When arriving at the University of Notre Dame in August, I knew the year was going to look different than usual. As excited as I was to be returning to campus for my sophomore year, I was dreading the change. What would my social life look like? How would extracurriculars work? Would I end up feeling all alone on a campus of 8,000 undergraduate students? Now as the semester is drawing to a close, I’ve received all of my answers, some in unexpected ways.
As an arts student, I knew my usual experience on Notre Dame’s campus was going to be drastically altered, but I never expected to gain so many opportunities in the midst of a pandemic. Because my choir, the Notre Dame Folk Choir, couldn’t complete its usual ministry at the 11:45 a.m. Sunday Mass in the Basilica, we decided to adjust our ministry to fit the current climate.
Our goal became to share our music virtually, producing weekly choir videos in the hopes of spreading the love of Christ through song. Obviously, there is a vast difference between the preparation of in-person choral music and the production of recorded tracks. A recording booth would have to be set up, the members would need to learn how to record, and the tracks would need to be edited and compiled. So I and six other dedicated musicians committed ourselves to making it happen—with a lot of help from our incredible director, Dr. J.J. Wright, of course.
Together, we learned the ins and outs of producing virtual music, something pretty far from a liturgical choir’s usual ministry. We spent hours collaborating on Logic Pro, fixing pitches, cut-offs, and compiling tracks. Any time any issue arose with the recording booth, we were there to help our peers make the most of their recordings. I couldn’t give my choir friends the usual 10-15 hugs per rehearsal, but I could edit their vocal tracks, gaining a profound appreciation for their gifts and hard work in the process. Regularly listening to the voices of your choir family individually is a rare opportunity and the ability to do so became such an enriching experience.
At the end of the week, when our newest virtual choir video went live, I had the privilege of knowing that not only my voice, but my hands had gone into the production. Although singing for crowds at Mass will always be held so dearly to my heart, this new way of performing the Folk Choir’s ministry is a special one. Together, we reached far beyond the walls of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Hello, 10k YouTube subscribers. A landmark we probably wouldn’t have hit this semester if it weren’t for a new way of celebrating the arts.
After weeks of cold rehearsals in the outdoor tent on Mendoza quad, the Folk Choir was scheduled for a live outdoor concert on the Bond Hall steps. We weren’t sure if a live performance would even be possible in the midst of a pandemic, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that artists will do anything to make art happen. So we bundled up, headed to Bond Hall, and spread out amongst the steps in traditional voice part fashion. We looked untraditional in our hoodies, gloves, and, of course, masks, but the magic of live choral music can’t be undone by the untraditional.
Our campus suffered a great loss earlier that morning and it was a confusing time to pursue what seemed like a lighthearted concert. But in the midst of song, I remember looking out at the masked faces of the audience, at the masked faces of my choir family, and I could feel the impact live music has on tragic times. A silence had settled between the notes of the choral arrangements in the space of six feet between myself and my choir friends. A reverence with the silence, and a love with the reverence. What we were doing no longer felt out-of-place, it felt perfectly aligned with the needs of a grieving community. The concert was titled Fratelli Tutti, meaning All Brothers, and at that moment, we as a choir, an audience, a campus, and a family, were united in the memories of Valeria and Olivia and the grief 2020 has brought to a stricken world.
I know I’m only one performing arts student, and that my experience, when focused on the details, is probably vastly different than that of others. Some DPAC students’ creative focus is more aligned with musical theater, dance, film production, etc. They may not have sung with a liturgical choir or learned how to produce virtual music. But from the numerous socially distanced performing arts events I’ve attended and heard about across campus this semester, I know we can all agree on one thing: art doesn’t stop. Art can’t stop.
Art, and the performing arts in particular, are vehicles of expression, celebration, mourning, and processing. Lyrics are tools for understanding. Scripts are an opportunity for self-exploration. Songs carry emotion without a need for words. A world in despair cannot face hardship without the exploration and empathy art offers. I would erase all of the pain 2020 has brought if I could, but I wouldn’t trade my newfound appreciation for the arts for anything.