The Struggles of Singing to a Screen
While a typical school year would begin with choir directors issuing sheet music and arranging singers during a 7:30 a.m. rehearsal, this school year began with students rolling out of bed at 8:15 a.m. and hopping on a Zoom call to attend rehearsal.
Because of social distancing restrictions placed upon students and faculty, St. John’s Fine Arts ensembles have adapted their teaching approaches to create safe learning environments for all participants.
One of the programs, My Choral Coach, allows singers to listen to their individual vocal parts and submit recordings of their songs to Middle and Upper school choir directors Scott Bonasso and Brendan Emig. The program assigns each recording a grade out of 100 based on the rhythm, pitch, and duration; the software is beneficial for giving singers feedback on their progress.
“I think [My Choral Coach] helped folks isolate their parts really well,” Middle and Upper School choir director Mr. Emig said. “We were able to start on the first day rehearsing sections of the piece, which was really helpful.”
On the other hand, once all students returned to in-person school on Oct. 13, the choir directors faced some difficulties. Mr. Emig and Mr. Bonasso struggled to provide exactly six feet of space for each singer, so rehearsals were moved outdoors to a tent pitched in the athletics parking lot.
“Singing outside is not ideal. There are no acoustics, and there’s nothing to reflect the sound,” Mr. Emig said. “It’s challenging because the directors can't hear the singers, and singers can't hear each other. It creates independence in the singer and confidence.”
Social distancing guidelines require no more than 35 singers in each choir, so Mr. Bonasso divided his Upper School Choir, Chorale, into red and black groups due to its large size. Because of Kantorei’s smaller roster, however, Mr. Bonasso kept it as one group. Similar to Mr. Bonasso, Mr. Emig had to divide his two choirs, Cantatores and Les Chanteuses, in half so that each group rehearses once a week.
The singers are also required to wear specially-designed masks that hangs away from their faces. While an odd structure, the mask helps to prevent the muffled sound that emits from regular masks, while simultaneously keeping any air particles and droplets from spreading.
Despite the divergence from normal choir practices, the SJS choir department still plans on organizing the Fall Choral Concert and Candlelight, two beloved campus traditions. However, as with all aspects of Fine Arts ensembles this year, things will look a little different.
On Dec. 5, each level of choir - ranging from Lower School’s St. John’s Singers to Upper School’s Kantorei - will arrive at St. John the Divine Church in their typical concert attire and perform their pieces to an empty audience. Each ensemble will create recordings for both the Fall Choral Concert and Candlelight, Then, the recordings will be compiled into a video and shared with friends and family online. Although adapting to these changes has been difficult for both singers and directors, all SJS choirs continue to thrive in their new situation and prepare diligently for the upcoming concerts.
“Students rise to the challenge,” Mr. Emig said. “Being together and making music is what it’s all about."
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