For the first time in over 20 years, the Kent State Gospel Choir found itself unable to join together in-person and sing due to safety concerns. According to director Bryon Black, the group’s hope and faith continues to act as a foundation for other members as they endure the pandemic.
The day before the group learned of Kent State’s shut down, members had their last in-person rehearsal. Even then, the gospel choir would sing encouraging songs that would give hope to members, such as the group’s signature song, “Better” by Jason Clayborn.
Despite the pandemic, the energy these songs give off is one thing that hasn’t changed, said Sally Maltempi, a third year biochemistry major and music minor.
“Gospel choir still kept the same spirit of togetherness, positivity, and hopefulness,” said Maltempi. “It’s something I know I’ve needed because of how crazy the world has been.”
For the first month after the initial shut down, students and community members met weekly via Zoom. Members would share music, plan virtual performances or just get to know each other better, Black said. Members were also asked to present a new gospel song they felt connected to, which Black said served as inspiration to himself and other students.
“In a time when we were just really down and confused and sad … it gave us a lot of time as a community to bond,” said Black.
As members started planning to meet in-person for the fall semester, the chorale department began purchasing singer masks. Singer masks have more space than a typical mask and allow an individual to sing without sounding muffled.
Along with masks, the choir shifted its rehearsal location to a larger space. According to Black, members will now rehearse at Cartwright stage for 30 minutes followed by transitioning and rehearsing in the lobby for 30 minutes.
As something new to the choir, relocating during rehearsals took time to fully adjust to. This practice of moving spaces increases healthy air circulation, Black said.
“At first, in the fall semester we couldn’t get as much music rehearsed,” Black said. “But this semester, we were able to get that going more once we got into a groove.”
With all safety protocols accounted for, students who are enrolled in the class are the only members currently allowed to be physically on campus.
According to Black, the choir practices a dual instruction method where community members participate via Zoom while students participate in-person. Community members’ mics are muted while singing, but they are able to ask questions and make comments before or after the group sings.
“We’ll do everything we can to engage with them and make them feel seen and included,” Black said.
Joy Freeman, an active community member for over 20 years, says she misses the relationships that formed throughout choir rehearsals.
“We bond really, really fast in gospel choir and that’s what I miss the most,” said Freeman. “I miss the person on the left. I miss the person on the right.”
Prior to the pandemic, the choir could sing alongside its band, but due to safety concerns, the band now pre-records.
Choir members are then asked to record themselves singing their part over the band’s practice track as a way to prove that they know their music. According to Black, this gives him the opportunity to personally work with each student on what they need assistance with.
“For training my voice, it helped me a whole lot,” said Freeman. “I have a two minute soprano part and I’m like 10 recordings in and still not satisfied with it.”
Once all of the students record their parts, a sound engineer will then put the band track on top of community member’s final singing tracks. The final sound is combined with a video of the students performing in Cartwright Hall and streamed as a one-time only performance.
This acts as a way to keep community members included, even if they can’t be physically present, Black said.
In this style of performance, the gospel choir will be holding a performance April 29th on the Kent State School of Music’s website. During this concert, the choir will premiere “Forward,” a song written by Black.
Black describes this song as a reminder that we shouldn’t “go back to normal.”
“Moving forward means that you’re not necessarily going to go back to everything that you used to know,” Black said. “You’re going to move forward into some great opportunities.”
Hannah Mayer covers religion and faith. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.