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ASU choirs get back on stage

After over a year without in-person concerts due to COVID-19 precautions, ASU choirs premiere their 2021-22 season

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The ASU Choral Union performing at the Fall Choral Festival on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at the Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tempe.

Several ASU choirs held their first on-stage performances since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began with two back-to-back in-person concerts last week.

The concerts, which took place on Oct. 20 and 21, featured hundreds of students and community members making up six different vocal ensembles. They performed from a broad range of classical, contemporary and gospel repertoire.

Teddy Ladley, a senior studying music theatre performance and member of ASU's Concert Choir, said all the singers were excited to finally be back performing on stage before a live audience.

"It's like coming back to an old friend rather than starting something brand new," Ladley said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, the music programs at ASU had to postpone or cancel all performances for the semester. According to David Schildkret, director of four ASU choral ensembles, the department did not anticipate losing its entire 2020-21 year to COVID-19. 

"I think we all thought this is going to be a few weeks," Schildkret said. "We'll all stay home and then it'll pass and we'll get back to normal."

Choral ensembles were hit particularly hard by COVID-19 precautions, with studies showing that groups singing were especially likely to spread the virus. Throughout the 2020-21 school year, all of ASU's choirs met virtually over Zoom and other online outlets, Schildkret said.

The transition to online learning and virtual rehearsals was challenging for both educators and students alike. Schildkret said the experience reminded him of how essential community building is to music ensembles.

"The community aspect of it seemed to me to be almost a side effect or a side benefit," Schildkret said. "What COVID taught me was that's actually the reason people are getting together. The music is the side benefit."

A lack of in-person rehearsals and opportunities to bond with other ensemble members made the year difficult for some students.

"Honestly it was really rough," Ladley said. "I was thankful for what we could do."

Perhaps the most unique group among ASU's choral ensembles is the Gospel Choir, directed by Nathan De'Shon Myers. The group performs a range of gospel music around the ASU community and at choir concerts. 

During the 2020-21 school year, Myers used virtual choir rehearsals to focus on solo singing. Myers said this gave the group members an opportunity to develop technology skills which would be helpful in the modern world of music and voice.

"Especially in this new age of technology, a lot of people who are going to be professional voice users need to know how to record themselves and do that efficiently and professionally," Myers said. "That was something that we gained from that experience."

Gospel Choir member and music therapy student London Hack feels solo singing practice during the last school year actually brought the group closer together, forcing its members to be vulnerable with each other.

"At this point we feel more like a family because we had to get so close," Hack said.

But with the return to in-person rehearsals and concerts, COVID-19 precautions have not gone away. Myers said the ensembles are all still wearing masks while singing.

"We've had great compliance," he said. "We've had no issues with people understanding the value of keeping us safe. If a wave of people getting sick goes through, then everything gets shut down again."

Schildkret said the masks do not make a perceptible difference in performance quality.

As the ensembles are relearning their rehearsal skills, the groups have struggled a bit with tiredness and fatigue, according to Schildkret. However, he is optimistic about the coming season, and notices an unusual excitement and energy among his singers.

Teresa Murphy, a graduate teaching assistant and conductor of ASU's Sol Singers, made her directorial debut at Wednesday's concert. She also noticed a unique level of excitement in her singers before the performance.

"There was definitely this nervous-excited energy before the performance, which was more so than usual because it’s been pent up for a couple years," she said.

Ladley agreed "everybody was excited," and said he could best describe the performances as "fun."

"It just feels really, really nice to be back in some capacity at least," Ladley said. "I wouldn't call it anything other than a blessing."

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