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Music unites, even in times when Distance Learning, due to COVID-19 and Social Distancing, separates students and teachers from classrooms and each other.
On Monday, March 30, 2020, Montville Township High School Choral Director Kristen Markowski posted a Virtual Vocal Performance of one of her favorite selections, "Earth Song", as sung remotely by the 22 members of the MTHS Chamber Choir.
Though the performers could not assemble as an ensemble, they worked together separately to unite in harmony for their rendition of Frank Tichel's haunting and inspiring work: "Earth Song".
"This song has a beautiful message." Markowski said. "It was already programmed for the Spring Concert. The students started learning the song in January, and I thought it was very timely for the situation we're facing now."
Montville Township Public Schools launched Distance Learning on Tuesday, March 17. Almost as soon as it launched, Markowski and her students found themselves longing to harmonize – together.
"The switch from having choir almost every day to not having it at all makes a huge difference in my everyday life," said MTHS senior Rachelle Philip.
Understanding the need to sing together inspired Markowski to find a way for her students to sing together despite the distance.
"I have learned that one of the things I miss most in regards to Distance Learning is seeing my students and hearing their beautiful voices. They are the best part of my day – everyday -- and the music we are able to create together is truly something special," Markowski explained, adding: "This was my way of recreating that effect of a 'performance' with all of them."
Once the idea struck, she began sending them practice tracks for each of their separate vocal parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass).
"When I heard that we had the chance to sing one of our songs, I was quite ecstatic," Philip said.
"There was a middle section in the song they hadn't learned yet," Markowski explained. "So, starting March 22 and 23, each student began working on that section of the song on their own with practice tracks at home."
Once learned, Markowski asked students to take their individual harmonies for the entire song – what they had learned in January and what they had practiced on their own in March -- to the next step.
"I asked the students to record on their own after I sent a demo video for them to watch. They were asked to video record themselves using the following steps -
1. Practice with their specific voice track to feel solid on their part (I made practice tracks with myself and my husband singing the voice parts to help guide the students through).
2. When confident, they were to make the video recording using their specific voice part practice track in their ear - using headphones so I only heard their voice in the video but they could hear the full recording and line up with the track.
3. When happy with their recording, I asked them to submit either via email or through a Google Drive folder so I could access the videos."
"It's hard when the whole choir's not together," said MTHS senior Jeffrey Gallup about singing as an individual alone on a recording that is ultimately going to be part of a group choral ensemble. "Harder to blend, harder to get cut offs just right, technology is a pain. I must have re-recorded my part 15 times because I hate the way I sound on tape. But it's not for us individually, it's a message for the community. It's a way to share hope in a time of darkness. It's a way to bring people together in spirit when we can't be together in person."
Using iMovie and Garageband, two programs Markowski has wanted to become more familiar with, the MTHS music teacher downloaded each of the students' videos into iMovie, extracted the audio from the video, put all of the audio tracks (by voice part) into Garageband, lined it all up, balanced the voices - then balanced the voice parts. Along the way the dedicated teacher taught herself the finer details of the software programs by reviewing YouTube "How To" videos, so that she could appropriately mix each individual's voice into the final recording.
Once those steps were completed, starting with one student at a time, while again learning from YouTube videos, Markowski added each students' video to iMovie to create the picture-in-picture mode.
"The importance of The Arts in our lives is never more apparent than in times of crisis," Edward Fleischman Supervisor of Fine and Performing Arts wrote in an e-mail highlighting the extraordinary and emotionally moving choral performance. "MTHS Choir Director, Kristen Markowski, and the students of the MTHS Chamber Choir have worked collaboratively online to create this ensemble performance. I am extremely proud of what Mrs. Markowski and our students have accomplished.
From idea to final video the MTHS Virtual Vocal Performance took a full week to complete, including 15 hours of editing and production time.
"Despite the very challenging circumstances that we're dealing with, I think that our combined efforts in this video presented such a beautiful message to our community," Anna Rehberg, a senior at MTHS said. "Though something pretty difficult to piece together on our own, I believe that we effectively created something wonderful and so meaningful to each of us."
"It was quite different to record our voice part separately," agreed Philip. "It was like we were practicing. But I had to record my part at least 5 times to get it right, especially because I wanted it to sound my best. At the end of it all, this song is a good reminder that music is just what we need during this time of uncertainty."
"This is a very special group of students and I cannot thank them enough for their willingness to create this project with me," Markowski said. "As this song says 'But music and singing shall be my refuge, and music and singing shall be my light. Through darkness and pain and strife, I'll sing' and that's what these students did and continue to do through this trying time."
The MTHS Virtual Vocal Performance of Frank Tichel's "Earth Song" can be heard and viewed at the MTTV MTHS YouTube channel.