There Will Be Singing
New echoes awaken in Notre Dame Stadium
On a sunny Wednesday morning, Mark Doerries, director of graduate studies and head of the graduate choral conducting program for Sacred Music at Notre Dame, sits masked in an empty choir rehearsal room of O’Neill Hall of Music and Sacred Music. He recalls the day in spring 2020 when the choral music fell silent.
“While we had to draw up multiple possible solutions, and we needed guidance from public health experts, the general attitude amongst choral musicians was: There will be singing.”-Mark Doerries
“I think we all went through a grieving period,” he says of his guild, still smiling. “Not only was our vocation and career as choral musicians suspended due to the pandemic, but also it was deemed very dangerous — so millions of people who take part in creating music, creating art, socializing and having a spiritual connection with singing had to accept that choir as usual would be, for a time, unsafe.”
For graduate students studying sacred music at Notre Dame, conducting vocalists in preparation for a major recital is an academic requirement. This typically takes the form of a 32-person choir practicing indoors. Over the summer, the sacred music faculty weighed options for how to help students safely fulfill this requirement and stay on track toward degree completion.
“While we had to draw up multiple possible solutions, and we needed guidance from public health experts, the general attitude amongst choral musicians was: There will be singing,” Doerries said.
It was just a question of how and where.
Framed in the window over Doerries’ left shoulder is a car-sized path of temporary steel fencing leading to a white tent where, in Notre Dame Stadium Gate D, medical staff draped in PPE conduct daily diagnostic and surveillance COVID testing.
As with everything impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Notre Dame’s iconic football stadium is operating under business as unusual, or, possibly, extrausual. Football game audience size has been reduced to observe social distancing, some games have been postponed and the vision of Notre Dame’s Campus Crossroads project — to closely integrate academics, student life and athletics in the heart of campus — has perhaps achieved a new, resilient realization.
To wit: Choir rehearsals now take place in the football stadium’s Leahy Gate.
For the uninitiated, the gate is named for Frank Leahy (pronounced LAY-hee), who both played for and coached national championship-winning Fighting Irish teams between 1929-49. For Leahy Gate passersby in fall 2020, melodic lines from Josquin, Palestrina and Hildegard von Bingen echo off the stone walls and drift out through the black metal grille covering the gate’s entrance — like the Gregorian chant of cloistered nuns in Hildegard’s time.
“The concourse around the stadium is made of brick and cement, so the sound of the singers is reflecting in all kinds of beautiful ways,” Doerries said, noting the gate has acoustical properties that simulate cathedral settings.
A Norman-style cathedral, with signage for concessions.
While the gate is covered, protecting singers from rain, one end opens onto the football field, and the other onto campus, creating an ideal breezeway to ensure airflow during rehearsals. With O’Neill Hall affixed to the south end of the stadium, students and their equipment move fluidly between the music building and this reinvented space.
“Before now, the gate had been just a passageway and the only way to get from the first floor of O’Neill to other buildings,” Doerries said. “But now it holds rehearsals, classes and study space — a living incubator of music and teaching.”
The large choir was split into two 12-to-16-singer ensembles, and they rehearse, masked and distanced, for 40 minutes on and 15 minutes off, in accordance with recommendations from public health officials.
“What is miraculous is that we are doing it: We are singing, every day, outside, making quality music, and we are doing it safely.”-Mark Doerries
Doerries acknowledged that the sound the musicians make is different than it would be in Notre Dame’s concert halls, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart or classrooms since masks muffle certain frequencies, reducing the consonance and sibilance. Distancing also changes how singers hear and listen to one another.
Still, the result is beauty of a new kind — a sound that embodies the haunted-yet-hopeful spirit of the moment.
“What is miraculous is that we are doing it: We are singing, every day, outside, making quality music, and we are doing it safely,” Doerries said. “We now know that we can get a good sound in an unusual space.”
Additionally, the choir members have realized that singing in this way has not just prevented them from catching or spreading the coronavirus, it has also stopped them from catching common colds.
In late August when the University moved academic instruction online for two weeks to address increasing COVID cases on campus, Doerries and colleagues saw an opportunity for the students to practice teaching online. The students held a series of sessions with vocalists to drill notes, rhythms and diction, with the aim of getting some of the basic work done so that when the group came back together, they would not have lost time, but would have grown.
“Whereas in a traditional in-person setting, we prize the group sound over the individual, in the virtual setting, because of technology, we actually get to hear the full, rich complexity of individual voices,” Doerries said.
When the weather turns colder, supplemental heaters will be added to Leahy Gate rehearsals. And when it turns still colder, choir members will rehearse in 16 practice rooms that are hardwired together so singers can hear one another and see video of the conductor in real time.
“We are like the U.S. Postal Service,” Doerries quipped. “Neither wind, nor rain, nor sleet — or in this case the coronavirus — will stop us from continuing to do what we think is vital.”