How the Concordia covenant helped save the music during a pandemic

COVID-19 has changed the way we all live. Large, in-person activities have gone away because they aren’t safe.

It has really created a predicament for choir instructors, like Dr. David Mennicke, the director of Choral Studies at Concordia University, St. Paul.

"It was devastating, I was at a loss," Mennicke said. "We need this. We desperately need to have this music and this connection to the community. It’s not just music, it’s a community where you’re doing things together."

Making music together stopped immediately. Their livelihoods and literally the lives of their singers were at risk unless things changed dramatically.

"The survival of the performing arts department would be at stake," said Dr. Monica Murray, chairperson of the Music, Theater and Dance Department at Concordia. "If we didn’t figure out a way to have students be here creating and sharing music and theater, it would pretty quickly be the end of our department."

Murray said they joined forces and got to work right away.

"We spent a lot of time over the summer studying the science that had come out," Murray said. "How it could be done safely? How we would set up rehearsal spaces? What equipment would we need to be able to interact safely and successfully?"

Concordia University got creative, and this fall, they are singing again.

They adopted strict cleaning protocols and bought technology to kill the virus and move air around inside buildings.

Social distancing is a must. Concordia put big tents up outside to give large groups, like the Christus Chorus, more room to be together.

Face masks are mandatory, even though they are difficult to sing in. The solution they came up with is called the Singer’s Mask, version 3. Jubilate Choir Director Shari Spear found the plans and had a neighbor, who is a tailor, make them.

"It’s very helpful," said Spear. "I mean, there’s no good, perfect solution, but it does keep a little bit of room away from the mouth so you can enunciate."

Concordia is a private Lutheran university with a lot of commuters to its urban campus. All the planning and protocols would be worthless if students didn’t buy in.

"We had students sign a covenant saying, ‘This is serious, these are the parameters, these are the behaviors you are going to ascribe to and promise to do if you’re going to be in this group,’" Mennicke said.

And, so far, it’s all worked pretty well. According to Mennicke, active COVID cases on campus have stayed in the single digits. Singing is back and so is the joy.

"Music expresses the soul," Mennicke said. "It goes beyond mere words. It goes beyond mere science. It’s a holistic thing. And that’s the beauty of what music does, especially at a time when it’s so divisive that we have. If everybody could experience this communal art form together and enjoy it together, we may have a better understanding of each other. And that’s why I do what I do."

Concordia University just successfully recorded the music for its Fine and Performing Arts Christmas Concert. They did it wearing masks, physically distanced and in short recording sessions with smaller groups of singers. It will be released online for free on Dec. 4.

But here’s the reality check. When it comes to in-person concerts with audiences, Murray said they might happen outdoors next summer. And, if there is a COVID-19 vaccine, maybe indoors a year from now.