Choir Interrupted: An Op-Ed

Image created by Patricia Trutescu The social isolation brought about by the Coronavirus has changed the course of my day-to-day. Before entering this period, my schedule for the first week of March involved activities, both professional and recreational. On Friday night, I took a long car ride to St. Bartholomew’s Church on the upper east side with a few congregation members of Bethany Presbyterian Church Huntington, to see a New York Choral Society concert. Listening to the choir, I thought that the act of savoring the church’s architecture and massive organ would be available to me indefinitely. Little did I know that the relief I was experiencing within that moment would become temporary.

 

By the second week of March, social interactions and professional meetings continued to unfold online through Zoom Video Communications, private phone calls, and Facetime conversations with friends, family, and prospect hiring managers. The same goes for physical exercise – doing workouts to the instructions of teachers (whom I have never met before) over YouTube videos. Performing in a choir, on the other hand, proved less easy to replicate virtually.

 

On the final Sunday of March 2020, the Bethany Presbyterian Church of Huntington successfully held its first remote church service, which saw an attendance of 50. The pastor, along with a handful of members, volunteered to do a practice run of the service that previous Saturday. In the trial run, we also made sure to try out singing simple hymns. We sang together over the computer audio, but those who called on their mobile and landline phones came in seconds later. The results involved segments of singing around that coagulated into cacophony. By the time of the Easter Sunday service, the protocol of singing hymns had changed. The pastor had muted all members, except for the music director who played the piano accompaniment. Members could easily follow the music and sing to themselves. While I felt confident that other congregation members and I were singing simultaneously, though I could not hear them, I still long for that feeling of connectivity, I have always experienced singing with a choir.

 

Later, I read a message from David Hayes and Patrick Owens, the Directors of the NY Choral Society. A friend of mine who is a member of this chorus forwarded me an email from the directors who felt compelled to share a message that offered support and encouragement, one that can potentially hold us together in spirit and continue looking toward a more positive future.

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“Perhaps a good way to think about the period we are in is what the Tibetan Buddhists call “the Bardo state” – and intermediate state in which we have lost our old reality, and it is no longer available to us, leaving us feeling ungrounded,” write Dave and Pat.

 

“As a chorus, we are particularly ungrounded – the notion of social distancing is profoundly ‘un choral’ as it strikes at the very core of what we do – come together as a community to rehearse, socialize and make music together. For many of us, this has left an eerie emptiness.

 

“We know live music will be an essential healing force for all of us and a critical component of bringing some sense of normalcy. What we don’t know is how and when we will be able to create and share live choral music.

 

“So, notwithstanding all of this uncertainty, we will be working on some projects and long-term planning for the chorus to ensure we are ready to share our voices in song when they will be needed most! (D. Hayes & P. Owens, personal communications, March 14th, 2020).”

 

One of the major projects the directors are working on includes planning to host a ‘virtual gala and online silent auction’ sometime in mid-to-late April. More information on this event will appear on the NY Choral website in the coming weeks. Also, David and Pat decided to publicize video and audio recordings of past concerts to members and their e-newsletter subscribers.

 

Returning to their message, I decided to look up the definition of ‘the Bardo state.’ Researching the Encyclopedia of Britannica Online, ‘Bardo State’ comes from the definition ‘Bardo Thödol,’ Which in Tibetan means “Liberation in the intermediate State Through Hearing.” Further, this phrase is called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ This funerary text is recited to ease the consciousness of a recently deceased person through death and assist it in a favorable rebirth” (Britannica, n.d.).

 

By using this metaphor, I think the choral experts feel the “Bardo state” of the choir is more a quiet transformation than a slow withering. While many choir leaders hope the tradition of meeting to rehearse in person will resume as soon as it is okay to stop social distancing and isolation, how much longer do we need to stall?

