A screen shot from the St. Michael’s Choir School year-end virtual concert on YouTube.

Choir won’t be silenced

  • July 16, 2020

Although choir services have been suspended since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, for the students and staff at St. Michael’s Choir School, the music has not been silenced.

The all-boys’ school had to halt regular Sunday performances at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica due to lockdown and social distancing restrictions, and ended the unusual school year in late June with a virtual concert aptly titled “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

Each selection took hours to piece together and was edited by senior students and staff. The concert posted to the school’s YouTube page June 12 featured a number of ensemble and instrumental performances, including a 10-voice piece entitled In Te Domine Speravi: An Anthem for a Time of Adversity sung by the Grade 7/8 virtual choir. Composed by Sarah MacDonald, it translates to, “In you Lord I put my trust” and is set to the word “quarantine” in an acrostic fashion with each letter paired with a line from the Book of Psalms.

Though the concert was somewhat painstaking to put together, Teri Dunn, dean of Choral Studies, said it was worth it to hear the voices together again.

 “It was really an interesting kind of window into what choral singing has had to look like when you can’t actually be in the same room when somebody else is singing,” said Dunn in a phone interview.

Virtually imposed inside the cathedral, the Junior Choir, dressed in uniform for each member’s individual recording, sang a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” For conductor Maria Conkey, it represented an homage to when life looked a bit more normal.  

“We have not been in our home at the cathedral basilica for so many months, so to see the space and then to hear and see the boys singing in it even though it was virtual really brought comfort,” said Conkey in her remarks after the performance

The music program had to pivot quickly to something that was more feasible given the restrictions and the need to build a program sustainable to the end of the school year. It gave students the opportunity to explore other aspects of music through projects and activities more practical to execute through online learning.

With the suspension on church gatherings lifted and the cathedral re-opening coinciding with the end of the school year, staff have a bit of time to cautiously plan for return in the fall. While there is still uncertainty as to what regulations will be in place in September, Dunn says staff is committed to doing whatever it takes to create a safe environment and ensure the singing continues.

Given that singing is a core part of the programming at the choir school, Dunn is confident they will find a way to resume more traditional in-person vocal rehearsals and classes even if that means moving away from an 80-voice choir.

A greater focus on smaller groups may have its own benefits as the quarantine situation has shown there are many positives to investing more time in individualized training.

“Hopefully not over the very long term, but certainly in the short-term, students have in this process learned through singing solo they actually held themselves to a much higher standard,” said Dunn.

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