Trendspotting: Choruses Look Beyond COVID
BY HOLLY J. KELLAR
Across North America and around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the choral landscape. A year later, hope is on the horizon, with vaccinations happening and tentative first steps to slowly reopen entertainment venues. But choral leaders know that the reverberations of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. We asked six choral leaders to give us their thoughts on what the future will bring, and the lessons of the past year.
The Digital Concert Hall
Many are saying it’s here to stay. What will be its role once in-person concerts are possible again? What new advances do you expect?
Chris Verdugo, executive director, San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus: I do believe that it is here to stay. It’s incumbent upon us to create additional content that speaks to whatever we're presenting. We did an hour-long virtual musical event which included a tribute video to the Artists Portal at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, and we would never have been able to provide that content in the theater. People weren't going to sit and watch a 10-minute mini-documentary. Adding context with film or video will make our performances richer.
Tori Cook, board member at large, Greater Boston Choral Consortium: I think that choruses will primarily be using it as a marketing tool and also an accessibility tool. A lot of people don't necessarily have access to a concert hall. Choruses want to be able to provide access to anyone, anywhere.
Kellie Walsh, artistic director, Lady Cove Women's Choir, Shallaway Youth Choir, and Youth Choir Ullûgiagatsuk of Newfoundland and Labrador: I've had so many emails from parents saying, “I never before got to sit with my child and watch as they see themselves on stage.” My women's choir never, ever got a chance to be in community and watch their performance together. It’s really exciting for the performers to see themselves.
Damien Sneed, artistic director, Chorale Le Chateau, New York: I think people still want to be able to sit wherever they are—driving, riding on a plane, on Amtrak, the subway—listening and watching and seeing something new. But I think the price point for tickets will need to go up, because people value the arts, music, and live performances. There's a lot of content that's already out there for free but people will want new content. The only way they'll get that is if each person on the artistic team gets paid—the musicians as well as the writers, publishers, composers, and lyricists.
Connecting to singers
No one considers virtual choirs and Zoom rehearsals a substitute for singing in person, but what’s worth continuing? How much difference will technological advances make? How are you thinking about rebuilding membership?
Walsh: Many choral conductors have said they’ve seen a singer who, at an in-person rehearsal, has been shy or not talking or sharing. But on this virtual platform, you open up that chat and all of a sudden you see a different personality.
I work with a choir in the Indigenous communities of Nunatsiavut in Labrador, the northernmost part of our province. The communities are very remote and we’ve usually been able to all rehearse together only once or twice a year. Never before did I think about coming together on Zoom. Now we can meet more regularly.
Aisha Moody, chief program officer, Atlanta Music Project (AMP): I don't think rebuilding membership will be a problem. I think people will be so excited to commune with others again that they'll probably flock at the opportunity to come back. It has been daunting for a lot of people who thrive off of the energy of others and just don't know how to get that online, so unfortunately they decided, “I'll just sit this one out.” But when they're able to go back in person and connect to people, they're going to do it. This is also a chance for choruses to reinvent themselves and bring in people that may not have been part of a choir before.
Cook: There's a certain social element of coming together for weekly rehearsals. We’ve done a lot of fun and creative things to help build our community—anything from online trivia to board games to book clubs to recipe exchanges. During summers when we're off, or not meeting every week for rehearsals, choruses may try to do some of this virtual programming to keep their singers connected or retain them for the next season. I can see virtual options playing a purpose in recruiting and retention needs.
Verdugo: We've lost members who have lost their jobs, couldn't afford rent, and moved out of San Francisco, but that doesn't mean they've left the chorus. They will still show up on Mondays or to different events like movie and game nights. I think it'll be incumbent upon us to figure out how we keep them connected to their choral family. We believe that there will be a pent-up demand, not just for art, but for community and being with one another. We have all been robbed of meeting new people. That's one of the things that keeps us alive as human beings and nurses our souls: new relationships.
What insights has the absence of in-person music-making given you about the value of choral music or about what a choral music organization has to offer besides music?
Sneed: I think everyone is starting to shift and become more global in their thinking. The pandemic shut everything down and forced us to feel pain as a global community. There’s more empathy for what's going on around the world. And because travel internationally has been completely obliterated, I think now people are even more interested and anxious to emerge in a different part of the world —different climate, different culture. It's like a world Renaissance.
Jacob Christopher, tenor, Cantus: It's our mission is to give voice to shared human experience, and so we're trying to reach all these people and tell all these stories, but we previously hadn't been reaching as many people as we could. Now we've connected with so many new people that just didn’t have access to our concerts. They've been able to watch videos that we’ve shared with them. What's more shared experience than we've all been stuck at home? We know what you're going through and we're trying to help get through it.
