Q&A: Staying in tune with choir

Lisa Lopez offers her perspective as the Walnut High School choir teacher and how her students are adjusting to distance learning. The Hoofprint interviews her on how she and her students felt over school closure, and what their plans are for the upcoming year.

Q: What are some basic activities you have had your class do?
A: We’ve been having to rehearse by Zoom, which is really tricky because [the students] can’t hear each other at the same time. All classes are pretty difficult, but trying to do a musical ensemble when they can’t hear each other at the same time is really hard. We’re still trying to rehearse, but [usually] at this point with my groups we would have eight to 10 songs done, and chamber is working on three or four. My other choirs are working on two. So our rehearsal process is very slow. So we [use] breakout rooms. We’ll split up my assistant, Mrs. Rein, and myself and work with the groups. Now everybody in choir has to sing alone, everybody is singing a solo every time we rehearse. So it was very intimidating for my younger choirs. So rehearsal pretty much is more like sectionals now. We don’t always only sing in class. We also do musicianship things [such as] sight reading now. Instead of just sight reading our books in class, we do something called sight reading factory which is online. [The students] go on and they look at an exercise and then they record themselves doing the exercises. Instead of rehearsing together, now the kids are having to learn how to go into a recording studio and record themselves, and then upload their project to a group project. And so that’s kind of interesting that rather than just singing it as a group, they have to sing individually. And then I spent hours at nights, just putting the choir together. The kids don’t sing as much in class. Normally in class they would sing [15 to 30 minutes] of a class period. To rehearse, we do sectionals.To sing and be heard, they have had to learn [to use Soundtrap], which is a big learning curve. Rather than me just handing them worksheets, like in the other classes, we’ve been doing those through Kami. So they’re having to learn music notation. Rather than just on a piece of paper we’re either doing it on little whiteboards or we’re doing it on on Kami.We’ve just gotten a brand new learning management system called Music First. And so our kids are going to have access to Noteflight, Musition and Auralia. So, basically all of the ear training and musicianship things we just normally do in five minutes in class are now online. And we’re very lucky that our district has put out money, so that the kids have access to some of these top-of-the-line programs, but basically everything has just gone digital. We can do almost everything and in some cases even better, except for rehearsing.

Q: How did you feel about school closure?
A: My first priority is the kids safety. So when it happened back in March, we thought we were going to be back in two to three weeks so I closed up my classroom, but not in any permanent way. Obviously all we wanted to have was immediate safety. And then we realized we weren’t coming back, so the end of last year was pretty tough. This year, as we realized just how bad it is, it really is a serious thing. About June and July, all of my choir director friends, we kind of sat together cried mourned our programs, we knew we were going to lose kids. We didn’t want to disappoint our kids because we’re so used to doing competitions and events and getting on buses and traveling together. So for all of us, our world, our lives changed as we knew it. And yes, it changed for every teacher, but everything about what we do has changed. So every choir director was just devastated, knowing that we were going to see our kids every day, knowing that some who really needed choir weren’t going to be with us. So our colleagues in the district, and our colleagues around the state, and then a national choral director associations, spent July and August just learning what we could. And it wasn’t really a matter anymore of how we felt about it was, just this is what we have to do. And then we realized we can still do music. Choir is hard, but we can still have the kids make music, and we can still have them be a part of doing something creative. Probably about August we started to feel like our jobs were actually more important than ever, because this is going to be different than what kids are doing the rest of the day. It was maybe going to be the one class where kids really have a social connection with each other, especially my older classes. They’ve known each other for three years, and they’re going to be devastated. Obviously they don’t have the same events but at least they can see each other. Every day is still the hardest days of my teaching career since my first year. Teachers hate this, because we all feel like gigantic idiots. It’s our first and nobody wants to be a first year teacher again, it was the hardest year of our lives. Every single day is like a first year teacher, we mess up something technology-wise, or we see kids who are slipping through the cracks. We know that they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t online. And we know that they don’t want to sing for their friends online. So seeing that we’re losing kids and things is really hard, but I will say that we have to do what it takes. My students have been incredible. Especially my older kids who have every reason to whine. Rhapsody and Chamber Singers have every reason to quit, to whine, to complain, and they don’t. They’re here every day with smiles on their faces, making stuff happen, recording stuff in the middle of the night. In Treble Choir I have kids recording assignments in their cars so that they can have a quiet place. I have kids killing themselves to make this work. And every time that I see that when I’m tired, it reminds me that this is so worth it because these kids are just so amazing. So, there are pros and mostly cons, but there’s a lot of pros and choir directors always think about having our kids be together in any way we can. I don’t know that I’m doing it very well, but my officers have just been absolutely amazing at keeping the bonds going and thinking of activities to do on a Friday. And that helps a lot, because the kids really look forward to that.”

