Penn High School choir finds a way to be heard

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MISHAWAKA, Ind. - Normally this time of year would be filled with Jingle Bells, First Noels, and Silent Nights, but 2020 is a different story. The choir and band concerts you are used to seeing your kids perform in are changing and the way you watch them is changing too.

Standing in an auditorium at Penn High School off Bittersweet Road are about a dozen students preparing their voices for the school’s annual holiday concert.

A couple of exercises and they’re ready to perform. Except for this year, those seats in the audience, are empty.

"We had parents watching live on YouTube tonight," Andrew Nemeth, a choir director said.

Singing with no audience can be strange.

"It really was pretty surreal. This was a new experience for all of us for sure," Allison Secaur, a choir director and accompanist said.

And if you think having no live audience is stressful, that was the least of this choir director's worries.

"This was the first time all year that we have sung together in the same spot. And we just had a half-hour beforehand to rehearse," Nemeth said.

Switching between hybrid, in-person and virtual learning leave little time to practice as an entire group.

"One of the biggest challenges is when we have half of our students in person and half online, just navigating how even teach that way has been a challenge. And then when we've been totally virtual, we just can't hear all the students at a single time. So it is kind of on faith," he said.

"Kind of watching them reading body language, a lot of those things, we do get some recordings from them. So we get some idea of how things are going," Lavon Oke, assistant choir director said.

And the time lost, may have lasting impacts.

"Some of our younger students have struggled. And that's been a thing that we've seen throughout this semester, is we're not making the progress we're used to making," Oke said.

So when school officials finally made the decision to still hold a winter concert...

"We just found out we just got the permission last week to come in and do this," Nemeth said.

Many were relieved that one tradition was left untouched.

"The Penn choirs have been doing this concert for well over 50 years. And as far as I know, this is the first time we've ever had to do one quite like this," he said. "When we got the permission of our administration, it really, you could see the students were super thrilled."

Of course, the stipulations to sing this year have changed.

"We must wear the masks, we need to be six feet eight feet," Secaur said.

“It does make a slight difference in the sound," Oke said.

"On a normal year, we have 200 to 250 singers total in the program. And they would normally be singing several songs altogether. Because of some of the safety protocols that we're aware of. And knowing that the virus can be aerosolized, we have had to split up the choirs," Nemeth said.

The directors also clear room for 30 minutes between the two concerts. 

"We're just like, okay, we got to let the air settle a little bit," Secaur said. "Keep us from being enclosed in one area for too long of a time. So got to just think of a lot of different things to make it happen.”

A lot went into getting the students on stage and school staff say it’s been a long time coming.

“I couldn't put it to words, seeing kids together, but here he gets together and just getting that sense of humanity and, and that sense of connectedness. There's no replacing that," Oke said.

"We're so happy to actually get to be together. So it's worth it. It's worth it," Secaur said.

So maybe it’s ironic that just off Bittersweet Road, it’s bittersweet for some to sing their final note without any applause.

"Yes, we sing to share with other people. But we sing for ourselves too because we enjoy it and to see all the students on stage singing having a good time. That's exactly what it is to whether had an audience or not," Nemeth said. "I know that we made a difference tonight and I'm super grateful for that opportunity.”

Maybe one quote resonates with this choir more than ever, “Those who wish to sing will always find a song.”

As always, if you have a question or concern regarding a school or school-related activity, reach out to us! Learningcurve@abc57.com.

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