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In COVID-19 times, Central Florida still needs to sing — creatively and safely

Last updated: 11-26-2020

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In COVID-19 times, Central Florida still needs to sing — creatively and safely

Orlando Sentinel Arts Writer |
Nov 24, 2020 at 5:00 AM
Central Florida Community Arts, known for its mass choir, has found an innovative way to keep people physically distanced: Drive-in rehearsals. Choir members rehearse inside or outside their cars at Central Christian Church in Orlando on Nov. 2. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
The drivers pull up, carefully positioning their vehicles so that over the steering wheel they can see the podium at the edge of the parking lot. Others, who have parked farther away, carry lawn chairs over and get comfortable. One woman puts her chair in the bed of her pickup.
Before long, the podium is home to a gesticulating conductor, and the world is hearing the group’s joy as “Let heaven and nature sing” fills the night sky.
It’s a drive-in choir rehearsal for Central Florida Community Arts, and this is how choirs make music in the age of coronavirus. There’s no doubt singing is risky business these days, so theaters, choirs and educational programs are rewriting their plans. Online streaming is involved, sure, but so are unusual spaces, creative programming choices and a belief that in isolating times the music matters more than ever.
“My heart feels at peace, and that’s music, right?” says CFCArts executive director Joshua Vickery as he conducts the drive-in chorus on a chilly November night. “Music brings us together.”
Car lights flash and horns honk in reply.
Shannon Lynn leads singers during a Central Florida Community Arts rehearsal at Central Christian Church in Orlando on Nov. 2. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Just a few months earlier, missives from national organizations such as Chorus America, the National Association of Choirs, the American Choral Directors Association and others had made the future sound bleak.
“They basically said there is no say way to sing until after a vaccine,” Vickery said. “It was like a death knell for choruses across the U.S.”
But instead of silencing Central Florida’s singers, leaders got creative.
New spaces
At Rollins College in Winter Park, music department chairman John Sinclair spent the summer learning about things like MERV factors — a measurement used in air filtration — as he worked on a study about choral safety protocols that was shared among southern colleges.
Besides now-common practices as wearing masks and physical distancing, his group’s report also contains protocols on rehearsal length (shorter is better), air circulation and filtration (more is better) and singer movement (once they are in place, they should stay there).
Rollins has acquired 44 7-foot-tall plexiglass screens to separate students, accompanists, professors and guests; invested in high-resolution cameras, microphones, livestream technology, laptops and recording kits to transmit high-quality sound between teachers and students; and even partnered with the college physics department to determine how far the breath from musicians travels during performances.
Rollins College students sing in Tiedtke Concert Hall, while the conductor and accompanist remain physically distanced and behind plexiglass shields. (Rollins College / Courtesy photo)
Sinclair’s Rollins students are rehearsing for an upcoming Christmas concert in a newly built parking garage. Sinclair cheerfully described it with a zeal usually reserved for great concert halls: “It’s partly blocked off” from traffic, and “a breeze comes through.”
It’s far better than not singing at all.
By Matthew J. Palm
Nov 19, 2020 at 4:26 PM
“It’s quite remarkable that things we have to do to make music in this day and age,” said Sinclair, who is also artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. That group’s choir rehearses each Monday in multiple sessions with no more than 45 minutes of singing.
Some come in person to Tiedtke Concert Hall on the Rollins campus; most watch a livestream.
To accommodate as many singers as possible, some weeks Sinclair leads three back-to-back rehearsals.
Other community choirs follow similar protocols.
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Those who don’t use CFCArts’ drive-in rehearsal can watch online. At a weekly indoor, in-person rehearsal, 50 singers are permitted in a large gymnasium that can hold 750. Everyone is kept 8 feet apart and remains masked, Vickery said.
Rehearsing shows, such as "Matilda the Musical," onstage at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden, is more complicated during a pandemic. (Steven Miller Photography / Courtesy photo)
The Orlando Choral Society, directed by Jeffery Redding, uses online rehearsals and allows a limited number of singers in the large Garden Ballroom in Winter Garden.
In the Garden Theatre below, artistic director Joseph C. Walsh has rehearsed musicals with his cast spaced throughout the seating area, leaving the exterior doors open to increase air flow. That led to a new wrinkle: An unwanted audience.
“One night, I had to ask people to leave,” Walsh said. “They heard the music and came in.”
New challenges
Masks, distancing, technology: They make everything sound different to the professionals trying to create the best experience for the eventual audience.
“It’s really hard for the music director,” said Walsh, who has staged the musicals “Hello, Dolly!” and “Matilda the Musical” for the Garden during the pandemic. Usually, the music director can gather a show’s singers around the piano to make sure performers have learned their parts. That’s not the case now — where often the full choral effect isn’t evident until a technical rehearsal shortly before the show opens.
“They don’t hear what it really sounds like until the cast is singing with microphones,” Walsh said.
Actors Ambria M. Benjamin (from left), Lillie Eliza Thomas and Shonda L. Thurman rehearse a musical number with "Hello, Dolly!" musical director Michael Ursula on July 30. (Matthew J. Palm / Orlando Sentinel)
For Sinclair, used to the Bach Festival Society’s mass choir, hearing just a few scattered voices has been an adjustment.
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“It doesn’t sound like usual because there is only a choir of 15-20 out there — but we know there’s a hundred of them at home,” he said. Sinclair can’t hear those rehearsing online; they have to mute their microphones because of the transmission lag caused by varying internet speeds.
