Rachel Blaasch


A digitally based choir brought together by Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre reunited an alto from the Class of 2015 with her Saint Leo music professor during the summerand the performance earned attention from all over the world.

Admittedly, there were many other people involved.

Abi Fox performs as a student during a concert held at University Campus in 2013.

Abigale (Abi) Fox, a former member of the Saint Leo Singers choral group and a global studies program graduate, appeared with one of her favorite professors, Dr. Cynthia Selph, along with more than 17,500 other vocalists in Virtual Choir 6. It turned out that Whitacre’s plan drew singers from 129 countries, ranging in age from 4 to 87.  

The choir’s video and soundtrack were released in mid-July on YouTube (where it has tracked more than 1 million views) and Spotify. The release was covered on programs such as CBS Sunday Morning and the BBC’s In the Studio.

There was anticipation and interest as many people had heard of Whitacre’s virtual choirs. He first started compiling “selfie”-styled, individually recorded performances into a single, cohesive musical presentation in 2011. Now he was assembling his largest group yet. The American composer is highly regarded for his artistry, as well as for his media-friendly innovations. Selph calls Whitacre the “rock star of the choral world.”

Selph and Fox, an international traveler who now lives in Pennsylvania, both signed on for Virtual Choir 6. They were aware of each other’s involvement in the remote project as they communicate on social media. 

Whitacre asked the singing recruits to perform his new composition, “Sing Gently,” which was inspired by the COVID-19 global lockdown. The words he chose have plenty of consonants, which can be difficult for singers to express distinctly. Whitacre advised, in a video coaching session to the performers, that they try for a clear, pure sound. The lyrics are: 

May we sing together, always.
May our voice be soft.
May our singing be music for others
and may it keep others aloft. 

Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.

May we stand together, always.
May our voice be strong.
May we hear the singing and
May we always sing along.

Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.

All the singers also were instructed to record while performing before a white background and to use a horizontal camera orientation.

Selph and Fox said the experience was different from performing with a live choir. Selph described live singing as a collective energy that the singer can “tactically feel” as the voice disappears into a larger sound. “It doesn’t even need an audience.” Each said she had to get used to the sound of singing through a headset, as well.

Dr. Cynthia Selph teaches music courses at University Campus.

Selph set up an iPad to record her singing. She placed her laptop to one side to watch Whitacre’s conducting and concentrated on blending her voice with that of another singer through earphones. Fox said she needed at least 30 takes and help from her father, who is also a musician.

Despite the fact that they were not accustomed to the setup, both performers said they believe Whitacre composed “Sing Gently” to be very accessible to singers. Whitacre is typically known for complex eight- or 12-part choral pieces. Fox, who is trained to sing across a wide vocal range, actually performed as a tenor for the Virtual Choir because she knew that tenor voices (typically supplied by men) would be in greater need than altos.    

Each found the experience satisfying. 

Fox described the final product as “gorgeous and haunting because of so many voices.” Selph found it is a beautiful statement about all corners of the world singing together. The choir even has a Facebook group for its community to stay abreast of world events and shared concerns, Fox noted.

The alto alumna and soprano professor also recommended the experience of participating in a virtual choir to other singers. It hones the skills and affords musicians the chance to be part of something larger than themselves, they said.

Selph intends to incorporate some of her new knowledge about recording into teaching in the current academic year. She said this will be a benefit to current students because “recording is where the industry is at right now.”

Experience Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently:

Staff writer Jo-Ann Johnston contributed to this story. 

Alumna creates coloring books celebrating everyone’s abilities, contributions.

Cynthia Cordero ’16 lives without limits. When a sudden medical issue—similar to a stroke—affected her cognitive function, speech, and ability to write, Cordero thought she would never draw again. Instead, the U.S. Navy officer found that her lifelong passion of drawing became therapy for her and others.

Cynthia coloring with a disabled child

“Disability limits you from being able to do one thing, but it doesn’t limit you from everything,” Cordero said. Inspired, she began creating coloring books to share with children who have disabilities.  