 

Like everyone else I know who is socially isolating or distancing themselves daily, I also watch or read the news. While it is helpful to see how the virus is playing out beyond the performance space, I remember that the experience varies from person to person. On Facebook, I read posts and comments from friends of friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, who know at least one person who has either been infected with COVID-19 or has died. Some of the individuals who passed had no underlying medical conditions and did not even reach the threshold of 60 years of age. I also read posts about emergency tents getting pitched up in Central Park, shortages of workers in make-shift hospitals in the boroughs. On my Twitter feed, I read notices from friends and acquaintances who may face possible layoffs due to the closing of businesses or have been sick with COVID-19.

 

Reversely, social media also bears positive news. Another friend, working in healthcare, says that in the state of New York, Coronavirus recoveries outnumber the deaths. Recently, the New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, had also expressed in a live Coronavirus briefing broadcasted on Twitter by TIME that while cases of infections and deaths are starting to level, the economy is not yet ready to re-open. He says, “How you re-open determines everything” (TIME, 2020). The governor also references missteps taken by foreign countries which re-opened their economies too soon following a decrease in Coronavirus cases and then saw another spike of infections shortly afterward. To prevent NYC and surrounding states from repeating the same mistake, the governor talks about collaborating with the governments across seven states on a public health strategy that will help in re-opening the economies[1] (TIME, 2020).

 

In the spirit of observation that Governor Cuomo had made, “Look at how people have been selfless and put their own agenda aside for the common good” (TIME, 2020). I feel that many New Yorkers and citizens all over the country have contributed to this selflessness this with social isolation and social distancing. Although it may not help with anxiety, continuing this trend seems paramount for the time being, as it has helped halt the spread of the COVID-19 infection.

 

As social isolation continues to interrupt the landscape of choir singing, can live performance and rehearsals transform into something we could not have previously predicted or imagined? To answer this question, I look at what other musical organizations are doing to keep the spirit of singing alive among their communities. Opera Night Long Island (ONLI), a not-for-profit in Northport, NY, is now holding virtual concerts on the first of every month. The Artistic Director of the series, Danielle Davis, reassures that these events will get publicized on the ONLI Facebook page via a video teaser. Viewers can follow a link beneath the teasers to the official ONLI webpage and view the virtual concerts, which will now also include video interviews with the singers. All of this is accessible from the comfort of one’s own living space (D. Davis, personal communications, April 14th, 2020). Larger organizations like the National Chorale, according to its Executive Director, Amy Siegler, are postponing their major concerts until further notice about performance spaces re-opening. As for National Chorale’s educational courses, they will continue their partnership with the Professional Performing Arts High School in remote classrooms, and they are currently in the process of planning their 2020-2021 Lincoln Center Season (A. Siegler, personal communication, March 26th, 2020).

 

For now, if your choir seeks alternative ways to rehearse, I can only encourage you to get creative and look for alternative ways to support real-time practice virtually. I can also offer you two pieces of advice. Firstly, whether you chose to rehearse over computer communications or telecommunications, make sure all players connect on one single channel. Secondly, to have a successful virtual rehearsal, all singers need impeccable internet connection or signal, which we all know is not always possible. One choir in particular which seems to be gaining popularity on YouTube with their “Self-Isolation/Virtual Choir Covers” is Camden Voices (n.d.).

 

If the advice I provide you above does not work or you are skeptical of it, please remember you have a voice! Use it to bring peace to someone who is severely ill yet able to connect with you through virtual communication. If you require more information as to how to better deal with this tough situation or to get some artistic inspiration, Patrick Owens shares a few articles with his readers, and now I am also passing them onto you. To all my readers, and all musicians, please stay safe.

