Posted by: Colin Britt | December 14, 2020

What is choral music like in 2020?

“Dona nobis pacem” by Mark A. Miller, performed by the West Village Chorale

This is usually my favorite week of the year.

The third week in December always begins with the West Village Chorale giving a holiday concert, with an audience packed into New York’s Judson Memorial Church ready to hear glorious music and sing along with popular carols. Then, on Monday night would be my winter choral concert at Rutgers Prep, with the six choral groups on campus coming together at Voorhees Chapel on the Rutgers University campus to share their work from the last three months. On Wednesday, I always take my select group from RPS caroling at area retirement homes and the Bridgewater mall, a fun excuse for our kids to get off campus and bring some joy to these communities. Then on the last day of classes, we go caroling around our campus and share holiday music with kids from pre-k through grade 12. And, of course, there are holiday parties and gifts and hugs.

This year, there will be none of that.

277 days ago, I wrote about packing up my classroom, canceling every performance in my spring schedule, and watching helplessly as the world shut down around me. I was despairing, frightened, and mourning the loss of what could have been.

Six and a half months ago, I wrote about how we as a choral community would have to find ways to move on, and how we wouldn’t let the pandemic eliminate our industry or define our response to the challenges we faced. In hindsight, I’d say this was one of those times when you say something over and over again hoping for it to become true — but I don’t think any of us had a choice.

So where are we now?

“As there are flowers”, performed during the pandemic by the ECU Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. James Franklin

In the last eight months, I’ve felt anxiety and depression, but I’ve also been astounded and inspired by the creativity, resilience, grit, and optimism of my colleagues, mentors, students, and friends in the performing arts. I’ve desperately missed live choral music, but I have seen some staggeringly beautiful performances and astonishing innovations in the face of the greatest existential threat any of us have ever encountered in our careers. We can’t make the kind of music I know my choirs are capable of, but I’ve watched singers tackle new challenges such as self-taping and wrestling with Google Drive, and in some of the most inspiring cases I’ve seen them grow into more confident singers and performers. I’ve learned new things from my students and beamed with pride as they’ve overcome the awkwardness of singing with masks in an outdoor tent and put up with lawnmowers and 18-wheeler engine braking on the nearby highway to sing.

And I’ve learned some new skills too, including audio and video editing I never would have dreamed of tackling nine months ago. I’ve put together over 80 virtual videos for my adult, church, and student choirs, and I haven’t yet resorted to throwing my laptop out the window. I’m not by any means a great video editor, but I’m actually rather proud of several of the finished products.

Mark Guerette and Colin Britt sing U2’s “MLK” in remembrance of September 11

Yesterday, the West Village Chorale gave a completely virtual holiday concert. With the incredible audio production help from Jim Bilodeau and video editing by Liam McNamara, Wei-Ting Duo, and myself, we were able to present virtual performances of 14 small- and large-group numbers. At the same time, the concert was a holiday program that I’m extremely proud of, in that it represented composers who look like this country and sent a message of resilience in the face of despair and injustice.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but it feels good to know that we can move forward together and navigate this strange new world. We can find ways to create beauty and community and joy. We can still touch people with our art, while still sustaining arts organizations with a business model that’s actually stable. We can still teach students and encourage them to make connections and grow as musicians. And, as my friend and former college choir director Ed Bolkovac reminds me, we will never, ever, ever take singing together in person for granted again.

See you in 2021.

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