Walsh: One of the foundational tenets of our youth choir is helping young people live a more rich, fruitful, fulfilling life. We've spent a lot of time helping them navigate this time and unpack their feelings through music. We have already started a campaign using our virtual choir videos, saying, “When this is all done, your kid is going to want to be joyful and challenged and will need something to help them rebuild their identity as singers, community members, and joyful people in this world. There's no better way than to sing about it and to be in a choir.”
How have the events of the past year changed how choruses see their role in advancing ADEI (access, diversity, equity, inclusion) and racial justice initiatives?
Cook: Before the pandemic, if you asked choruses whether they viewed their organization as a social justice organization or their mission was social justice-oriented, I think many choruses would say no. Now, I think more would say it's a priority even if it's not their main focus. We're still at a loss of what exactly it means and what we should do, and because it's a systemic issue, it can be very overwhelming. Do we get a consultant? What does this look like for changing our board structure? What does this look like for changing our recruitment and retention initiatives? I think that people don't necessarily know the right way forward, so we're kind of in an experimenting and research-gathering mode.
Moody: The past year is not just the pandemic but it's pandemic and social unrest. You can't really separate the two, because both of them affected each other so deeply. It caused people—including people who run arts organizations—to ask questions: “Am I doing it the right way? Am I doing people a disservice? Am I honoring the people who sit in front of me or the people who come to our shows?” So I think everyone has to wrestle with those questions, and I think that will continue and goes beyond Blackout Tuesday statements of solidarity.
We have a lot of talk now about decolonization—decolonizing education, the music room, kindergarten, decolonizing everything. Lots of arts organizations tend to have their standard rep or catalog, and now people have had to take a take a step back and say, “Hmm, why is this my catalog, and why do I choose these to be the standards? Who chose these to be the standards? Why do you feel it's important that people learn these pieces and hear the same pieces over and over?”
Verdugo: The last year was a catalyst for us to move faster than we were. We are making a significant investment with a consultant to work with our board, staff, members, and stakeholders for the next 18 months as we create our own practices around DEI. We believe DEI is not a lens, it's a practice, and our intention is to be able to use the practice in every aspect of the chorus, whether it be our hiring, board members, choices of music, composers and arrangers that we work with, everything.
Walsh: My kids, in small-town Newfoundland, were so affected by the Black Lives Matter movement, but they didn’t know what to do. So, I thought, I can help them think about this and feel like they're being empowered through music. We had an incredible young conductor and composer from Toronto come in and talk to them, work with them, write a piece of music with them, and teach them about diversity.
There’s a saying, "when you know better, you do better." I think now that we know better, it feels like these floodgates are opening, and people are trying to figure out, “Okay, so now that we know better, how do we do better?”
Christopher: This year we started an initiative called “Championing Black Voices” where we've been interviewing artists of color and premiering some of their works on our platform. We know that our white, male voices are not the shared diversity that you expect to see and hear, so we're making sure that we are bringing in the stories and giving other people a platform that we don't physically offer.
Sneed: What about women? What about women conductors and composers, why are they not championed? What about Asian Americans and Native Americans? Because when you start to do for one, you should do for all. I'm Black, but we have to be champions for all people, all groups and cultures. That's not the makeup of some choruses, and it's okay. It's not that everybody has to see everybody in their chorus, but what are they doing in making things better to bring us together in unity?
How should a chorus prepare for future disruptive change?
Cook: Risk assessment is a new learned skill. There's always been risk, but now we’re really carefully looking at risk analysis, data, and research, including sending out surveys to singers and getting other perspectives.
Try to break down barriers that are making it difficult to quickly change and adapt, whatever that is. If something in your bylaws requires a very formal approval process, take down those barriers. Really take a look at all of the arbitrary rules and structures and question whether they make sense moving forward, knowing that disruptive change could happen at any time.
Walsh: I think funding flexibility is going to be the biggest difficulty. How are we going to be able to continue that funding model where we have a grantor or people who are paying for a concert ticket or a season and we're going to have two rehearsals this month but six next month and one the next month, or we'll have one concert online? Will grantors and audiences allow that? Will musicians and boards? We used to have plan A and B, and now we have plan A, B, C, D.
Verdugo: You have to have a deep sense of trust between the membership, board, staff, and leaders of the organization, because this has been a united effort. While we don't know what the next thing will be, we know there will be a next thing. If we're trying to solve a problem together, you can't sit in a space of blame about what is right; you have to find a way to trust one another.
Moody: When whole seasons started to get canceled, a lot of artists said, “I'm gonna figure out how to survive this.” And so they developed brands to really keep themselves eating, connected, and developed a network of like-minded people so they could propel each other through this pandemic.