 

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[1] To understand how a public health strategy would help state governments re-open their economies, please watch the COVID-19 briefing with Andrew Cuomo from 18:40 – 20:09 in the twitter moment, https://twitter.com/TIME/status/1250085119173332999

 

 

Recommended reading from Patrick Owens

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief – A really nice article from (of all places) the Harvard Business Review

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR0TvULRJ27bPuuLhifRhmnUcmG1b15eoaIYiEVeb2jlxj_q_CiBmVhUm10

“I didn’t know how much I would miss art and culture until it was gone.” Holly Mulcahey is a musician who writes on the Neoclassical blog  https://insidethearts.com/neoclassical/2020/03/missing-art-and-culture/?fbclid=IwAR0o6p29sreZ7wA4ROMfmboUpsY3gGENKrtffDVYn-lENQiMSom56tozv5s

How We Should Reimagine Art’s Mission in the Time of ‘Social Distancing’ – Ben Davis at Artnet is providing some wonderful insights on the current state and future possibilities of the arts

https://news.artnet.com/opinion/social-distancing-art-1810029

 

Works Cited

Bardo Thödol. N.d. Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tibetan-Buddhism

TIME. (2020, April 14). New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers briefing on COVID-19 [Twitter moment].  https://twitter.com/TIME/status/1250085119173332999

Camden Voices (n.d.). Home [YouTube Channel]. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1EEtXsLimU5kjJPSeIWW3A

 

The Flip Sides of Holly Henry’s Music*

The Orchard Cover Art, by Rit Suchat American singer/songwriter Holly Henry has recently released “The Orchard,” her second extended play (EP) in two years. Produced at Minneapolis’s The Library Recording Studio, this Alternative music album was funded by fans through an IndieGoGo campaign. The six tracks in the EP lyrically play to Holly’s diversely international audience of multi-generational fans. They are her catchiest songs yet, which may leave listeners with hooks and melodies hard to get out of their head.

Since Holly’s September 24, 2013 appearance on “The Voice” (US), she has experienced rapidly increasing popularity as a YouTube cover artist. Her hollymaezers YouTube channel increased from 1,500 subscribers before appearing on “The Voice”[1]  to 20,000 soon after her elimination from the show[2]. By mid-September 2015, she had over ten times the subscribers and video views. Thus, her YouTube popularity, coupled with having reached Alternative #6 album rank with her debut EP, “The Immigrant,” likely have contributed to her success more than from appearing on “The Voice.”

To better understand Holly’s choice of songs in “The Orchard” EP, it helps to explore the lyrics to a quintet of original, related songs: “The Ghost,” “Katie,” “Hide and Seek,” “Grow,” and “Better.” I asked Holly, “How would you describe that lyrical saga?” She responded:

“These songs were all written for different reasons at different periods of my life. But, I feel like these songs could be connected through a similar theme of feeling out of place or thinking maybe you aren’t being the best version of yourself. There is an underlying idea of inadequacy in these songs.”

We are imperfect/  what a lovely thing to be hints in “Katie” of the wisdom Holly gained from challenging her agoraphobia in her Knockout Round elimination on “The Voice.” Originally released concurrently with Holly’s “The Voice” Blind Audition, “Katie was re-released 15 months later as a YouTube-subsidized music video. YouTube’s commitment to her career development hints to the geographic expansion and growth of Holly’s fan base. I asked Holly to explain that change:

“My YouTube channel is how I view most of my international activity so it’s really the only source I have. So, from what I’ve seen, The Voice helped me gain a following [which following “The Voice”] plateaued for a few months but after a while my YouTube began to grow again and now I have a following of 200,000. Nearly 50% of those following me are from Russia. Many different countries follow and support me and I’m very grateful for it.”

Holly’s new fans maybe learning about her persona through her commitment to autobiographical songs.  Holly held back the single “Hide and Seek from her December 2013 release of “The Immigrant” EP, for more elaborate studio production in California by Christopher Tyng’s Grow Music Project team (see Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice).  Its timing and deep, revealing lyrics like hiding in the corner/ I swear that I adore ‘ya/ but I’m stuck in the corner,” depicted a debilitating anxiety sink in which powering through emotional blocks to recovery is a temporarily unattainable goal. I asked Holly “What it was like to be called perfect when you are in a long anxiety sink?” Holly responded:

“When people compliment, encourage, and look up to me it makes me want to be a better and stronger person. It makes me want to be what they believe me to be. And it is always very therapeutic to write about what you’re currently struggling with. Releasing it into the world is even more therapeutic because it’s almost like you come to complete terms with your issues and are willing to share your experience with others.”

