QUINCY — Wenatchee Valley College’s Chamber Singers get their first opportunity in more than a year to sing for a crowd Sunday in a free concert at Cave B Estate Winery.
The group formed just 10 weeks ago when pandemic restrictions lifted to allow the class to meet in person. Normally they would have 30 weeks of training and performance experience, but they’ve made the most of their time together, said WVC music faculty and choir director Juel Iwaasa.
“A few weeks before spring term, our phase/status for the pandemic changed, and government guidelines came out indicating singing could occur with masks at 9 feet apart and without masks at 15 feet,” Iwaasa said.
Music instructors approached the administration about restarting choir in person and, after preparing rehearsal plans that met health and safety regulations, were given the green light.
The choir formed with five students, who had been working online with Rhia Foster, vocal jazz artist during the shutdown, studying vocal pedagogy, improvisation and even microphone techniques, Iwaasa said. When the switch to in-person was allowed, Iwaasa and Foster swapped classes, giving him the opportunity to direct the singers as he had done for 13 years until going on sabbatical several years ago. Three more singers joined the group and WVC piano faculty Ken Hunnicutt returned as the choir accompanist.
Some challenges remained.
“We experimented during the term with different performance spacing configurations and rehearsal spaces,” he said. “Singing with masks turned out to be quite difficult. Masks significantly decreased everyone’s volume and robbed the choir of a resonant tone and nuance in dynamics. No one could take a full breath with a mask on either.”
They eventually spaced themselves out around the edges of the recital hall to meet the 15 feet of separation required to sing without masks.
That presented new concerns, he said.
“The distance between choir members creates a slight delay in sound from one side of the choir to the other. Fast music with interlocked parts is difficult to rehearse because singers have to depend on singing visually in time with the conductor, even though it will sound like they are slightly ahead of what they hear from the other singers,” he said.
They kept at it, though.
With just the spring term left in the school year, they were learning a new music selection every week to prepare for what they hoped would be a chance to sing in concert at least once.
In a normal year, they would perform three times each term, so in addition to missing out on 20 weeks of practice and “gelling” that comes naturally as a group, they didn’t get the chance to experience performing before a crowd.
“Cave B will be our first performance of the term and since shutdowns occurred,” Iwaasa said.
Their practice schedules also were hindered by ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
“If anyone developed even a slight sniffle, cough or other cold symptom, they had to stay home,” Iwaasa said. “In a group of eight, a single missing member changes the sound quite a bit. I cancelled rehearsals twice because of a sore throat due to seasonal allergies.”
Every choir participant, whether students or staff, went above and beyond, Iwaasa said.
“Ken Hunnicutt created training videos for each part of each song so the singers could learn their parts in a more contextual, efficient way,” he said. “We assigned practice and mastery homework most weekends. Often people would stay after practice and continue rehearsing. Everyone was very committed. In fact, every member of the group accepted solo assignments regardless of their singing experience.”
The opportunity to perform at the winery’s outdoor venue was an unexpected bonus, he said.
“At the beginning of the term we thought we would only be able to perform for a very small number of people due to the size of WVC’s recital hall and our spacing requirements,” he said. “One of the members of Chamber Singers is a grandchild to the owners of Cave B Winery ... . Partway through the term, they graciously offered to host our performance at Stage B. We are grateful to the people at Cave B, as the outdoor setting at their beautiful facility will allow more family, friends and members of the public to enjoy our concert.”
WVC’s choir doesn’t meet during the summer, but Iwaasa, who arranges and composes about 90% of the music for the group when he serves as director, is already working on plans for the fall.
“I will be busy writing and arranging for it throughout the summer. It’s fun for me, and it allows us to customize our repertoire to our strengths as a choir,” he said. “We are hoping and planning on touring next year so I have that in mind as I write. I have several pieces already completed for next year.”
The WVC music department is also working on introducing a Mariachi program at the college, he said, anticipated to start in the fall 2022.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that preparation influences our music choices next year,” he said. “We have always included some Mariachi or Latinx music staples in our repertoire. For example, on Sunday we are singing an arrangement of Piel Canella based on the recording by Eydie Gormé and Los Panchos Trio.”
The concert is at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Cave B Estate Winery, next to the Gorge Amphitheatre. For directions or information about the winery, visit caveb.com.