Coping with crisisIf concern for university choral activities this coming autumn has crossed your mind, fear not. Professors of higher education have been working since the shut down and are going to make this happen. Of course, many activities and degree programs will be affected: sports, dance, woodwinds, brass, opera, accompanying, musical theater, even student teaching. But let’s focus on the choral programs in a few of North Carolina’s universities and colleges. The common thread that weaves through these conversations is one of spacing out, smaller groups, virtual work, staying connected, and giving back to the community.

Dr. José Rivera is director of the UNC Pembroke’s University Chorale as well as associate professor and chair of the UNCP music education program and also chair of the NCMEA teacher education committee. Rivera is one of North Carolina’s leading players when it comes to higher music education and choral singing.

While there is still uncertainty, Rivera believes that, most likely, choral rehearsals will start online while UNCP waits and hopes that they can gather in person before a potential concert. He is also asking the university to allow the Chorale to use the auditorium at Givens Performing Arts Center for choral rehearsals in order to provide adequate (6+ feet) spacing between singers. This is pending the university’s decision on the cap on students allowed in the space.

Rivera says, “The current plan is to start earlier in the fall and begin with teaching a lot of Tech 101 tutorials on Zoom, the most effective way to be connected. Things like figuring out how to send music and sound files [matter] because it’s so important that the student gets feedback in ‘real time.’ Zoom is the viable source. Students need the continued connection.”

Rivera, a passionate instructor and profoundly heart-centered thinker, remarks that students come to university to get a specific experience. “Therefore, we are looking at three aspects of that and how we will accommodate those encounters: First there is the instructional aspect – what works and what doesn’t, what are the best teaching practices, and what is effective in this environment. Then ‘research’ – having students take part in their own learning. This will be project-based and will teach and test competency. Finally, the ‘one on one’ connections using discussion and evaluation – not only with their teacher but among themselves.”

Reflecting on the dismal prognosis for choral singing that was virtually conveyed by the ACDA, NATS, Chorus America, and The American Barbershop Society, Rivera very soberly notes, “The meeting wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear or expected, but it is being echoed [by] other professionals around the world now.” (See that full conversation here.)

“Our job is to effectively deliver instruction in an area that needs contact – how do we do that? First, we must be honest with the kids by saying, ‘Look, this isn’t what you expected, but we are going to make meaning of what we do and do it in different ways.’ Honesty goes a long way.”

Dr. Shannon Gravelle, Choral Activities Director and Coordinator of Music Education at Meredith College in Raleigh, is being proactive on using best practices based on the ACDA/NATS conversation. She’s on heightened alert to what feels safe in planning for the upcoming semester. “I will be doing smaller group works with octets, using outside spaces with different acoustics. I will have my students work with a rubric so that they can figure out how best to listen.”

When it comes to online learning, Gravelle is clear that “in this new reality, we must be more intentional about ‘authentic learning’ when using virtual technology.”

Dr. David Gresham at Brevard College is thinking in the same vein. ” We have a wonderful space for rehearsal at the Brevard Music Center, with open areas and fans. Pending what the college determines is best for how many people can meet per class, we plan to work together with social distancing in that space.” Gresham’s Brevard Choral Institute will not meet this summer, as the entire BMC physical festival is cancelled; and his community choir, the Transylvania Choral Society, will not physically be meeting, but he does intend to continue to meet with the TCS via Zoom, as it is a vital outlet for so many in the community.

Lenora Helm Hammonds conducts the North Carolina Central University (NCCU) Jazz Vocal Ensemble. Hammonds says that NCCU will begin August 24 and end at Thanksgiving. She is expecting to use a hybrid system of one-on-one and online teaching.

While not fully replacing singing, “the emphasis will be studying scores, vertically working on understanding and hearing the harmonics and the chord changes and scales. We will work on musicianship and how to perform and record with a click track.”

Helm Hammonds, who is just about to receive her Ph.D. in music education from Boston University, makes clear that “this is a big wake-up call. After this is over, we will still work on teaching the students in a virtual modality, because 25 years from now, education will not be what we’ve been used to – it won’t look like today.” She likens it to rotary phones becoming obsolete to cell phones. Those of us who grew up with rotary phones (even party lines!) know how true this statement is.

As for the barriers of learning new technology in such a short amount of time, Helm Hammonds insists that the “elders with all the experience and wisdom are still needed, but our focus needs to be on the students, and the paradigm should change. Now we have the time to learn how to teach all music education out of the dark ages.”

Roberta Laws, is the choral director for NCCU’s University Choir, whose members are students from across various fields of study on the campus. Laws recalls, “The shutdown happened to my students while they were out on spring break. We had a tour planned for the northeast in April which had to be cancelled. There was so much excitement and enthusiasm. Then – all of a sudden – nothing. We needed to fill the void.”

How? Five seniors from the NC Central University Choir will participate in the VOH 105 HBCU Virtual Concert Choir video project sponsored by the 105 Voices in History Choir. This unique ensemble is created from the 105 original Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) around the United States, featuring the voices of HBCU students and alumni. The choir will be performing Roland Carter’s arragnement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with brass and piano accompaniment.

Laws is also working on a virtual choral performance of “Lord, How Come Me Here?” followed by “The Storm is Passing Over,” to reflect the existential question, followed by “an answer of hope to where we’re moving towards.” This performance will feature the entire NC Central University Choir, choral alumni, and the dance choreography of an NCCU alumnus from the Department of Theater and Dance. Stay tuned!

As expected, there will be no standard choral rehearsals for the entire group. Online work through Zoom and SmartMusic, along with sectionals, will take place. There will be more a cappella work, more spirituals and education on that art form (i.e. the difference between the Negro spiritual versus an American spiritual). She will use games and programs to cultivate musical literacy in some choir members who are not music majors. She is taking care of her students’ morale by checking in but also getting them to chat among themselves via GroupMe.

The University Choir will be making a virtual recording of several pieces to help boost the spirits of the university. Laws knows that they will record the “Alma Mater,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and” Lift Every Voice and Sing.” She feels sure that, even though they will be leaving before Christmas, they will want to do something for the holiday as well.

Dr. James Franklin, Choral Activities Director at East Carolina University School of Music, is moving forward with the Chamber Choir on two levels: breaking up into smaller groups and continuing to make themselves visible. Franklin will be taking smaller groups, soloists, and duos into spaces to provide a balm but also as a reminder of what they do. “We want to make the choir more visible. ECU has a large medical facility – I’m thinking of singing to the hospital workers and other businesses that are essential.”

Franklin says that he has not seen a negative kickback fro new students who are planning to come in the fall. “Situations that would have made that more of an option, like taking a gap year or working, are not an option any longer, so it’s really in a freshman’s best interest to use this time in school.”

ECU’s Chamber Choir was fortunate enough to be able to perform just under the wire at Southern ACDA in Mobile, Alabama the week that the COVID lockdown hit. Sadly, as with others, their May tour was cancelled. However, the chamber choir will be releasing a recording in the fall – stay tuned!

The Chamber Singers recently produced an outstanding virtual recording of the East Carolina alma mater, “Hail to thy Name so Fair.” (Kudos to producer Alex Davis.) There will be live streaming of the choir with smaller groups. Franklin likens the virtual recording experience to that of a photograph of a flower. “It reminds you of this beautiful thing, but it’s not a substitute for an actual flower.”

Franklin sums it up well. “Choral directors love what they do. I have a sense of hope. I’m positive and optimistic about our future. Teachers are naturally that way or they wouldn’t do what they do. I see this as a period of death, germination, and then the flowering that will come afterwards. We will have to be patient and know that it will come back.”