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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.

Students watch their instructional video and sing along during sectionals in breakout rooms and at home, able to both hear harmonies with their own voices and have extra support on their own parts. Once they feel confident, they listen with headphones or earbuds while video recording themselves singing. Then they watch their video, listen to themselves, self assess, and try again. Once satisfied, they send the video to Betsy, who gives individual feedback. Then Betsy assembles a “draft performance video” that combines all the individual videos. Students review the draft video, learn ensemble lessons from it, and then try recording again. “In all the years I’ve been teaching,” Betsy enthused, “I’ve never seen students improve so quickly. Letting the students hear themselves in context, without having to sing at the same time, gives them a much greater self-awareness which, in turn, drives growth.”

At the end of the school semester, Betsy put together a set of videos of all of the kids’ performances. “In a year when children were denied graduations, school plays, art shows, sporting events, and pretty much every other marker of completion and achievement, a concert of their singing provided a sense of accomplishment and culmination that was especially important,” she said. But the impact goes beyond providing a capstone to their work. “The kids actively made people’s lives a little better by bringing beauty into the world,” Betsy explained. “They had the power to help others feel connected and hopeful, providing a kind of empowerment that is badly needed when they’re feeling helpless.”

And what are the lessons for us? Here are a few:

  • Don’t let circumstances prevent you from engaging in self-expression. You may need to find new ways of doing things, but don’t let obstacles stop you from engaging in your art.

  • There can be benefits to doing something in a new way. Nothing forces creativity and discovery like having familiar options removed.

  • Don’t limit yourself to using new media to duplicate old experiences. We are (slowly) learning how to apply the technology on its own terms to do something that hasn’t been done before.

I am struck by how these lessons, these ways of thinking, apply outside the choral sphere. Think about, for example, the future of work. Insofar as work is a form of self-expression, we should be open to the new. In fact, we must. As we think about tradeoffs (again in terms of work), we need to ask ourselves what tradeoffs we were making pre-pandemic without realizing it. Commuting? Interruptions? Wearing pants? And how about all our efforts to duplicate the old? Do we really need virtual offices?

We can apply the same lessons when thinking about how we should build and configure our homes and our cities, educational practices, business models, and even public policy.

I view what Betsy has done with choral instruction as a hopeful example in a dire time. We can build our communities, educate our children, and share inspiration—despite the obstacles. We just need to be ready to go beyond the old ways. We need to feel free to reimagine and reinvent. Then we need to hunker down and do it.


Dave Marvit

Dave Marvit is a member of the Board of Directors of the Grey Swan Guild; leader of its Research, Sensemaking, and Intelligence Group; and Co-lead of Fujitsu’s Open Innovation Gateway. Seeing the world in new ways has helped him generate around 60 patents with over 6,000 forward citations. When not helping businesses make sense of their changing landscapes or inventing new technologies and business models, Dave can be found playing Go — trying to make sense of its incalculable depth and beauty.

Betsy Marvit

Betsy Marvit is excited, as always, about bringing the power and transcendence of choral music to the next generation and their communities. She teaches at the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and is Founder and Artistic Director of the Young Musicians Chorus. When not bringing music into people’s lives, she gives new meaning to “fights like a girl” in karate dojos worldwide.

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