When COVID-19 first showed up in the U.S., G. Phillip Shoultz III, like many Americans, had no idea what was ahead. “All of us naively thought this is just going to be a few weeks and we’ll get back to our lives,” he reflects. But the director of the VocalEssence Singers of This Age (VESOTA) youth choir quickly realized that wouldn’t be the case.
In March of 2020, VESOTA had just finished performing several shows throughout the Midwest, often singing along with dozens of others on stage. Shoultz says, “It was this intense amount of creative activity that we had done, and the kids invested so much and sang so beautifully. But we were with, you know, hundreds of people singing, not knowing that COVID was what it was.”
When the state of Minnesota issued shelter-in-place orders, the choir went into lockdown. But Shoultz wanted to make sure his kids found a way to be connected and to keep the music going. So the group turned their weekly in-person meetings into Zoom meetings, and Shoultz challenged his singers to use their voices to help others. “I said to them, ‘We have an opportunity to give others hope and you all have such amazing voices.’ So I challenged them to choose a song that inspired them, a song that brought them hope, and then to create a little video.”
The videos became VocalEssence Singers of This Age Shares Hope, a series that appeared on social media and YouTube. The group rallied around the idea, sharing more than 30 of the uplifting videos in the first month of the stay-at-home orders.
“And by that time, I realized we could start playing around with singing on Zoom and just having fun. I mean, it wasn’t trying to sing songs as much as, let’s just sing and experiment and share. It was little cabarets and telling stories and just being creative and embracing each other during that time,” says Shoultz. “And so I think that those first few weeks were critical to us maintaining our continuity”
In addition to keeping his choir connected, Shoultz was also focused on understanding COVID-19 and it’s implications on choral singing. “Many of us in the arts began to gather online, advocating for research and trying to figure out what to do. I knew that was the key. We needed a study of singing before we could ever come back to meeting in-person,” Shoultz says.
By the summer of 2020, studies were published that gave Shoultz hope. Research suggested that groups could safely gather if they were outside, singers wore masks and maintained a distance of at least six feet from one another. So Shoultz slowly moved VESOTA back to meeting in person. At first it was just social, meeting in parks and sharing a socially distanced meal.
Eventually the group began experimenting with singing together in person. Shoultz focused on finding large outdoor spaces and he used small cones to make sure singers were spaced far enough apart. Everyone kept their masks on and the group was once again making music. “Singing with other people is a natural high. It boosts your mood, it improves your sense of self-worth and you feel this connection to community. I really do think it’s essential work, that we are able to experience singing together,” says Shoultz.
The choir has no plans to let the pandemic sideline its singing. The group meets online when it’s not safe to gather together and, when it is safe, they are sharing their voices with the community. VESOTA joins fellow VocalEssence singers in spreading holiday spirit through Welcome Christmas, a concert airing on TPT in late December.
Special Thanks: A’Bulae
Choir Members: Acacia Johnstone, Austin Vang, Brian Baltazar, Claire Olson, Drew Fischer, Ella Wright-Ansorge, Emilia Sisson, Isa Benegas, Isaiah Bates, Jade Shionoya, Jerilyn Moya-Hypolite, Joshua Hoffman, Joshua Ramirez, Josh Sabin, Kayla Gibson, Kim, Parkinson, Liana Whitlock, Lotus Deuel, Lucas Plaman, Malcolm Kinard, Ricquelle Miles ________________________________________________________________________
This article is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
A portrait photographer by trade, local lensman Dave Puente decided that a pandemic was the perfect opportunity to give people in our local communities a free “porchrait” – in other words, a family photo taken on their porch, their stoop, their yard. The result? A project that compels him to dream big about the impact of photography in these trying times.
In the years between the world wars, Minneapolis residents gathered in the city’s parks on balmy summer nights to raise their voices in song. Those “community sings” events eventually took on a competitive note as each community tried to out-sing those within a stone’s throw. Discover how “participatory, public entertainment clearly held enough power and potency to draw thousands of people from their homes with the singular motivation of singing in unison.”