Focusing on "Now" Instead of "Normal"

Berkshire Choral International's reopening approach and strategic shifts during COVID-19


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Steve Smith was five months into his new job as president of Berkshire Choral International (BCI) with a mandate to reset and re-energize the summer program for a new generation of choral singers. COVID-19 then forced cancellation of all BCI live events for both 2020 and 2021. After a two-year gap of in-person programs, the summer of 2022 has seen a much-anticipated reopening. Chorus America checked in with Steve to see how the return is going and what lessons he and the organization have learned.

How has the summer gone in this unpredictable environment we’re living in?

It’s been both a bit nerve-wracking and amazing. Despite the ongoing presence of COVID, it’s clear that people were ready – and needed – to sing in person again. We’ve not only had more singers participate this year than in 2019, but we doubled the number of applications from first-time singers. I’ve met hundreds of enthusiastic singers, we’ve made some great music together, and now some 30 months into my “new” job I actually feel like I know what I signed up for!


How has BCI handled COVID protocols?

It feels like conditions change every month, but back in the spring we decided to err on the side of safety and adopted strict protocols for this summer and it has served us well. In addition to mandatory proof of vaccination and booster status, our singers pre-tested in a 36-hour window prior to arrival. The most important thing has been required masking in rehearsal and performance. It’s nobody’s preference, but it has been very effective in limiting the spread of cases. In our three domestic programs with over 300 singers our positive case rate was 1%. With the rapid rise of the BA.5 variant this past month, Barcelona was a little more challenging to manage but we still had a great concert week. Despite the inconveniences, I think we’re all feeling grateful to be able to create reasonably safe spaces for making music.

President Steve Smith is reimagining Berkshire Choral International for the next generation of singers.


It sounds like BCI was getting ready for some change before the pandemic happened. How did COVID and the disruption of in-person programs affect your planning?

Pre-pandemic, BCI was dealing with a long-term decline in enrollment and a general lack of future vision. In the previous decade we had lost our long term “summer camp” home at a private school in the Berkshires and transitioned to a model where our singing weeks are literally all over the map. I expected that my job would be to bring strategic focus to this new model.

It’s an overused phrase, but our team decided not to waste a good crisis once we understood that COVID was not a short-term upheaval. Like so many colleagues, we quickly learned to create and share online classes and content. But more fundamentally, we used our time and energy to ask ourselves some key questions: “How could we create richer opportunities for singers? Who aren’t we serving yet and why? How could we reimagine our organizational purpose in the evolving choral music field?” We did some deep research into the needs and motivations of our singers and the limitations of our own business model.

During this time, we also began to grapple with our role in the ways systemic racism impacts choral music and participation in singing. We’re doing our internal work to make BCI’s culture more accessible and welcoming for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and international singers. This includes an initial board commitment of $150,000 to seed new artistic collaborations and more creative programming over the coming three years. As frustrating as 2020 and 2021 were, what we generated during this quiet period was a fresh mission, vision and set of values along with a clear strategic direction focused on expanding and diversifying our community of singers.


How do you see BCI evolving in the next few years?

We’re coming out of the pandemic with a clear understanding that we are a singer-centered institution that produces world-class experiences and learning opportunities that aren’t generally available to the amateur adult singer. We love our 40-year tradition of producing summer camp-like weeks singing the big choral-orchestral works. That’s not going anywhere. But now we’re also creating long weekend workshops, planning a wider and more inclusive range of repertoire and cultural traditions, experimenting with new programs and locations throughout the year, and expanding our library of free online resources. We want our singers to not only have a peak experience while they are with us, but also to return home as more well-rounded and engaged musicians and citizens.


What observations or lessons are you carrying into the new season?

I am appreciating the sense of gratitude that we currently feel to be able to sing together again. The creativity and connection that choruses create can’t go back on autopilot. We all need to grab this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make choral music more relevant to civic life and responsive to important conversations about the human condition.

And since it seems that managing COVID will be with us a while longer, I think choral organizations need to stay engaged in safety conversations. There’s not one right answer, but personally I don’t believe we can throw up our hands and say we’re over it. Our singers and audiences need to feel that we are doing our best to minimize risk and make informed choices. The road back is not a straight line.

I’ve given up on the concept of “normal,” so I’m focused on making the most out of whatever “now” is. Honestly, since we can’t hang out in our old comfort zone, it feels easier to make smart experiments and let go of expectations. Our art form trains us to seek perfection, but after the past couple of years I’m much more interested in collaboration and adventure even if it’s a little messy. I’d rather spend my time connecting than perfecting.


Berkshire Choral International will announce its 2023 season later in September. Sign up for its email list to receive all the details when they are ready.

This article is sponsored by Berkshire Choral International. Thank you for supporting the partners that make Chorus America’s work possible. If you are interested in learning more about sponsored articles, please contact us at [email protected].