COVID and the choirs

Walks through Hvidsten are accompanied by many sounds, from the modern chorus of Vocal Jazz to the roaring melodies of the Concordia Band.

However, in the past week and a half, silence filled the once lively rehearsal spaces. The rise of the Omicron variant, especially on campus, has forced all three major choral ensembles of Concordia to rehearse via Zoom.

Coming back from winter break, the Concordia Choir had their winter retreat. The singers, all of whom are vaccinated per requirement of the choir since the fall semester, returned to campus after receiving a negative COVID test. Many vocalists found themselves with a positive result despite being asymptomatic, which was shocking to those in the ensemble. 

After their winter retreat, the ensemble faced an outbreak, causing Michael Culloton, director of the Concordia Choir, to move rehearsals online.  

“How different our little world became from December when we were able to sing for thousands of people to five weeks later, we come back (to an outbreak),” Culloton said.

“The level of students who reported positive tests to me was beyond anything that I dealt with last academic year. That’s when I felt like, ‘Let’s pause. Timeout.’”

Zoom rehearsals were conducted for about a week and a half. Culloton posted assignments to Moodle for those who could not participate via Zoom. The Chapel and Kantorei Choirs, directed by Kira Knutson, have also been online. Both directors have had to turn to untraditional rehearsal techniques to continue to make progress. 

“Zoom choir is tough. Usually what we have done is listen to recordings of our music and have discussions about it. The lag over zoom doesn’t allow for synchronized singing,” said Ian Brown, student manager of Kantorei Choir.

One of the biggest challenges of Zoom choir is the lack of community that happens when singing from behind a screen. 

“It is difficult to feel like you can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with the people you love and sing freely. Singing is such a stress-reliever, but I think in the pandemic, lots of us have experienced additional layers of stress,” Knutson said. “What we know singing to be, as this freeing, wonderful, artistic opportunity becomes a little burdened by anxiety.”

Now resuming in-person rehearsal, many are optimistic that the worst of this variant is over, at least for the choral department. While the Omicron outbreak presented challenging circumstances, Culloton is hoping it created a sort of herd immunity within the choir. 

“Because we are experiencing an outbreak right now, I don’t think the choir’s health and safety is going to be compromised,” said Emily Oliversen, student manager of the Concordia Choir. 

Precautions, such as diligent masking and following strict guidelines, are in place when rehearsing in person. Both Culloton and Knutson have been in contact with the COVID Helpline and the Minnesota Department of Health. 

“I’m kind of going above and beyond this week and in the coming weeks to make sure we have six feet of space, if not seven, around every singer, everyone wears a mask, and I take an air exchange break every forty minutes,” Knutson said. 

Kantorei Choir rehearsal, fully masked. | Anna Kronbeck

Condensing rehearsal time to forty minutes for the near future to facilitate the air exchange combined with Hvidsten’s high-quality ventilation system will keep singers safe as they return to meeting in person.

“(Culloton) is following advice he has been given by professionals, which makes me feel really good about that,” said Oliversen.

The Concordia Choir is gearing up for their domestic tour in March, when they will head to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado to share their music. Chapel Choir will be touring more locally, likely within the tri-state area. In May, the Concordia Choir will depart on their international tour to Italy. Hopes are high that their tours will be possible and highly successful. 

“We’re really optimistic that by March, things will be in a good spot,” said Wyatt Steinke, manager of choral activities.

Unlike instrumental ensemble tours, where the musicians do homestays, the Concordia Choir and Chapel Choir will stay at hotels as was the practice pre-COVID. While hotel stays cut into the revenue generated by the tour, Culloton says that it will keep the singers healthier, more rested, and better caught up on school work. 

While the Omicron outbreak did create momentary change in rehearsal mode for the choral program, Culloton and Knuston remain grateful for the opportunities that they have had this year and for the perseverance of the singers.

“They did everything they needed to do to come back in the fall. They came into our rehearsal situations and masked up, in many cases double-masked up, and they stayed on,” Culloton said.

There are around ten smaller student-led vocal ensembles on campus, including Vocal Jazz, Shanty Choir, and Cobbertones have continued rehearsals, even if not with all members in person. 

“It’s still better to have a rehearsal with five people in there and at least hearing the parts than it is all virtual,” said Steinke. “It still feels like we’ve moved ahead from last year. We’re doing better.”

The vocalists’ passion for the program shines through despite times of difficulty, a true show of Concordia values.

“Being in choir during a pandemic is a labor of love, so the people who are in the room right now are incredibly invested, and they know that we will get to the other side and do it the way we know how to do it again,” Knutson said.

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