There was no in-person audience. And outside the performance, there were autumn leaves instead of snowbanks. But VocalEssence was determined to welcome Christmas as it has for more than 50 years, with its “Welcome Christmas” choral concert.
The concert was taped by Twin Cities Public Television in October, is available to stream at vocalessence.org and is airing on TPT.
To make it all happen, VocalEssence had to bring more than two dozen singers together to sing and rehearse without risking the spread of COVID-19.
WAITING FOR ANSWERS
Like all performing arts groups, VocalEssence Ensemble Singers had to pause concerts and rehearsals in the spring due to the pandemic.
“We had to wait until the science gave us enough answers about what role singing played in either spreading it or allowing it to live in an environment, so to speak,” said VocalEssence associate director Phillip Shoultz. “Because early on, we were called super spreaders, and so we wanted to wait to find out if that was actually true or if it was just circumstances.”
VocalEssence implemented Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations as part of their own protocols, Shoultz said. Singing outdoors with masks on while social distancing was an option, but rehearsing indoors would require heavier restrictions.
VocalEssence had its own shared contribution to research. Anders Eckman, a tenor in the ensemble for the past 14 years, was part of the strategic planning process to get choirs back to singing.
“VocalEssence was involved in some pretty nationally renowned studies on aerosolization of the viral particles, particularly for instrumental and vocal music,” Eckman said. “We were part of two research studies, and so they were looking at viral transmission, and then they were using that data to determine their model for how they were going to do in-person singing for this season.”
REHEARSING OVER ZOOM
Once CDC and MDH guidelines were issued, VocalEssence started rehearsals with members staying in their homes. Choral members received music in the mail to rehearse on their own time, and went over the logistics of the pieces through Zoom rehearsals.
“Zoom rehearsals consist of [the director] talking through each piece, talking about artistic interpretation, talking about dynamics, talking about word stress, text,” Eckman said. “So we would mark our scores.”
Synchronized singing over Zoom wasn’t possible because of latency, so Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of VocalEssence, had members sing along on mute to his piano.
However, in order to tape “Welcome Christmas 2020” with TPT, some form of in-person singing had to be done.
SINGING SAFELY TOGETHER
Masks would still be required for indoor singing, but members had to complete a symptom and contact tracing checklist and use hand sanitizer before and after each rehearsal, according to Shoultz. If someone showed even minor symptoms, they wouldn’t be allowed to rehearse in-person.
Shoultz said this was counter to what was expected for rehearsals before the virus.
“Whether it’s theatrical or musical, you know that typically the M.O. is ‘Don’t miss rehearsal unless you’re on your dying bed,’ ” Shoultz said. “Now we’ve turned that on its head, and it’s like, ‘If you don’t feel 100 percent, don’t show up.’ ”
Those who couldn’t show up would join the rehearsal yet again from Zoom. A Zoom feed from the director’s end would record the choir’s rehearsal, and absent members would turn on their cameras, leave their mic on mute, and listen and participate as much as they could.
Additional measures like temperature checks and scratch and sniff checks made it more certain no one was bringing the virus in, Shoultz said.
“That also eliminated some anxiety and [allowed] people to be really honest about how they’re feeling,” Shoultz said. “I think the idea was we want to keep each other safe.”
They designated specific entrance and exit doors into their building, and they also made sure there was adequate air ventilation.
Even with the current recommendations of 6 feet for social distancing, VocalEssence took a more cautious approach by increasing the distance to about 9 or 12 feet between individual singers, Shoultz and Eckman said.
“The ensemble singers are 32,” said Brunelle. “Well, that’s too many people to put together to sing. So I divided the 32 into two groups of 16 and had each group sing different pieces.”
They divided the groups even further, according to Eckman and Shoultz, sometimes into groups of six to eight singers with each group singing their own pieces.
Brunelle said he chose “The 12 Days of Christmas” as one of the pieces for the ensemble, assigning different groups different parts of the song.
“I had one group that only did ‘five gold rings’ each time it came around and with different actions for each time they did it,” Brunelle said. “And then the other group did all the other days one through four and six through 12.”
In-person rehearsal was condensed. With only two in-person rehearsals before taping, rehearsals ran for a total of one hour and 15 minutes each, according to Eckman. First, they would sing for 30 minutes together socially distanced. Then, they would take a 30-minute break to aerate the rehearsal space, and then sing for another 15 minutes before concluding rehearsal, Eckman said.
Natalia Romero Arbelaez, a two-year member and soprano of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, said they were already used to having fewer rehearsals compared to other choirs. Yet they had even less time together to sing this season, meaning they had to practice significantly more on their own.
“It really challenged us to have to be independent because they split the ensemble in half,” Arbelaez said. “When you’re singing with 32 [choir singers], you have eight sopranos. It’s a different game when you have four sopranos and you’re singing with 16 or 15 other people.”
For taping the special in October, each small group from the ensemble had two-hour chunks to record video and audio for their songs. The process lasted two days, resulting in an hourlong tape.
“They have you do multiple takes so that they can kind of combine stuff, right?” Eckman said. “We usually do two full takes of each piece, and then they would produce it afterward.”
One difficulty of taping the concert was the empty spaces between singers due to social distancing. Shoultz said they had to experiment with lighting, decorations and camera angles that would bring life to each individual’s presence.
“It was a really neat experience just to see the amount of care they had done to make sure that the singers were safe,” Arbelaez said. “I think there were three fixed cameras and one camera that was moving.”
Four virtual performances were also produced which featured singers from their home, according to Shoultz. Each singer would record their own audio and video, and send it in to be pieced together by TPT.
During this holiday season, however, members of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers have fewer commitments than ever.
“There’s far less stuff going on, it’s so strange,” Eckman said. “Usually in early December, the first two weekends we have seven, eight different calls that we have and we’re running all over the place. And so you’re running around all month and you literally get run ragged as a singer in December.”
Shoultz said he expects the pandemic to continue past winter 2021, but their current methods of working around the virus will evolve.
“We’ve been highly nimble in the sense of [planning] for these limited or hybrid in-person singing experiences with smaller groups, but also balancing it with online activity and the possibility of doing these virtual kinds of collaborations,” Shoultz said.
Shoultz is an artistic adviser for a new platform called Songalong, which aims to provide virtual choirs all the tools they need on one device. Virtual choir members often need one device to access their music, one to hear a guide track, and one to record themselves, Shoultz said.
The collaboration for the new platform came from Shoultz’s connection with two people he’s sung with who attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Boston.
“We really gave it its basis for this ‘Welcome Christmas’ concert because all the singers got the link, they went and recorded their projects, and I could download all the files and send them to the videographers,” Shoultz said. “Everyone becomes a soloist singing with a guide track.”
On the other hand, Brunelle isn’t entirely certain the pandemic will continue past 2021. For every upcoming concert, he said he tries to have a Plan A or B by considering whether singers will be back together, spatially distanced, or singing virtually. He also considers whether the audience will want to attend in-person or watch the ensemble’s concerts from the comfort of their homes.
“We at VocalEssence are not going to stop singing,” Brunelle said. “We just have to find new ways to be able to do that so that listeners can enjoy what we’ve got.”
- What: VocalEssence’s “Welcome Christmas” virtual concert
- When and where: The concert will air Thursday, Dec. 24, at 10 p.m. on TPT 2; Friday, Dec. 25, at 4 and 7 a.m. on TPT 2; and Sunday, Dec. 27 at 2 a.m., 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on TPT MN. It’s also available to stream for $15 on the VocalEssence website, vocalessence.org/, until June 2021.
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