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Song in the Time of Corona: a Case Study

“Science will end the pandemic. Music will get us through it.”

– Betsy Marvit, youth choral director

Still from choral video as performed by one of Betsy Marvit’s youth ensembles

What can I say? My sister Betsy is amazing. Not only is she a Caltech-degreed engineer and three-time Women’s World Karate Champion, she is also a deeply dedicated and much-admired children’s choral instructor. In fact, she has been passionate about choral music for well beyond the twenty-three years she has been teaching it. When I heard about choral practices as superspreader events, I wondered how she would handle the new pandemic reality and what lessons we might learn from her solutions.

For Betsy, the challenge wasn’t merely finding a way to keep the kids singing. It was reimagining and reinventing the entire process to keep what was special about their singing experience—most of all the communal aspects of joining together in song. As Betsy explained, “Creating anything of beauty necessarily leads to a personal connection between collaborators. There is nothing more sacred, more transcendent, more an act of self-discovery and self-expression, than creating art. When done together it is uniquely bonding.”

When the pandemic struck, it seemed a death knell for choral instruction. “Youth choral organizations lost about half of their students. Choral singing had become the new smoking,” she lamented. Many groups now meet online, but there are several technical limitations, each of which are devastating for music ensembles. For example, Zoom only allows one person to be heard at a time—the antithesis of choral singing. And, worst of all, the kids can’t hear what they collectively produce. Betsy told me, “They can see each other, hear me teach, and sing while on mute. But they are cut off from the beauty they create as an ensemble, cut off from voices blending together. This thing that is so much greater than what can be done on one’s own—this magic—is missing online.”

What to do?

The first critical insight was that using a new medium to recreate the old experience was destined for failure. A virtual practice session imitating in-person rehearsals was not the path to giving students what they needed. But, if creatively constructed, online rehearsals might be able to capture some of the spirit that makes choral singing special; imparting not just the education but the experience of being in a chorus.

Technical limitations hampered Betsy’s ability to give real-time support to the kids as they sang in a group. Instead, she focused on customization—making a different instructional video for each vocal part. In it, student sections hear Betsy or others singing the piece, listen for verbal cues before entrances, and follow sheet music sprinkled with timed annotations that Betsy had created just for them. On the other side of the screen, they watch Betsy conducting and performing their part.

Excerpt from sing-along/choreography learning video. Performances can be found here.