By Rebecca Lord
Tired of reading long lists? Overwhelmed with too many ideas, platforms, and resources? Need immediate, workable solutions for your choir during the pandemic? Then this article is for you. The recommendations included are tried and true, offered by those among us who have blazed the trails with their choirs through the early days of the pandemic.
DEFINE YOUR GOALS & PARAMETERS
To make your problem-solving process most efficient, begin by answering these questions:
- What are the top priorities for my choir during the pandemic (e.g., vibrant social connections, maximal enrollment, virtual choir performances, skill and knowledge development)?
- What resources do I have access to?
- What are the hurdles?
The answers to these questions will help you streamline your efforts. The advice of Meg Davies, associate manager and producer for Eric Whitacre, hits home: “Always evaluate what your purpose is … prioritize your goals and find the best methodology for achieving those rather than just doing something because someone else did it and said it was great.”
Flexibility is also crucial during this time. Dianne Berkun Menaker, artistic director of the Grammy-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus, reminds us that during the pandemic “there is no pre-existing playbook … If you don’t shift your goals, you will feel like you have failed. And you haven’t.”
TEAM UP FOR TRIUMPH
There are too many hats to wear as a conductor right now to fly solo while keeping your standards high and your sanity and health intact. You need practical help with the increased demands and greater understanding and patience from those you serve. Both needs will be met as you build a team. “People’s creative juices are flowing … it’s a nice opportunity to get your members involved in [ways] they otherwise might not have been,” explains Dr. Thea Kano, artistic director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C.
Areas to seek help:
- Audio and video editing
- Tech needs during teaching (e.g., monitoring chats during Zoom rehearsals)
- Social-media management
- Brainstorming (e.g., Dr. Randall Kempton organized his choir into research teams at Brigham Young University – Idaho; other conductors are holding brainstorming Zoom meetings)
TOP TEN SUGGESTIONS FOR CHOIRS
First, a note that while efforts are being made to develop lag-free video communications, a mainstream solution is not yet available and likely will not be imminently. For now, plan on one-way sound for actual rehearsing.
- Keep meeting (and try Zoom)! Maintaining a live connection with and between singers is the most crucial component for a choir’s survival. Michael Wu notes the singers in his Strathmore Children’s Chorus “loved the fact that we … were regular and deliberate in keeping the rehearsal time … that we connected with them.” They told him, “you give us a reason to Zoom; we’re here by choice!”
All of the conductors I interviewed have been using Zoom, noting its ease of use and helpful features such as chat, breakout rooms for smaller groups, and the possibility to call-in. Consider keeping Zoom meetings open before and after rehearsals to facilitate socializing.
- Communicate regularly and positively! Your singers need to see the vision, feel inspired, and practically know what is happening and how to participate (e.g., some need help with technology).
- Angie Johnson, artistic director of Young Naperville Singers says, “Stop apologizing for being virtual and celebrate what you CAN do … [and] how we will grow/be better than normal when we come through this.” Her choir has developed hashtags such as #keepsinging and #singthroughthestorm.
- Dr. Anne Matlack, president of the ACDA New Jersey Chapter trains during Zoom meetings. “I screenshare and show them what we’ve put online (the practice tracks), and we sing along.”
- Prioritize singing! It’s great to supplement with other activities, but don’t forget your members joined choir to sing. Dr. Anne Matlack notes, “most of my singers have gone from singing two to six hours a week to two to six minutes a week.” They have requested “more vocalizing, more warm-ups!”
- Shorten rehearsals. 30-minute rehearsals have been successful for many conductors. Dr. Thea Kano notes that “we sit … in front of our computers all the time now, so our patience and attention span is getting … smaller.” Her singers find the shortened rehearsals “surprisingly fun!” If you keep your full rehearsal time, be sensitive to Zoom fatigue and build in variety and physical movement.
- Repertoire: Choose satisfying repertoire that is doable with the current challenges. Dianne Menaker notes, “Pieces that are more complicated, in six to eight parts, I would not consider … Two to three parts is fine … this is not forever.” Try introducing new music to the full choir and allowing everyone to learn and love the melody together before starting sectionals.
- Balance sectionals, full group, and individual attention:
- Sectionals are great for teaching new repertoire.
- For morale, also meet regularly as a full ensemble, even if you are not rehearsing each time.
- Find ways to give individual feedback. You might shorten rehearsals to 30 minutes and use the remaining time to rotate small groups, or to offer mini lessons. Check out Calendly.com for easy scheduling with your singers. Calendly generates and e-mails Zoom links (Chorus America, 2020).
- Provide home-study materials and expectations: Since audio is largely one-way, assign singers to learn their notes independently and save rehearsals for musical details. Provide practice tracks, recordings, or other home-study tools. Make recordings of rehearsals available (both links and downloads).
- Vary activities on Zoom and take advantage of unique opportunities!
- Invite guests! Most artists are stuck at home and are potentially more available (and inexpensive) than usual. “[Our] interviews with composers … were tremendously successful,” said Dr. José “Peppie” Calvar, assistant director of choral activities for Syracuse University. “At least one student … was inspired to compose music for the first time after being part of one of these interviews.”
- Build skills (e.g., musicianship, camera and microphone skills, vocal technique and artistry, and technology). Christine Noel, Rhode Island Children’s Chorus artistic director alternates rehearsing with “sight singing, ear training, break-out activities, conducting, body percussion; I try to make it as enriching as possible.”
- Highlight singers or staff to get better acquainted.
- Games (e.g., Kahoot, https://kahoot.com/home/).
- Cabaret night: Singers can perform or present on any topic.
