Small choirs inspire musical collaboration for Mohawk Trail, Pioneer

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School choir students on the bus to Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield for a choir collaboration in December. Contributed Photo

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

For the Recorder
Published: 1/21/2022 4:28:41 PM

Music communities, who generally thrive in bringing people together, have particularly felt the repercussions of the sharp reduction in social activities necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, choir teachers Nick Lawrence and Sara Paige took it upon themselves to bring their students together for a bit of safe and merry music making.

With enrollment at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland being at an all-time low, according to Lawrence, the choir has seven members in grades nine through 12. At Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Paige teaches a choir of five members. These enrollment numbers have curtailed the kind of music programming otherwise possible.

Many of the local Mohawk Trail alumni, Lawrence said, “would like to see it the same as when they were in school. Mohawk Trail at one point had nearly 1,000 students. And now we’re at around 350.”

But the choir and band teacher added a hopeful note.

“The old days of the big marching band and the dance band and the show choir may be possible in the future,” Lawrence said. “For now, I would like to look into vernacular music making, like rock bands, pop music, electronic music. I think those are all important avenues that can be done with fewer people, but still at a high level.”

Despite the choir’s small size, Lawrence is happy with the group of students.

“I’ve got some really skilled and talented people,” Lawrence said. “It took a while to get there, but we worked really hard to get them to sing out this year.”

Paige added, “In smaller groups, you put yourself into a vulnerable position where your voice can be heard easily. This causes hesitation. In larger groups, students can sing without reservation and work toward other musical goals such as blend and dynamics.”

For the most part, people have adapted their personal activities to a “new normal” and have been able to find ways to engage safely in their favorite pastimes. Musicians, however, have struggled to navigate the logistics of playing together. Lag times and poor sound quality often make online band sessions impractical. Some instruments are easy to play masked (guitar, piano, drums), but others are more difficult to navigate, like the flute or the human voice.

“The band students just pull down their masks to play,” Lawrence said of Mohawk Trail’s band, adding that “some schools do have special playing masks, so I’ve heard.”

At Mohawk Trail, COVID-19 health safety regulations require choir members to practice 10 feet part, while the Pioneer students are allowed to be 6 feet apart. They also use singing masks (which extend a bit away from the mouth) to be able to project more, and they take regular breaks to circulate the air.

These safety measures, however, do have the downside of making it more difficult to conduct and sing in a group. Even the most advanced musicians rely on hearing their co-musicians to modulate tempo, pitch and volume, which is hard to ascertain with increased distance.

“The fact that they can’t see my lips and I can’t see theirs, it certainly complicates things,” Lawrence added.

With the students still adjusting to being back in school, enjoying face-to-face interactions, Lawrence said they’re watching them rebuild their performance skills. So when Lawrence and Paige brought their students together in December, they had the opportunity to practice with a slightly larger group.

“When students who have only experienced singing in small groups of five to seven people have the opportunity to sing in a group of 15 to 20 students, it allows them to see that music is relevant and is being celebrated by students similar to them in other schools,” Paige said.

Lawrence and Paige made the conscious choice to forego a public performance so that the students were free to focus on the essentials of being and singing together.

“This day was process-based, not project-based,” Lawrence explained. “We chose not to have a concert. The process is just as important as the music that is made.”

They met at Pioneer for a whole school day and alternated between music/singing and socio-emotional learning activities. Some of the group sessions included games about communication and fostering receptiveness — skills that extend beyond the music classroom.

Finally, the students practiced as a group. The musical selection ranged from classical, to medieval Spanish, to Stevie Wonder.

Paige, who is a 2013 Mohawk Trail alumna and is experiencing her first year as a teacher, said: “My method for teaching music is to take advantage of every opportunity I have to let the students sing together. Collaboration between schools such as Pioneer and Mohawk brings a sense of excitement and the feeling that these five to seven students are not alone, despite the years of consistent chorus dropouts. There are students just like them who still believe in the power of music and want to express themselves through that power. This gives them hope to continue on throughout all of the challenges and changes.”

This is Lawrence’s first year at Mohawk Trail. They explained that their collaboration was thus important to them as professionals, too. Like students, learning together can sometimes be just as important and fruitful as learning from a seasoned pro.

“It gave us a chance to try out some new things,” Lawrence elaborated. “Sara just graduated. I only graduated a few years ago. We both brought our own strengths and knowledge, but it was approachable in that way. We both helped build each other up.”

As to the future of their collaborations, Lawrence and Paige agree the plan is to have their students get together at least annually, or perhaps even once a semester.

“I think that collaborations like these are going to be super important to keep music going out here in Western Mass, especially in Franklin County,” Lawrence said. “Just to build a larger sense of community. But the general community here around the Mohawk Trail has been super supportive of us. I feel very lucky that we have that.”

Additionally, Lawrence noted plans to discuss collaboration with Greenfield Community College’s music department.

“The future of musical collaboration does depend on student involvement, but should never depend on financial strain,” Paige added. “As long as a student is passionate about music and wants to sing, they should join chorus. With students leaving music and school in general, it is going to be hard to keep a music department, along with other departments throughout a school. That is why parents, family, peers and music teachers need to encourage their students and friends that music is still beneficial and meaningful. How am I supposed to expect numbers to rise if I am not passionate about enrollment and the continuation of music in schools myself?”

Nicole Braden-Johnson of Conway is the author of “Unheard Melodies,” a monthly poetry column in the local “The Visitor,” and has also been published in several literary journals. She can be reached at bradennicole@gmail.com. Visit her website at unheardmelodiesnkbj.blogspot.com.


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