Choral directors preach togetherness to their choirs

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Arts Editor

Local choirs have approached the art of group music-making during the pandemic in as many ways as there are organizations. From meeting outdoors to rehearsing and recording virtually to connecting online without singing at all, each group is finding what works for them — for now.

"After doing research … choir is really one of the worst activities you can do with the coronavirus," said Linda Crabtree Powell, conductor of Sounds Good! Choir, which is holding rehearsals on Facebook Live. "You're singing, you're exhaling, you're putting out a lot of air. … Even if we sang soft or wore shields, there really wasn't information that showed it was safe for us to do." 

When group gatherings halted mid-March, Sounds Good was organized as seven choirs with a total of 400 members across Chicagoland, including one in Oak Park/River Forest. By March 24, Sounds Good adapted by meeting virtually to finish the spring season, recording one song, "The Storm is Passing Over." This fall, 250 choir members rehearse weekly and have the option to work on up to five songs for a virtual performance, streaming Dec. 18.  

To rehearse virtually, choir members keep devices muted and sing along at their individual locations, hearing only the piano accompaniment, while the conductor sings or gives instruction. Singing in unison is a challenge because there is a delay in virtual platforms. For a performance, singers record individually and the videos are edited together to sound like everyone sang together in the same room. 

Four different conductors hold rehearsals on different days. Crabtree Powell's group typically has 50 attendees, down from 100 when choir members met in person at the Nineteenth Century Club, Oak Park. 

Because Sounds Good is for those age 55-plus, one benefit of continuing is that it provides physical and mental stimulation, which if they discontinued, might cause some deterioration, according to Crabtree Powell. Organized social time keeps the group connected. "There really is a strong sense of community and friendship" among the OP/RF choir members, she said. 

Still, many have opted out, finding the technology difficult or the format not as satisfying as physically singing in person with others.

That has been addressed differently by Pro Musica Youth Chorus, which has been meeting outside on the grounds of First United Church of Oak Park, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place, from early September through the end of October. Students, age 4-18, are now rehearsing virtually through the winter months, "until the weather allows us back outside, assuming the pandemic doesn't foul our plans," according to Beth Albrecht, board president. 

"We realized we wouldn't be able to participate in traditional concerts this year, but we knew we needed to keep our chorus family together sharing music," she said.

Pro Musica's season includes a virtual winter concert on Dec. 5, Sing We Joyous! on Dec. 12, singing Valentines in February, as well as online and possible in-person spring performances.

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, choirs, like all District 200 classes, are meeting virtually. All curricular choirs — A Cappella, Chamber, Chorale, Treble, and Bass Ensemble, along with curricular bands and orchestras — are participating in a virtual version of the annual Prisms of Winter Concert next month. Choir students completed individual recordings in October, which will be combined to create the sound of the complete ensembles. 

"The choir kids have been doing great," said Meredith McGuire, choir director at OPRF. "I'm beyond impressed by their resilience. While I know they miss singing with their friends, they have done a great job of making the best of a less-than-ideal situation." 

Missing from the Dec. 18 streaming performance is the grand finale piece with all music ensembles, which has been an impressive conclusion to a show already packed with young musical talent. McGuire said that would have required editing some 450 individual recordings together. 

Other local choirs are working on holiday offerings. City Voices, part of the chorus of the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest, will perform in Sing We Joyous! Michael Teolis Singers, while keeping in touch, is not meeting as a group. However, Teolis is releasing a Christmas Concert on its website with selections from past performance. It is expected on Dec. 5, the date of the group's previously scheduled in-person concert. 

Oak Park Concert Chorale is also releasing archival music, but creating new works too.

"Local composer Carl Schalk has written a lovely carol, 'Gabriel's Message,' and I have composed the first movement of a Missa Brevis called 'Kyrie,'" said Paul Lindblad, director. 

The works will be released once per month on Concert Chorale's website, beginning in late November and the original compositions will be the first two selections, Lindblad said. 

For some choirs, the sense of community may be the most important part of their mission. Sing to Live Community Chorus, which usually performs two concerts per year in Oak Park and Glenview and has approximately 80 members, is one of these groups. Its mission is to "provide a unique musical outlet that fosters hope and celebrates survival for singers whose lives have been touched by breast cancer."

"We grieved at the beginning after having to cancel rehearsals mid-March," said Melinda Pollack Harris, founder and CEO. "We all understood why, but it was hard, it being our 15th Anniversary."

She created Staying Together Virtually with weekly activities, including game nights and film and book groups. In October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pollack Harris sent excerpts from their 10th anniversary concert, "trying to keep our audience, and singers, engaged," she said.

Heritage Chorale also is foregoing rehearsals and holding weekly Zoom presentations this fall for its members and others who want to sign up, according to its website. These include social nights, music-related workshops and singing/listening sessions. 

No matter what solution each choir has arrived at, staying connected is a common thread.

"Choruses of all ages become close communities where singers form lifelong friendships," Albrecht said. "For centuries, singing together has been a source of community resilience, and we're happy to be a part of that tradition."

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