Q: How did your students react to closure?
A: “Back in March, you know, we had that day where we could still come to school and half the kids weren’t there. So, when we went to all distance learning, it was kind of disappointing because I think some kids, especially the seniors, last year were so bummed out that probably half of the seniors just never came back, never said a word. I just thought they felt so disappointed. As far as this year goes, I guess you have to talk to the kids. Someone just asked me today, ‘So when do we get to come back and rehearse? When do we get back on the bus when do we get back?’ So I know they just want it back to normal. However they’re feeling, they’re keeping a lot of disappointment from me. They’re not saying it, if they’re super disappointed about their year, but they could easily be. I wouldn’t blame them at all, because by now, normally by late October, we would have already gone to two festivals, we would have had cabaret night, we would have been working on the pancake breakfast. We would have had our uniforms by now and normally for our kids are Rhapsody, it’s big drama, like ‘What are our uniforms going to look like? What are our sequins like this year?’ And we have uniforms that we haven’t even tried it on. All those things are gone so I just can only imagine how disappointed they are. With me, I’ve just been stunned at how mature they’ve been, how thankful they’ve been, how appreciative they’ve been the last few years. Every year, I give up so much of my time on weekends and evenings that I don’t see my own family because we’re so busy. And I’ve never really heard a thank you before. But this year, without them going any place, without me driving them places, I’ve heard more thank yous just walking to class going, ‘I’m so glad I’m here I get to see my friends.’ Just students saying thank you, when we do the stupidest things or so little. I gave the Chamber Singers time to play a little game, and then at the end, I had a girl write in the chat box, ‘Thank you so much, I needed that today,’ and I just get way more of that right now than I’ve ever gotten. I don’t need to be thanked but it’s just, however they’re feeling, they sure are keeping it from me if they’re disappointed. They’ve just been amazing so I hope they’re doing well. All they’re doing is being super supportive.
Q: How has class felt since closure?
A: It’s weird as a teacher to look at a screen of pictures and have it be quiet. Choir teachers are very used to kids running in our room noisy, and we have to tell them to be quiet. Until now, I would have lived for the mute button to make them be quiet. When we’re in the middle of rehearsal I just wanted them to be quiet more than anything in the world. And now that I’ve got the mute button, and all the kids are muted, I want nothing more than to hear noise again. It felt weird from my end, but at the same time I’m still looking at 30 kids and hearing their musical contribution. But the other day my choreographer was here, and then when she was here she was the host, and I was in the student position. And I realized how lonely it must be from the students’ ends to just be looking at a teacher. My kids are really good at muting themselves and just only being in the chat room but choir teachers are not used to quiet, we like noise, we like hustle and bustle and, we like the stupid jokes that we do on the way into class. However, we like that there are kids out there and I just miss catching up with them in that way. So not feeling like we have the personal interactions on an informal basis, I really missed that. Definitely for choir teachers, silence is killer. It’s really hard for us too.

