Ensembles return to in-person rehearsing: A reflection

Vassar College Orchestra rehearsing in the Martel Recital Hall, November 2015 - Courtesy of Vassar College and Karl Rabe

Last fall, I would’ve given absolutely anything to perform in front of a live audience on the stage of Skinner Recital Hall. Now, after the college has begun lifting guidelines for ensembles, music groups across campus have reunited in person and I’ve had the privilege of rehearsing and performing with Vassar’s three faculty-run choral ensembles. It still feels like a dream. 

When we first returned for an in-person semester last year, no one really knew how rehearsals would work. All of my choir rehearsals were initially on Zoom. Singing alone in my room felt alienating and depressing, and on the few occasions when we rehearsed outside, we stood in small groups 12 feet apart from each other, double-masked, in a tent, trying to fend off the Poughkeepsie October chill. In other words, it was not much better. Spring 2021 showed some improvement–– we were at least indoors, in person, all together. But we still struggled to adapt. “It was very hard to hear,” shared Chair of the Music Department and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett, who directs two of the choral ensembles I’m in––the Vassar College Choir (VCC) and the Vassar College Women’s Chorus (WoCo). “As people began to be vaccinated, we moved to six feet apart,” she continued. 

I was personally ecstatic to return to some semblance of singing with others. Still, what I’d come to expect from my previous choral experiences had been turned upside-down. I felt lost and alone, even though I was technically back to singing with my friends. I didn’t know half of the people I was singing with, which had never happened in semesters past. It was certainly tough to get used to.

In addition to distancing, we confronted issues with our rehearsal spaces: “Last year we would move locations [after 30 minutes] to avoid contaminating the air for too long,” recalled Christopher Story ʼ22, a member of VCC as well as a flute player in the Vassar Orchestra. 

Rehearsals were difficult for the orchestra as well. “Last year with COVID, we were only doing strings, really. We were in the Villard Room so we could space the strings… eight feet apart and with masks,” explained Senior Lecturer in Music and the Director of the Vassar College Orchestra Eduardo Navega. “For the winds, it was a bit more complicated…. I would stand on stage [in the Recital Hall] facing the audience and the winds would be in the audience scattered more than 20 feet from each other.”

 

Now, with lifted restrictions, rehearsals have slowly returned to the way they used to be. “We were allowed to have the winds onstage unmasked just to play and then put their masks back on,” he explained, his excitement shining through. “We had a concert back in October, and that’s how we did it. We’re doing well.” Navega expressed the magnitude of the return of in-person concerts: “The orchestra was the last ensemble to perform before COVID hit, and we were the first ensemble to perform this semester, so it was really special,” he added.

The choirs have started to move towards normalcy as well. We still have to wear masks, but we can now stand as close as we did before the pandemic. Rehearsals have been less stressful too, as we don’t have to air out rehearsal spaces every 30 minutes. “Now we just stay in the same place for an hour and a half,” Story stated. But there are still some things that have changed for the choirs since pre-COVID times. Even though our rehearsals are 90 minutes long, we spend some of that time talking instead of singing, just as an extra safety precaution. Because of this, the choirs have spent more time discussing our pieces, allowing us to explore the emotionality of these works. This has personally made me feel a greater connection to these pieces in a way I really haven’t before. “We’ve far more than ever before had conversations about the music, which I never used to take the time to do, because I felt that the rehearsal time was sort of sacred and you needed to be singing and getting better at being musicians,” echoed Howlett. “I think it has been really meaningful for people.”

It’s no question that relaxed COVID restrictions have made in-person rehearsals easier. Masking remains a challenge, though. As a singer, I have a hard time following a conductor when I can’t see their face. Reflecting on this, Story stated, “[I]t does make it much more difficult to get breaths, get vowels, get dynamics.” Besides technical cues, it can also be hard to get emotional cues as a singer. “Choral conductors are known for emoting while onstage, and [Howlett] literally can’t do that [with a mask on],” Story continued. It’s difficult on the conductor’s end, too: “I have to rely more on my ears than ever before,” Howlett said. “Even then, I can ask for something, but if I can’t see people actually producing it, I don’t always know what to say…to fix it.”

Even now, with loosened restrictions and much of our ensembles back to a certain degree of normalcy, it’s hard to deny that singing is one of the most dangerous activities one can do when COVID is a prevalent issue. Howlett emphasized these concerns. “Even though I knew, being vaccinated with masks on, we should be fine, I didn’t want to be the group that suddenly created some superspreading event,” she said.

Jacob Stuligross ’22, who plays the violin in the orchestra and sings with VCC, expressed a similar nervousness about orchestra rehearsals. “There’s always a little bit of anxiety with the amount of air the winds produce,” Stuligross admitted. Still, he is grateful for both strings and winds to be together in rehearsals again. “[The winds] really add a lot to the pieces,” he stated.

Despite these challenges, it’s been overwhelmingly positive to have in-person rehearsals again. “I’ve been really enjoying not having to distance as much,” Stuligross explained. “Rehearsals are simply better now than they were [last year].” Story seconded this notion, discussing their experience in the choirs this semester. “The comfort of being close together is much more there, whereas before, if you stood too close it would… make rehearsals very tense,” they stated.  

For me, it’s hard to imagine that only a year ago, one of my favorite things to do was also one of the most dangerous. Now that we’re back, in-person rehearsals have been a way for me to regain a sense of belonging on campus, and make art with other people in a way that’s important to me without a good deal of the fear I once had. I just feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I love again.

Navega, too, expressed gratitude. “We have to keep in our thoughts the people who were not so fortunate like we were,” he said. “We’ve been lucky that [the College has] a good team of people making…decisions [around COVID protocols].” Indeed, if cases weren’t as low as they are, we would not be able to do what we do. Navega continued, “This whole pandemic reminded us of how important it is for us to be together. Music is something that has to be made together. It’s nice to be back in Skinner and to have this building filled with sound and joy again.”

 

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