Professor retirement, Zoom issues: choir adapts to new challenges
Over the summer, the music and theatre departments came to a mutual agreement that if they couldn’t perform in a safe way, they weren’t going to do it at all. Zoom has presented numerous difficulties for both Willamette students and staff. Chris Engbretson says that it’s been no different for the choir program, which he directs. Among existing issues with the now defunct Male Ensemble Willamette (MEW), during the pandemic the choir program has undertaken the stress of technical difficulties, and equity issues, and the loss of a sense of community.
Two choir program professors have recently retired. First, Dr. Klemme, previously the director of MEW, retired about two years ago. Engbretson, previously only the director of the women’s ensemble, “Voce,” took over MEW during the 2019-2020 school year and renamed it “Vox.” But there were some immediately apparent issues. “We knew there was going to be a lot of challenges because they [the students] were loyal to him [Dr. Klemme], and the time changed. So we lost a lot of people.” Engbretson explained that there were so few students in Vox that he had to sing with them to balance out the sections. “We sang through this last school year and then they decided to end the course. So the only two choirs we have right now are Chamber Choir and Voce.” Engbretson is now directing both of them after the previous Chamber Choir director, Dr. Long, retired last year.
One of the benefits of doing choir in-person is that one can find their notes more easily if they’re standing right next to their section members. When asked if there were any problems with people staying in tune, Engbretson said, “It’s worse than you think. In order for it to work we have to be fully muted because there’s latency. Even if I conduct on camera, if someone lags they’re still going to be off tempo.” He continued to remark, “whenever it’s somebody’s birthday, just for fun we all try to sing [Happy Birthday] together and it’s absolute chaos.” They’ve also largely had to stop doing sectional work. “There’s a lot of accessibility problems, like people not having keyboards if they’re off-campus, and the ventilation situation in the practice rooms is not great either.” He did say that sometimes students meet in breakout rooms if there’s something easy to fix, but that this was not often.
Because of these technical difficulties, there are no formal concerts this year, says Engbretson. Last year, he was looking at making the winter concert more inclusive for people who aren’t Christians. “We’ve had a lot of clear feedback about Christmas in Hudson not feeling inclusive. [The plan] is not to demolish it, it’s to make it more about family, and community, and love, instead of strictly a religious connotation.” He noted that it’s easy to go hard in the opposite direction, but that he was trying to avoid that as well. “We will still be singing Christian music, especially pieces that hold special meaning because we’ve been doing them for a long time.” But this project has been put on hiatus. “The plan is next year when we can hopefully receive the vaccine we can sing together in-person during the 2021-2022 school year and make it more inclusive.”
Still, Engbretson doesn’t think that remote learning has been a total loss. Even before the pandemic, Engbretson has been trying to incorporate more music theory into his lessons, which has been easy to adapt to Zoom. “We have music theory Mondays and sight singing Fridays, and I’ve also been requiring students to do projects on composers that they like. With Chamber Choir we’re doing some other things with microphones and editing software, which is nice because that’s something they might actually use in the real world.” They’ve been working on six madrigals, four in Italian and two in English, and have been preparing another piece called “Miserere mei, Deus” by Allegri, which they’re trying to get out in video format. “It’s been taking a long time to produce for a variety of reasons,” said Engbretson. Choir hopes to get it out by the end of the year.