COVID-19 can’t keep choirs quiet for long

COVID-19 can’t keep choirs quiet for long
The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart (Source: Dr. Melinda Doyle)

MONTEVALLO, Ala. (WBRC) - A caesura is a musical term for a pause or interruption; described as “total silence, but not for long.”

Choirs across the world experienced a “caesura” of sorts when the fears of spreading COVID-19 through singing caused an immediate interruption in performances, rehearsals and concerts in the spring.

Thankfully, the caesura is coming to an end as choirs adapt to protocols allowing them to sing once again, now in limited numbers while wearing masks and face shields.

Mountain-top performance, then silence

University of Montevallo choral director Dr. Melinda Doyle distinctly remembers the day the music stopped in March 2020 due to COVID-19 because it came directly on the heels of a pinnacle event.

The University of Montevallo Concert Choir was one of only two choirs in Alabama invited to perform in a prestigious conference, the Southern Region American Choral Directors Association, held from March 10 through March 14 in Mobile, AL.

They performed on the opening session of the conference, and Dr. Doyle said they were “so, so fortunate” because several collegiate choirs invited to perform were told last-minute by their universities that they could not attend because of growing concerns about COVID-19.

“You prepare for these high-caliber performances over a long period of time and can only imagine how it would feel if our administration asked us to return home prior to our performance,” she said.

Two of her choir members, Daniel Moore and Grace Collins, also both described their ACDA performance as a “mountain-top” experience.

“I’ve been in choir since kindergarten and it’s the best performance I’ve ever been a part of. It meant a lot to a lot of us. Dr. Doyle chose a wide variety of music that all flowed together beautifully,” Collins, a junior vocal performance and choral music education major, said.

Daniel Moore, a senior studying choral music education, said the conference was taking precautions by offering hand sanitizer and discouraging physical contact, but this was before masks were encouraged or required. Thankfully, no one from Montevallo’s choir got sick from the conference.

After the performance, most of the choir headed back to Montevallo but a few students, all choral music education majors, stayed for the rest of the conference.

“That was the last time I saw some of my friends who were seniors. I never got to say goodbye to them,” Collins said.

As the last choir members returned to Montevallo, the University notified everyone of an extended spring break. Collins wouldn’t return to gather her things from her dorm room for another two months.

Making adjustments to meet in person

Dr. Doyle has spent nearly her entire life around music: from playing the French horn in high school band to directing choirs in public schools in Florida to earning her doctorate in both choral and orchestral conducting at LSU. She’s spent the last nine years of her career as the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Montevallo.

The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart
The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart (Source: Dr. Melinda Doyle)

Once she realized that scientists were saying singing unmasked is one of the ways to easily transmit COVID, she was devastated.

“What does this really mean? How are we going to make this work?” she questioned.

After spring break, Montevallo students resumed their classes online. For music majors, that meant the juniors and seniors had to record their recitals and submit videos instead of performing for their professors and classmates in person.

Dr. Doyle began teaching again over Zoom, but said there’s no technology available at this time that would allow choirs to sing together in real time. For much of her online teaching, she led the choir while everyone else was muted, singing aloud in their own rooms.

The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart
The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart (Source: Dr. Melinda Doyle)

Doyle knew that she and other choral music educators wanted to find safe ways to allow their students to sing in person by the fall.

“We’re currently implementing the protocols as directed by health departments, numerous scientific studies and various professional organizations. If we say singing is over, I don’t know where our society would be,” she said.

Montevallo is following the collegiate guidelines recommended for choirs and in many cases taking the precautions even further.

Some of those measures include:

  • Members of the Concert Choir and University Chorus are currently meeting in smaller ensembles
  • They are socially distanced a minimum of 9 feet apart at all times (the recommendation is 6 feet)
  • Students must wear a face mask and face shield at all times
  • Students' temperatures are taken before each rehearsal
  • Students are currently singing for 30 minutes at a time, twice a week

The First United Methodist Church of Montevallo has graciously offered their sanctuary as a place for choir rehearsals, allowing students to space out further than some of the options on campus.

The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart
The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart (Source: Dr. Melinda Doyle)

Choir family first, music second

Dr. Doyle said Montevallo’s choral students have been doing a fantastic job of following the guidelines and protocols so that they can continue to meet together in person.

“While we are committed, resourceful, and resilient, there are some physical and structural challenges that impact our options of providing choral instruction. I think most choral students would rather meet in person with appropriate protocols in place than sing separately by themselves in a remote location,” she said.

Daniel Moore agrees, saying that while singing through a mask and face shield is challenging, it’s better than nothing.

“It’s important to focus on advocating for our choral programs, especially with regards to the community and team aspect of it because we’ve been apart for so long. When it’s all over, it’s really important that we come back together,” he said.

The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart
The University of Montevallo choirs are practicing in the First United Methodist Church of Montevallo near campus so they can sing 9 feet apart (Source: Dr. Melinda Doyle)

Dr. Doyle believes one of the best parts of choir is building community, something that is desperately needed during the age of social distancing. Her student Grace Collins says Dr. Doyle often tells them, “Choir family first, music second.”

“The most important thing we do at Montevallo beyond providing an exemplary music education is creating a choral community,” Doyle said.

One of the ways the choir is still building community this semester is by assigning “choir buddies,” pairing up an older student with an incoming freshman. Daniel Moore and Grace Collins brought up the idea as a way to welcome freshmen and make them feel included.

“I imagine it is hard because for them they don’t know being a music major other than what they have right now. We’re doing everything we can to help them understand this is not a new normal and before long this is going to be an old abnormal,” Moore said.

They’ve also created “choir families,” a group of people with different voice parts who rehearse together, sometimes on Zoom and sometimes in person.

A self-described “choir nerd,” Collins said she is just glad to be singing with people in-person again.

“It is different, you don’t get to see everyone’s smiles, you have to repeat jokes, and you’re feet apart from your friends. I do feel like there’s a social buffer but it’s still super rewarding and so fun for me, and for everyone,” Collins said.

Unlike other semesters, the choir will not be able to have live performances. However, Doyle said this has allowed them the time to dig more deeply into the music they’re studying.

Dr. Doyle said the pandemic has forever changed the way she thinks about her chosen profession.

“I will never take singing for granted again. I will never take a choir rehearsal for granted again and I think the students are feeling the same way too. We have to be advocates for choral singing no matter what it looks like. Choral singing is too important for society. We will do what it takes to continue on,” she said.

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