It was a challenge to keep the OCSB choirs running during the pandemic, but under director Carla MacGregor the choirs kept the momentum going and have recently begun to perform live again. Photo courtesy Carla MacGregor

OCSB choirs get their rhythm back

By  Angelica Vecchiato, Youth Speak News
  • June 8, 2022

The fateful March of 2020 brought the curtain down on in-person performances and rehearsals for the children and youth voices animating the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) choirs.

But the young singers persevered throughout the pandemic and have recently returned to semi-normal schedules, even performing concerts in recent weeks.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first swept the country, choirs were left scrambling, wondering how vocal music instruction could continue in a messy world of lockdowns and ever-changing restrictions. For the beloved Ottawa choir, underpinning four different choral groups with members as young as eight, there was no choice but to continue forward, which meant a virtual, hybrid presence for the 2021-2022 school year.

Although music appassionata Jeanine Baltazar has been singing with the OCSB since the fourth grade, the 18-year-old had doubts about continuing her choir career online.

“I’m a Filipina and since singing is a big part of Filipino culture, I’ve always been surrounded by music,” said Baltazar. “From a young age, I’ve loved music and so being a part of the choir was incredible — I just loved it.”

She was confused, however, on how the new reality would work.

“Virtual performances are not the norm for choirs and singing in masks is very difficult. I was so used to the in-person way that switching to another way felt nearly impossible. I even considered dropping out altogether.”

MaryAnn Dunn established the OCSB choir in 1991, looking to give musical children an opportunity to participate in an honours singing group. Current OCSB choir director Carla MacGregor knew she needed to continue Dunn’s mission and kept the momentum going by turning to the virtual realm. This had its challenges, however.

Traditionally, practices and rehearsals for the chamber and children’s choir would occur at St. Basil Church. But MacGregor had to adapt her conducting and vocal coaching with the developments of the pandemic.

“At first, the online choir was received very enthusiastically, but as the year progressed it became difficult to keep the energy and momentum,” said the teacher at St. Mark’s High School in the Ottawa suburb of Manotick.

“The virtual set-up was definitely a learning curve. I would go to church and set up everything — the lights, the piano — for the singers on Zoom and we would rehearse just as if we were in-person. Actually, at one point in the year, the children’s choir rehearsed outside. Then, when it got too cold to do that, we had half of the choir online and the other half in-person at church. We had to sing with masks on throughout the whole year, which is something very difficult to do.”

For the past couple of weeks, with restrictions on the decline, the choir’s online toil now flaunts in-person success. The choir has performed live for both the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association’s annual conference and for Catholic Education Week Mass at Notre Dame Basilica in downtown Ottawa.

In addition to in-person triumphs, the choir boasts award-winning titles for video recordings sent to the Ottawa Kiwanis festival. The chamber choir won the Ken Little Memorial Trophy for its videos and the children’s choir won the Wilfrid Coulson Shield.

Next year, MacGregor hopes to return to a “full” normal.

“We want to return to doing that which we do best. We hope that by next year we will experience a normal year of performances and vocal competitions, all sung without a mask.”

(Vecchiato, 17, will soon graduate from Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School in Toronto.)

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