To read fan comments posted since the August 21st release of “The Orchard” EP, is to confirm continuing, divergent lyrical preferences among Holly’s fans. Divergent preferences create marketing challenges. Can Holly sell entire EPs, versus only single tracks playing to specific fan preferences?

On the one hand are fans who desire romantic and upbeat lyrics. They commonly project her in their social media comments as being “perfect” or “a queen.” I asked Holly if that “was symbolized by the crown in her cover art?” She responded that “the artist, Rit Suchat, had drawn me previously before I had even commissioned his work for the EP. The picture he drew of me had a crown similar to the one on the EP cover so I’d say it’s more the artist’s creativity than mine.”

Will fans learn enough about Holly Henry to embrace a multi-dimensional persona beyond their projections of perfection or frailty? Holly challenged fan perceptions of perfection with lyrics in “Hide and Seek” like: My baby thinks that I’m weak/ An antique/My life’s hide and seek. Her candor and honesty has helped foster an empathetic fan base over the last two years. Those fans commonly post how Holly has been “lifesaving” to them. Perhaps this is symbolized by the hummingbird totem in the cover art – an animal totem representing resiliency and adaptability while keeping a playful and optimistic outlook?

I asked Holly if “the process of writing and singing songs, then getting such feedback, is equally therapeutic?” “It sometimes feels like a group therapy session (in a good way),” Holly responded. “And, my favorite thing in the world is hearing that people feel calmed and comforted by my music.”

Fans are used to her timely, innovative, and seemingly triumphant rebounds from career setbacks. But, financial considerations may ultimately limit how many more Holly can weather as a professional musician. By soliciting production assistance in producing “The Orchard” EP, her IndieGoGo campaign successfully staved off that day.

Might too few of her fans, used to free covers, be willing to pay for her original songs? For an artist who typically gets 1,500 to 3,000 likes per Instagram post, only about 325 unique donors funded her IndieGoGo campaign. The campaign generated about $15,000 (after IndieGoGo’s fees), requiring Holly to modify her stated goal. “We had to stay in Minneapolis to record the EP,” Holly explained. “But it turned out to be a wonderful decision because we had an incredible [time] recording it at The Library Studio. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Holly, Recording at The Library In the intervening months between EP releases, Holly has capitalized on numerous opportunities beyond Grow Music Project. She won a 2014 Upper Midwest Emmy in musical composition/arrangement for a television promotion of the Sochi Olympics.  She was also featured in numerous soundtracks to indie short films. Ultimately, she reappeared on stage for three live performances between February and April 2015. They were her first since November 2013.

I asked Holly what the highlight was of her most recent live performances:

“I loved playing at The Varsity this year. It was a really energetic atmosphere which I’m not used to because most of my gigs are really low key acoustic vibe kind of performances. For this particular show, I had band with me. The crowd was really attentive and involved. It was a cool night in general.”

“The Orchard” EP represents what Holly can accomplish given sufficient money for production. Before her IndieGoGo campaign, I asked Holly, If you had $25,000 to spend on only your music, what would your priorities be for spending it?”[3] Holly prophetically responded:

I definitely wouldn’t change my style. But I think I would use the money to enhance my style. Make it more what I hear in my head than what I have the money to give you. So, it would probably sound like me, but a little bit more in depth

It is evident in “The Orchard” EP that her IndieGoGo campaign allowed her to enhance her style and to more fully record what she mentally composes and arranges.

