Cornell chorale, high school collaborate on commission

“You are human. You are meant to make mistakes. You are meant to be happy. You are deserving. Stay amazing.”

These lyrics, inspired by students at Cornell and at Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, Mass., are part of an online choral/video project the students created in partnership with composer LJ White.

The idea for “You Are,” came together during brainstorming sessions between Stephen Spinelli, assistant director of choral programs at Cornell, and his former middle school choral director, Kayla Werlin.

“Our goal was to engage Longmeadow High School and Cornell University students in a process that would foster community while creating art,” Werlin said, adding that both schools wanted to do more than a standard virtual choir project during the pandemic.

students sing in parking garage

Instead, students from the two schools met with White in September in a Zoom call, where they reflected on questions that would end up generating the text for the piece. Some of those questions were:

  • What do you love about singing in a choir?
  • What’s been on your mind over the past several months? How are you feeling?
  • What would you say to friends who are struggling right now?

“I think there were a lot of similarities between what students at Cornell and the high school students have been experiencing during this pandemic,” said Victoria Malkoun ‘21. “Honestly I feel like there is this feeling of being stuck and lost. I feel like normally there is this sense of momentum of always moving and doing something which makes you feel like you have a purpose. The pandemic spoiled a lot of plans and forced us all to isolate and slow down.”

But “we all turned to music to help ourselves get through these tough times,” she said.

LJ White

White studied the student’s responses and began to form the text for the piece.

“When I went through all of the submissions, I saw that a number of them had used the phrase ‘you are human,’ and that there were a lot of other ‘you are’ phrases along the lines of encouraging each other to be kind to themselves and see the beauty in themselves,” said White, a Chicago composer who is also an alumnus of Longmeadow.

After White finished the composition, students created the piece by recording themselves individually singing along to White’s accompaniment tracks. Those recordings were stitched together by Spinelli and White.

“The piece is a document of people caring for each other, and I hope that it encourages others to care for each other in the same way, both on an individual level and on a broader social level,” White said. “The music itself, for me, has a sadness about it, but also a sense of hope.”

student walking in woods

Longmeadow High School music teacher Scott Halligan said the project helped to reframe the challenges of the pandemic.

“There are so many things we cannot do. It's discouraging to contemplate,” he said. “This project helped to flip things around. Let's look at things in a different way: What is possible now that wasn't possible before? When one door closes, another opens.”

Spinelli agreed that the project helped students and faculty to embrace the possibilities of virtual work and communication.

“ ’You Are’ preserved this very strange, very important semester through meaningful art,” he said. “The project challenges the medium of the virtual choir. Rather than serving as a memorial to what is lost when we are apart or unable to sing together, ‘You Are’ is an inspirational approach to the creation of something new and different."

Chorale students

While students at both schools worked to record and submit their sections, Cornell student Adam Shulman ’23 collaborated with Longmeadow student Brooke Moss to produce the performance piece, which includes individual singer submissions, outdoor rehearsal video, filmed fragments and still photographs.

To tie the Longmeadow and Cornell communities together, the first part of the video includes singers from both ensembles walking in places they found familiar. The second section includes footage from students of inspirational art, verses and videos.

“We passed edits back and forth, so we incorporated and adapted each others’ choices, creating an unexpected but complete result, true to the form of the piece itself,” Shulman said. “Listening closely to our empowering, comforting voices to figure out timings was a genuinely comforting end to the semester.”

 

screenshot of people singing

The experience allowed choral students — who are missing the opportunity to sing together— the next best thing, said Zane Sharkawy ’23.

“Despite the fact that we were socially distanced, we had a whole new community to connect with,” Sharkawy said, adding that Spinelli also offered an optional socially-distanced Friday afternoon meetup for choral students who wanted to explore ways to make music without singing. “This was crucial for me. Even though I was on campus, all of my classes were online, but this gave me the opportunity once a week to relax and calm down and focus on improving myself as a musician.”

Shulman agreed that the final product is a snapshot of the fall semester of 2020.

“Ultimately, ‘You Are’ belongs to Fall 2020: the heartfelt culmination of small, happy moments in a very long year,” he said. “We all experienced so much, separately, and this was a melding-together of good intentions and memories through music.”

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