Coping with crisisIt is striking how tenacious choral folks are – how passionate and brave, and how seriously they are taking the myriad of responsibilities placed on their shoulders by this pandemic. All of a sudden, choristers are being called “super spreaders.” Words like “explosive plumes” and the fact that an aerosol droplet, one micron in size, can hold 1000 microns of virus “payload,” make singing suddenly sound like a tactical military operation. I mean, who could think that an art form that gives so much hope and happiness to so many – communal singing – could actually be one of the most dangerous activities one could do? Nevertheless, in speaking with choral directors throughout North Carolina, it is clear that it will take more than COVID-19 to bring down this art form.

This is the first in a series of articles focusing on what choral organizations around the state are doing versus what can’t be done during this confinement. Artistic directors in public schools, universities, and community choruses will give the reader a sense of how choral activities are moving forward. And let there be no doubt…: they are on the move.

Let’s begin with Jeremy Tucker, who wears many hats and is fierce in his determination to do whatever it takes to keep choral music alive and kicking through this difficult time. He is not only the artistic director of the Raleigh Boychoir (RBC) but also the president-elect of the North Carolina chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (NC ACDA) and the arts education director for the Durham County Public Schools.

Last weekend, the RBC, now in its 52nd year, defied all convention and did not cancel the final performance of their season. They quickly adapted so the show could go on, virtually, from the homes, porches and outdoor spaces of the members. The concert, entitled “World Music Concert,” was aired last Sunday. It was student driven and completely held to the mandate of the organization: Sing, Transform, Lead. (A review of the virtual concert can be read here. You may also watch the concert here.)

“We (RBC) took one week off and then started our rehearsals right back up on Zoom,” says Tucker. This ticked off the “transform” portion of the mission statement in a way unimagined previously. RBC also quickly pivoted into having the choristers’ family members (pets included) interact in the creation of their concert. Tucker set up what he calls “connect time” in which the older members of the choir meet on two separate days per week (tenors on Tuesday, baritones on Wednesday) just to talk…, without him.

During their regular Monday rehearsals, the members performed individually for one another. There were breakout sessions in different chat rooms where older boys took on leadership roles within their sections. Tucker shortened the screen time during the rehearsals but transformed what remained to include sight singing and musical literacy – important work that typically gets sidelined in chorus practices.

The RBC staff worked with the younger choirs on enriched games that are solfege-based. The culmination and transformation of the virtual concert on May 30 resulted in a variety of student-driven offerings of world music.

Tucker says that the RBC will also move forward with a virtual summer camp with some of the country’s top names in choral music.  “It’s called C3: Connecting through Composers, Conductors and Collegiate Music Leaders…. offering an amazing opportunity for middle and high school boys that probably would not [have been] afforded had this situation not happened.”

Clinicians will include Dr. Dan Huff of UNC-Chapel Hill. Huff has conducted the UNC Glee Club for over 24 years. He will lead some singing as well as talk about taking music on a college level and maybe even becoming a music major. Dr. Jason Max Ferdinand, conductor of the acclaimed Aeolian’s of Oakwood University,* will be discussing becoming a choral or instrumental conductor. Dr. Andrea Ramsey will talk to the participants about becoming a composer and performer. Broadway’s Dominick Amendum, Associate Music Supervisor of Wicked, will bring to the conversation what it takes to perform on stage with a top flight musical team. C3 will feature other online offerings for all stages of vocal development. See the line-up here.

As Director of Arts Education for the Durham County Public School System (K-12), Tucker oversees 160 arts teachers. He states, “Durham County has determined that they will focus on ‘Response’ – being a part of choir is way more than singing. Choir directors teach history, theory, and musical literacy, among other things. There is an advocacy movement within the public schools to [retain] arts teachers. In fact, Durham County is hiring more arts teacher for the coming year, not laying them off. The teaching of the arts is needed even more tomorrow than yesterday!”

As president-elect of the North Carolina chapter of ACDA, Tucker, alongside NC ACDA president Dr. Wendy Looker and the NC ACDA conference committee, was set to go in unveiling their annual fall conference, proudly entitled “We Rise, We Sing, Our Vision Unfolding.” On May 6th Tucker and Looker explained in a video to members that the committee had put together a fantastic conference that would include a life-long singer track, an undergraduate conducting competition, and an opening session celebrating the contributions of African American composers to the American choral tradition. Dr. Eugene Rogers** and Exigence – a Sphinx vocal ensemble, were coming for a week long residency. The conference has been postponed until October 8-9, 2021 at Meredith College, Raleigh. (Whew!)

Some online opportunities for members are being planned in lieu of the “in person” conference this year. Per the mission statement of NC ACDA, they continue to “invest in the development and growth of the choral arts through exceptional experience in artistry, innovation, and diversity.” The planning committee is working to reimagine the 2020 conference as a subscription series of workshops designed to help members be effective leaders and advocates for various singing communities. This will include some monthly sessions of tutorials, round table gatherings, and guest speakers.

An open virtual forum was held on May 21 in which many members attended to talk about how to manage the crisis. Tucker has noticed a suddenly even playing field with the Zoom meetings held by leaders and members within the organization. Everyone is sharing ideas and trying to come up with solutions. This virtual meeting was attending by 55 choral directors from elementary to collegiate level state-wide. They divided into groups of K-12, church and collegiate to continue to work together for the sake of their singers.

Tucker wants to remind choral directors not to stop their programs – they are critical. “Choir professionals have to keep going or we teach the stake holders (school boards, donors) that we are unnecessary. It is a false notion that to say that if we can’t perform, then we don’t exist. That is absolutely not true.”

Tucker admits that this work has been hard and that he has had to compartmentalize his needs. Like so many, he is grieving a loss. “This is not what any choral director went to school to learn to do, but we cannot stop.” Thanks to leaders like Tucker, the future of choral singing in North Carolina will surely thrive long into the future. 

*To hear and see what an incredible opportunity working with Dr. Ferdinand would be, check out this performance by the Aeolian’s at the national ACDA convention in 2019. 

**To commemorate the recent death of George Floyd, listen to the incredible performance of Joel Thompson‘s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” as conducted by Dr. Rogers. The link is here.