Faculty Profile

A Reunion through a Virtual Choir

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. 

Rachel Blaasch ’20 is pursuing her master’s degree in business administration at Saint Leo University, concentrating in social media marketing. She also serves as a graduate assistant in the Marketing & Communications department.

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