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Experiences

Choir After COVID: My Experience at ACDA Long Beach

As we all have heard countless times over the past couple years, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the daily lives of all people, often forcing activities to occur on Zoom and other online platforms. This transition has been difficult for everyone, but especially for groups that rely on in-person gatherings to coordinate and conduct their business.

One such group is the music community, where rehearsals and stagings are essential and only really effective in an in-person setting. The choral community has sometimes been able to overcome this through rehearsing small sections over Zoom or recording individual voices and compiling them into “virtual choruses.” But none of these substitutions can really replace the real thing– the rush of performing onstage and sharing the emotions of the music with an audience that occupies the same physical space. I say this as a musician myself, having performed with many ensembles in many different settings over the years. In this article, I will share my experience performing with the Northern Arizona University Women’s Chorale at the 2022 American Choral Directors Association Western Conference, a biennial choral festival, where I noted some of ways in which musicians are approaching their craft in the midst of our current circumstances.

I have been a part of the NAU Women’s Chorale for some time now, and after more than a year of Zoom, we were all very excited to perform at WACDA. Due to COVID, the conference had not taken place for four years instead of the normal two, so it was safe to say that everyone was more than happy to attend. ACDA as an organization was founded 55 years ago to “foster the art of choral music in the United States” (ACDA). This was done to give more attention to choral works, as previous conferences with the National Association for Music Education, previously known as the Music Educators National Conference, were focused primarily on band and orchestral works, leaving choral educators with a sense of frustration and underrepresentation. ACDA worked with MENC throughout the 1960s to hold choral seminars alongside band and orchestral conferences, and the first ACDA Western Division conference was held in January 1970 at San Francisco State University, with an attendance of about 450 directors from the five states in the region: Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, and Hawaii. This was all done under the leadership of the first ACDA president, K. Gene Simmonds, who, in 1971, passed the baton to the first female president of ACDA, Jane Hardester. She went on to host the second ACDA Western Division conference in Coronado, California in February 1972, this time with a powerful theme attached to it: “choral music as a social force in the 70’s.” Since then, ACDA has continued to host conferences throughout the Western division, celebrating choral music with a variety of themes, performances, and attendees. 

This is exactly what they continued to do at the 2022 conference in Long Beach, CA. The theme of this conference was “lift every voice and sing,” a nudge to the history of white supremacy and the silencing of marginalized voices not only in the musical realm, but in the United States in general. This was especially noteworthy, considering recent events during the pandemic, such as the murder of George Floyd and the increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans. ACDA even includes a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) statement on its website, raising awareness of the crimes committed against Asian Americans and urging the musical community to work on dismantling white supremacism and uplifting Asian artists. It was empowering, especially as an all-women chorus, to see ACDA making an effort to highlight these voices, and we soon found that the theme of the conference was not a mere slogan. 

Our Women’s Chorale arrived in Long Beach on March 2nd, and we attended one of the concert sessions the next day that featured a contemporary ensemble named Tonality. Tonality is an award winning choral ensemble led and founded in 2016 by Alexander Lloyd Blake to represent diverse cultures within the Los Angeles area. The homepage of their website reads: “Tonality, a choral spectrum. A vocal ensemble whose mission is to deliver authentic stories through voice and body to incite change, understanding, and dialogue.” They certainly delivered on this message, performing works with themes surrounding mental health, refugees, incarceration, and climate change, among others. This is the opposite of traditional choral concert programming, which usually sticks with more classical works and avoids so-called “controversial” topics. Of course, this also means that many of the works performed are composed by white men, leaving little room for women and people of color to have their voices heard. With Tonality, this story was flipped on its head. The choir itself was very diverse, with much of its members identifying as latinx or African American, including the director. Their set was not only socially conscious, but it also moved me very much. One song in particular discussed the awfully high rates of incarceration among African Americans in the U.S, and it really made me think about the awful reality that so many of them face: stuck, isolated from the world and their family for years often just because of some petty crime or even no crime at all. If Tonality’s mission was truly to spark action and conversation, they achieved it. 

Our choir was all set to perform at the Terrace Theater, the same venue as Tonality, the next morning on March 4th. We were excited to learn that one of the composers of the pieces we were performing, “No Fairytale Here”, was at the conference and agreed to speak with us before the show. Her name is Dr. Zenaida Stewart Robles, an American composer, vocalist, and teacher at Harvard-Westlake Upper School in Studio City, CA. Robles was born and raised in Southern California and obtained her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the USC Thornton School of Music. She advocates fiercely for diversity and inclusion in music performance and education, and her works are mostly self-published and available through her website. Her composition style has been described as “progressive classical,” and this was evident in our performance of “No Fairytale Here,” which is about Ida B. Wells, a civil rights hero that raised awareness of the horrific lynchings occuring in the South during the 50s and 60s. The song itself has an almost improvisational feel to it, while still incorporating classical harmonies. It also features a narration part at the beginning and end, which Robles read for our ACDA performance. Before the show, she described what it was like to compose “No Fairytale Here,” saying that she was contacted by a director who wanted to include more “diverse voices” in his choir’s setlist. Robles was happy to compose the piece, but, as she noted to us that morning, didn’t want to be seen simply as a tool to make ensembles more progressive. As she put it, “I’m not here to meet your quota.” This raises an important point– that POC and women artists should be lifted up out of a genuine desire to hear and celebrate their work, not just to fill some diversity requirement. 

All in all, we had a great time performing at ACDA. This conference truly showed us the importance of lifting up every voice, and it was inspiring to see so many directors and ensembles making a change in how they program their concerts. I believe these changes have been quickened by the events of 2020 and 2021 and the increase in racial consciousness in the United States. I hope to see this trend continue as more and more contemporary composers are lifted up in the musical realm.

Sources:

Tonality – A Choral Spectrum. ethosLA, 2022, https://ourtonality.org/. Accessed 11 March 2022.

Zenaida Stewart Robles. Zenaida Stewart Robles, 2022, https://zanaidarobles.com/. Accessed 11 

March 2022.

ACDA Western Region. Sydney, 2022, https://acdawestern.org/. Accessed 11 March 2022.

Lydia Milowski

Northern Arizona '22

My name is Lydia, and I enjoy writing in both English and Spanish as a means of expressing myself and informing those around me about important things. I am a senior at NAU, majoring in Spanish literature and language and minoring in computer science!