By Irena Fletcher | Arts Bureau Edge Reporter
duPont Manual High School, Class of 2022
For three weeks this summer, more than 30 high school singers gathered together by hopping onto their favorite device for a long and hard-working day of voice and choral lessons on Zoom. That's what most mornings were like for Governor's School for the Arts student Brianna Johnson and the others.
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts vocal students in session with instructors during this summer’s program. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.
The group that included Johnson, a rising senior at duPont Manual High School’s Youth Performing Arts School, was part of the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts that became a virtual program this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of canceling GSA, administrators followed an adage that artists know — the show must go on.
However, these vocal students didn’t have your typical everyone-come-together-and-sing kind of classes. They came together and sang virtually. As the GSA continued the long history of its various programs along with its 2020 vocal program, this year this different kind of camp worked its magic online.
GSA Vocal Music Chairperson and Choral Director and Bellarmine University Associate Professor Alexander T. Simpson presented students with the task of making a virtual choir as a part of this year's GSA vocal music curriculum. The choir sang Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.”
Simpson said each student had to make a recording while using headphones and sing their part into the mic. Then the students sent the recording to Simpson, who reviewed each file before sending all of them to a sound engineer who put the sound pieces together.
Virtual choirs have been around for a while, but it wasn’t until the dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic that they began gaining popularity.
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts Vocal Music Chairperson and the Choral Director Alexander T. Simpson teaching a session. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.
Choirs and singers have been significantly affected by the pandemic. Row after row of singers packed tightly together, mouths wide open to boisterously emit notes to a song can be a prime source for the spread of Covid-19. So, people needed to get creative. From the Boston Children’s Chorus to the Camden Voices in the United Kingdom, groups have recorded their choirs. In Houston, a show choir performs at least two songs per month virtually. The world’s largest virtual choir was organized this year by Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whitacre with 17,572 vocalists from 129 different countries and debuted on YouTube in July.
“We didn’t get to do live auditions this year, so we didn’t know if students could read music, which was a challenge. We were not sure how their voices would meld,” he said. “I was happy it wasn’t canceled, happy that everyone was committed and that we are going to make it happen — no matter what.”
“We didn’t get to do live auditions this year, so we didn’t know how well students would be able to read music, which created a definite challenge,” he said. “We were also not sure how their voices would meld because the true quality of the voices is not always well-represented on the audition submissions. So much depends on the quality of the equipment they use to record themselves, and that is not always the best.”
Still, Simpson was “thrilled” GSA wasn’t canceled. He added, he was “proud we are going to make it happen — no matter what.”
Johnson said singing the virtual choir piece “Ave Verum Corpus” allowed her to tap into her strengths as a vocalist.
“I had to make sure my notes were on point. It was nice to hear other people and give each other feedback and encouragement,” she said. “The song is not too hard, and I think it was a good song for us since we have different skill levels.”
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts vocal music student Briana Johnson talks about her experience learning her part in the vocal chorus. Screenshot by Elizabeth Kramer.
Students got the time to practice some in daily lessons via Zoom. While singing online may sound a bit easier than singing in person, there’s no doubt that everyone met challenges.
“You have to have the right vocal range for Zoom that will not cause distortion. For example, the reproductions of very loud, high soprano passages can be a bit dangerous,” Simpson said. “The selection also had to be the appropriate length due to severely limited rehearsal time, combined with possible issues with the aforementioned reading skill of some students.”
From video and audio distortion due to poor internet or microphones, to audio cutting out altogether, the process of singing on Zoom seemed to be more laborious than your typical in-person choir practices.
Johnson said when singing for the virtual choir, everyone had to be more personally responsible for their own parts. They could not depend on hearing other singers around them for finding their notes or parts. It was difficult for some because not everyone was able to read music by themselves.
Some might ask if GSA was really worth the effort since the students were not able to have the same in-person experiences as past students.
“For many of the students, it was their first time being around others who are as passionate as they are,” Simpson said. “Had they not had the GSA experience, they could’ve given up on their passion.”
Some students, like Johnson, found her passion in the choir.
“We all had to make the most out of it, and it’s been really fun,” Johnson said. “It has truly changed my life.”
Many other students who had hoped to experience their chance at the gates of learning heaven in-person might later have felt the same as Johnson. Each student had to make it work in their own way — and they did.
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts Vocal Music Chairperson and the Choral Director Alexander T. Simpson (bottom, right) moderated a panel for Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts vocal music students that included University of Kentucky Opera Theatre alumni Denisha Ballew (top, left); Alexa Smith (top, right); and Karmesha Peake (middle, right) along with UK Professor and Director of Opera Everett McCorvey (bottom, right). Photos courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.
“One student did the majority of the classes while lying in a bed rather than sitting at a desk. Another did classes while strolling in the yard or laying in the grass,” Simpson said. “Both paid close attention, took great notes, and were incredibly involved in discussions, they just needed a different background to enhance their ability to concentrate. Of course, they did use a more traditional space for their voice lessons.”
The program truly showed how resilient and focused they were. They had been motivated from the very start to learn the music and be engaged on a daily basis.
For her part, Johnson was excited to have the opportunity to attend GSA since her sister was a part of GSA in 2016, studying dance, and her mother attended GSA in 1989 to study theater. But singing comes naturally to Johnson.
“I sing to bring joy to other people,” she said. “I love the way singing and music makes me feel. When I got to YPAS, I kind of fell in love with opera and want to have a career singing opera.”
Now, she has had the GSA and virtual choir experience as well as the guidance of others to help her along her journey.
Irena Fletcher, a rising junior at duPont Manual High School’s Youth Performing Arts School (band magnet) has studied dance and music (instrumental and voice) and participated in Arts Bureau Edge's first workshop.