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Arts & Life

What It's Like For One Kansas City Choir To Sing And Perform During The Coronavirus Pandemic

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Laura Spencer
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KCUR 89.3
Members of the William Baker Festival Singers, masked-up and distanced, at a Dec. 8 rehearsal.

William Baker Festival Singers adhere to strict social distancing and masks for rehearsals and performances. But its annual holiday concert has been moved outside the Kansas City metro, due to COVID restrictions.

Since the coronavirus hit the Kansas City metro area, most arts organizations have taken performances outdoors, weather permitting, or online — especially vocal groups.

Singing spreads aerosol particles and droplets into the air, which is how COVID-19 spreads. A choir rehearsal in Washington State has been identified as one of the early superspreading events in the United States, and other singing-related outbreaks have been reported overseas.

But, researchers say steps such as mask-wearing, distancing and ventilation can effectively reduce the risks.

"And that's been our theme — is find a way to keep music singing," says William Baker, founder and music director of William Baker Festival Singers. "And we have done that in consultation with health professionals, epidemiologists, hospital executives."

The Festival Singers, a semi-professional chorus of about 50, performed its last concert at the Kauffman Center in March. Then, coronavirus restrictions in Kansas City, Missouri, shut down venues and performances.

When rehearsals for the choir started up again 172 days later — everything was different.

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Laura Spencer
William Baker, founder and director of the Festival Singers, directs the choir at a rehearsal on Dec. 8. Baker wears a mask, and uses an amplifier so he "doesn't speak too loudly to the group."

On a recent Tuesday night, a rehearsal for the upcoming holiday concert got underway at the Countryside Christian Church in Mission, Kansas.

Three large fans outside the sanctuary, with its doors open, helped circulate the air. Inside, singers wore masks and stood six feet apart, holding their sheet music, as Baker faced them at the podium.

Baker says the choir, which specializes in short classical works and spirituals, brought back live music as quickly — and safely — as it could. It's also a Missouri ArtSafe certified organization.

"We have hand-washing protocols. We have a self-assessment for every member before they come to rehearsal," he describes. "We take the temperatures of everyone that comes in.

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Laura Spencer
During a rehearsal, the William Baker Festival Singers wear masks and practice social distancing.

The singers have been "wonderful" about observing all the protocols, Baker says, but it's still difficult "to rehearse music that spread apart. It's difficult to rehearse music wearing masks."

Former music educator Marcia Higginson agrees. And it's been an adjustment, she says, to learn to relax and breathe while singing with a mask, even a specialized one that doesn't muffle sounds as much — and to get used to the distance between singers.

"We're not quite hearing, we're not quite cozy and nestled up to that person that we're used to singing next to," she says, "And it's a challenge, I have to admit, but it also is possible."

Higginson discovered the choir nearly 19 years ago when she moved to the Kansas City area. Now, she says, "It feels like a family. It's our musical family, our singing family."

As "one of the older members," though, she's being "extra careful" and attends some rehearsals in-person and some online.

Executive associate music director Jamea Sale, a member of the Festival Singers since 2002, directs the Institute for Healthy Singing. So vocal health is a priority, she says, and tensions come into the voice with life stress.

"Plus, I think just coming in and having this insecurity," she says, "about, 'Is this okay? Are we going to be okay? Have we covered all of our bases? Are we putting anybody at risk?'"

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Laura Spencer
Fans outside the sanctuary helped circulate air during a William Baker Festival Singers rehearsal on Dec. 8.

Weighing this level of risk during a global pandemic has provided challenges.

The size of the choir has dwindled as some members choose to stay home from rehearsals and performances. And the usual performance spaces, such as the
historic St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri, are closed due to restrictions that won’t allow more than 10 people to gather indoors.

So the Festival Singers’ 23rd annual Christmas program, "Candlelight, Carols & Cathedral," will not take place at a cathedral this year in Kansas City. Instead, performances are scheduled on Dec. 18 and 19 in Leavenworth County, Kansas, which is not under the same occupancy restrictions.

That decision has sparked some criticism, especially because most other arts groups have canceled live holiday performances out of a concern for safety. The Kansas City Star weighed in this week with an editorial questioning the in-person chorus plans.

"If I, in my heart of hearts, thought that we were putting people at risk to do this concert," Baker says, "we would not do it."

Distancing and masks will be required for the singers — and the audience, even though it's not a county mandate. And seating will be limited due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Baker says he hopes the Festival Singers can still provide a little beauty this holiday season and uplift people — whether they’re attending performances in-person or watching online from home.

William Baker Festival Singers perform "Candlelight, Carols & Cathedral" on December 18 at 8 p.m. and December 20 at 6 p.m. at Holy Angels Catholic Church, 15440 Leavenworth Road, Basehor, Kansas. Performances will also be live-streamed on Facebook.

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