By Nadia Jo
The rampant onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States this March forced most interactions between Stanford students to transition from face-to-face to online. This shift has hit the performing arts particularly hard. Stanford performing arts organizations such as the symphony orchestra, experimental theater lab and student concert network rely heavily on face-to-face contact, and these experiences cannot easily be replicated online. A cappella, a cornerstone of Stanford’s performing arts scene, faced the challenge of adjusting to difficult remote environments after Stanford community members started evacuating the campus in early March. This past week, I interviewed six of the ten Stanford a cappella groups to discuss how COVID-19 impacted their spring plans, how they are maintaining friendships and making music in quarantine and their reflections on a virtual quarter.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
How did COVID-19 affect your a cappella group’s performances and plans for the end of winter quarter and spring quarter?
Harmonics (Marvin Collins ‘22, Business Director): We were able to put on our winter show, “Blacklisted,” before the COVID-19 pandemic began directly affecting campus life, which allowed us to show off all of the hard work that this group put in throughout fall and winter quarter. Unfortunately, our plans to visit New York for our tour over Spring Break had to be cancelled, as did our plans to perform another show during spring quarter. We often perform numerous smaller gigs on and off campus throughout the quarter, but this is also no longer possible. Production for our next album has additionally been put on hold until further notice, due to a lack of access to recording facilities and services.
Raagapella (Gita Krishna B.S. ‘20 M.S. ‘21, President): Raag competes in the South-Asian A-Cappella circuit, and we had been practicing all quarter for our competition in Dallas, which was supposed to be on March 7, 2020. Unfortunately, the competition weekend dates coincided with the onset of COVID-19 in the US, and our trip was cancelled less than 12 hours before we were supposed to leave. We were heartbroken, because that was the event we had been working towards for months, and we had put in so much time and effort into preparing for it. We were all so disappointed that all of our hard work would amount to nothing, and it was really hard for us as a group to come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be competing in Dallas. Even though it was extremely sad at the time, I will always remember this time as one that truly united us – we spent the weekend together as a team before we all left campus, celebrating our hard work and mourning the experiences that we would no longer get to have together.
Counterpoint (Hannah Prausnitz-Weinbaum ‘22, Music Director): Counterpoint had our winter show, “A Strange Encounterpoint,” planned for the end of winter quarter, and we were really nervous that it would be cancelled as concerns grew about the virus. We were so fortunate to be able to put on the show (with a little extra caution) before everyone was sent home. It was like a last moment to shine for our group before being separated for many months. While we were able to put on our winter show, many of our other events couldn’t happen. Counterpoint had a Spring Break tour planned in New York, where we planned to explore the area, sing at gigs, meet other a cappella groups and bond as a group. It was a big loss to miss this important time for the group to grow and have fun. Of course, we are also losing spring quarter rehearsals, gigs and our Spring Show.
What has your group been doing so far this quarter?
Talisman (Noelle Chow ‘20, Director): We’re operating more as a family who lives in different places right now than as a performing group. We did a video of “Amazing Grace” – that was a really wonderful way to sing with each other again even if we’re not in person. We cried a lot while watching it because it felt like the closure we didn’t get at the end of winter quarter. It’s interesting, because for us seniors, we’ve been kicked out earlier than we expected. I heard when you leave Stanford, you have to learn how to stay friends with people because you’re not in the same place anymore. Learning how to stay in touch with each other earlier than we expected has been interesting and also really rewarding.
Harmonics (Marvin Collins): Given the changing circumstances, we have shifted our planning to focus on events that allow us to keep fostering the sense of community that we love and rely on in these difficult times, opting for more loosely scheduled Zoom hangouts rather than formal rehearsals. Everything that our officer team plans has the goal of ensuring that our members continue to feel connected, supported and loved while away from campus. Our normal rehearsal times have been converted into opportunities for our members to talk to each other on Zoom, do homework and otherwise enjoy each other’s company. We regularly use Groupme, Snapchat and other means to stay in touch with each other, and many of us find other ways for us to spend time together, like playing online games as a group.
Raagapella (Gita Krishna): This quarter we have tried to keep the group connected, both musically and socially. We collaborated on a “Quarantine music video” for the first couple weeks of quarantine, which was really fun to work on and execute. We are also piloting a series of “Raag duets” where we pair off members of the group and they have two weeks to put together a music video for a duet with both of them singing. For team bonding, we have been doing weekly game nights (which often go until 5 a.m.), as well as movie nights, Zoom birthday celebrations, impromptu house party calls and more. These game nights have been one of the highlights of this quarter for me, since it has otherwise been hard to get my social fix while in quarantine, and game nights are still incredibly fun even though it’s all virtual.
