How Are You? Silver Linings for Music Directors

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Ian is one of my 13-year-old concert choir candidates. He and a group of nine other boys were promoted this semester to become full-fledged members of the Keystone State Boychoir (KSB). For Ian and his fellow candidates, social distancing comes with another layer of anxiety – fear that they will not “earn their jacket.”

I’ve assured them that they will, but even during unprecedented times, they can’t just “yearn it, they gotta earn it.” And so I’ve set out to facilitate their fulfilling all the requirements remotely. If we can’t have our spring concert, we’ll mail the jackets to their homes, and they’ll put those jackets on for the first time in a virtual ceremony.

Yesterday, after a successful but tedious 90-minute Zoom rehearsal where the candidates and I worked on theory, sight-reading, and learning the KSB standard repertoire, we had had it. I made the obligatory ask, “Does anyone have any more questions?” (I was hoping they didn’t.) 

Music Directors Steve Fisher and Julie Donahue conduct a virtual gathering with some Concert Choir candidates for the Keystone State Boychoir.

Ian raised his hand in the nick of time, just before I was ready to click that glorious “End Meeting” button. “Yes, Ian?” And out of the blue, he asked: “How are you?” 

I was taken aback, speechless. In more than 25 years of teaching, I don’t think any child has ever asked me this question. Ian asked again. “How are you, Mr. Fisher?” So I proceeded to tell him and the other boys how I was doing, living with a 90-year-old father-in-law who keeps trying to escape, insisting he’s “too old” to be told he can’t leave the house. Yes, Dad, too old, that’s the problem. So he sulks in his room all day. The circle of life!

I then asked Ian how he was doing. And so Zoom rehearsal went on for another 30 beautiful minutes, with all the boys sharing their challenges, frustrations, disappointments, and victories during these strange times. I’ll never forget hearing Ian ask that question. It was the sincerity with which he asked it that will stick with me. He didn’t ask because someone told him to, or because he thought he was supposed to. He asked because he wanted to know.  From the mouths of singers…

Like all choirs, my organization is finding its way on how to best keep our choir community together, connected, and singing.  Our first week “back,” we held Zoom “reunions.” All groups met at their normal times throughout the week, and for 30 minutes, we gave the kids the opportunity to see each other, say hi, be goofy, and give their ideas about how we might make music going forward. I also asked them to share silver linings from their time at home (#1: sleeping in). 

This week, we began creating virtual choirs with each of our groups. For each group, we chose a song they know well, created performance tracks, and asked them to rehearse them every day.  We went over the written music using the share screen function to remind them of markings, form, and tricky spots.

Next week we’ll have them record the song on their phones with headphones, so that all we’ll get is them singing a cappella. We’ll put all their files together and see what we get. The final product may sound awful. But this is about the journey, not the destination. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?

We’ll have stayed connected; we’ll have sung! The kids are also sending in photos of themselves and their fellow singers from past rehearsals, performances and tours. With them, we’ll create a slide show to go with their virtual song. Luckily, 90% of what you hear is what you see! So maybe it’ll sound perfect after all.

As choir directors, we are all experiencing the same challenges around our attempts to make music with our singers virtually. No need to go into them – we know them all too well by now. But I’m finding there are silver linings. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of the same ones I have.

Top 5 Silver Linings of Online Rehearsals:

  1. Being a director “of a certain age,” I can read their names off the screen better than their name tags.
  2. When I’m tired of hearing them talk, I can MUTE ALL (I must have this ability once we’re back in the rehearsal room #nogoingback).
  3. I’ve gotten to meet my singers’ siblings, their pets, as well as see their homes – reminding me that choir is not their entire whole world (I know this, but reminders are good).
  4. With the share screen function, I find virtual rehearsals are a much better, more focused, intimate way to teach music theory as well as navigate programs such as Sight Reading Factory.
  5. With the ability to mute all, the kids can try things (e.g. solos, sound effects, tongue clicks, rhythms, etc.) on their own at the same time, whereas in actual rehearsals, they would not be able to do so without driving me mad. They can also try these things without feeling self-conscious.

But the BEST silver lining of this time for me is that singers, choir directors, and the whole human race have a reason, and time, to ask, “How are you?” The reality is, even before our current challenges, we practiced social distancing all the time. In the hustle and bustle of regular rehearsals, how often do you have that profound experience of a 13-year-old boy, a foot away without any thought of personal space, asking you with such kindness in his eyes, “How are you?”

So I ask, with virtual kindness in mine, how are YOU?  I hope well.   


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Steven Fisher
Steven Fisher is a co-founder of the Keystone State Boychoir. A conductor, composer, and music educator, he holds degrees from Shippensburg University and Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music. Steve studied conducting with Alan Harler, composition with Richard Brodhead, arranging with Alice Parker, and piano with Alexander Fiorello. In 1998, Temple University awarded him the prestigious Presser Foundation Award, which recognizes “a graduate student who has the potential to make an outstanding contribution in the music world.” Steve is a published composer of choral music. His musical poem, "Even," is a setting of poet-laureate Bill Collins’ beloved poem “The Lanyard,” and is published by Hal Leonard Publishing as part of the esteemed Henry Leck “Creating Artistry” series. His South African arrangements are published by Colla Voce.

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