SWFL choirs sing in unusual settings these days

An enchanted morning

You can see strangers

Strangers far removed

On the other side of a lonely park …

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Southwest Florida’s quest for choral music is taking on the allure of a movie musical. It may not be “South Pacific”, however. These masked Lakes Park women, 10 feet apart, singing in the early morning mist, may evoke more of an “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou” vibe.

Yet these unusual places are how communities motivated to sing survive. Six months after COVID-19 drew warrants against the rallies, and after health analysts warned the greatest danger of transmission was in droplets spread through speaking and singing, choirs turned every stone to ideas that will allow them to harmonize again.

Their song is not only good for their soul; almost all of these groups fund music scholarships for local students with their concerts.

Women work outdoors to stay in vocal shape

The Coastal Voices, one of two female choirs at the hair salons that serve Fort Myers and Naples, is the group that rehearses in southern Fort Myers’ Lakes Park every other Saturday morning. The fledgling group, approaching their twenties, enjoys the flexibility of their size for performance opportunities. (“We’re smaller and we adapt,” said President Angie Beatty.) It also allowed them to stretch out on a meadow in the park to sing along.

The choir is a member of the national organization Harmony and had just performed their first concert in January, Beatty lamented. They pushed, however.

“Our member makes tapes of themselves singing and sends them to our manager. We brought in vocal coaches,” she said. “And even during COVID, we had six new people. “

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Spirit of the Gulf, with 120 members in season. But they also want to sing together. They’re looking for a gigantic parking lot for an in-person rehearsal.

“We had our annual show on March 7. And then the singing world imploded,” recalls Karen Breidert, a former Fort Myers resident. She now leads the group from Jacksonville, with co-director Deanna Kastler, who lives in Plantation.

Breidert is more than willing to make the trip south for in-person rehearsals if the Spirit of the Gulf can find sufficient outdoor space. Although Spirit is largely populated by singers from Fort Myers and Naples, it attracts women from as far north as Sarasota and as far east as Miami. Snowbirds from states like Ohio flew in for rehearsals.

Her costumed and choreographed show won Florida’s competition among the Sweet Adelines, her national organization. But the coronavirus dashed his hopes of representing the state at the national convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

“We had to reinvent ourselves because we weren’t going to give up,” said Breidert.

“So we started with the Zoom rehearsals. We had a rehearsal that started with everyone, and then we would have boardroom sections online. We even had private lessons. We had coaches. The instructors have us on. speak. “

Yet she seeks that accommodating outdoor space.

“I think all of us singers feel so alone for what we love to do and for each other,” she said. “We are unique in that all ages are represented. We range from our youngest who is 11 to our oldest who is 80.”

Two choirs, two sets of needs

Trent Brown had to redouble his efforts to keep his choirs singing. He is director of choirs at the FGCU where he is associate professor of music. He also conducts the Symphonic Chorale of Southwest Florida, which sings its own repertoire and works with orchestras such as the Southwest Florida Symphony and the Naples Philharmonic.

Brown’s courses at FGCU are for music majors and students who choose music studies and need to meet. So he created co-ed classes that rotate small groups of each student for a live class, while the rest participate online.

“If you’re a student, in any given week you might see me 50% of the time,” he estimated. “But there are some students who have chosen not to come back so their classes are fully online.”

Live students are distanced, and the group either takes breaks every 20 minutes for ventilation exchanges in the rehearsal room, or they change rooms to stay in the fresh air. Distance students send recordings of what they sing with their group.

It took a lot more planning, but Brown sees a benefit: “The students told me they built more independence that way. They don’t have other singers to lean on (vocally) when they practice. “

The Symphonic Chorale, which works with similar remote rehearsals, actually has firmer plans for this year than next. He has found a new venue for his annual holiday concert, now scheduled for Dec. 13 at 3 p.m. at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. There will be no symphonic collaboration, but there will be piano and brass, Brown hopes, for a maximum audience of 500 spectators who can be spread over its 8,200 seats.

For next year, fingers are crossed for a rescheduled concert of British music on March 14 at the Moorings Presbyterian Church in Naples to commemorate the death in 2019 of Founding President Alan Wioskowski. Also provisional for next spring: rescheduled joint performances with other choirs in two major works of the Naples Philharmonic: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and “Carmina Burana”.

“After my initial depression of having to find all these other ways to rehearse and play, I found out I was a little excited about it,” Brown said.