To help listeners interpret the lyrics in the EP, I asked Holly to provide a two-word description to each song, as follows.  She described her 46 second prelude, “Arbor,” as “dreamy entrance.” It sets a sophisticated air to the EP and reassures us of the fine artistry which can arise from successful collaborations among musicians. In “Hotel” (“detached crush”), Holly sings her own harmonies, as in her “Sweet Dreams” cover, with nearly 1.8 million views on YouTube. She also repeats the hand-clapping style so successful in “The Immigrant” EP. “Hotel” reaffirms her desire to contribute to music soundtracks, TV and commercials. It is the top selling track and was promoted by Holly and some fans as a song for “American Horror Show.” “The Orchard” (“safe place”) is joyful, dream-like poetry, offering a reassuring message of transition from midnight fears to creative dreams. “Skin” (“soul bearing”) especially appeals to fans desirous of an original duet between her and Josh Dobson. Show me your skin, skin, skin/ show me what’s within lyrically reveals a delicate caress arising from Holly’s romantic persona.  Like her duet with Jamison Murphy in his song “Remember When (released April 2015), “Skin” is far more intimate as a duet than as a solo. “Foolish Heart” (“sarcastic infatuation”) is Holly’s most upbeat offering, representing a lyrical continuation of the youthfulness of “The Immigrant” EP. Its bridge shows off a delightful instrumental collaboration with Josh and producer Matt Patrick.

Holly describes “Better,” the closing track on “The Orchard” EP, as “euphoric recovery.” It builds like her popular, full-length acoustical rendition of “Creep.” With lyrics like I was overwhelmed/ but I’m getting better, it is a thematic sequel to her quintet of songs depicting inadequacy. The strength of an empathetic fan base shows by “Better” being her third best-selling track off the EP.

Holly ends this “The Orchard” EP with the lyrics, Did you miss me when I was lost? I asked Holly, “How do you wish fans would answer your concluding lyrics?” “I feel like those lyrics can mean something different to everyone,” she said. “For me, the meaning is, when I’m going through a rough time I hope you don’t forget who I really am underneath all the craziness.”

Will Holly’s hummingbird totem guide her through her goal of at least three more years of professionally creating music? Fans post their appreciation of Holly’s honesty and accessibility on social media, but fans I know also want to see her perform live. As a Minneapolis-based musician, Holly would benefit from broadcasted or recorded performances. She needs, at the least, to utilize StageIt performances over the Internet to reach distant fans, helping to retain them over the long haul. Additionally, she should schedule gigs while on her periodic trips to Florida, where her musician fiancé Josh Dobson regularly performs solo and in the band “East Harbor.” Josh, Holly, and Matt

“The Orchard” EP successfully plays to audiences attracted to Holly’s angelic voice and allegorical lyrics. The EP represents a sophisticated evolution of Holly’s musical talent, combined with a remarkable collaborative achievement by producer and backup instrumentalist Matt Patrick. Josh Dobson provided lead instrumentation, plus duet vocals and collaborative songwriting in “Skin.” The EP was released by Garden Ghost Records and is available on Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon. Holly Henry’s official website can be found at hollyhenrymusic.com.

*This entry was written by a guest blogger. Author Gary Reese, known online as pcacala, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” He is an Original Poster on Idolforums (IDF) and The Voice Forums (TVF). The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” (on IDF) and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” (on TVF) have combined page views of over 151,000, making Holly has the third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who has competed on “The Voice.”

Works cited

[1] Holly Henry. (2013). “Hollyhenrymusic” [blog post]. Retrieved from

http://hollyhenrymusic.tumblr.com/

[2] Boneyarddog. (2013, November). “Holly Henry Fan Thread.” Retrieved from

http://idolforums.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=706360&view=findpost&p=26015851

[3] Holly Henry. (2014, October 5). “Very Exciting Questions & Answers Video” . Retrieved from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypcD4CRo_Ow