“They are 30 seconds behind me in real time,” Sinclair said.
It is possible through editing to get individual recorded voices to sync up like a chorus; it was a technique used by Theatre South Playhouse for its recent online production of “Spring Awakening.”
Theresa Smith-Levin, founder of Central Florida Vocal Arts, said such work — Sinclair calls it “smoke and mirrors” — comes with a learning curve.
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“We have to do ‘digital sewing’ to edit the voices together,” said Smith-Levin. “I have learned so many audio and video skills I never thought I would need.”
Opera Orlando chorus members rehearse at Broadway United Methodist Church, where the opera company's offices are located. (Opera Orlando / Courtesy photo)
New programming
For Opera Orlando’s “Die Fledermaus,” which opens Dec. 17 in the Disney Theater of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, chorus members will be recorded individually and then projected Zoom-style onto a screen during the show.
This won’t be an ordinary Zoom meeting, though.
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“They will be in Victorian costume, drinking champagne,” said executive director Gabriel Preisser. The recorded performers will also feed lines to the in-person actors onstage and help create the party atmosphere called for in the show.
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Not having an in-person chorus helps make backstage safer during performances, Preisser said; with 24 fewer people, the principal singers have more room to maintain physical distance.
For the opera’s rehearsals, Plexiglas separated the chorus master and pianist from the distanced singers. During recording, the room was repeatedly cleared and fogged with sanitizing spray.
“That’s been the most time-consuming part,” Preisser said. “It takes an entire day to film four people in a COVID-safe way.”
There’s also a cost: The opera company sought help from Adrenaline Films to create the visuals.
Opera Orlando singers rehearse at Timucua Recording Studio in Orlando. For the group's production of "Die Fledermaus," the opera chorus will be recorded. (Opera Orlando / Courtesy photo)
“There was a lot of investment into the film crews, the audiovisual editing,” Preisser said. “It’s a whole new way to do a production, there’s no question.”
CFCArts’ holiday concerts will be shorter, outside and feature fewer performers than seen in the organization’s usual extravaganza at Northland church in Longwood.
For the annual Bach Festival, held each February, the popular “Spiritual Spaces” program will feature soloists — but not a choir, Sinclair said. Part of the festival will take place outside with the typical Bach Mass replaced with a program of bucolic Bach works: the “Peasant Cantata,” the “Hunting Cantata.”
“I’m going to do the ones that will fit an outdoor venue,” Sinclair said. “Thank goodness we’re in a climate where I can do outdoor December and February concerts.”
Lifting spirits
As at Rollins, University of Central Florida students are rehearsing outside.
“We’re not allowed to sing inside the building,” said Redding, the Orlando Choral Society director, who also is director of choral activities at UCF. “And there’s another component: Dealing with morale.”
It’s tough on students, he said, singing through masks and having only a small audience allowed at their concerts or other recitals.
Dr. Jeffery Redding won the 2019 Grammy Music Educator Award for his work at West Orange High School. He now is director of choral activities at the University of Central Florida and leads the Orlando Choral Society.
“Have we had some ups and downs? Yes,” Redding said. “But considering everything, it’s gone pretty well. We’re being transparent: We say, ‘This sucks’ and they laugh.”
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Morale among adult singers is affected by outside forces, as well.
Vickery has less than half the usual participation for his holiday concert, as some of his members deal with job losses, childcare issues and other worries.
“There are those who would feel safe to come … but their world is falling apart,” he said.
For those who are able, choral singing can lift their spirits.
“I was getting depressed on Monday nights,” said Christine Wells, an Orlando Choral Society member who missed her weekly rehearsals until they re-started. “I don’t get depressed when I sing. It makes a difference in my well-being.”
A community
In group singing, there’s more to the gathering than the music: There’s a sense of camaraderie.
“We need that, especially in these times,” Wells said.
Nov 12, 2020 at 12:00 PM
Redding had an online “check-in” night for his Choral Society.
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“Almost 100 members zoomed in just to talk about emotional health,” he said. “Building community is just as important. There’s nothing that can replace that human connection.”
Sinclair points to some Bach Festival Society members who drive from The Villages to Winter Park because in-person rehearsals — even masked and distanced from their colleagues — are so important to them.
Singing together, though, comes with personal responsibility. Smith-Levin, of Central Florida Vocal Arts, has asked performers to take COVID-19 tests to be sure they are healthy.
Choral singing, such as that by Central Florida Community Arts, creates a sense of camaraderie -- even if some singers are making music from their cars. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Sinclair emphasizes that all the safety measures only work if participants are just as diligent when they aren’t in the rehearsal room.
“I hope that’s what our singers are doing at home,” he said.
Wells feels the responsibility.
For a special visit to celebrate her daughter’s 50th birthday in Illinois, she organized a family road trip to avoid airports and airplanes. She’s staying home as much as possible — and when she does need to go out, she’s prepared.
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“Anyplace I go, I have hand sanitizer everywhere, I have wipes everywhere,” she said. “I don’t care if they wiped it, I wipe it again.”
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The choral leaders agree that staying silent for months on end simply was not an option.
“Nothing can replace live singing,” Redding said. Sinclair echoed the thought: “Singing’s just too important for humankind to not try.”
Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com . Want more news and reviews of theater and other arts? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts

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