Young Singers Recovering from Life after Lockdown
Young singers returning to choruses face new social and emotional challenges. In response, choral leaders and their organizations are making changes to programs to offer more support.
Tears and tummy aches abound. Minor issues and misunderstandings overwhelm. Students and adults coming out of the pandemic are on an emotional rollercoaster. With lockdowns lifted and students returning to rehearsals and performances, choral leaders see the impact of social distancing and offer solutions.
“Social interactions are an important part of development for a child,” Chantae D. Pittman, EDD, director of three choral ensembles at Campbell High School in Smyrna, GA, says. “We think of children as being resilient. They are, but throughout lockdown, spending so much time alone caused many uncertainties.”
A study in JAMA Pediatrics found students spent almost eight hours a day in front of a screen during the pandemic, double their pre-pandemic time. The study also showed more online time resulted in poorer mental health and greater stress among teenagers.
Pittman observes these struggles in her own students on a daily basis. “We’re seeing students with big feelings over small issues,” she says, “especially after lunch period. Students might say something hurtful and the ones on the receiving end hold onto that anger.”
She encourages her students to share their feelings. “They have so much on their plate,” she says. “It’s relearning how to socialize after two years of isolation. Add to that the flu, RSV, and hearing news about school shootings. They know a lot more than we give them credit for, and we can’t shield them from social media. We need to give them space to express themselves, their worries, and their fears.”
Encouraging students to express their feelings at rehearsal isn’t new, but it requires increased care and focus when they are also coping with fear of a virus that has dominated their lives for the past several years, especially in close quarters where singing takes place.
Being told multiple times that group singing spreads COVID-19 frightened many. Three of Pittman’s students lost a parent to the disease. A social worker and school psychologist work with the students on a rotating basis. They talk about being up to date with vaccines, wearing masks, and staying a few feet apart. Students are also spending time in class discussing their fears and expressing their feelings in between lessons and singing.
One lesson revolves around music from different regions of the world. The students discuss how the music makes them feel and some write about those emotions. “It’s another way to get them to express their feelings,” she says.
Recently Pittman’s choirs performed onstage in front of family and friends. Watching them, she witnessed them sparkle. “That’s what happens when they sing together in front of a live audience,” she says. “It’s healing for them, for our staff, and for their family and friends.”
Call and Response: Relearning How to be Part of a Group
Many children who were kindergarteners when COVID hit didn’t return to regular singing activities until they were in third grade. During that gap, they missed opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction and learning skills like patience, resilience, and open-mindedness. That was the case for students at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, a community arts center where Ko Cha’ Ta “Seth” Young is the executive director. “They had to relearn how to be part of a group,” Young says. “Today we’re teaching them to work with one another and cooperate using call and response singing.”
A favorite call and response song is “Come Back Home My Little Chicks,” in which children form a circle with the caller in the center and a child pretends to be a wolf. It’s similar to the childhood game “Duck, Duck, Goose.” “It’s rewarding to see them run around, sing, and play together,” Young explains. “We’re seeing connections being made and it’s satisfying.”
“Students and teachers are experiencing the joy in singing together, meeting face-to-face, and sitting knee-to-knee,” Young says. “One of our teaching artists said the young students are like little sponges. They’re soaking up the energy and are open to learning to sing and play together.”
While students are back at school, a teacher shortage exists. Some teachers retired; others quit. No new hires occurred during COVID. “Schools are trying to get back on their feet so they’re fully staffed,” Young says. “Operating with fewer staff impacts the students.”
To address this issue, the Augusta Heritage Center made some shifts in its own organizational structure to compensate for these challenges. “We recently hired a program educational outreach coordinator to allow us to have more contact with the schools,” says Young.
The Center’s staff is also creating new programs while searching for additional funding. The Augusta Heritage Center recently received one of Chorus America’s Music Education Partnership Grants to support a yearlong singing course to introduce students in grades 1-6 to Appalachian, Cuban, and Black Gospel music. The Center is also starting a youth strings program so students can learn fiddle, banjo, or guitar.
To date, students have learned traditional Appalachian music, which for some is part of their heritage. Others are enjoying call and response singing in Spanish thanks to the Cuban teaching artist. At the end of the year, students performed before a live audience. “It’s part of a community gathering where we celebrate with our students and the community,” Young says. “Everyone who participates feels the energy and knows the music is healing.”
Chorus as a Refuge
When Gabrielle Dietrich, associate conductor of Coro Lux and director of the El Faro Youth Chorus in Albuquerque, NM, was a child, she spent most days after school singing in choirs. It was her safe space. Today, in addition to overseeing El Faro Youth Chorus, she serves as executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in New Mexico. She understands firsthand about the benefits of singing in a chorus.
Founded in October 2021, “at the tail end of the worst part of the pandemic,” says Dietrich, “our purpose was to provide a safe, fun, and inviting space for music-making and voice building for students ages 7 to 18. For that first year, we sang wearing masks and sat far apart from one another. While it’s healing to come back to singing without masks and without social distancing, we’re not totally out of the woods.”
