Kerry Johnson

It’s Thursday afternoon. I’m a chronic procrastinator. I have a deadline to share some profound words of wisdom to ACDA members across the state, and I am coming up short. As is often the case, the anxiety of not knowing what to say or write is accompanied by an earworm. Today, that earworm is a blast from my young and idealistic past.

The heart may freeze, or it can burn. The pain will ease if I can learn. There is no future. There is no past. I live this moment as my last.

This year has been chaotic, and lately the choir room has been buzzing with small ensembles, electric guitars, costumes, and choreography. Spring has a special kind of energy to it, and I am acutely aware that this spring’s energy is one that has been missing for a while.

As I have spent the last couple of weeks putting the finishing touches on our spring concert, I can’t help but reflect on the last three years and how the choir program in my small rural community has changed. Like many of you who teach in Greater Minnesota, I am the only choir director in my building. I am lucky to be part of a great music team, but in our day-to-day work, we are all our own islands. Like many of you, the students I serve come from widely diverse backgrounds – both economically and culturally. To say the pandemic hit us hard would be an understatement.

In the early days of the pandemic, the virus ravaged the pork plant in town where so many of our students’ families work. Food insecurity, family responsibilities, poor internet, and reduced face to face contact time meant that our once thriving program became reduced to voice lessons, reflective writing, practice tracks, and attempts at virtual choirs (I know. We don’t talk about Bruno.)

When we finally did return to ensemble singing, our ensembles were small. Far too many students took other paths during our time apart. Family obligations became more prominent, and the need for credit recovery pulled students away from our program. I blamed myself for losing them. Those that remained seemed shell-shocked by the abrupt transition back to ensemble singing and our attempts to return to ‘real life.’ I remember feeling overwhelmed as I learned just how quickly something that took years to build could be torn apart at the seams. I grieved hard that year. To be honest, I still grieve sometimes. I was so very proud of what we had built together, and that version of our program has become a ‘home’ that no longer exists.

But little by little, piece by piece, I watched my amazing students rebuild. And in their strength, I found mine. I was amazed to see which pieces of our old life they chose to take into our new reality. Their need for community and connection was intense. They needed a place where every student felt seen and valued for who they are. They needed advice on everything. Literally everything. They needed a soft place to land. They needed human connection – more than music, more than excellence, more than rigor. More than all the things I had focused on in the ‘before.’ I grieved. And then, I learned – and we built something new.

We look different now. Our numbers are coming back, but the focus of our program has changed significantly. Pacing and programming are different. It takes longer to achieve the same level of musical excellence we once had, and we have had to work hard to rebuild singing skills and artistic intuition. Spring traditions that used to include ensemble placement auditions have given way to sincere discussions about gratitude for the work we’ve done, the impacts we’ve had on one another, and a heartfelt request to please keep singing. I worry far less about little imperfections and much more about how my students are feeling about their growth. We no longer sing to impress but rather to connect. Little by little this new home is becoming beautiful. I can’t say that I prefer one home over the other. I’m not there yet. And I’m not sure I ever will be. I still miss what was. But I love what is. And I am grateful to have experienced both.

I don’t feel like I have any profound words of wisdom to share or anything innovative to suggest for your programs. I simply want to say that this is hard. To those of you feeling the same way, please know you are not alone. We are everywhere – tiny islands in this great choral state. May you find peace in this moment. What you do matters, even if it feels like you are teaching more life than music right now. Music is still alive – and so is humanity.

No day but today.