An Open Letter to Our Choral Musical Community

Hear the words of 19th Century hymn writer, Robert Lowry:

“My life flows on in endless song; Above Earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet ‘tho far-off hymn, That hails A NEW CREATION;
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

As we face our current COVID-19 adjustment, I believe we are at a remarkable moment in history related to our approach to choral pedagogy and choral performance–a “new creation”, to use Lowry’s poetry. At this moment, we have the opportunity to open new doors to those yet to enter the joy of making choral music as conductors, singers, and listeners.

Understandably, over the last five months our focus has been on serving and leading those insiders that we work with—our students, our singers, and our earned audiences—who were devastated by the temporary loss of our communal singing. We made the pivot to go virtual with no warning at all, and what previously seemed like nerdy futuristic possibilities, became a clear and present necessity. Things like Zoom, GoToWebinar, Team, and Skype meetings, online delivery systems, practice tracks, and distance learning had heretofore been elements that belonged to another world, while the century-old scalable approach to classroom and rehearsal room teaching and conducting had served us very well. We mourned its loss, and it took the advancing calendar to move us to a new paradigm and a new reality.

Listen to how Eric Whitacre describes the moment 10 years ago, on March 21, 2010, when he uploaded the first virtual choir that most of us had ever experienced:

“In May of 2009, a young singer from Long Island named Britlin Losee made a video for me and posted it to YouTube. Britlin had no way of knowing if I would ever see the video—we had never met—but she uploaded it anyway and hoped it would find me. A friend saw it, sent me a link, and thus her video, like an electronic message in a bottle, improbably found its way to me.

She told me how much she loved singing, how deeply my composition Sleep had touched her, and that as a way of thanking me she wanted to give me a gift. “And so,” she said as she turned the camera, “this is me, singing ‘Sleep’ for you.” She started playing the track on her CD player as accompaniment and sang the soprano part, beautifully.

I was knocked out by the purity of her voice and the immediacy of the video, and in that moment I was struck by a simple idea: what if fifty people did exactly what Britlin did? What if they sat alone in front of their computers, in their dorms, in their kitchens, and simply sang their respective parts, soprano, alto, tenor, or bass to the same piece? And what if I collected all those videos and started them at the same time? A virtual choir, made of individuals who had never met, separated by time and physical space but united in song.” Eric Whitacre (from ‘Foreword’ to “Innovation in the Ensemble Arts”, GIA Publications)

COVID-19 with all of its pain and tragedy has presented us the very promising and exciting prospect of moving in new and enhanced pedagogical directions, and innovations in the area of performance that can expand our current reach. Our challenge now is to shift our thinking to new students, new singers, and new opportunities for choral music education, performance, composition, and advocacy. If we shift this mindset, our current crisis can convert to becoming a part of Lowry’s “new creation”.

The following are the “new creation” opportunities I see in this time of innovation:

–A technological focus on pedagogy and process;
–Individualized instruction made further possible by online and distance learning;
–Small group instruction focusing on synchronous quartets, octets, and chamber vocal combinations;
–A swing back to the intimacy and advanced musical refinement that comes through small group rehearsal and performance;
–Multiple ways of learning for differentiated learners and differentiated interests, and a move away from a one-size-fits-all models of teaching;
–The development of our audience through media resources that could exceed earlier numbers limited by insider-only attendees and room capacity;
–New hybrid forms of virtual presentation that incorporate multi-media in ways that former staged performances did not accommodate;
–Assessment at a level we formerly theorized about, but never really approached due to time and scale;
–A move away from elitism to a more democratic approach to participation and audiences;
–Students can be encouraged to explore and experiment, and improvisational skills can be developed by more singers as they explore possibilities in their private and risk-free environments;
–The exploration of composition and arranging can also benefit from this new environment which makes all aspects of experimentation enormously less tedious.

To get there, I believe we need to grasp three strategic imperatives. The time to grasp these imperatives is now:

A new mindset,
A new skill set,
A collaborative team set.

We can do this together.
We CAN do this!

Tim Sharp, Artistic Director of the Tulsa Chorale and Executive Director of the American Choral Directors Association