Gillette chorale singers adjust to year without shows

From left, Karen Clarke, Kenda Ford, Vicki Gilmour and Heidi Gross of the Gillette Chamber Singers keep in sync as they practice at a safe social distance on Gilmour's back deck during a routine gathering. The singing group has been forced to cancel its annual Christmas show because of the coronavirus (Photo by Mike Moore, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — Sad is a word to describe the mood of Vicki Gilmour and Karen Clarke in July as they sat around Gilmour’s backyard patio table signing cards.

For such a small word, sad also is complicated.

It is one word that provides an umbrella for many other descriptors that people use to try and relate the way they feel to the way others have felt. It’s an attempt to form a bridge to a common ground with others to feel less alone, more connected and less, well, sad.

There are many synonyms for sadness that also may apply, but they would still miss the mark.

That’s because sadness can sometimes be pleasant, like when a parent watches her child walk across a graduation stage or the feeling of flipping through an old, sepia-toned photo album eliciting tears of joy.

That brand of sadness tends to relate to the fleeting nature and inevitable transience of beautiful things and beautiful moments, the idea that every great moment may someday end.

Or, in the case of the Gillette Chamber Singers, go on hiatus.

So, when members of the Gillette chorale group find that it’s “sad” to talk about the cancellation of its performances this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s because it truly is, but it’s also not that simple.

“It’s going to be sad,” Clarke said. “It’s going to be really sad.”

Gilmour, Clarke and other Gillette Chamber Singers, some for as many as 30 years, have spent their Sundays together, singing.

Each week, they have set aside hours of their lives to dedicate to choir. Some hours are spent in their weekly practices together. Others are spent alone in individual rehearsal. Those hours each week add up to days of time each year.

Altogether, it adds up to an unquantifiable connection and familial bond with the other members of the choir with whom they have shared so much of that time.

Some members are natural talents who don’t need much practice at all. Then there are others who don’t even know how to read music. Some fit both descriptions.

The Gillette Chamber Singers have traveled internationally to perform, enduring long plane rides and car trips, all done together.

“We’re talking about working people, retired people, really people who are singing just because they love to sing,” Clarke said.

For the first time in almost 30 years, the Gillette Chamber Singers will not perform a Christmas show — the group’s annual tradition and biggest fundraiser.

Together, in Gilmour’s backyard that July day, she and Clarke personalized more than 400 cards notifying supporters that the Gillette Chamber Singers choir season was officially canceled.

Each one was printed, addressed and signed with a personal touch before being mailed.

Signing those cards and dropping them in the mailbox made that declaration official. Even more than a month later, it is still sad.

The decision

Throughout the more than 30 years the chorale group has existed, it has not lacked community support.

The last show the Gillette Chamber Singers put on was in early March when the group performed at the Fur Kids Foundation benefit. The next show on its schedule also was meant to be one of the biggest of the year.

“When everything shut down, there was no way for us to do that last concert,” said Diana Rutz, a founding member of the Gillette Chamber Singers.

The Spring Brunch, scheduled toward the end of March and one of the group’s premier events, was canceled, setting in motion the end of the rest of the choir’s 2020 season.

Pat Patton, the group’s director for 10 years, had planned on that being his final show before stepping down.

He never did get his swan song with the Chamber Singers.

“We just never had a closure with him,” Rutz said. “That has felt very incomplete.”

From there, the decision to cancel shows for the rest of the year was not taken lightly. At first they were postponed. Then members considered ways to still practice and perform.

Holding practices over video meetings was mentioned but never considered seriously.

Of course, the idea of wearing masks was brought up. But that prospect also quickly became a nonstarter.

“The restriction of the mask, our voices are muffled. I don’t personally think I would do it. It would not be enjoyable,” Gilmour said. “What in the world would it sound like, you know?”

There were some members of the group who still wanted to perform. All agreed it would not be easy and would undoubtedly be different from any other year, but there were some who wanted to move forward with those willing to give it a shot.

Clarke is the president of the group’s board of directors, which Gilmour is a part of. The board took its time with making its decision. After consulting with other members and all the different choir sections and leaders, the group decided to stick together and forego the rest of its season.

“Honestly, what it came down to is there were some people who would have been OK with singing this season,” Clarke said. “That would have meant that other people that have been with us for years would have, for their own reasons, not participated.

“It was more important for us to maintain the group than it was to have a smaller group of people that were singing.”

The ills of singing

The pressure for the Gillette Chamber Singers to make a decision on its season was not just internal, but drew from what’s happening at the national level of the chorale scene.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a comprehensive report breaking down a March choir practice in Washington state that was connected to two deaths along with confirmed COVID-19 cases among more than half of the 61 participants that day.

On March 10, the choir met for its weekly 2.5-hour practice. Washington was one of the states hit hardest by the first wave of the pandemic, but at that time, many schools and businesses had yet to close. Sports leagues had yet to shutdown.

In other words, the country had not gone into quarantine yet.

