On Tuesday evenings for the past couple of months, the parking lots of Blossom Hill Mennonite Church and Neffsville Mennonite Church, typically full of cars, have been filled with song.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mennonite Children’s Choir of Lancaster has adapted to rehearse outside in limited groups, spaced six feet apart and wearing masks. Those are just a few of the changes the choir has made to ensure their show goes on.
The choir, now in its 23rd year, is a program of Lancaster Mennonite School. The group is made up of regional students in grades K-12 representing 40 local schools, 30 congregations and 10 denominations.
“It’s so important that learning, music education and development doesn’t stop or get put on hold for children and youth just because of COVID,” says Rosemary Blessing, artistic director of the choir. “In what ways can we choose to see this as a season of opportunity versus a season of doors being closed.”
One way to avoid closing doors is to avoid them all together. This year, singers will share music with their families outdoors at Lancaster Mennonite High School’s turf field to allow for social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines.
The choir will perform Saturday at 2 and 3:30 p.m. at the Lancaster Mennonite High School turf field, 2176 Lincoln Hwy E. The concert was originally scheduled for Sunday, but moved up a day due to expected rain. Those who wish to attend Saturday’s concerts should email firstname.lastname@example.org for availability. Space is extremely limited, organizers say. Guests are expected to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines. The performances also will be available to view online at mennonitechildrenschoir.org on Nov. 20.
This season is a chance to get creative and to expand rather than contract. That meant adding elements to the choir’s performance. The choir not only learned a new repertoire of songs for the concert, but also learned African drumming, body percussion and sign language.
“Instead of being as choral heavy, it’s a broader holistic approach where they are doing every aspect of the piece — the singing, the choreography, the drumming,” Blessing says.
They also learned a bit about recording music from Nashville singer-songwriters Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame — something that probably wouldn’t have fit into the curriculum of a typical year.
Students were able to question Peterson and Goodgame about the recording process during a Zoom call. Then they prepared and created their own videos from home, which were then organized and edited by Blessing and the Mennonite Children’s Choir of Lancaster staff. The recordings will be presented during the concert, and the chorus, instead of singing live, will accompany themselves with African drumming, body percussion and signing the lyrics.
“It takes a lot of courage, confidence and vulnerability,” Blessing says of the learning experience. “All those three things are keys ways in which they are being stretched.”
But the students were eager to rise to the occasion and embraced the opportunity to learn new skills.
“What I learned from recording music is that it’s kind of hard to find a quiet place and it’s tricky not having other people around you to help out with your song part,” Arturo Veras, an eighth-grader at Lancaster Mennonite Middle School, wrote in an email. “I do enjoy recording music because I like warming people’s hearts and just making them happy. That’s why I’m involved in this choir.”
“It was a huge challenge, as it called me to a higher level of accountability and performance in my music making,” Abrianna Nissley, a 10th-grader at Lower Dauphin High School, wrote in an email. “It pushed me to be responsible, with making sure I had mastered the phrasing, dynamics and rhythm of the piece.”
And Abrianna says she appreciated the opportunity to learn new skills.
“These elements added a twist to what I had traditionally done in choir,” Abrianna wrote. “They added so much to music. When we learned to drum with our African piece, it brought to life the heart and soul of the music. … The sign language also was a gorgeous addition to the piece as it adds sound through its silence.”
The entire performance is made possible by cooperation from students, instructors and relatives, Blessing says.
“It’s taken focused strategic planning in order to have everything done in time,” Blessing says. “It’s not a typical part of a choral director’s job to be making these audio compilations and these virtual projects. So it’s been a learning curve for both singers and music staff, I would say”
One of the students’ grandparents even contributed by sewing more than 100 singing masks — larger masks that allow for a singer’s mouth to move.
But, perhaps, all the changes and challenges helped the students to appreciate the true power of music.
“Music in my opinion is more important because now in this time of grief there are songs that can cheer you up,” Arturo wrote in an email. “The songs we sing in MCCL are those types of songs that cheer people up.”