KSU Chamber Singers perform in Mobile, Al., barely escaping COVID-19 closures

Ensemble awarded coveted spot at American Choral Director’s Association conference

KENNESAW, Ga. (May 5, 2020) — The week had finally arrived, and School of Music students in the Chamber Singers ensemble were excited to perform in Mobile, Al. during the American Choral Director’s Association (ACDA) Southern Division Conference, scheduled for March 11-14, 2020. The Chamber Singers were chosen to perform at the highly selective Conference after a peer-reviewed submission of one song for each of three years of performance recordings plus a proposed concert program. The program, devised by conductor Leslie J. Blackwell, interim director of the School of Music and director of Choral Activities, was all acapella except two songs featuring John Lawless, vibraphone and John Warren, clarinet.

Rehearsals Begin in Earnest
It was a high bar to meet, especially since the students knew they would be performing for the highest-ranking national choral professionals in the field. The students rehearsed tirelessly, in different halls, with the risers and students arranged in various configurations. Blackwell, known affectionately as “Dr. B.” by her students, intentionally threw obstacles in front of the musicians so they would be comfortable singing in any configuration at the conference. The students practiced jumping from song to song, without being given the pitch; one selection took them from F sharp minor to E flat major, and the students hit it perfectly. 

Brock Composition Performance Added
As if rehearing for six acapella selections was not enough, the Ensemble was ecstatic when ACDA asked them to perform the Raymond W. Brock Composition Commission featuring Swiss composer Ivo Antognini. Every division performs the selection, but only one choir is selected to actually perform it; it was a huge honor. The students embraced the opportunity and worked with Antognini via Skype. The composer said that the students got it; they understood his composition. “It was a wonderful learning experience to talk with a living composer and to understand his rationale musically and compositionally. It gave the students such a breadth of knowledge as they brought his music to life,” said Blackwell. 

Heading to Mobile, Alabama
Confident yet nervous, the students left KSU on Wednesday, March 11, headed to Mobile. On Thursday, KSU announced the campus would close due to COVID-19 on Friday, March 13 at 5 p.m. Dorms were to be closed, and classes were to be moved online. It was a surreal experience. Students were anticipating a marvelous time in this once-in-a-lifetime performance, and, at the same time, dealing with the real-world implications of COVID-19. “Parents were calling, our phones were all blowing up,” said Blackwell, “but we collectively made the decision to perform.” The students and Dr. B. would not turn the bus around for home. They would perform as scheduled, but they would limit social contact and observe safety precautions and take care of each other. Some students were very concerned about being homeless, especially since the dorms were closing. Other students lamented about the lack of food in their kitchens. (KSU made special considerations to take care of all of the students.) At a time when the students should be laughing and joking together on the bus, instead, they were discussing the real-life implications of the pandemic.

The ACDA Performance
Even though they had plans to attend a concert on Thursday night, they all agreed to call it an early night so they would be dressed, warmed-up, and ready to go at 7 a.m. on Friday morning; not a single person was late to the bus. The students performed exceptionally well and received a standing ovation from the audience, complete with whistling and yelling. An ACDA official remarked that it was superb musicianship. But Dr. B. would not let the students linger long for additional accolades; they were all corralled back onto the bus immediately so that she could keep them as safe as possible.

KSU Chamber Singers Ensemble

Above, image: KSU Chamber Singers Ensemble at the ACDA Conference in Mobile, Alabama.

Safely back to KSU
Arriving back on campus at about 8 p.m. on Friday night, the campus was eerily dark and quiet, but all of the students were safe. Their collective experience would not be easily forgotten, marked forever by the theme “I am” that was the title of the program and also boldly imprinted on their t-shirts. The phrase was taken from their set by composer David Maslanka’s “Litany for Courage and the Seasons” in “Movement V. Little Dance: For Barbara Mason”

           And then the boundaries will cave in
           and then my spirit will fly.
           In this moment and no other,
           In this way and no other
           I am.

--Kathie Beckett