Kids in this Utah choir can’t hear each other sing. But they still rehearse every morning
‘Just seeing everybody and … coming together to do what we love most, which is singing, it brings a little bit of normal into our daily lives. It’s nice.’ — Abbey Trewitt, eighth-grade chorister at the Madeleine Choir School
SALT LAKE CITY — On a Tuesday morning, Melanie Malinka’s choir students start trickling in at 11. The familiar faces she’s used to seeing in person every day now come to her at a distance, peppering her computer screen.
The choir director smiles at them and says hello. Many of the young students, who now learn from the comfort of their homes, don’t wear their school uniforms anymore. The teacher comments on a graphic T-shirt that catches her eye. She asks if anyone has ventured outside yet.
Then it’s time for warmups.
All 48 students stand up from their desks and beds. They shake their arms and roll their shoulders. They jump and try to touch the ceilings of their homes. They do breathing exercises. They sing scales.
“Nice! “Excellent!” “Good!” Malinka shouts.
From time to time, she reminds them to not look down at the computer because it can interfere with good posture.
“You don’t have to look at the screen,” she says. “I can still see you.”
But she can’t hear them.
During the virtual rehearsal via Zoom, Malinka mutes the Madeleine Choir School students. Otherwise, she said, faulty internet connections and computer delays would lead to a “cacophony of sound.”
All of the students can still hear her, though. So from her piano, Malinka leads them in song. As she plays, she asks them to raise their hands when they’ve hit a specific note. This allows her to visualize how together her students actually are.
Some days are better than others. Mics don’t work all the time. Screens freeze. The kids sometimes get distracted. But that’s OK, Malinka said.
Because these days, rehearsals are really about a different kind of togetherness.
“It’s a way to not only connect with other classmates across all the grades, but it’s also a way to connect with the teacher,” Abbey Trewitt, an eighth grader at the Madeleine Choir School, told the Deseret News. “Just seeing everybody and … coming together to do what we love most, which is singing, it brings a little bit of normal into our daily lives. It’s nice.”
A virtual ‘town square’
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, choristers from the Madeleine Choir School meet for a 45-minute rehearsal on Zoom every morning (except for Thursdays, when the students work on a vocal technique assignment Malinka gives them each week). They do “virtual background Fridays.” They frequently send motivating messages to each other through Zoom’s group chat feature.
They’ve been doing this for seven weeks now.
Standing alone in a bedroom and singing to a computer was a hard adjustment for many of the choristers at first. But now, it’s the one thing giving their day structure.
“Choir for me has always been one of the highlights of my days,” said Trewitt, whose eighth grade graduation at the choir school has been postponed. “Being able to still do choir while quarantined is one of the most enjoyable … aspects of my day.
Zoom has become like a “town square” during the COVID-19 age, according to The Washington Post. In March, Zoom reported more than 200 million users every day — exponential growth from the 100 million participants the company saw in 2015.
Through Zoom, a Broadway-bound revival of the musical “1776” is being created. Families can still take part in weddings. Utah Shakespeare Festival actors will rehearse for the upcoming season that, as of now, is still moving forward. And kids can still go to school.
Even through a screen, Malinka can see the enthusiasm and resilience in her students. And it makes her want to work harder.
“There was never a moment of, ‘Oh, we don’t have school anymore. Yay!’” she said. “It’s quite an inspiration to see them continue to crave to learn new things. They want to continue to come together and sing, and that’s quite beautiful to see.”
So in this virtual age, Malinka has tried to be more creative. Sometimes she invites guests to pop in on the rehearsals. Anita Morrison, a vocal coach from London, recently joined the young choristers. Dr. Eric Schmidt, a former Madeleine Choir School faculty member who now lives in Germany, entered the Zoom meeting to offer instruction. Malinka orchestrated an online Q&A session involving people with the Utah Opera, including artistic director Christopher McBeth.
The choristers are even working on a video collaboration project with The Way of the Rain organization, which was founded by Robert Redford’s wife, Sibylle Szaggars Redford. The students first performed with the organization last August, when the U.N. Civil Society Conference came to Salt Lake City.
These activities allow the choristers — who are used to performing several times a week at the Cathedral of the Madeleine — to keep sharing their voices and provide comfort through song, Malinka said.
“Right at the beginning when this all started … it was very disruptive, even emotionally, to many of our choristers,” the music director said. “It’s really important for us as educators … to keep on showing them we’re moving forward. It’s important to stay positive and find ways to stay motivated, and to remember that at some point we will all come together again and sing for each other and make music together.
“We just have to get through this time.”
As the choristers continue their warmups during the Tuesday morning rehearsal, Malinka calls on a few to unmute themselves and sing for their peers.
Jude Payne, a fifth grade chorister, hits a high C.
“Excellent!” the director says.
Comments from the other choristers, like “Good job!” and “That was really good!” flood the virtual chat room.
A few minutes later, before running through a Gregorian chant, Malinka takes a screenshot for attendance. The students move close to their screens and give a thumbs up.
Before diving into a sacred choral piece called “Regina Caeli, Jubila,” Malinka presents her students with what she believes is a “crazy idea.”
She asks, how would they feel about a drive-by singing parade? Something where maybe a dozen or so cars line up and the choristers sing to the community from the car windows.
“Would that be fun?” she says. “Or is it too weird?”
From the number of exclamation marks rapidly filling the screen, most of the students seem on board. Some are confused by the logistics.
“You would be far away from other people,” Malinka reiterates. “But we could like actually listen to ourselves singing together.”
Right now, though, each student is his or her own choir, singing alone in a room for only parents, siblings and pets to hear. For a fuller sound, sixth grade chorister Maddy Quinlan sings along with the radio and sometimes takes advantage of her shower acoustics to sing the tenor part of “Carmina Burana.”
For fun, Jude likes to sing the “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute.”
But nothing compares, he said, to hearing his voice blend with the voices of his fellow choristers — friends he no longer stands next to, shoulder to shoulder, singing together in harmony.
“When I go back,” he said, “I’m going to be a lot more grateful for school.”
It’s 11:45 a.m. and rehearsal is almost over.
For the final minutes, Malinka puts music on the back burner.
“Who has some advice for keeping a positive outlook today?” she asks. “Who wants to share something? Anyone?”
Jude unmutes himself. Playing ping-pong makes him happy, he says. One student opens a window to feel the breeze. Another enjoys eating bagels.
One chorister creates a to-do list and loves the feeling of crossing things off one by one.
“It makes me happy to see how much I accomplished,” she says.
And then it’s time to go.
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” Malinka says, waving her hands in front of the computer. “Bye!”
One by the one, the faces vanish from her screen. And then it’s just Malinka, staring at her computer.
It’s sad not physically being together with her students to create music. But the choir director smiles anyway, knowing she’ll at least get to see their faces again the next day.