- Extra projects. For example, see Dr. Doreen Fryling’s “High School Online Learning Options: Growing as Musicians” (https://doreenfryling.org/2020/03/17/high-school-choir-online-learning-options-growing-as-musicians/). No conductor preparation or instruction is required (recommended by Sarah Prickel-Kane, president of the ACDA Rhode Island Chapter).
- Try Flipgrid or Soundtrap!
- Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com/) provides a free space to connect, interact, and collect and share text, pictures, links, audio and video files. You can respond to singers publicly and privately. Everything is in one easy place. You can even collect recordings for virtual choir projects!
- Soundtrap (https://www.soundtrap.com/) is an online recording studio. It’s easy to use, free for the singers. There is a fee for the conductor, school, or district (varies). Dianne Berkun Menaker uses the program with her Brooklyn Youth Chorus. She sets up a project and enters all voice parts. Singers record directly into the project and save only their favorite takes. Each participant can turn on/off and set levels for any tracks in the project, customizing their experience. It’s great as a practice tool so singers can hear themselves with the choir – also an option for basic mixing and downloading of a performance.
- Take care of the community! Keep your patrons, community, and organizations invested through a combination of:
- Newsletters and other communications
- Virtual choir performances
- Archival footage
- Outreach to nursing homes and other shut-in groups in the community with your projects and recordings
- Special projects (e.g., solos, small virtual groups, interviews, stories of singers, composers, and others).
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF AND YOUR SINGERS
In making or influencing decisions that may have life-or-death consequences, the three pieces of advice that rang through loud and clear were: “Be Safe!” “Be Accommodating!” and “Be Supportive!”
Be Safe! Know the latest safety guidelines and risk factors for singing before choosing or advocating for any face-to-face interactions. For example, key safety guidelines from the Aug. 6, 2020 “International Coalition of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Round 2” (https://www.nfhs.org/media/4030003/aerosol-study-prelim-results-round-2-final.pdf) include:
Here are some organizations providing COVID-19 updates for singing, often including the latest safety guidelines:
- Surgical-quality well-fitting masks (e.g., no gaps), worn at all times by all participants, both indoors and outdoors
- 6’ distancing both indoors and outdoors, with masks in place.
- 30-minute maximum for gatherings, and then full air change(s), both indoors and outdoors.
- HEPA filtration indoors.
- Hand hygiene before and after touching any shared surfaces.
Here are some organizations providing COVID-19 updates for singing, often including the latest safety guidelines:
- ACDA’s Resources for Choral Professionals During the Pandemic page: https://acda.org/resources-for-choral-professionals-during-a-pandemic/
- International Coalition of Performing Arts: https://www.nfhs.org/articles/unprecedented-international-coalition-led-by-performing-arts-organizations-to-commission-covid-19-study/
- Chorus America’s COVID-19 page: https://www.chorusamerica.org/resource/top-resource/choruses-covid-19-coronavirus
- Barbershop Harmony Society’s COVID-19 page: https://www.barbershop.org/landing-pages/covid-19-resources-for-barbershoppers
- National Association of Teachers of Singing COVID-19 Resource page: https://www.nats.org/cgi/page.cgi/_article.html/Featured_Stories_/NATS_COVID_Resources_Page
Be Accommodating! Provide options for remote participation and do not pressure singers to return. Dianne Berkun Menaker reminds us: “Who knows what’s happening in an individual home with the illness?… Any time you can give the students a little room to decide how to engage, do it. We’re trying to encourage people to stay involved, not put more stress on them, so when we come back, they are still involved and they still want to sing together.”
Be Supportive! “While you, yourself, are trying to cheerlead for everyone else … [you] need moments to be sad as well,” Dr. Anne Matlack says. “It helps when colleagues can share that.” Robyn Reeves Lana, artistic director of the Cincinnati Youth Choir reminds us of the rainbow waiting at the end of the storm: “Imagine the day when you can come back … and sing together … how much more powerful will that memory be if you’ve sung through the storm and didn’t just quit!”
In recent years, Dr. 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. 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.
- Anne Matlack (President, American Choral Directors Association NJ Chapter; Artistic Director, Harmonium Choral Society; Grace Church, Madison, NJ), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 5, 2020.
- 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.
- Dianne Berkun Menaker (Founder and Artistic Director, Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 14, 2020.
- José “Peppie” Calvar (Assistant Director of Choral Activities, Syracuse University), e-mail to Rebecca Lord, July 12, 2020.
- Lana, Robyn Reeves, Angie Johnson, and Joshua Pedde, “Connecting Through Technology,” (2020 Virtual Conference Session), Chorus America, June 18, 2020.
- Meg Davies (Associate Manager & Producer, Eric Whitacre), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 13, 2020, e-mail to Rebecca Lord, July 27, 2020.
- Michael Wu (President, American Choral Directors Association Maryland/DC Chapter, Artistic Director, Strathmore Children’s Chorus, Conductor, Landon School, Bethesda), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 7, 2020 and e-mail to Rebecca Lord, July 6, 2020.
- Randall Kempton (Director of Choral Activities, Brigham Young University-Idaho), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 8, 2020.
- Robyn Reeves Lana (Founder, Managing Artistic Director & Conductor, Cincinnati Youth Choir), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 22, 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.
- Thea Kano (Artistic Director, Federal City Performing Arts Association, Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 8, 2020.
- Weaver, James, Mark Spede, Shelly Miller, Jelina Srebric, Jean Hertzberg, Abhishek Kumar, Sameer Patel, Tehya Stockman, Darin Toohey, Marina Vance, Nicholas Mattise, Sebastian Romo, Lingzhe Wang, and Shengwei Zhu, “International Coalition of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Round 2, August 6, 2020, https://www.nfhs.org/media/4030003/aerosol-study-prelim-results-round-2-final.pdf.