Adapting to Change: Choral Festival Amidst COVID-19

Written by Alison Theis

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 last year, many Fine Arts departments and facilities have had to undergo major changes in order to bring joy and entertainment to the public. Dr. Jonathan Stewart, director of OKWU’s music program has faced this same dilemma. His solution? The OKWU music department hits the road once again! On March 1st and 2nd the OKWU instrumental ensemble Unchained, the acapella group Relentless and the chorale loaded up for a day drip to Nowata, Oklahoma and South Coffeyville, Oklahoma for a traveling Choral festival.  

Traditionally, Dr. Stewart and the OKWU music program has hosted Chorale Festival in the OKWU chapel. High school choirs from the surrounding areas come to campus where they have the opportunity to work on repertoire combined with members of the OKWU choir. Dr. Stewart leads various rehearsals and workshops throughout the morning session. After lunch, the group will fine-tune the smaller details. Then the high school choirs break into smaller groups for a tour of OKWU’s beautiful campus. Members of the OKWU music department eventually lead their tour groups to the cafeteria, where the combined choirs can eat together. Each school then prepares for an evening concert to showcase their individual talents. 

  The concert usually opens with a short performance from each of the participating school choirs followed by a few numbers from Unchained, Relentless, and the OKWU Chorale. The high school choirs then join the OKWU performers on the stage to perform the repertoire they had workshopped during the day. The concert normally ends with tons of smiles coming from the various performers across the stage, along with the gratitude for OKWU’s ability to host such a fun and educational day.  

This year, OKWU took the festival to the high schoolers. On March 1st the music department went to Nowata High School to work with both the middle school and high school choirs. The Nowata choirs each performed two pieces, allowing for Dr. Stewart to workshop some different breathing exercises in order to improve the quality of each choir’s sound. Unchained then got the small high school crowd clapping their hands to some classic fiddle tunes and a jazz piece. Relentless spiced things up with an acapella version of “One Call Away” by Charlie Puth. The choir closed out the school day with a performance of “From Now On” from the musical The Greatest Showman. 

The following day, the OKWU music department took a forty-minute drive to South Coffeyville, Oklahoma, where alumnus Lauralyn Belden teaches choir. This performance ended up becoming a school-wide assembly so that each student could enjoy the beauty of hearing live music. Unchained opened the assembly, followed by Relentless and a closing number from the choir. The music groups then ventured to Mrs. Belden’s classroom where they workshopped with her students. 

OKWU’s music department will continue to travel to various schools and churches in the surrounding Bartlesville area after Spring Break. The performers are overly excited that they are still able to perform at different venues, even if they cannot go on a traditional Spring tour. The goal of the music department is still the same no matter what happens with COVID-19. They will always strive to create good music together, using it to glorify God and bring joy to others.