The COVID-19 pandemic has made this year an especially trying one for performing arts organizations, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Chapel Choir is no exception.
Given the unpredictable nature of the virus, Choir Director Susan Rice realized she had to be nimble in her planning. She surveyed students over the summer: Would they be returning to campus? Would they be comfortable rehearsing with fellow choir members under University protocols?
“I didn’t have expectations because it was impossible to set them,” said Rice, who has been director of the 82-year-old a cappella ensemble for the past six years. “We knew we would have to be flexible. I just wanted to offer the students the best option for them to make music, whether individually or together.”
She closely followed all of Pitt’s health and safety rules and guidance and joined choirs and choral groups across the country in keeping abreast of a national study on the impact of the spread of aerosol droplets.
The result was an evolution of sorts.
Five rehearsal spaces
The 42 choir members—39 on campus and three who didn’t return—started with two and half weeks of virtual rehearsing from their individual locations, but that was a challenge.
How to hear the Heinz Chapel Choir this season
Three new pieces recorded for YouTube:
The new album, “Shining Light Against the Cold,” is available for purchase. All proceeds from sales will benefit the Neighborhood Resilience Project, a Hill District-based organization that helps to support and empower those in need.
The choir’s 2019 Holiday Concert airs on WQED-FM (89.3) on Friday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. and again on Christmas Day at 11:30 a.m.
“I couldn’t hear them together, and they couldn’t hear each other,” said Rice.
Next came in-person Tuesday and Thursday rehearsals in the large outdoor tent that had been erected on the Cathedral of Learning lawn. The recommendation was to have no more than 10 masked students at a time standing at least 10 feet apart in an outdoor tent with flaps open.
Rice had fashioned the choir into four cohorts of around 10 students apiece—a mix of those who sang alto, soprano, bass and tenor. They took turns practicing in the tent, one cohort at a time, while the others sang their parts, joining in via Zoom.
But the tent presented its own set of challenges. Its two HVAC systems ran on noisy generators, and the busy Fifth Avenue corridor provided the urban cacophony of ambulance sirens, trucks, buses and honking horns.
“It was hard to hear, but at least there was a sense of togetherness,” said Rice. “That’s how friendships are formed.”
Senior Shannon Kelly, who is in her fourth year with the choir, said she was thrilled the day rehearsals began in the tent. The camaraderie with others is meaningful to her—especially because one does not have to be a music major or minor to participate.
“I’m an environmental science major, and I know that without this choir, I wouldn’t have met a lot of these people who are some of my best friends now,” she said.
First-year student and choir member Corey Shipman stepped up his independent practicing.
“I had my voice teacher from high school play my voice part to each song on the piano and send me a recording, so that I could practice with the notes I should be singing,” he said.
One day, Rice took the choir to the top floor of an Oakland parking garage to rehearse. The good news: The building had open sides. The bad news: more horns honking.
By the third week of October, the choir cohorts were able to rehearse in the Bellefield Hall auditorium. Though the acoustics were less than ideal, the stage could accommodate 20 singers while still obeying safety protocols. Then, finally, after securing all the proper permissions, they were able to be back in Heinz Chapel—20 members at a time spaced a least 10 feet apart and wearing face coverings called “resonance masks.” Rice explained that the structure of these coverings keeps the mask away from the lips so that breathing and singing are not impeded. The darts at the chin and nose and a silicone seal assure a snug fit without gaps. The masks also use the same type of disposable five-layer filters that were used by firefighters battling the California wildfires.
The choir set to work recording three holiday tunes, which are now available to the public on YouTube.
Not as easy as it sounds
The recordings presented more challenges. Rice had recorded a guide track on her piano and was listening to that in her headset while conducting the choir and listening closely to their voices. Each “semi-choir” had to record the songs exactly the same so they could be mixed by a sound engineer.
“It was like layering two transparencies on top of one another to get the whole picture,” said Rice, who hasn’t heard of any other choir recording this way. “The notes had to line up so the chord sounded right. It’s hard to be expressive in your singing and be so precise every time.”
But when the engineer sent the final mix to Rice, she finally got to hear all 40 voices together in perfect harmony. One of the three songs is part of a new album—a compilation of holiday music from 2014 through last year.
Outside funding to the rescue
An alumnus of the choir provided the money for the resonance masks for the singers. And when WQED-FM, which always airs one of the choir’s holiday concerts, offered to air last year’s concert for a $1,000 fee, a proposal written to the Student Government Board secured that funding.
Overall it was quite a year for the choir. And while Kelly laments missing their international tour last May to Sweden and Denmark and other opportunities, she said she is focusing on what they were able to do:
“We were still able to sing together, which is the most important thing!”