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Workshop aims to help choir programs recovering from pandemic

Photo of a choir singer holding a piece of choir sheet music.
Westminster College
Flickr Creative Commons
Photo of a choir singer holding a piece of choir sheet music.

Dr. Kellori Dower spoke with KVCR’s Jonathan Linden about an upcoming workshop she’s hosting that aims to assist choir directors in recovering from decreased enrollment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jonathan Linden: You're listening to 91.9 KVCR news, and I'm Jonathan Linden. Dr. Kellori Dower is the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts at Santa Ana College and on Monday, March 14, will be hosting a workshop with the Riverside County Office of Education, titled, "We're Not in Kansas Anymore: How to Rebuild Your Choral Program in the New Oz." First off, I have to acknowledge that you were my choir teacher, my senior year at Arlington High School in Riverside, and it's great to speak with you again, Dr. Dower. But yeah, can you tell listeners a little bit more about this workshop that you'll be hosting?

Dr. Kellori Dower: Sure. So the Visual and Performing Arts Division of the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE), they've done webinars throughout the pandemic, and I was fortunate enough to have been involved in many of the ones surrounding choral music. And so, the one coming up is an effort that I worked out with Lisa Higgins, who is a Visual Performing Arts Coordinator at the RCOE, to try to address some of the questions surrounding how do we go forward, particularly for choir. No question, that choir was considered a super spreader event just by its very nature. And so, while I don't know if that has been the only reason that students have sort of dropped off a little bit in choir enrollment, that's happening throughout the country. But I also think that it just became a very strange situation for conductors to deal with. Even when we came back, it was masking, and for choir, we want to be expressive. And a lot of the expression comes from the looking at the totality of the face, and sometimes now, at least it's covered halfway with a mask. So, it's trying to get through all of that, but the biggest question is, how do you bring them back? And so, I've got some ideas, and I'm going to share them on Monday with the conductors and teachers who show up. And they're, you know, from early career to middle to seasoned professionals in the choral field and I just think it's an important time to talk about some strategies that may be a little bit out of the box, maybe some have been tried before, but certainly there may be some new ones that folks haven't tried before. So, we're just trying to find a way to bring everybody back to the stance.

Jonathan Linden: And yeah, you kind of already alluded to some of them, but for listeners who aren't necessarily connected with the choir world, can you elaborate more about some of the struggles that choir programs have been facing the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Kellori Dower: Well, we have never really been a virtual organization; we've always been an in-person thing. And so, while Eric Whitacre was sort of groundbreaking with his idea of the virtual choir some years ago, everybody kind of looked at that, it seemed as though, well, that's just something special that people will do, and it's kind of interesting. And it was great, he did a great job, but it's very time-consuming because what you really become is an editor, more than a choral director, you send the students the tracks, they sing them, then you make sure they're on quick track, so everybody's synced up. And then you become an editor, more than a choral director, and that was a new skill that some directors aren't; it's not a bad thing that the skill was learned, but that's one of the challenges, is that was missing. But more importantly, choirs about connection, and so if the connectivity or connection to other human beings in the same space is missing, well, that's problematic. And it's hard to sing together without being connected to folks in the room. And so that was the challenge and when students that are very young, or really any choir singers, when the longer the disconnect, the easier to let it go. And so what we saw was sort of this fading away, even with the ones that did come back, there's something slightly missing. And we're trying to find ways to get it back. So I'll address a little bit of that in the workshop as well, but mostly, it's about strategies to bring in maybe new things (to individuals) who've never tried choir, bring the other ones back and do some outreach with the new skill set that choir directors now have as a result of the pandemic.

Jonathan Linden: And what are some strategies that you've come up to deal with some of these issues with trying to teach choir during the pandemic?

Dr. Kellori Dower: Well, one of the biggest ones, since now I'm wearing the administrator role hat, is to sort of help choir directors understand that there are other funding sources. I know some of my colleagues are taking their students back out on the road, but money has become an issue, parents lost jobs during the pandemic, and so students are not really able to access the kind of funding that normally would be available to them just for parents paying, you know, $300 or $400 for a trip. And so what I might suggest, at least initially, is if you're going to take your students out on the road, which is a form of attracting students to your program, that you work with your administrators to find other funding sources. There were funding sources that were identified and tapped during the pandemic, and there was learning losses that occurred in choirs, in particular, that might not be completely understood. But if a choir director is savvy, they can make the case and potentially tap into some funds that normally they never would have access to, at least at this point. So that's one of the ideas that I have, but also, you know, (having) students be a little bit more involved at the other levels of choir, at the feeder schools, and at the schools that you will be feeding to. So, if you're a high school, think about being a whole lot more involved at the middle school level, not just bringing them up to sing at your concert, but doing other things. And then if you work with a college or university, if you're at the high school level, asking them for strategies on how they might involve their graduate students, or their students and their music students in a more meaningful way, and not just a performing or performative kind of thing where we're just at the show together, it needs to be more deep than that.

Jonathan Linden: And if you can make a pitch to parents on why their kids should be a part of choir, what would you say to them?

Dr. Kellori Dower: Why not? It's not going to be terribly expensive; you get free concerts on a regular because they have to practice at home. But more importantly, what they get from being in choir is far beyond anything that I've experienced. I love choir, I've always loved it, and I've seen the benefit over the years of my teaching and being involved. And I always found that, when I first started teaching choir, I'll say this, I thought it was just about the music, you know, I really want the music to be perfect, and I really wanted it to be right. But the truth is, over the years, I learned that the music really was the stories that happen to the students in the classroom. And I learned that teaching them to sing their own song, even if it wasn't music ultimately, was more important than how the music was in the classroom. And if you find a choir director or a choir program that can teach your children to sing, and that doesn't mean just the act of singing, but teach them how to believe in themselves, teach them how to go beyond and reach... then you've got something that will stay with that child for the rest of their lives, and it will keep them not only employed but happy. And so that to me is more important. I think that's what choir brings to every human being, and I think even if you're not in high school or elementary or middle school choir, you should join a community chorus; it makes you happy.

Jonathan Linden: Well, Dr. Dower, it's been a pleasure speaking with you again, and thank you so much for taking some time to speak with me.

Dr. Kellori Dower: Absolutely, nice talking to you, Jonathan.

Jonathan Linden was a reporter at 91.9 KVCR in San Bernardino, California. He joined KVCR in July 2021 and served with the station till October 2022.