Posted by: Colin Britt | May 19, 2020

Day 68: How to move on

It’s been 68 days since I packed up my books, choir music, and laptop from my classroom and left the Rutgers Prep campus. It’s been 68 days since the last time I conducted a choir of any kind. It’s been 68 days since I gave a hug or handshake to anyone except my wife.

And it’s been 68 days of reading alarming news reports, blogs, and social media posts that all point to the dangers of communal singing of any kind – performances, rehearsals, and informal group sings all seem to be hyperactive germ orgies where the one thing that enables us all to use our voices at the same time is now the last thing we should do. How can we sing, when our audiences aren’t allowed to attend? How can we sing, when choirs in Washington and Amsterdam suffered staggeringly high rates of COVID-19 following rehearsals and performances? How can we sing, when indoor gatherings of more than 10 people are banned or discouraged by the CDC?

I’ve spent 68 days feeling intermittent despair, grief, anger, and a sense of numbness at the uncertain state of my profession. But lately, that simmering brew of negativity has stopped being able to fill the part of my soul that was eviscerated when I lost the ability to teach and make live music in my classroom. Some of it’s a matter of necessity – I still have a responsibility to teach my students, to provide music in worship services, and to provide for my household. But some of it’s a rediscovered sense of purpose, a drive to innovate and reinvent. We can lament the immense sense of loss we feel – and I do lament it – but we also have to find a way forward.

Early on in the quarantine, I was irritated by some memes being thrown around on Facebook that seemed to poke fun at the compulsion to create so-called “virtual choirs.” There’s a charming one of Batman backhanding Robin as Robin suggests something to the effect of “If Eric Whitacre can do it, so can you!” Since they first surfaced, I’ve come to the conclusion that these memes weren’t created to belittle the desire to create virtual choirs, but rather to knock some sense into the people who casually suggest that it must be easy to throw one of those things together. It most certainly is not easy. It’s time-consuming and tedious and frustrating, and it requires expensive software and a huge leap of faith that your singers know how to operate a smartphone. But it is possible.

I believe the middle ground here is not in saying “never” to one of these projects, nor is it giving up the idea of collective music-making entirely and trying to replace it with solo projects or written work. Rather, it is in accepting that there is room for trying new ideas and experimenting with different strategies. And it’s admitting that there is in fact something oddly beautiful about these kaleidoscopic arrays of singers wearing earbuds and singing in their kitchens or back porches. After watching one of our videos, one of the singers in my church choir marveled that there’s something strangely intimate about this new way of making music together – “We never get to watch one another when we sing in a choir.” It’s a different sensation, of course, but it can be community-building in a surprising way.

If you’ve made it this far into the blog, I’ll endeavor to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the last several weeks. Some may be obvious, but they weren’t entirely obvious to me before we found ourselves in this situation.

  1. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. This paraphrase of an adage attributed to Voltaire has never felt truer in my career. We kid ourselves if we think we’re going to find the perfect solution to the absence of live choral singing. But if we accept that perfection is not realistic, we can still create something good, and maybe even something beautiful.
  2. You will fail multiple times. We all need to be reminded of that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had my computer crash, or I’ve lost a file that I had spent hours on, or that a project just wasn’t working because singers and conductors are human. And it’s ok.
  3. You will have to learn new skills. Bit by bit, I’m starting to get the hang of Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro. I’m also getting better at creating guide tracks and conductor videos, and at collaborating with instrumentalists. I’m getting better with Zoom and live streaming too, and I’m finding new ways to run rehearsals that don’t crash and burn because I don’t know how to screen share.
  4. You will need lots of file storage. I’m at something like 500 GB and counting of videos on my external hard drive. These things take up a lot of memory, even at their lowest resolution.
  5. Learn from other choruses and conductors. This is an ongoing process, but I’ve been so encouraged and amazed by some of the innovative and creative things these groups are doing. C4, for example, is embarking on a virtual concert series in pursuit of the lowest internet latency (the single biggest reason why simultaneous virtual singing has been impossible). That’s pretty freaking cool.
  6. Community comes first. One of the biggest voids in all of our lives during this pandemic has been the lack of community gatherings we normally experience in choirs. That’s a huge reason why community choirs are so popular – the community part of that term is a/the driving force. But it’s possible to continue that community online, on social media, or while practicing social distancing. And our singers miss the community as much as, if not more than, making music together.
  7. ASK FOR HELP. Above all, my biggest lesson learned in this process has been that doing this alone is impossible. If making one of these videos or recordings is daunting, that’s ok. There’s a vast community of trained and self-training people who have figured out how to do this, or have taught themselves new skills. And if you’re lucky, you might even have friends who do this sort of thing for a living, and who can lend a hand when you know your skills aren’t adequate to achieve what you’re trying to create. Ask.

During the last 68 days, I’ve had some of the worst moments of my career. But I’ve also had some of the greatest moments of inspiration, and some of the most beautiful and touching experiences with the students and singers I love so much. There is a path forward, and we will forge it together.

I’ll leave you with a virtual performance my students made of “As there are flowers,” one of the pieces we were preparing for our spring concert and Disney Performing Arts trip. We won’t be able to have those performances, but thanks to their grit and determination, and in a huge part to audio engineering by my friend Jim Bilodeau, we still found a way to sing. Together. And we made this.


Responses

  1. This is one of the best reflections I’ve read on our situation. Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: