ELKTON — ”We are one world, one people,” sings a choir of about 35 Cecil County high school students in a virtual performance released ahead of the winter holidays. “And we all breathe the same.”
The students, representing all five high schools in the district, sing ‘Sisi Ni Moja,’ a 2015 composition by Kansas-based composer Jacob Narverud. The title translates from Swahili to mean ‘we are one.’ It was a fitting piece for a virtual performance at the end of a challenging and at times isolating year, explained Elkton High School Choral Director Peter Solecki.
“Choir was labelled very early on as a potential super-spreader of the virus, so we had to look for other opportunities for our students,” Solecki said. “It worked well for a year when we really can’t be together, but through music we can share that idea of togetherness.”
Solecki explained that while the nationwide switch to online learning this spring challenged educators far and wide, those challenges are magnified for music education.
Students sign up for choir for the community, for the feeling of coming together around music, and that’s hard to recapture through a computer, not to mention the health concerns of a group of students standing shoulder to shoulder and singing together. But it’s hard to imagine a choral performance with masked and socially distanced singers, so they went with the next best thing.
“We wanted to have something in the students’ hands, or in this case on their screens, by the winter break,” he explained. “Just to show that hard work does pay off.”
Rehearsals have looked very different in the age of COVID — like many other classes, students must stay home, logging in for rehearsal using Blackboard Collaborate.
“Basically, it’s me or the other directors sitting at their piano, and everyone else is at home on mute,” he said. “They’re all singing to themselves in their bedrooms or kitchens or living rooms.”
To satisfy the graded requirements for class, students submit recorded work to check for accuracy and understanding, but much of the work of rehearsals is left up to each student.
In a normal year, choir groups from each high school would host winter concerts, take trips to sing carols and other activities. This year, Solecki said that students were clamoring for a chance to perform, despite the restrictions (or maybe even because of them).
Students submitted recordings of each piece of ‘Sisi Ni Moja’ throughout the semester, and the district contracted VirtualChoir.net, a project of music production studio Arts Laureate, to complete the arrangement.
He and the other directors could not have hoped for better results, Solecki said.
“They’ve been awesome,” he said of his students. “They’ve embraced it. And it’s not easy for anyone.”
One silver lining amid such a frustrating year, he added, was that a virtual performance opened up the opportunity to collaborate between schools. To protect students’ privacy, directors at each school took volunteers to be part of the district-wide performance, which was shared online through the district’s social media channels.
“It was a neat opportunity for all the directors to get together and collaborate,” he said. “And for the students to get together and see themselves singing.”
The response from students, parents and other community members has been overwhelming, Solecki said.
“To hear the positive comments, to hear what joy the music is still bringing in a virtual sense — that’s definitely rewarding as an educator,” he said. “And for students, for everybody that participated, to say they had a hand in something as awesome as this — I think they’re all really proud.”
That said, as the year comes to a close and we look ahead in hopes of entering the home stretch of the pandemic, Solecki said he’s counting the days until he can get back in the classroom with his students.
“We all cannot wait to be back in person, singing and making music together again,” he said.