By Tom Travis
On a warm spring evening amid the pavement, sidewalks and brick buildings of downtown Flint, the sound of harmonious singing voices rose from a church parking lot across the street from the county courthouse. They were the voices of the Carolyn Mawby Chorale (CMC), a local choir established in 1987 by 16 alumni members of the UM-Flint Chamber Singers,
They were singing together in person for the first time in more than a year, due to the pandemic.
The choir usually holds at least four concerts every year in area churches. But their concert schedule came to a screeching halt as the coronavirus wrought havoc on the world.
Yet the choir hasn’t stopped singing completely. During the pandemic they created and aired two virtual concerts. Each choir member recorded their own singing at home and submitted it to be combined with others. The virtual concerts and other recordings from past years can be viewed on their website.
The purpose of gathering Tuesday night was to return music from the virtual recordings to the choir librarian and take an opportunity to do what the choir does best – SING!
The choir’s librarian doled out music from the open hatch-back of her vehicle in the parking lot of Court Street United Methodist Church. The choir members gathered in a half circle around their director, Matt Thompson. Thompson took the pitch pipe from his pocket and gave the choir their starting note and the choir sang harmonious sounds of some familiar tunes like:
“Children of the Heavenly Father, Safely in His bosom gather, Nestling bird nor star in heaven, Such a refuge e’er was given…” and
“The Lord bless you and keep you: The Lord make His face to shine upon you, To shine upon you and be gracious, and be gracious unto you…”
An opportunity to “socialize” and “sing” – safely
“It’s an opportunity to socialize with our group that we haven’t seen in over a year and it means that it’s a chance to sing together which is our purpose,” said alto and choir president, Nancy Petrie.
Petrie added that it’s moments like that night, singing in the parking lot together, that can “jumpstart us into hopefully being able to sing together as a group.”
The choir usually holds rehearsals in the second floor choir room at First Presbyterian Church in Flint, just down the street from Court Street United Methodist. Petrie explained that the chorale had to get permission from Court Street United Methodist Church to use the parking lot because there was a construction project in the Presbyterian parking lot and it was unavailable.
Petrie added that safety precautions were taken for their gathering. “We asked everyone that wanted to participate to wear a mask and if they were not comfortable being part of the rehearsal that they did not have to attend,” Petrie said.
New members join during the pandemic
Karen Collins, a new member who joined during the pandemic, commented that “it was absolutely lovely singing with everyone again.” Collins said she had been in choir in her college years and after college joined the alumni chorale which eventually became the CMC. Collins sang in the CMC up until five years ago and explains she took some time off for personal reasons as she prepared to retire. She said she was ready to return and sing with the choir again.
Commenting about coping with life during the pandemic, Collins said she hasn’t really developed any new habits but has worked on projects around the house that she hasn’t been able to do before. Collins said she has a group of about five friends who have gathered regularly during the pandemic. “It’s been a sanity saver,” she said.
The future of choir concerts
Petrie said that as the CMC looks to the future they will consider the requirements of the church where rehearsals are held. That will be key to the choir being able to rehearse and to hold performances with audience members. Petrie said the choir is waiting to hear from the church to see how they will proceed.
Petrie added that once the choir gets the go ahead to proceed with rehearsals they will look to see if they need to “reconfigure” how they rehearse and to consider the physical space and social distancing.
She said that “sectional rehearsals” may be necessary in the beginning. Choir sectional rehearsals are when a small group of one section of sopranos, altos, tenors or basses gather together to go over only their own parts in the music.
Petrie said, “there are so many unknowns” but said the choir’s board is trying to be as proactive as possible to do some virtual choir events. “When all is said and done we are in a reactive position, we have to react to the state mandates so we are doing the best we can to stay together emotionally,” Petrie said.
The choir will meet again May 16, which would have been the normal spring concert date. The choir will have a bring-your-own-picnic and are looking for a park in the area with a covered pavilion to h0ld the event.
“Excited to see faces” and “connect musically” – Director Matt Thompson
“It’s exciting to see the faces of people I have missed and to connect with them musically,” said Matt Thompson, the choir’s director and a music professor at UM-Ann Arbor. Thompson said for the last year his teaching has mostly been one-on-one or two-on-one or virtual instruction at the University. Thompson said this was his first chance this year to conduct again with such a large group of people masked face-to-masked face.
Thompson added for the choir to move forward it will depend on people getting the vaccine and people will have to feel comfortable to attend events. Thompson said a planned trip to Japan has been delayed another year because the group is not yet comfortable being able to sit together to do the work that’s necessary on the trip.
Thompson said he could envision a choir concert with the choir wearing masks. Thompson commented there have been studies with vacuum machines taking air samples while people are singing and “we now know that it’s not so much about touching something, but what’s in the air we breathe that can be dangerous.”
Thompson added that, “there has been a lot of attention on the restaurants, but we forget performers and performance venues and not just the ones on stage but all the behind the scenes and backstage people have not had work.”
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In full disclosure, the author of this article is a member of the CMC. And the namesake of the choir, Carolyn Mawby was a musical mentor and professor of the author as well.