthood, I ache for the teenagers who are losing precious time to make music, theater, dance, film, animation, and more, together.
2020 was supposed to be a seminal year for LACC. In the full stride of his second year (after following the beloved Anne Tomlinson who led the choir for 28 years), Mr. Fernando had made his mark as an exciting new director the choristers loved and respected. He was also the driver who expanded the organization to open one more high-level choir – an SATB ensemble. A first for the organization.
Furthermore, plans were in place to take the Concert Choir on tour in Spain for two weeks in June. Add the radio show, a full performance schedule that included their spring concert, and engagements at the Hollywood Bowl and Skirball Center, 2020 was to be a year filled with extraordinary artistic experiences for their choristers.
Teaching music is an oral tradition, embedded in one-on-one instruction and passed down this way from one generation to another. Music teachers meet in person to teach, listen critically to the sounds their students make, dole out wisdom, guide discipline, and introduce young musicians to composers they would not come across on Spotify. Some musicians can trace their teacher genealogy back several hundred years.
That is not to say you cannot have music lessons online. You certainly can, but you miss a lot in the transfer of information over the internet, such as the tone of the instrument in a live space. Teachers now are listening less, and watching more. They look for physical tension in their Zoom sessions, and trust that if they can teach an economy of movement, the right sound will follow.
Regardless of how many technically exciting virtual choirs you might find on YouTube, you cannot lead an authentic chorus online. As one colleague put it on her social media account, “I don’t want to sit in front of a microphone singing just my part, and then lip-synching it into a video camera with a smile on my face. THIS IS NOT SINGING.”
Chorus is community. It’s coming together to become something bigger than yourself. It’s acoustic. It’s blending with your neighbor. Leading your section. Watching your conductor, and being artistically flexible to do what s/he asks you to do. It is a contract that anywhere from four to eighty people make – that they will come together and sing something simply for the beauty of it.
“It takes intense focus to sing this well,” Mr. Fernando tells his singers in rehearsal in February. “It doesn’t mean it doesn’t have energy.” He’s letting them know he will not let them phone it in. To be in the choir takes more than a commitment to show up to rehearsal. They must engage while they are there. Without this dialogue, they would not be the phenomenal choir they are. Their sound would be more static, less alive. Their phrasing flat. Their pitch wobbly.
Sadly, there’s not a lot of engagement going on these days at LACC, which is to be expected. Choir has turned into an online musicianship course, with a weekly worksheet. There is no communing. No singing together. No blending. No counterpoint, or harmony. No being one with a large body that accomplishes great things.
Milestones are passing these kids by – graduations, proms, sweet 16 parties, driving school, and for some, an A-list summer of activities, such as a choir trip to Spain. These are the growth experiences that transcend school-learning for high school students. Clearly, COVID-19 is going to define this generation, but in what way? I watch as my teenager connects online – going inward at a time in his life when he needs to be guided outward. Opportunity to engage meaningfully is on hold indefinitely, which to teenagers who may be adults by the time the virus is no longer a threat, feels like an eternity.
“If you ask the finest singers about singing on the breath, they say it feels like the sound is outside you and you are doing nothing,” Mr. Fernando tells his singers. There’s a murmur in the room as Mr. Fernando pickups up his baton. Again, their attention focuses on him.
“Remember, on the breath.”
This piece first appeared in ECAMERONline, a pop-up project in which members of this community take turns telling stories, as did the original protagonists of Boccaccio’s Decameron, to pass the days while they were in flight from the plague in Trecento Florence.
Corey Carleton is a Baroque soprano with music degrees from University of California – Berkeley and Indiana University, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. She has sung nationally and internationally, but primarily performs chamber music in Southern and Northern California with groups such as Tesserae Baroque, Corona del Mar Baroque Festival, and Les Violettes – ensembles that champion the music of the Italian Renaissance, Bach, Buxtehude, and the French Baroque. When Corey isn’t singing, she’s writing for small businesses and arts organizations.