May 04, 2020

Time spent in chorus classrooms each semester is aimed at the goal of a public performance. In the fall semester, choir students prepare for the Annual Christmas Concert for Charity. The spring concerts are different each year. 

This March, on the eve of Palm Sunday, the University Singers were scheduled to perform Requiem by Maurice Duruflé at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.

However, the 70 undergraduate music students who make up the choir were dispersed across the country practicing social distancing.  

The COVID-19 pandemic presented Allan Laino, conductor of the University Singers, with a challenge. He needed to replace the three weekly class meetings of the University Singers with a virtual experience. 

“This was a first for me,” says Laino. “I am tech savvy, but how do you design an online curriculum for 70 students who are supposed to sing with and respond to one another in real time? How do you harmonize from a distance?”

He immediately began connecting with colleagues through a Facebook group of conductors who are alumni of his alma mater, the University of Maryland. There were also many good online discussions and sharing of resources and tools through the National Collegiate Choral Organization and the American Choral Directors Association. And he spent time in consultation with his fellow choir conductor Tim McDonnell, head of sacred music and director of choral studies for the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art. McDonnell is the conductor of the Catholic University Chamber Choir, a small ensemble of competitively auditioned vocalists. 

“Even with modern technology,” says Laino. “The unfortunate truth was that it wasn't possible for live ensemble music making to continue.” The two conductors settled on Flipgrid, a video response platform, to keep students engaged in choral music and musicianship training. For the University Singers it offered the best option to accommodate such a large number of students. 

“The first assignment was an icebreaker to introduce the students to this completely new model of choir performance,” says Laino. “I asked the students to record their favorite vocal warm-ups along with their reasons for choosing the exercise. But before asking them to upload their short videos, I shared my own warm-up to get us started.” 

His warm-up didn’t quite go as planned. Laino began by humming the pitch A. When he checked it against the note on his piano, he was, in his words, “way flat!” He sent the video anyway, hoping his students had a laugh over it. “It was important to be vulnerable to show the students this wasn’t going to be perfect, but we were giving it our best try.”

As Laino and his students became more acquainted with the technology, the assignments grew in challenge. “The platform allowed me to easily provide quantitative feedback to all 70 students, with the option to offer comments as needed,” Laino says. 

He began to find a silver lining. “While we had lost the benefit of collaborating in the same room, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the virtual teaching allowed me to engage individual voices,” says Laino. “I began to learn more about my students because they were now spotlighted as individuals. They were showcasing their personalities in ways they might not have felt comfortable in a room with so many other students. And I was delighted to see the students providing feedback to one another. 

“Granted, it wasn’t an ideal environment for choral singing, but we had managed to preserve some degree of social learning.”

As associate conductor for the Washington Chorus and the Nationals Children’s Chorus and director of music ministry at Western Presbyterian Church, Laino has found many of his own artistic projects on hold. “This is a very hard time for musicians and performing artists in general,” says Laino. “For me, it’s been reassuring to continue the work of the chorus and to be in touch with our performers.”

As the semester draws to end, Laino has been so encouraged by the work of the University Singers that he and his students decided to share the music they would have performed in March through one movement from the Duruflé Requiem that is now available on the Rome School’s YouTube channel.

“We see this as a way to spread positivity during a difficult time,” Laino says.