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Barbara Hill, soprano

As we enter into May and Summer beckons us out of doors, I can’t help but think back on our first Pandemic summer and my introduction to Ensemble Altera. At a time when our inboxes were full of (understandable) cancellations, closures and endings, Chris wrote inviting me to join Ensemble Altera to rehearse and sing in a parking garage.

This most unlikely of places became a sanctuary of sorts for we singers. A safe place where we could trust in the adherence to the protocols in place to keep us healthy, and where we could hear our voices blend and resonate in an acoustic, not unlike the churches where we’ve all spent countless happy hours rehearsing and performing over the years.

That last bit is huge. So much of our time as singers during this pandemic has been spent recording our parts alone, in the quietest, driest acoustic we could find (so that sound engineers could then add an artificial acoustic back in). We did take after take, in silent isolation, devoid of each other’s breath, missing the 3-second reverb of our favorite venue, and the comfort of a sectional blend, feeling like every tiny imperfection was being amplified by the entirely-too-close microphone, captured for posterity, for all to hear at the click of a play button. I am forever grateful to all of the groups I’ve worked with during this pandemic, in whatever way we managed to still make music, together or apart. I am inspired by all of the ways various folks have worked to innovate in this time when the thing we love most was labeled most dangerous. But, to be able to stand, even 6+ feet apart, and sing with other people, that you can see and hear, in a space that reverberates with your footsteps, water bottles and final notes… it is an ineffable joy.

As Joni Mitchell wrote, and I will be singing on our upcoming Earth Day livestream, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. We took for granted our scheduling emails, carpools, rehearsal breaks, downbeats, staggered breathing, sectionals, interval tuning, post-concert hangs, and all that which is choir life, and were (still are) bereft when that all came to an abrupt halt.

Ensemble Altera, with Christopher Lowrey at its helm, has found a way throughout this time to find sanctuaries for our voices, as well as our hearts, and has allowed you, our audience, to find and join us in our joy from the safety of your own homes, and hopefully, this summer, in a safe, distanced, but live outdoor performance as we remember those whose voices were lost to COVID-19. I hope we will be able to gather together then, and for many years to come.

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Olivia Miller, Soprano

I am not very keen on technology. When lockdown began a year ago, and I saw many musicians turn to digital media to continue their music-making, I knew that wasn’t a venue that interested me. It’s not because I don’t enjoy watching performances online; I do that everyday. But, the great wonder of ensemble singing is the of-the-moment communication, both with fellow performers and with the audience. Each individual brings a palpable energy, a resonance within their spirit, and it affects every moment of how the music is produced and felt. That part is completely missing when I record alone in my little studio apartment.

When I heard that Ensemble Altera might be looking for some new voices for summer 2020, I understood that we probably couldn’t perform for a live audience. Yet, we were motivated to employ creative solutions, so that the singers could sing in the same large space. That was enough to pique my interest.

Even with considerable spacing between us, we share precious moments of human connection. A meeting of eyes. Breathing as one. Tones ringing from all around me. Laughter at silly mistakes. Stillness as a final cadence evaporates up toward the sky. We train alone, but music is not for the practice room. It’s a gift that we share. I’m thankful for the members of Altera, who valued the treasure of human connection enough to bear the challenges of a pandemic.

By Olivia Miller, Soprano

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I began singing with Ensemble Altera (Altera) in 2017, and have loved - no, adored - every second of it. Each concert performed has been one full of challenging music that rewards everyone involved, has given me so many memories, and fostered relationships with amazingly talented musicians who have taught me so very much. When I began singing with Altera, I didn’t think it could get much better, but it did. With each concert came so much more joy, along with that feeling of knowing I was doing what I was meant to do.

No one knew of the hard times ahead, and no one could ever have imagined that our concert in the summer of 2019 would be the last before a pandemic would hit the world head on.

The unthinkable happened, and, in 2020, we found that doing what we loved the most, making music with each other, was dangerous. Within days, each member of the music community saw their gigs canceled and continued to spend the next months in quarantine. Refusing to give up, after months of not singing, our director, Christopher Lowrey, worked extremely hard to find ways where we could still sing together without any Covid-related ramifications. This led us to our first performance during Covid, our Garage Concert Series. After much deliberation and planning, we met and spent a week rehearsing and recording videos to be put out online. We were back!

With these and then the Christmas sessions last November, we found solutions through ventilation, testing, bubbling, masking in rehearsals and social distancing. One might think this is all too much to go through just to sing, right? No, each person in the group was more than willing, and just ecstatic at the idea of this project. Taking all the extra precautions seems so easy when you know that you are able to make music again. I could not help but think that I was so lucky to be there. Since that first day in the garage, each recording session has become so very much more than what I said before; it has become a statement, as well. Altera is playing a vital role in keeping music alive when so many think it should be avoided at all costs, and, in doing so, we make people around the world happy during the worst year of so many of their lives.

How does such a simple action such as singing change our entire world? Why are the arts so important, especially right now? For myself, singing brings a natural happiness and comfort, and is a huge element in how people express themselves. Aside from how important it is for musicians’ mental health, music is vital to so many people’s lives. From going to the Opera, hearing live music in a pub, or walking down the road in a city and hearing a street performer, music is everywhere in our lives.

This past year, people have not only missed music, but the arts overall. So, let’s bring them back, safely of course, and help the world slowly get back up on its feet. After all, how long can we really make it without music?

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