The Skagit Valley Chorale members practiced together, unknowingly spreading the coronavirus through droplets and aerosols projected into their shared space while they sang. During a break, group members shared orange slices and cookies. Unknowingly, the seemingly innocuous proceedings led to dozens of illnesses and multiple deaths.

Two of the choir members died, 32 had confirmed COVID-19 cases and another 20 were identified as probable cases. The report said that transmission was likely caused by a combination of close proximity amplified by the act of singing.

One choir member had cold-like symptoms at the time of the March 10 practice. That person eventually tested positive for COVID-19, at which point so did many others in the group.

The practice provided a cautionary tale and a close-to-home example for the Gillette Chamber Singers. Even if Washington state is a long way from Gillette, the story of one choir practice blossoming into a super-spreader event was hard to overlook when deciding if, when and how to move forward with Gillette Chamber Singers choir activities in 2020.

“We exhibit that so much because of how we sing,” Rutz said. “We articulate consonants and that is a way for us to spread it so, so much.”

The ages of the Gillette Chamber Singers vary and range from the youngest member, who is 24, to the oldest, who is 72. Still, the average age skews closer to the oldest than the youngest.

“Having the average age of the group be over 50, it is probably the best choice to not participate in the fall,” said Jess Cale, a member of the Gillette Chamber Singers and also a music teacher at Prairie Wind Elementary School.

“It’s such a bummer because everyone was so looking forward to it,” she said. “We’re such a tight group of people, everyone gets along and is friendly and just loves each other.”

Singing in schools

As an elementary school music teacher in Gillette, this year has been unlike any other Cale has taught.

Because of the size of her classroom, Cale and her students can be maskless at times when they can ensure 6 feet of separation. But she said introducing the students to singing, and introducing singing to this year’s curriculum, has been a challenge.

Among other restrictions, she said her students are not allowed to sing for more than 10 minutes and must be wearing masks when they do.

“It’s totally different,” Cale said. “It’s hard for the kids to get used to it.”

The Chamber Singers aren’t the only ones who struggled to find a way to perform. Cale said there are no scheduled performances for her students this year, but that she will get creative and find a way to orchestrate a socially distant performance that fits within public health guidelines, perhaps even a virtual show.

“We’re going to do something, whether it be in class (or) we stream it virtually, or we have a small group of kids in the gym, with just their parents, performing,” Cale said.

In this year of uncertainty, best laid plans may still lay to waste, putting an added emphasis on the ability to improvise.

“We’re following the governor’s guidelines day by day, but right now I think I’m going to be a little more creative in what I’m going to have to do with my programs,” Cale said.

‘Hearing choirs in my head’

For the Gillette Chamber Singers, deciding to cancel the season was to decide to remove something its members loved from their lives.

“It’s just my thing, it’s for me. It helps me be who I am and I think it’s therapeutic and just something good to do for myself,” Gilmour said. “But it’s just what I do, and I love it. It’s very fulfilling and it’s what I do.”

Along with a wide range in the ages of its members, so do their walks of life. Different ages and occupations come together and formed a common bond over a shared love of music. Some members came from as far as Sheridan, Moorcroft, Rapid City and Wright, Rutz said.

“One of the great things is to just to be part of a group where you’re just one person that contributes to making something really great,” Clarke said. “The sum of the parts makes up this whole great experience that you get to be a part of. It feeds your soul.”

As a group, the Chamber Singers have made several international trips. Rutz said the group has performed in Central Europe, England, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Dominican Republic.

Within those countries, they played venues such as La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain; Saint Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland; and Basilica Saint Michael — or “The Sound of Music Church” — in Salzburg, Austria. The group even sang a mass at Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, Clarke said.

Gilmour recalled some of her fondest international memories were spontaneous, like when the Chamber Singers stumbled upon a small-town European church and just begin singing.

“Some of them happened where we’d be in this tiny little church and there would be a handful of people there,” Gilmour said. “We’d start singing and people would hear it and people would come in droves and fill the church.”

For now, it is unclear when the choir members will be able to perform again, let alone travel.

“Realistically, I would say that when there is a vaccine is when it would be safe for us to get back together again, but who knows?” Clarke said.

Until then, their songs will remain unsung, the extent of their hiatus indefinite.

“I’m not hearing choirs in my head like I normally would,” Rutz said. “The music we’re working on stays with me all through the week in-between rehearsals. I practice in-between and that’s really not happening right now.

“I just miss it. It becomes your life, it’s very personal.”

After years of living with the music, Rutz and the rest of the Gillette Chamber Singers are still adjusting to life without it.

“I haven’t had to verbalize this, but it makes me realize how sad I am not preparing to do a new season right now,” Rutz said.

When the Gillette Chamber Singers mention how “sad” it is to be approaching the first holiday season where they won’t perform a Christmas concert, practicing together or even all be able to gather in the same room safely, it is a testament to the happiness, meaning and sense of family that choir brings them — and has brought some of them for decades.

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