Young students are not ready to sit still. Middle graders and older students have emotional issues. “My classroom tolerance has changed,” she says. “It’s okay for students to get up and move around. As instructors we have to give people more grace. While we’ve all experienced isolation, we don’t really know what somebody else has gone through or is going through.”
She spends rehearsal time listening and exchanging ideas with her students. Getting them to participate and interact with one another starts with the question of the day. For example, she asked her students, “If you have a soft serve ice cream machine in your home, what two flavors would you have and would you swirl them together?”
“Some students are passionate about their answers,” she says. “It gets them talking and laughing together, which opens them up for singing.”
In addition to spending time listening and sharing thoughts, another popular activity is deep breathing. “’Take a deep breath and let it go’ is a familiar refrain that causes singers to pause and rest,” Alison Hughey, MT-BC, director at Carolina Music Therapy, says. “When my students are overwhelmed, I tell them to take deep breaths and slowly let it out.”
“We’re hearing it more these days because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. The worst may be over, but COVID’s still with us and students are anxious.”
A couple of the breathing exercises she does with her students is to teach them to mime laughing and to blow out a candle using deep breaths. “These exercises allow them to stay calm,” she says.
An Emerging New Normal
Cautiously optimistic best describes the choristers at the Colorado Children’s Chorale in Denver. When schools closed their doors and later offered remote learning, the number of choristers dropped from 350 to 70.
“Upon returning to practice we see how much our singers missed creating music,” Emily Crile, artistic director of the Colorado Children’s Chorale, says. “They also missed the friendships formed through singing together.”
“Remote singing is not the same as singing in a room unmasked together,” she says. “Now that we returned from remote and hybrid singing, we still haven’t returned to normal. The isolation hit the children hard.”
Crile, the conductors, musicians, and others on staff see anxious and depressed students. “Some are fearful of being on stage,” she says. “The little ones want their parents near and we see a lot of tears and stomachaches.”
At rehearsals, cell phones are off and debates get students to express their feelings. They‘re encouraged to spend less time online at home, too. Debate topics include whether a hot dog is really a sandwich or if Superman is better than Batman. “It’s an icebreaker that gets them talking to one another,” Crile says. “Suddenly they’re sharing thoughts and laughs, which makes them ready for singing together.”
Middle grade and older students see their time singing together as a gift. “The pandemic taught them not to take anything for granted,” Crile says. “They’ve experienced how things can go from normal to chaotic. I think they have a new appreciation for things.”
A Post Pandemic State of Mind
Understanding what children went through, how they adjusted, and ways of finding joy are themes of a exhibition created by the Young People’s Chorus (YPC) of New York City. Called AloneTogether, this multi-media exhibition allows its audience to understand the experiences of children throughout the course of the pandemic. It takes the form of video, art, film, poetry, and commissioned works by 15 composers and emerging songwriters. It’s written, recorded by, and features YPC choristers. The exhibit premiered at New York City’s High Line Nine galley from November 2021 through January 2022, and will re-open this spring, once YPC has secured a new location.
The pandemic hit New York City and YPC hard. Approximately five percent of YPC’s members moved out of the city. A number of children in YPC have parents who work in healthcare. Like other healthcare workers around the country, they isolated after work so they wouldn’t spread COVID to family members. “A few of our students would slip notes under the doors of their parent’s bedrooms to let them know they loved them,” Elizabeth Núñez, creative director of YPC, says. “Two of our YPC choristers made a cake for their mom and left it outside her bedroom door.”
“We wanted to share our students’ stories and let others understand the confusion, fear, and hope they felt during the pandemic,” she says. “That was the idea behind AloneTogether. We co-created this exhibit with YPC’s young singers and used art, poetry, video, and film as a way for our singers to connect and start conversations about their experiences. It gave them ways to talk about the continued impact the pandemic had on them and their families. It was therapeutic for our students, their families, our faculty, and audience members.”
Núñez says she’s in a post pandemic state of mind. “What we’re dealing with is a societal state with lots of negativity,” she says. “We lost developmental time. We’re relearning and focusing on joy. Joy is an important emotion. We encourage our students to feel the joy while they’re singing and while they’re listening to their peers.”
Núñez also sees “a state of physical atrophy,” she says. “It’s not just mental health; it’s physical, too.” Choristers are building back their stamina through movement and physical exercises at rehearsals. They’re learning diaphragmatic breathing, which allows them to take deep breaths and control exhalations.
“Coping with these new challenges requires additional capacity and resources in the forms of new programs and additional staff and funds,” Núñez says.
This is to make up for the staff and funding cuts when many organizations closed their doors or cut back on activity during lockdown. “Now that we’re back, we’re all competing for funding,” she says.
Alongside the many losses are unexpected gifts. “We’re back and, yes, there are uncertainties with COVID,” she says. “It’s still with us. However, we’re stronger because we’re connecting more; we’re more joyful, open to expressing our emotions, listening to one another, taking deep breaths, and are moving our bodies. We missed out on important connections during COVID and now that we’re back we have come to really cherish being together.”
Michele C. Hollow writes about health, mental health, animals, and climate. Her byline has appeared in the New York Times, Today.com, Symphony Magazine, and other print and online publications.