The Beat Goes On: High School Choirs Improvise In The Age Of Coronavirus

Apr 5, 2020
Originally published on April 6, 2020 10:32 am

Spring semester was off to a pretty normal start at Rolling Meadows High School. The school, in a northwest suburb of Chicago, was gearing up for the goodbye rituals of every spring semester: senior prom, end-of-year exams and graduation.

Caitlyn Walsh, the school's music teacher, was looking forward to the big choir concert and the spring musical. "From the fine arts scene we have a lot of end-of-year activities that are very cherished," she says.

Walsh had worked with this group of students for four years, and knew they were special, a "really strong senior class." So for their spring concert she pulled out all the stops — even ordering custom red T-shirts for the show. When the news broke that all Illinois schools were closed, Walsh and her students were crushed.

She was picking up the t-shirts from a friend in her neighborhood when she heard schools were shutting down. And then, she had an epiphany: "this a-ha moment of, 'You know, why don't we just get something together?' So that way, we can at least honor the concert."

She told her students to come grab their T-shirts and then send in videos of themselves singing their parts. One of her seniors mixed all the videos together, and the end result sounded like they were all on-stage together.

The resulting video is a huge online success, with 100,000 views and counting. It was picked up by local news and even featured on Access Hollywood!

Walsh's class made one of the first virtual choir videos, but now educators all over the country are getting in on the fun.

Greg Gardner is the music director of Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, N.J. With all the state's schools closed, he also had to find a way to connect with his students outside the choir room.

"My students genuinely miss being in the halls of Camden Catholic," Gardner says, "I genuinely miss teaching my music classes."

Both teachers lamented the fact that software programs like Zoom and Google Hangout have too much lag time for choirs to practice. Instead, Gardner decided to get his students practicing on their own.

Once a day, his students send in a 10-minute voice memo of themselves practicing a song. Then, on Fridays, they send in a video of the finished product. From those submissions Gardner creates his virtual choir. He wants to get his students performing every week.

The Camden Catholic Virtual Choir sings I Am With You Always. Directed by Greg Gardner and Patrick Gardner Music by Greg Gardner / YouTube

Gardner says it's been a lot harder than he expected: "There's no magic app or plug-in that will do this for you. It just takes hours and hours of work."

He actually uses several different software programs to put his videos together. One helps him line the videos up in the right order, another synchronizes them, so they start at the correct time, and yet another aligns the sound and video so the students are all singing in unison.

For their latest video? Gardner's students created a virtual version of their annual Spring Cabaret.

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The Camden Catholic Choir, Camden Catholic Virtual Spring Cabaret / YouTube

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's that time of year when high school choir should be gearing up for their end-of-year concerts. But this year, with schools shut down and students learning at home, some music teachers have had to get creative and go the extra mile to keep the music alive. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo has this report.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Normally, senior spring is packed. There's end-of-year exams, senior prom and, of course, graduation.

CAITLYN WALSH: And from the fine arts scene, we have a lot of end-of-year activities that are, like, very cherished and traditions.

CARRILLO: Caitlyn Walsh, a music teacher in Rolling Meadows, Ill., was preparing her students for their big concert - the songs of "West Side Story." Walsh had even had bright red custom T-shirts made. But the day the T-shirts were ready, something bigger grabbed the students' attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J B PRITZKER: ...That we will close all K-12 schools, public and private.

CARRILLO: That's the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker. And the students were crushed.

WALSH: There was a lot of stress and anxiety that kind of came out of all this.

CARRILLO: But Walsh knows how important these performances are, and she hated to see her students miss out.

WALSH: I had this aha moment of, you know, why don't we just get something together so that way we can at least honor the concert?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

CARRILLO: She got 26 students to grab their red T-shirts and send in videos of their parts. One of her seniors mixed them all together.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing, unintelligible)

CARRILLO: It's been a huge hit. Their video has almost 100,000 views on Twitter, and it was picked up by local news, as well as "Access Hollywood."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Vocalizing).

CARRILLO: Walsh's class made one of the first videos, but now music educators all over the country are getting in on it.

GREG GARDNER: My name's Greg Gardner. I'm the music director at Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, N.J.

CARRILLO: With all New Jersey schools closed, Gardner had to find a way to connect with his students.

GARDNER: I feel that our students genuinely miss being in the halls of Camden Catholic. I genuinely miss teaching my music classes.

CARRILLO: He wanted to get his students performing every week, so, like Caitlyn Walsh, he came up with the plan. Once a day, students had to send in a 10-minute voice memo of them practicing a song. And then on Friday, they would send in a video of the finished product. From those videos, Gardner creates his virtual choir. And he says it's been a lot harder than he thought.

GARDNER: There's no magic plugin or app that's going to just, like, do this for you. It just takes hours and hours of work.

CARRILLO: But the end result does have a little magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOPHIA: Hi. I'm Sophia (ph).

ALI: And my name is Ali (ph).

SOPHIA: And we're Zooming live from our basements.

ALI: Not each other's basements because we're practicing social distancing.

CARRILLO: For their latest video, Gardner's students created a virtual version of their annual spring cabaret. There are solos...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) ...Cross his stupid heart, make good and finally make you proud of your boy.

CARRILLO: ...A duet...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing, unintelligible).

CARRILLO: ...And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRILLO: ...The big finale.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #3: (Singing, unintelligible).

CARRILLO: Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.