It’s been a tough year for lots of us. For students at the Choir School of Delaware, not being able to get together to sing has been especially difficult.
“COVID? It sucks,” said Arianna Walker, an eighth grader at Gateway Lab School in Wilmington.
She’s in her first year with the Choir School, a comprehensive after-school program that provides more than just a chance to sing. In addition to music lessons, students get help with school work and learn life skills from adult tutors and mentors.
“Miss Peggy is very helpful, that’s my favorite person, my tutor,” Arianna said.
The intergenerational group, with members that range in age from 7 to 77, has continuously performed since its founding in 1883.
The Choir School serves as a “community center that sings” for students in the greater Wilmington area who face systemic barriers to success. It primarily serves students from low-income, majority Black and brown communities where more than 85% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
“They’ve really helped me not just academically, but as a person, with my mentor, who I met through the choir school, through Miss Susan and Mr. Harley’s leadership,” said Destiny Maguta, a senior at St. Georges Technical High School. She’s been at the school since the sixth grade. “Without their guidance, I don’t know what I would do, or where I would be.”
The choir was on tour in Rochester, New York, as part of the American Choral Directors Association conference when the pandemic broke out in March.
“That was the last time I saw everybody,” said Arreon Harley, the group’s director of music and operations.
It was a memorable, and almost prophetic, final performance, considering the racial justice issues that would dominate headlines later in the year, he said. Their set featured a diverse selection of songs from Black and white composers, Baroque songs and more contemporary pieces. The performance ended with the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
“We really talk about equity and what it means — a majority of our students are Black and brown kids — and what does it mean to navigate this world as a Black person. … We were discussing all that in our music-making,” Harley said. “To think about what would unfold in this world with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor … I will never, ever take for granted that last moment.”
Since March, the group has rehearsed with a virtual twist. Individual choir members sing along as Harley demonstrates their notes, plunking out various vocal parts on the piano. Because of the technical limitations and digital delay of the video conference technology, when the whole choir sings together, their microphones are muted.
“It has been very challenging, especially for Mr. Harley and the rest of the staff, to put all the concerts and rehearsals together because we are not in person,” said Vania Balogun-Victor. The ninth grader at Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School travels from Delaware County to attend the school. “I really look forward to going back in person because it’s easier and everyone … we actually get to socialize.”
Socialization is also a big perk for Nahshon Colon, a senior at Dickinson High School who has been at the Choir School for 10 years. “One of the best parts is really connecting with everyone … considering that there’s a lot of people here that come from different backgrounds and they’re all unique in their own way,” he said. “They’re also very open, so if you got your own problems and you want to talk to someone, you can.”
He said the distance of singing from home hasn’t inhibited the friendships he’s made. “Even if we’re not in person, I don’t think it really changes our main goal of singing and making everyone happy.”
Colon and the other singers are excited to return to the stage at Winterthur Museum and Garden just outside of Wilmington as part of an artist-in-residence agreement. To comply with requirements to keep physically distanced, the choir will perform its “Sounds of the Season” concert multiple times on Sunday, Dec. 13 to keep the crowd size down. Masks will be worn, and members of the choir itself will be spaced farther apart than they would normally be.
Despite the restrictions, director Harley is very excited to get his first chance to hear this group of singers perform together.
“We will have never sung together since that Rochester trip when we do this performance,” he said.
Though individual choir members record their parts and send the audio to Harley for review, he’s never heard the entire choir sing together. “Every choir is different, the seniors graduate and go, and the sound changes. So I have never heard this choir before, and I will hear it for the first time. And I think that is the best Christmas gift I could ever ask for.”
In addition to some traditional Christmas tunes, the choir will also sing “Bashana Haba’ah,” a Hebrew song typically sung to mark the Jewish new year at Rosh Hashana. “To think about a renewed sense of self and a renewal of the year, and so much to look forward to. I think that with all this news of a vaccine coming, there’s a sense for hope and newness, certainly around here,” Harley said. “We’re excited to get into 2021 and [will] certainly savor every moment of this concert.”
After the Sunday concert, choir members will return to virtual practices online as they prepare for a spring performance in April back at Winterthur, with songs focused on folklore and fairy tales.
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