Since the beginning of the spring 2021 semester, Emily Ha ’21 has been pursuing a senior honors project in choral conducting—an effort that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, has required far more planning, research and distance between singers than it would have in a more normal semester.
As a music and English double major, Ha has had a multitude of musical involvements at the College, including jobs at the Beckwith Music Library and as a concert usher. One of her most notable commitments—and one that has been unable to continue since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—was the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, for which she was both a singer and a choir assistant.
“I think Chamber Choir has been a definite hole in my life since the pandemic started,” Ha said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “There’s something really lovely about being in a room with people, creating sound and being part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
Along with Chamber Choir, Ha also found herself missing the choral conducting work that she explored in her independent study project during the fall of her junior year.
“It culminated in me conducting one of the Chamber Choir songs at the winter concert that year, and it was an amazing experience,” Ha said. “I had a lot of fun, and it was great to be on that side of things.”
These two experiences served as catalysts for Ha’s honors project. While she knew that she wanted to conduct during the spring 2021 semester, she also wanted to prioritize safety and compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. Amidst evolving guidelines, Ha began meeting with the Maine CDC and members of the College administration, surveying rehearsal locations on campus and doing her own research on aerosols and masks for singing.
“I dropped everything, and I spent four days doing nothing but researching current practice for choirs that have existed during COVID[-19],” Ha said. “From that, I crafted rehearsal protocol about how I would be safe. I basically took the Maine CDC guidelines, and I was like, ‘Anything that I can exceed by twice as much, I’m going to do.’”
“[Ha] did so much work,” said Jeff Christmas, lecturer in music and one of the co-directors of Ha’s choir, in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “The thing that’s not going to show up on her video or on her resume is how much work she did just logistically, which in a non-COVID[-19] year wouldn’t be an issue.”
When Ha presented the faculty and administration with a 12-page rehearsal proposal, they were eager to work with her to realize her vision while ensuring that it would not pose a risk to the College community.
“I have been so supported by the music department, by the administration and by my peers,” Ha said. “They’ve had my back every step of the way, [and] they’ve been willing to donate their time and energy and effort into this.”
Ha’s choir rehearses in Studzinski Hall’s Kanbar Auditorium. The ensemble consists of 12 singers—three on each voice part—including Christmas and conductor Emily Isaacson, 2018 Maine Artist of the Year and Ha’s other co-director. While Ha was initially unsure how well her singers would be able to re-immerse themselves in the practice of ensemble singing, she has been grateful for their skill and cooperation.
“I was really pleasantly surprised by how well people were doing,” Ha said. “I haven’t been in a room with 12 people for how long—but they’ve all been absolutely wonderful.”
Throughout the semester, Ha will hold seven rehearsals, the last of which will be recorded in lieu of a performance. Ha believes that prioritizing the experience of rehearsals, as opposed to a final performance, has allowed her to focus more on gaining technical practice with choral conducting.
“Everyone understands that it’s a learning process for me,” Ha said. “So, it’s not going to be like your regular old choir rehearsal—there will be a lot of starting and stopping while I figure things out.”
After deliberating with Isaacson and Christmas, Ha decided to select a repertoire from two distinct time periods: Renaissance and contemporary.
“We’ve ended up having to pare it down a lot more than we had originally shot for,” Ha said. “In my ideal world, I would have chosen a repertoire list that had representation from composers of color [and] other minority composers that you normally don’t see represented.”
However, the singers in the choir, such as Christmas, have found themselves greatly appreciating the opportunity to return to choral music, regardless of genre.
“It’s just such a gift to be able to sing right now, and to be able to sing in a room with other people after 13 months of singing by myself, and often not at all,” Christmas said. “There’s something so magical about singing in an ensemble with other people, where what we do together is more important than what any of us do individually.”
Despite Ha’s many obstacles and concerns, she is satisfied with and grateful for the opportunity to produce a culminating project that reflects her growing passion for choral conducting.
“There’s something that I really can’t articulate about being up there and cuing that entrance, and then there’s suddenly this wall of beautiful sound,” Ha said. “It’s scary, but also the most exciting thing I’ve done all year.”