The Gentlemen of the College, the College of William and Mary’s oldest all-male a cappella group, used to rehearse twice a week from 7:10 to 9:10 p.m. on the third floor of Washington Hall. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, you can find them practicing in the Morton parking garage.
The College is home to a plethora of a cappella groups, all of which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. The central mission of a cappella groups, which is to perform in front of large audiences of friends and classmates, is simply incompatible with current conditions. According to the CDC, choral singing is a very high-risk activity. This is not only due to the gathering size but also because the very nature of singing, especially loud and consonant-rich singing, transmits COVID aerosols at a much higher frequency than regular speaking. A cappella groups are, by definition, COVID-unsafe. However, by adapting COVID mitigation techniques, the College’s a cappella groups have been able to continue operating, just in a very different way.
Aidan O’Connell ’22, member and business manager of The Gentlemen of the College, explained that although auditions, elections and song selection meetings were all conducted virtually to minimize in-person contact, callbacks and rehearsals for the group have been in person with COVID mitigation techniques in place.
“We started last fall rehearsing masked, 10 feet apart, in the courtyard between Blow and Monroe Hall, which was less than ideal in terms of lighting and sound quality,” O’Connell said. “Those mask and distancing requirements have been and will be the same for everything we do in-person, but thankfully we’ve since been able to move our once-per-week, full group rehearsals to the Morton parking garage, which has much better acoustics and lighting. Our full group rehearsals are every Thursday night from 7:30 to 9 at the garage, and on Tuesdays we split the group into two to three cohorts for one-hour sectional rehearsals at primarily either Wren or Ewell Portico.”
Rehearsals are a serious time commitment, but they allow members to practice their musical repertoire for upcoming performances, which in normal years are quite frequent. Performing once a week on average, the Gentlemen of the College are the most active of all a cappella groups on campus. Traditionally, the holiday season is particularly busy, with the group sometimes performing up to three times in a single week. Their main performances include the semesterly showcase before the call for auditions, the end of year final concert, typically held in Commonwealth Auditorium before final exams, as well as two Wren 10 concerts.
For those unfamiliar with Wren 10s, in normal years, every week one of the College’s many a cappella groups perform some of their favorite tunes at 10 p.m. on the Wren Portico in front of friends and classmates. The Gentlemen of the College were one of the few groups fortunate enough to host a Wren 10 concert during the fall semester; however, all other performances and gigs were simply impossible due to the pandemic. Sans pandemic, the group usually performs at campus events, retirement homes, local businesses and occasionally even a nearby wedding. Unfortunately, semesterly weekend retreats also fell victim to the pandemic, as did the highly-anticipated spring break tour, which allows members to travel, perform and spend time together enjoying all that their destination cities (in the past Nashville, New Orleans and Chicago, etc.) have to offer.
One of the group’s main priorities for this semester is releasing its new album. Recorded last spring before the beginning of the pandemic, the album’s release was delayed due to COVID. As for in-person activities, all plans are contingent upon both state laws and college specific rules regarding gathering limits and other COVID mitigation rules. Surges in campus cases could decrease the ability to hold in-person events. However, The Gentlemen of the College are hopeful they will be able to host another in-person, masked and physically-distanced Wren 10 performance, as well as a final concert outside at the Matoaka Amphitheatre.
Even with the group’s success in hosting in-person rehearsals and a Wren 10 perfomance on Halloween weekend, O’Connell reflects on the difficulty of the semester. “I’d be lying if I said it has been smooth sailing, navigating safety protocols while trying to maintain a tight-knit, strong-sounding ensemble, but I think the challenge of it has brought us together in many ways,” O’Connell said.
“I’d be lying if I said it has been smooth sailing, navigating safety protocols while trying to maintain a tight-knit, strong-sounding ensemble, but I think the challenge of it has brought us together in many ways.”
All members, of course, are looking forward to a return to normalcy.
While some groups like the Gentlemen of the College had in-person callbacks, rehearsals and even performances, other a cappella groups like Reveille, one of the College’s all-female a cappella groups, had completely virtual online auditions, callbacks and optional in-person activities. The group originally made plans to take the semester off and resume performances and activities in the spring, but Reveille ended up performing a Wren 10 and some physically-distanced rehearsals outdoors. However, according to Kaley Haller ’21, president of Reveille, the group aimed to respect all members’ comfort levels.
“Participation was voluntary and not required,” Haller notes. “It is a hard thing to navigate especially when people have different comfort levels. As president I wanted to be there, but as a college student navigating life in a pandemic, I did not feel comfortable performing, so I sat the performance out with a few other members.”
This semester, Reveille plans to host a Wren 10 which is being specially designed to be COVID-safe, with strict audience limits as well as socially distanced singing and specialized audio projection systems. It will be live streamed on YouTube. All in-person events will continue to be optional for members in order to respect varying comfort levels, and Reveille plans to continually monitor COVID cases on campus and the health of members and their contacts to ensure that in-person rehearsals and performances are safe. The group uses Zoom for workshops, social activities and vocal training to minimize in-person contact and allow for even the most COVID-conscious members to participate.
Despite the difficulties the pandemic has brought, Haller sees some advantages to the disruption — it forged innovation and reworked norms previously taken at face value.
“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to look at our jobs and passions differently,” Haller said. “While change is scary, it is necessary, and this scary, stressful time can also be seen as a springboard to innovate best practices. One thing we will most likely continue to implement is the online audition process. With Google Forms and video submissions, auditions take up a lot less time and alleviate performance anxiety for many auditionees! Pairing in person callbacks with video auditions is something I think could make the process better in years to come.”
“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to look at our jobs and passions differently. While change is scary, it is necessary, and this scary, stressful time can also be seen as a springboard to innovate best practices.”
Other unforeseen benefits include live streamed performances on YouTube, which have the benefit of reaching a much wider audience than traditional in-person events. Now performances can be viewed by friends and family across the country who otherwise could not partake in the performances that members of the group worked so hard to put on.
The College’s a cappella groups are making the best out of a bad situation, but virtual meetings and the lack of traditional performances are certainly disappointing. For the Christopher Wren Singers, the College’s oldest student-run a cappella group, a typical performance schedule includes a homecoming concert, a holiday fundraising banquet, a Wren 10 each semester, a spring tour and local and on-campus gigs. During the fall semester, the group was unable to put on any concerts due to COVID concerns. Emma Ward ’21, president of the Christopher Wren Singers, reflected on the disappointment of not being able to perform in front of the community.
“We definitely miss performing together, as well as the opportunities it gave us to connect with W&M students, alumni and the Williamsburg community in general,” Ward said. “The pandemic has been challenging because Wrens is like a family and singing together is one of the best parts of our four years at W&M for all our members. It’s been difficult, both logistically and emotionally, to have that disrupted, but it has also made us even more grateful when we are able to sing together. I’m sure we’ll never take that for granted again.”
This spring, the group is hoping to be able to finish recording the album they began before the pandemic, which will be the group’s first album in five years. Plans for a Wren 10 as well as a final concert in some capacity are in the works, but , everything is up in the air as the pandemic continues.
While the pandemic has certainly complicated a cappella rehearsals, performances and album recording, a cappella groups have been adapting as best they can, considering member safety and mission objectives. Hopefully with the emergence of the vaccine and the declining number of COVID cases, the College’s a cappella groups will be back every Wednesday on the Wren Portico performing a Wren 10 for friends and classmates by next fall.