Q: How have you kept your students engaged in class?
A: I try to change it up, I try to change what we’re doing. When everything else around them is not a routine, everything is just so weird, so I’m trying to have a routine for them. When I can have them have personal contact with each other, I do, and that’s kind of hard because we’ve lost we’ve lost so much time that we’re used to. I hate to lose class time but I try to have them go into small groups because choir is about being around people, and I try to change activities as much as I can. I try to not rehearse the entire period because it’s really taxing to just listen to other people singing when you’re not, so I try to make sure that we’re doing several different things a day. We do our warm ups, we will do sightreading or some kind of Musition extra activity, watch a little video of some sort, do a listening activity. We listen to other choirs, and I just try to keep it moving if I can. As the semester ends, we’re into our routine now. People are learning to sing online and getting more comfortable with it. I’m hoping for second semester, not only for things to go faster, but I also want to have our kids start interacting with the middle schools, interacting with other schools and having guests so that we understand why we’re doing it. We want to make it a purpose so we can help other people. It’s taken the first semester for us to get up and running and figure out the mechanics. So for this semester I try to keep them engaged by doing a lot of different things, also doing a lot of personal contact with the kids. I try to meet with every kid at least once a week personally in some way. When they actually talk to me or they know that I care, they tend to stay a little bit more engaged.

Q: Are there any upcoming events or plans this year?
A: We’re going to do our concerts digitally, and I’m just barely starting to put together the virtual performances. I’m going to do videos and we’ve been auditioning for solos. I don’t have dates announced yet, but probably at the end of November, we’re going to do a fall concert. And then probably right before we leave for the holidays, we’re going to do the winter/Christmas concert. They’ll probably be less than an hour long, they’ll be on video and we’ll definitely share the links with everybody. We would love everybody to watch what we’re doing. I’m just waiting for word from the school as to whether we’ll be allowed back on campus to plan the events. If they let us go back and we’ll definitely work on those events, but just like every other organization on campus, we’re kind of waiting on the go ahead. As far as I know, most competitions are canceled. The schools who host our competitions pretty much are not going to be allowed to let thousands of people on campus. So a lot of that has gone but some competitions have even gone virtual. So, basically our events are going to be virtual concerts. We would love for everybody to see those and support our kids because they’re still singing live, there are still soloists singing live, we’re still being creative and we would still love applause for the efforts. We would still love people to see what we’re doing and know that we are here. You may not see us quite as much. we’re not we’re not singing the national anthem at the football game or anything right now so you don’t see us out and about, but we are here. And so keep on the lookout for those events.

Q: What does choir mean to you?
A: For me, and I hope for my students, choir was my refuge in high school. All of the really sweet friends I had were in choir and making music together, whether it’s high school choir or whether it’s myself and my colleagues getting to sing. Making music together with other people, there’s just nothing like it. I really don’t feel like there’s anything else in the world that’s the same as taking someone’s piece of music, knowing how that composer felt, and having a group of 30 people imagine that they’re feeling the same things that that person wrote, and then learning the music, understanding why the note go with those words, and how we’re all feeling at the same time, and then breathing together and singing together. It’s the coolest feeling in the world. When we get to the end of the year and we’re having those performances where we have a time where we really nail it and the kids all do something together, it’s really special. I just don’t know any other thing where you’re not competing against each other. I mean, we can compete against another school, but in the classroom, there’s no competition and there has to be teamwork in order for it to work. It takes people being humble, it takes people being creative, being curious. It’s 30 people that all want the same thing and all have to be humble in order to make it work. So that’s what choir means to me. It means making music with other people and sharing an experience that you’re not going to get anywhere else. The best people I’ve ever met, have been choir people or musicians. People that I sang with in high school, 35 years ago, we’re still friends. Several of us still see each other and we still have those great memories of that time that we sang together and how good that felt. It’s a lifelong thing, it’s something I can do, I can be good at, from till the time I’m old.

Compiled by Remy Wong, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Lisa Lopez