Sneed: Not having a stage or platform, not performing, has been particularly difficult for singers. When we've gone through things in the past, we've had music as a way to ameliorate the pain. But to silence and mute someone who spent their life expressing themselves with the voice in a community with others is quite a travesty. A lot of trauma has taken place, and we will be the physicians of healing for the world. We also need to be healed ourselves, so it's like, “Physician, heal thyself.” We have to mentally prepare for that.
How different will the new normal be from the old normal? Are choral leaders preparing to leave behind any tried and true—or even beloved—practices from the Before Times?
Walsh: I’ve found that now I want to say “singing groups” instead of “choir.” Choir has a very certain connotation and we have so many different forms of group singing. I'm starting to think of group singing as different, because a choir is different than a chorus is different than a group of people who are singing for health reasons, or singing for ceremony, or singing for cultural events or cultural traditions. Personally, I don't think choir is the name for the future.
Sneed: I think the new normal will require that singers come to rehearsal knowing their music more solidly. Technological innovation and virtual choral performances put more responsibility on the individual singer to make sure they learned their part. They had to really spend a lot of time listening—to cut-offs, how people begin words, vowel sounds, shaping of words—to learn as a section instead of sticking out as one individual voice.
Cook: I think that choirs should adopt more lenient policies around member attendance. We have created a somewhat toxic work culture in America of always working, not taking sick days, and putting your mental health on the back burner. I think that's starting to change for companies and I think it's also going to change for choirs. Choir is not the most important thing in the world for everyone every second of every day, and it's okay to take breaks. I hope that culturally, choirs can adapt to that mentality, and hopefully it'll make us better moving forward.
Christopher: In the past, after a concert we would always greet and interact with our audience. Now we really have to take a different approach. We can't necessarily be shaking hands and hugging everybody, at least for a while —people aren't going to be comfortable and we might not be comfortable in that situation. So we're talking about Q&A sessions where people can stay in their seats, and we can just have a chit-chat and still interact with them, but keeping the distance and space between us. We want to have that moment with them but make sure everybody feels safe.
Moody: Student leadership is really big at AMP now. With the current situation, students have grown up and matured, because when they’re at home online for school all day, you need to give them a reason to want to log on after school and find a way to make it engaging for them. Putting them in the driver's seat has really allowed them to thrive. Now we can’t go back to the way it was. We have to be collaborative, because they're in a leadership position now, and we can't take that power away from them.
Verdugo: If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't get too attached to anything that was. I think we've learned nothing is that sacred anymore. The success of our organization over the past year—and I use that word sparingly because it's hard to say “success” during what has transpired—is that we have been willing to take a step back and assess and then try something new.
I work and live in this field, but having it taken away makes you truly understand how precious it is that we get to collectively come together and create art in a transformative way. I don't think that any of us will ever take it for granted again.
Tenor Jacob Christopher joined professional men's ensemble Cantus in 2016. He was a founding member of Manhattan Chorale and previously sang with Music of the Baroque, Wicker Park Choral Singers, and as a chorister with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. During the pandemic, Jacob bought a stationary bike that now serves as “a beautiful decoration” in his bedroom.
Tori Cook is a board member at large with the Greater Boston Choral Consortium and sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Previously, she served as the director of sales and marketing at Chorus Connection, music director of the Harborlight Show Chorus, and president of Chorus pro Musica. While sheltering in place, she pledged to finally live up to her last name and learn how to cook.
Aisha Moody is co-founder and chief program officer of the Atlanta Music Project (AMP), which provides intensive music education to underserved youth. She is an alumna of the Sistema Fellows Program, which is a collaboration between New England Conservatory and TED, and a former award-winning public school music educator. She thrived while working from home and enjoyed making her home her sanctuary.
Multi-genre recording artist, conductor, composer, and arranger Damien Sneed is artistic director and founder of professional ensemble Chorale Le Chateau and is currently a faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music and artist-in-residence at Michigan State University. Damien got his pandemic puppy named Dante on September 1.
Chris Verdugo is the executive director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and the country’s first LGBTQ Center for the Arts. He previously served as executive director and chief executive officer of the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA and has also sung with the South Florida and Miami Beach Gay Men’s Choruses. During the pandemic, when not remodeling his house, Chris spent his time hiking while listening to audio books.
Kellie Walsh is the founder and artistic director of the Lady Cove Women's Choir, artistic director of the Shallaway Youth Choir of Newfoundland and Labrador, co-founder and now artistic director emeritus of Newman Sound Men's Choir, the past president of Canada’s national choral organization, Choral Canada, and most recently co-founder of the Youth Choir Ullûgiagatsuk from Nunatsiavut, Labrador. In the past year she started working on her PhD, exploring how COVID-19 will eventually change choral music.
Author: Holly J. Kellar works in marketing and consulting. She is a lifelong singer and was previously chief marketing officer of the Barbershop Harmony Society.