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Local Singers Studying Humanism, Empathy, and Communication in the Wake of COVID-19

The Schwob School of Music has endured a great loss this year as the COVID-19 crisis has prevented group ensembles from making music together. Student musicians have resorted to rehearsing in parking garages and art galleries for their safety. The University's state-of-the-art rehearsal spaces and concert halls remain empty, classrooms are virtual, and the majority of private lessons are now online.

Imagine having to learn to sing or play an instrument online. Not choosing to. Having to.

Everything has changed for the students and their professors. But how are they? What's happening?

I reached out to Dr. Ianthe Marini, Director of Choral Studies at Columbus State University's Schwob School of Music, to find out how she and her students are faring in the wake of the pandemic.

Her answers were more astounding and encouraging than I could have imagined.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ianthe Marini. Photo by Sammie Saxon.

Q: How has COVID-19 changed your work as a choral director and professor of music?

A: It's changed everything. When everything hit in March, all of the choral conductors were among

the artists that had to start really reading and keeping up with the research. It became very obvious that singing is a super spreader and especially that group singing is a super spreader.

Q: Right. How did that impact your plan moving forward?

A: The first decision that I made was to keep them safe above all else. I tell this to my students at the beginning of every semester: "My primary objective as your Collegiate choral conductor is to prepare you for a successful life as a musician post-graduation." During quarantine, I went to Florida to be with my family. I really like just sort of sat with myself at the ocean, and thought for a long time about what all of this meant. And, in listening to my spirit, I still felt very sure that my objective for my students was one of the few things that had not changed. I had to keep them safe.

This semester, that means keeping them safe so that they can in fact have a successful life is a singer post-graduation. Research has proven that if you get this virus, it can cause lifelong organ damage including lung damage. What do we need to sing? Our lungs! So I knew that it was my primary objective to keep them safe so that once they graduate they can indeed sing with full lung capacity.

Q: That makes complete sense.

A: Once came to that conclusion, I was like, alright, we're just not going to be doing choral singing. What is it that I do want them to get out of this semester? This question helped me to I start looking at it as less of a disappointment and more as an opportunity.

Q: I love that so much. What a lesson to your students and colleagues about the power of perspective!

A: Well, there are many things that I wish that I could teach in a typical semester beyond choral singing. We've been doing those things this year, and it's been different, but in a beautiful way. In fact, some of my students have said, "I hope that when we do come back to typical choral singing that you still incorporate these things." It's been incredible to have made these big changes and have my students communicate that they that they want to keep learning in this manner long after the pandemic.

Q: Wow. What are you teaching exactly?

A: Well, I started making a list of things that I thought that collegiate students need to know in their life as artists. The list got long very quickly, so I sort of boiled it down to different bullet points.

One of those bullet points is empathy, which I would argue is why we create art. Why do we do what we do?I mean there are so many intrinsic and extrinsic answers to that. But, in my opinion, it boils down to empathy.

We we have art, we make music, we do theater, we create film so that we can reach another person more deeply. Studying empathy, how to relate to other human beings, helps us in so many ways to understand how we can use it to impact what we do as artists.

Q: Are you teaching this in choir, or other classes too?

A: One of our voice faculty retired, so I am also teaching group voice classes this year online.Those are actually all about acting. All about communication. So they're learning technique and repertoire from their actual voice teachers, and then they come to me in groups of four to learn about how to communicate text.

Our choir class and these small group lessons have really gone hand-in-hand.

Q: How so?

A: Because acting, or as I prefer to call it, communicating is all about empathy. We've been doing a lot of textual analysis. We have been looking critically at a text. This has brought forth so many incredible opportunities to learn about critical thinking. How to think critically, how to listen critically, and knowing that to be critical is not a bad thing.

Contrary to the connotation of the word nowadays, bring critical doesn't actually mean you're being negative or rude. It simply means that you are using your brain power to understand something more deeply.

Q: This is incredible, Ianthe. What an opportunity for your students to think about these things - especially this way, and especially now.

A: I hope so. I think it's very important to an artist's growth. Our study of empathy has mostly come from critical thinking about text and motivation, and how that plays out between actors and singers. We've also been discussing the importance of words that it is so important that we have intention - that we have specificity in our word choice. We have to have a really specific reason for using specific words at a specific time. That, in fact, is being empathetic.

It's essential as artists that we are so careful to have a critical understanding about how a librettist or a lyricist has written the language we're using. Studying it makes us not only a better communicator of the language because we're being intentional with it, but it also pours over even subconsciously into our lives as human beings that now we're going to be more careful and more intentional with the words we use.

Q: Incredible. How have you seen this impacting your students?

A: Well, together we've I found that this semester has been almost a crossover in humanism. I've had the privilege of witnessing these incredible young people really wrestle and become more thoughtful with the way they speak about things to one another. In both their artistic endeavors and in their daily lives. It's been such a beautiful thing to have come out of this awful time.

Q: What's the second objective for you this year with them?

Walking hand-in-hand with empathy is communication. That's the second huge thing we're exploring together. The reason I hate the word acting (especially with students who aren't actors) is because it sounds like you're supposed to be putting something on. "Oh, I'm acting now." As if something's different.

Whereas, we know because you and I are actors, in fact it's the opposite. When you are an excellent actor, you are removing any masks. You're removing the facade and indeed becoming more vulnerable to share your raw being.

Q: Absolutely. That's the difference between communication and acting to me.

A: Exactly! So we've been talking about the word communicating rather than acting, and it's been so powerful.

Q: How so?

A: Well, just this year in particular, we've seen it all over the world, but certainly in our country how important it is to be intentional with how we communicate with one another. And so these communication lessons have been tied into the empathy lessons as well.

Why are we saying what we're saying at this particular time? What do we hope to accomplish with our words in this scene? In this situation?

That leads us to the next topic that I thought was really important for these students this semester and that is score study.

Q: Interesting. Is that different from a typical semester for them?

A: Yes. A lot of times in a typical choral semester, I've done my extreme preparation as the conductor. I have studied the score, and I have made interpretive communicative choices based on everything in the score. The time signature, the rhythm, the melody, texture, harmonic context, historical context.

Typically, that is my work and then my job is to communicate these choices to them so that we can create art together.

However, my students really need to know how to study a score as they put together a recital or teaching their students someday. It isn't just, "Oh, I'm singing this way because Renee Fleming

did on her 1996 recording of this song." That doesn't cut it for me, and it shouldn't for them. I want my students to know how to take a piece of music, study it, and form their own interpretation of what's happening. I want them to utilize empathy, communication, and score study to formulate art that is their own. That's what this semester has been about in choir.

Q: How incredible. And how has this impacted you?

My students inspire me. I'm so proud of my them for the way they've taken life by the horns this year. None of this is easy. It's not simple. COVID-19 turned the world upside down. But my students have been incredibly brave and flexible and have taken immense responsibility for their learning. None o bus have ever worked this hard, and yet? They're showing up. They're all in.

We are making music, it's just differently right now. We've done some virtual singing, and while it's incredible and new and exciting, I know it's not the same.

But all I'm seeing is growth, and I'm just so proud of them. Not only are they becoming better musicians and actors, they're becoming human beings who are intentional, empathetic, communicators. It's inspiring and gives me so much hope for our future. For the future of our field.◼︎

Learn more:

Listen to Marini's Students Perform:


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