How has the transition to collaborating online been? How is it different from being together in person?
Testimony (Irena Gao ‘22, President): Singing together has been really hard online. Because of bandwidth and latency issues, it’s impossible for all 16 of us to sing at the same time. We’ve adapted by having one unmuted person sing along with the arrangement MIDIs while everyone else (muted) follows along. I can’t express how much I miss hearing everyone’s voices together. It’s definitely something that the remote environment can’t replicate.
Mixed Co (Natalie Stiner ‘22, Soprano): The transition has been difficult for me only because I really miss singing with the rest of Mixed Co in person; there are just aspects of rehearsals and performances when the voices fill the room together that are hard to create over Zoom. However, our officers have been working so hard to make sure that we have weekly meetings that are fun and uplifting. They’ve redesigned a lot of Mixed Co traditions to fit a virtual experience, which I’ve been so thankful for. It’s made me even more excited for when I get to see them all again!
Counterpoint (Aspen Stuart-Cunningham ‘22, Assistant Music Director): Making music collaboratively is vastly more difficult online than in person. Singing over Zoom doesn’t really work – we’ve tried and it didn’t end well! The lag time for our voices to share over the internet prevents singing to be synced and ends with everyone cracking up. Collaborating online pretty much means we have to work individually. Even though you may have seen videos online of a cappella groups performing, each person has to be recorded individually and asynchronously, which takes away a lot of the magic of making a cappella in a group, in person.
Has your group released any virtual performance videos? Are there any plans to release one in the near future?
Talisman (Noelle Chow): Stanford helped us put together a video of us singing “Amazing Grace.” Amazing Grace is a piece we learned in winter quarter, and we sang it at our winter show. We had everybody plug in their earphones and sing along to the recording from the concert. It was like singing with everybody because that is the sound of everybody singing together. For me, when I was singing and listening to that recording of our last concert, it was cool to feel like I was back there with those people. We had everybody record themselves doing that and then spliced it all together. I did the audio editing; I stripped all the audio from the videos and mixed it. Then, the visual editing was done by Kurt Hickman [Stanford Associate Director for Visual Media].
Testimony (Irena Gao): Yes! We’ve recorded two “Zoom-style” songs so far and are currently editing them. We’re also excited about engaging alumni to collaborate on a third song, which has been a classic for the group over decades: Testify to Love.
Raagapella (Gita Krishna): Yes! We released a music video for the song “Vande Mataram” by A.R. Rahman in April! We are also hoping to produce more online content over the next few months. We will be posting this content to our Instagram page (@stanfordraagapella), our Youtube account, and our Facebook page.
What have been some takeaways from this experience? How do you think your group will change in the future after going through COVID-19?
Mixed Co (Natalie Stiner): This experience has proven to me how important the people I’ve met through Mixed Co really are to me. Experiencing COVID-19 has not been fun for anyone, and it’s been probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. But in all of that, I’ve never felt like I didn’t have a community to be supported in. On and off campus, Mixed Co has been a community in which I can relax and have a blast while also making amazing music and memories with the coolest people ever. I’m not sure what Mixed Co or anything will look like going forward, but I know that won’t change!
Harmonics (Marvin Collins): My main takeaway so far has been how much the Harmonics has to offer in terms of connection and support. The pandemic has made everyone’s lives more difficult and complicated, and it has been great to see this family providing a source of stability for its members. I have always known that the Harmonics is full of my closest friends, but this experience has really shown how we can be there for each other when we need it most. I think experiencing all the limitations of this current situation will increase both our appreciation of our friendships and our passion for our music. I am beyond excited to be able to learn, grow and perform with this group in person again in the future.
Testimony (Irena Gao): I’ve been floored to learn how loving this group can be. Each of us have had to reckon with our faiths in new, sometimes difficult environments, and the eagerness with which our members have prayed for each other, called to check up on each other, celebrated birthdays for one another and shared our lives together is incredible. We’re of course grateful to have also picked up new skills related to virtual performances along the way, but the main gift has been one in our hearts. They say, “Music connects people,” and Testimony has definitely connected us.