Choir rehearsals are going swimmingly at Luther College in Decorah, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like everything else, the college shut down in mid-March, but music instructor Mark Potvin, who conducts the Norskkor of freshman and sophomore men and the Cathedral Choir of sophomore men and women, continued some virtual rehearsals to create online performances.
“It was not the same kind of day-in, day-out rehearsal we were accustomed to,” he said, “and certainly not the same kind of community experience that we are accustomed to, either.
“The choral experience is so much about singing in community, and the digital world is a different kind of community. You can still find community experiences, but for singers who rely on the acoustical properties of singing next to another soul, as well as the interpersonal connections of standing next to another soul as you sing, it’s very different to go into a living room, a dining room, a bedroom and record your part and have that be part of a performance. You’re relying on your (solo) skills, and the independence required to do that is a very different kind of skill set,” he said.
“It’s a good experience and it certainly beats not singing at all, but it was a different kind of thing, to ask our students to prepare those virtual choir performances.”
Like so many others in the creative community, he started thinking outside the box, ending up with an aha moment that puts Luther’s singers inside a very different kind of box: the municipal swimming pool adjacent to campus.
Less than a week before the September term was starting for freshmen and select upperclassmen, Potvin was driving around, looking for an outdoor space. A hillside already had been decided upon for outdoor rehearsals, but the school, a vocal and choral powerhouse, needs more than one rehearsal space to accommodate its five choirs. That’s when he spotted the city pool. Knowing it was going to be drained shortly, he called the city parks and recreation department, and they jumped feet-first into the plan.
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“It seemed liked a logical choice geographically and acoustically.” Potvin said. “ ... Hard surfaces are tricky to come by, and hard surfaces provide the singer with some feedback. If we’re just singing outdoors generically, the sound goes everywhere. That feels like an insurmountable challenge to the individual singer, when you can’t even hear yourself.
“We knew that we needed to find an outdoor space that would be somewhat advantageous, that we wouldn’t feel like we’re struggling to hear each other or struggling to overcome the impediment that is the mask.”
The pool was drained on a Monday, and by Wednesday, Potvin’s Norskkor was rehearsing there, as was Emily Ellsworth’s Aurora choir for freshmen women. Others groups are following suit, including the internationally acclaimed Nordic Choir, directed by Andrew Last, Luther’s director of choral activities.
After all, they have a major event to prepare in a new way, taking the much-loved Christmas at Luther, which traditionally sells out multiple performances, and creating a one-time, free online event streaming at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4.
In a prepared statement, Last said the concert’s theme, “For Everyone Born” speaks to the times in which we’re living.
“Our world is weathering the storms of the coronavirus and grappling with the challenges of social and racial injustice in our country,” he said. “The theme ... hearkens to Christ’s birth story and how on the night he was born, his family was told there was no room for them at the inn. ‘For Everyone Born’ is taken from a hymn of the same name that reminds us that there is a place at the table for each and every one of us.”
Working up to the fine choral sound audiences have come to expect requires careful planning, not only for refining the repertoire, but for keeping the students and instructors safe. The pool’s lane markers help with social distancing, and the singers stand on designated spots. Potvin and Ellsworth have been directing from the deck, looking out over the singers.
“There’s some benefits,” Potvin said. “Spatially, the students are able to organize themselves, and there’s concrete below them and on either side of them, and in front of them, so they can hear a little something back ... which helps them feel more secure and helps them feel like they’re singing with other people, rather than by themselves. Ensemble singing is just as much listening as it is phonating.”
They’re following the pandemic protocols set forth by the University of Colorado to help keep the students safe.
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“We have a very collaborative choral faculty,” Potvin said, noting that he and Last, both Luther grads, “are very much aligned in needing to find ways for students to sing. We weren’t sure what that was going to look like, but we were committed to the idea of singing in community; we were committed to the idea of safety first; and whatever we were going to do was going to be rooted in the best science that we had available, mitigating risk as best we could,” he said.
“We understand that there’s never going to be zero risk, but we also know that we can take some precautions and get risk as low as it can be for participating in something like singing. So we’re committed to safety and then preserving the music experience for enriching students.”
One thing they can’t do for now is continue the Luther tradition of holding hands while they sing, which not only connects the students as a community, but also syncs up their breathing, singing and subtle communicating aspects.
“We miss out on that a little bit,” Potvin said, but added that the students are getting a kick out of the novelty of the situation. And as the upperclassmen have been rolling in, they’re also curious about it.
“They are appreciative of what the space offers. If we have to be in a non-ideal situation, at least there are redeeming qualities to this space,” he said. “I think they’re appreciative, too, that we’ve been willing to think outside the box.
“I know there have been other places that have decided not to sing at all out of an understandable abundance of caution. We feel that we have that same abundance of caution, but are looking for creative ways to problem-solve ... to lead courageously and to learn actively, to have some sort of purpose in the way that we move forward.
“It feels like this in particular is a good example of what being part of the Luther College community is all about.”
It’s also setting valuable examples, especially for music education students, by modeling resiliency and adaptability, Potvin said, “acknowledging that what we know and love about choral singing is not the only way to do it — there are lots of options available. And also, demonstrating that we don’t establish community just by being in the same room together — that it is more than that.
“It’s about investing time in people, and investing time in people can happen in a whole lot of different ways. And one of the things we love about singing together is the idea that building these relationships doesn’t have to happen in the way that we’ve most often experienced it. We can make that happen in other ways, it just takes time and it takes energy. It takes thoughtfulness and it takes tenacity,” Potvin said.
“I think modeling all of those things for our students is a big piece of it.”
At A Glance
• What: Online premiere: Christmas at Luther 2020: “For Everyone Born”
• When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4
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• Where: Go to Luther.edu/christmas2020 to register and receive a viewing link
• Cost: Free
• Extras: Christmas at Luther gift box, $50, order by Oct. 15 at Luther.edu/christmas-at-luther/ or call the Luther College Ticket Office, (563) 387-1357. Boxes, shipped directly to homes, contain a Christmas at Luther 2020 ornament, candles to light during the traditional candle-lighting, printed program and more.
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