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Chorale shows how colleges keep song alive during COVID

INDIANA, Pa. — They arrived in street clothes, ready to perform in a century-and-a-half-old hall at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, their faces covered by masks.

There was brief silence as IUP Chorale members standing 6 feet apart in an otherwise empty room looked toward their conductor.

Then, in unison, their voices soared.

The anthem “We Shall Overcome” was a planned tribute by the student ensemble to America’s civil rights movement and Black history. But after a long winter of isolation, it’s not hard to imagine the words carrying extra meaning that day for the young performers in jeans, sweatshirts and wool hats.

On college campuses, COVID-19 created a new imperative for fall and winter. Somehow, students had to get back to their lecture halls, to their science labs and to venues where collegiate athletes compete.

But what about arts education? What about the importance of music?

In a note that accompanied a YouTube video of their performance, those in IUP’s music department summed it up this way:

“Over the last year, singing together suddenly became nearly impossible to do. Overnight it turned into a luxury for the few that had spaces available to do it safely.”

More than Zoom calls

Colleges that reduced campus occupancies faced hard choices about who could return for in-person classes and who had to settle for instruction at home. Many schools, among them IUP, decided that music students intent on honing their skills required more than just Zoom calls.

For students like Colby Settles, 21, of Canonsburg, an IUP senior music education major and a tenor, rehearsing in person brought normalcy to a campus existence still partly remote.

‘Honestly, it’s what gets me through each week being able to sing with these people,” he said.

Making music safely during a pandemic — especially in groups — would not be easy. It required both understanding the science and everyone accepting compromise.

Educators had to account for the risks from tiny droplets, or aerosolization, of the deadly virus as students sang or played instruments. Rehearsal periods were shortened and group performers divided into smaller groups, with time built in for air filtration to remove potential virus from the room.

Students, in turn, had to accept that it would be masks all the time — or nothing.

Large schools, among them the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State University, posted elaborate fact sheets, even a podcast, exploring everything from disinfecting rehearsal rooms and safe distancing required for various instruments to discussion of how students are coping.

“Will someone be wiping off the pianos?” Penn State’s question-and-answer sheet asked.

“Yes, everyone,” came the reply. It explained that supplies and instructions would be located nearby.

Before reopening, smaller schools including Allegheny College also pondered droplet risks of a single student playing the oboe with an instructor, or a string quartet, versus an entire band.

Singing through a mouth covering requires deeper breaths and extra care to enunciate words so they can be understood, said Aderayo Oyegbade, 34, a masters student from Lagos, Nigeria, who was the soloist in the video performance.

“It’s still not normal singing,” he acknowledged.

But it is at least singing.

“Music is something that frees our souls,” he said. “It keeps us alive.”

Being part of a 48-member ensemble means there are that many stories to be shared by individuals who can bring their humanity to the performance, said Gerrit Scheepers, an assistant professor and director of choral studies at IUP.

“You just have to bring your story,” he told them.

A special recording

IUP’s Sutton Hall, built in 1875, houses the administration and is the oldest building in continuous use by the state-owned university with 10,000 students. Its second-floor Gorell Recital Hall, with soothing sightlines, auburn color scheme and balcony seating, is an attractive performance space.

But some things were modified for last month’s 6-minute, 32-second recording. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder on risers, students were dispersed across the low wooden stage and in front of 252 seats left empty due to risks from the deadly pathogen.

As conductor, Mr. Scheepers had a front row view as the soloist and other young voices carried on a musical conversation.

“I could watch them. I looked into their eyes and I could tell they were singing from a different place,” he said. “I was so super, super proud of them.”

Bridget Sagolla-Slamp, 26, of Lancaster, Pa., who is finishing up a master’s degree in vocal performance and also studying to be an emergency medical technician, said the music conjured images for her of racial struggle, including George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis in May.

It also reminded her of other suffering this past year as families lost loved ones and jobs to COVID-19.

The pandemic stole from everyone’s lives things they took for granted, her campus peers included.

“It had been a while since we were able to perform as a group,” she said. “Even though we didn’t have an audience, it was nice.”

‘It’s where they live’

The IUP Chorale dates at least to 1961, when other parts of the music listening world were fixated on Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker. The Berlin Wall was being built and the campus itself was known as Indiana State College. The Chevrolet Impala was becoming a car of choice.

This year’s roster includes a nursing major and a general studies student. But most who audition for a spot are undergraduate and graduate music majors.

“Our students have been participating in ensembles for 10 years or more,” said Matthew Baumer, music department chair at IUP. “For most of them, it’s where they live.”

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