For more than two years, Cordero has volunteered at children’s hospitals. She always takes paper with her on visits, and she uses drawing and coloring to connect with the young patients, who have disabilities and/or may be terminally ill. Drawing allows them to dream about what they can do despite their disability. “As a kid you can dream up anything that you want, and creativity allows kids to bring those dreams to life,” Cordero said.

In turn, the children inspired Cordero to create a series of coloring books. The featured characters are based on children and people she meets. The message of the Don’t Let a Disability Disable You coloring book series is that a disability may limit a person, but it can’t stop them from contributing to their community and world.

Children holding up Cynthia's coloring books

“I’m hoping that through seeing themselves in a creative way, it can inspire them to know they can do anything,” Cordero said.

The series follows the children as they grow. The first coloring book, created for 2- to 8-year-olds, depicts children with disabilities dreaming about themselves as adults in various careers. The characters include a teacher with autism, a motivational speaker who is an amputee, and a doctor who must use an oxygen tank.

Volume 2 of Cynthia's "Don't Let a Disability Disable You" coloring bookThe characters are depicted with Cordero’s positive and playful style: diverse children in fun, colorful outfits with large, emotion-filled eyes. Book two, for children ages 8 to 11, features the characters as superheroes who use their disability to cure and help others.

Cordero, 33, is working on a third book, which is aimed at teens. The characters, also now teens, will be volunteers, who give back to their community.

Growing up in Long Island, NY, and Puerto Rico, Cordero dreamed of seeing the world. She joined the Navy in 2005 in order to travel and was deployed to Bahrain, Portugal, Italy, Michigan, and Florida. Now, she is based in Virginia Beach, VA, where she serves as a personnel specialist. She lives with her wife, Lauren McNulty, a mental health rehabilitation therapist.

Cynthia Cordero in uniform

Her love of children drew her to pursuing a degree in criminal justice. “It is a field that allows us as professionals to help those in need,” Cordero said. An internship in juvenile detention made her realize she wanted to assist children.

A friend recommended she enroll in Saint Leo University’s Center for Online Learning because of the program’s flexibility. Online education worked for her schedule and for her frequent deployments. The university’s core values also attracted her to Saint Leo. “You don’t find a lot of schools that take pride in and emphasize their values,” she said.

Cordero recommends Saint Leo’s online program to her fellow sailors because it offers individual attention and flexibility. Saint Leo “opened doors for me,” she said, both in the Navy and in her work with children. “This school is a great part of my story.”

Her service to the Navy and to children was recognized by her peers and community, and she was named the 2019 Samuel T. Northern Military Citizen of the Year by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. For Cordero, the honor meant her work is recognized and valued, and the recognition will bring more awareness about empowering those with disabilities and will allow her to help more people.

Cordero also wants adults to hear her message and to recognize their own superpowers, much like the characters in her second coloring book. The fourth offering in the Don’t Let Disability Disable You series will feature adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health issues. When her own medical issue occurred more than two years ago, she knew that a disability would not “stop me from wanting to serve my country anymore.” Cordero wants her fellow sailors with disabilities to recognize that, “everyone has something to contribute to the team.”

Child coloring a coloring bookThe coloring books are self-produced at this time, and Cordero founded a nonprofit organization, Cyn’s Vision, to help with production and other efforts. Money raised from purchases go back to the project so that the books may be donated to children’s hospitals and individuals, she said.

Cordero continues to dream. She plans on retiring from the Navy in five years and building Cyn’s Vision. She envisions creating an art therapy center to expand her outreach.

Her advice: “Take time to do what you have to do to achieve the goal. You may have to find variations from the normal ways, but don’t let a disability disable you.”

For More Information

Follow Cyn’s Vision at Cyn’s Vision Art on Facebook and Instagram @cynsvision. To request a coloring book, email or call (616) 773-9596.


Photos provided by Cynthia Cordero