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'Beautiful, Unexpected': Children's Choir Builds Confidence Despite Virtual Rehearsals

Courtesy of Annabell Marie
The VOENA choir performed in a virtual concert December 12, 2020 using masks specially made for singing.

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In March 2020, VOENA Children's Choir director Annabelle Marie was forced to cancel all upcoming concerts and move rehearsals online. Marie, VOENA member Max Shannon Burgess, and his parents Tony and Gretchen describe how they adapted to the challenges of making music and maintaining their mental health when the pandemic hit.

"One of the things that really has challenged families is being shut up all together ... to go into his room and shut the door, and being able to hang out with the choir, is one of the best things."

Resouces on the impact of COVID-19 on children's mental health: 


ELIZA: Years ago, I sang with the VOENA Choir. We met every Tuesday for two-hour rehearsals, performed in concerts every few months, and spent summers touring in places like South Africa, London and Abu Dhabi. I never would have dreamed the choir would have to meet up online. 

Director Annabelle Marie has had to get creative. She’s on a screen with 30 choir members, teaching them to find their vocal cords. Other times, she uses index cards and plays Vivaldi to teach clefs and harmonies. 

In March 2020, as she was preparing the choir for the spring concert season, Marie was forced to cancel all upcoming concerts and move the choir online. Coordinating parent volunteers, Marie dove head first into creating virtual choir videos.

Tony Shannon, a VOENA parent who helped with the videos, says the project gave the kids purpose in these times. 

TONY: And I said it has to be “Higher and Higher” by Jackie Wilson. That's the song that in Ghostbusters 2 the heroes played to get the ectoplasmic goo to change from evil to calm and happy. They sprayed the glue everywhere, and they played that song, and all of a sudden the Statue of Liberty was marching around and all the people in New York were cheering and they were happy because of the energy of that song. So this became not just something to do. But something important to do, for the kids in the choir and for the world in this, this time of crisis, really.

ELIZA: Since choir members couldn’t go to live rehearsals Marie needed another way for them to learn their parts. 

She recorded every part of every song using “click tracks” -- vocal parts sung over an instrumental or mp3 version of the song. It’s something the kids can use to help keep time and rhythm in an online setting. Choir members drill the song to practice on their own, like this: 

ELIZA: When I was a member of VOENA, my mother drove two hours every week to take my sister and I to and from rehearsals. VOENA was a lifeline for me; in my small town in the Sacramento Delta, I felt a lot of social isolation. My creative and academic interests differed widely from my peers. VOENA offered a creative outlet, leadership skills, and friendship.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been socially isolated. Experts say thatincreased loneliness in youth could result in problems with mental and physical health for years to come. But Activities like singing release serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone; singing in groups can even synchronize heart beats. Right now, technology is the main way children plug into the activities and social groups that connect them with people outside their homes. Gretchen Burgess found this to be true with her son Max.

GRETCHEN: Well, you know what, one of the things that really has challenged families is being shut up all together, and only seeing each other - and particularly when you're cohabitating so intensely with teenagers - Maximilian - just love him.
MAX: It hasn't been fun for me either mother. (laughter)
GRETCHEN: He just loves seeing his parents and sometimes only his parents for forever and having our undivided attention and input constantly.
MAX: It's amazing, I have to tell you, (laughter)
GRETCHEN: And being able to, you know, one to go into his room and shut the door, and being able to hang out with the choir is probably one of the best things.

ELIZA: Being part of the choir even helped the relationship between Max and his parents. They went out to the First Street Pier in Benicia to record videos for VOENA’s Facebook page

GRETCHEN: And, and he's singing, and he's singing to a click track. They don't know that. He's just out on the beach singing. And I was amazed how people stopped and listened … Not only did it get us outside and you know, enlighten us and help our mental health, being able to focus in some tiny little bit of normalcy with each other. But it also elevated the mental health of people who happened - just happened to be there, who, you know, just happened upon the unexpected, but the beautiful, unexpected.

ELIZA: The VOENA Choir held a virtual concert in December for the kids to perform live on stage at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo. They performed in small groups, six feet apart and wearing special masks designed for singing. Director Annabelle Marie says performing is a vital part of maintaining mental wellness, because of the confidence boost it gives. 

ANNABELLE: You know, we always talk about self esteem, but when you witness kids developing with confidence, there’s nothing like music and a stage to get everybody watching you as a child. There's nothing like that to help you recognize that you have value. It's such an immediate feedback because of the applause. So just that - allowing the self esteem and the confidence - I witness that that is just that is the biggest thing with these kids, to help them take that confidence into everything else in their lives.

ELIZA: Max was one of the few choir members performing at that virtual concert.

MAX: It’s a very much more relaxed performance when we’re just doing it over a camera because we can hide behind a camera. There's a lot of creativity lost in that but there are also a lot of opportunities and I wanted to take advantage of that.

ELIZA: Although VOENA’s online videos get more views, Max will always prefer performing in person. 

MAX: What I miss about concerts is there's a sort of feeling you get for performing that's like it's really you get really anxious but once you've completed the performance you feel this like amazing high of just wow, I just did that. That's amazing. This feels great and you hear everybody cheering for you. And it's it's a feeling.

ELIZA: He’ll keep participating in VOENA online, but he’s looking forward to returning to how things used to be.