“I don’t want this to go on forever. But there are ways of delivering choral music that can extend the reach (to) people who live in remote rural areas, people who may have a disability, or people with disabilities. childcare needs that keep them from attending regular church choir rehearsals or community choir rehearsals.

“These strategies we are using will hopefully increase access.”

Singers make plans and adjust if necessary

Coincidentally, the Fort Myers Mastersingers have scheduled their holiday concert on the same day as the Symphony Choir, but they will be outside at 6 p.m. on December 13 at the Sanibel Community Church.

“We’re definitely on Plan B,” said artistic director Shannon Arnold. At this point, the group is unsure whether their performances at the 2021 Edison Festival of Light will be recorded or on location, but they do know that this is the turning year in which they sing “The Messiah”. by Handel.

Arnold wants this to happen; it’s the Mastersingers 20th anniversary season. She plans events with her chamber choir, a smaller group auditioning separately. Arnold, too, uses remote technology for rehearsals: “We actually did a virtual choir over the summer because we missed each other.”

“It’s our 20th anniversary season, so we were planning a really big party with our youth choir and our new Intermezzo choir, which has singers and their care partners. The singers have dementia or dementia. ‘Alzheimer’s,’ Arnold said. The concert is still scheduled for the last weekend of March. “We hope we can do it in person.”

“As long as it’s safe. Obviously we need to keep monitoring things,” she said and acknowledged that people had worked hard just to rehearse. “I think everyone wants a bit of normalcy.”

The Paradise Coastmen, a Naples-based hair salon organization, quickly realized that no gig would be worth it if the choir weren’t ready to sing. The group always hands out “homework”; music tapes, scores and lyrics for its members to study during the summer. He also instituted summer section rehearsals through Zoom, a new development for the Coastmen.

“Some of us just haven’t done our homework in the past summers,” admitted Gray Poehler, his vice president of marketing. “But because of these Zoom repeats, I think we’re further along than we were last year at this time.”

Full choir rehearsals via remote technology began, but Poehler saw no outdoor concert plans with his style of music.

“Unless you have a really good sound system, it’s very difficult to project a cappella,” he said. “I understand that some of the hair salon choirs have attempted to meet in the open with masks and social distancing, but we haven’t made that decision.”

They have scheduled their annual public concerts for March 18-20.

“Hopefully we can do it. But that depends on whether the audience feels comfortable enough to go out in a group.”

The Fort Myers-based Gulf Coast Harmonizers had the same hesitation about live vocals, said Saurin Shah, MD, group president, “and I’m a doctor too, so I’m hyper aware of what’s going on. happening and what is happening. it means to us. “

The Harmonizers remained nimble with Zoom rehearsals in a new repertoire and lectures on topics such as warm-up technique and arrangements. Its 50 members are invited to sing for 15 to 20 minutes a day to keep their vocal muscles in shape.

The group is experimenting with JackTrip, a system that only became available last month. JackTrip works with group performance latency issues on Zoom, equalizing the transmission of sounds that may be slower or faster, depending on the broadband speed of each member’s internet provider.

If the technology works, Shah said the organization was exploring the idea of ​​a virtual spring concert, but had not set a date. “There is still a learning curve,” he said.

Voices of Naples, the 30-voice community choir, has carried out intensive research to save one of Naples ‘long-standing traditions, its’ Sing-Along ‘Messiah’. As a result, a new location, Grace Lutheran Church in Naples, has become both the venue for her live rehearsals, which resume in late October, and the event itself on November 22. It will be with a reduced orchestra, and a reduced participation capacity, warned Doug Renfroe, director of Voices of Naples.

But, he added, Handel’s original oratorio was not intended for a choir of 300 and a full orchestra. Although reservations are not yet required, he said there are aspects of the participatory concert that are still evolving.

“The church has wonderful acoustics,” he said. “I’m excited about this. We will hear “The Messiah” as it was originally done. “

To sing

Here’s how to contact the community singing groups in this story:

Coastal voices:

Gulf Spirit: or 844-704-7464

Southwest Florida Symphony Choir: or 239-560-695

Blackmailers of Fort Myers: or 239-288-2535

Coastal paradise: or 239-352-6366.

Gulf Coast Harmonizers: or 855-425-3631

Voices from Naples:

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers the arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News / Contact her at 239-213-6091.