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The Power of the Chorale: How One Choir’s Love of Music Keeps Them Going During the Pandemic

Wearing special singing masks, members of the Stonewall Chorale rehearse at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. (Credit: Vanessa Blankenship)

Inside St. Luke in the Fields, a whimsical church in the West Village, a choir group gathered for  weekly rehearsal in November. On that Tuesday evening, a crisp late fall breeze blew through the open stained-glass windows. Of the 36 members in attendance, more than half were bundled in their overcoats, and some passed out hand warmer packets to help soothe their shivers. In the rows of pews, everyone practiced social distancing, and everyone was wearing a mask. 

Despite the discomfort, they relished being there together – no small feat after more than a year of singing while being apart. The Stonewall Chorale, one of the first LGBTQ-friendly chorus groups in the country, continues to adjust to new normals. But as the pandemic drags on, so does the uncertainty.

Founded in 1977, the Stonewall Chorale puts on a concert series every year. Along with the rest of the world, it came to an almost complete halt when the coronavirus spread in March 2020. That spring, the choir was busy preparing for the second concert of their 43rd season, “Here Comes the Sun.” A week and a half before the show, the rest of the season was canceled. 

Once a group of up to 70 singers, membership quickly shrunk to between 40 to 50 amid the pandemic. A canceled concert season resulted in choristers requesting a leave of absence. Membership dues were officially suspended. Some tested positive for Covid-19. A few got really sick. In-person rehearsals were out of the question. Like so much of the rest of the country, the Stonewall Chorale went online, performing and practicing over Zoom. 

The “December Sunrise” program kicked off their 45th season. Weeks ahead of the concert, artistic director Cynthia Powell stood before the church’s altar like a priest addressing the congregation and led the opening vocal warm-ups: 

Ma-Me-Mi-Mo-Mu.

“Are our Zoomers on?” Powell asked as she directed her attention to the chorale’s membership chair Larissa McDowell, who set up her smartphone on a tripod to include those who felt ill or couldn’t make it in person. 

After roughly ten minutes of vocal exercises and stretches, it was time for “Wild Forces,” the second movement of award-winning composer Jake Runestad’s “The Hope of Loving.”

Sitting upright, chests up, the choir harmoniously chanted over and over: 

There are beautiful, wild forces within us.

Let them turn millstones inside, filling bushels that reach to the sky.

“It needs to be louder,” said Powell. “Let’s try again and see if we can express emotions with our eyes. We want to give the audience something.” 

This time, Powell, a conductor who has served as the chorale’s artistic director since 2002, had them all stand up and simultaneously sway side to side. The melody’s warm vibrations filled the freezing church. “Excellent, that was really something,” she exclaimed. “We’re starting to get somewhere.” 

In mid-November, Stephanie Heintzeler, one of the altos, sat toward the back in the 12th row or so. Heintzeler was raised in Germany and is a certified birth and postpartum doula and the founder of The New York Baby, a  doula services agency. She’s been a pivotal member of the Stonewall Chorale for almost a decade and never once thought of leaving the group, even after the pandemic created chaos for the group. For her, it’s more than just a choir. Without it, she never would have met her wife, Janet Thompson. 

“We have a very strong bond with the chorale and always felt that we are not only a member, but we are the chorale,” Heintzeler said. “It exists because of us.”

If Heintzeler’s life were a rom-com, the moment she first saw Thompson would be a classic meet-cute scene. It was January 2013, and Heintzeler had just spent the past several months looking for a chorus group. She wasn’t sure what kind of music she wanted to sing. She just knew she loved classical music and liked the idea of joining an LGBTQ choir to better connect with the city’s community. She joined the Stonewall Chorale, and at her first rehearsal, Thompson sat next to her. The group rehearsed Mozart’s Requiem, and Heintzeler left practice knowing Thompson would one day be her person. The feeling was mutual. 

Thompson proposed to Heintzeler in August 2020. Weeks later, they pledged their unconditional love before 20 of their closest friends at a small ceremony by the Belvedere Castle in Central Park. Powell was the wedding officiant. 

A year later, Heintzeler celebrated another monumental moment in her life: the end of the Stonewall Chorale’s hiatus. 

“I just know I’ll feel five times better when I’m there,” Heintzeler said. “And that’s new. I always felt better after rehearsal before, but now, somehow, the benefit is larger. I feel it physically and mentally; I feel it more than I used to.” 

***

Michael Conwill usually sits near the front of the church with the other basses. As president of the board of directors and member of the Stonewall Chorale, he’s spent nearly two years safeguarding the group’s physical and mental well-being by enforcing COVID-19 safety measures. His goal is to avoid the unthinkable – starting a superspreader event, like when the Skagit Valley Chorale’s rehearsal made headlines in early 2020. Out of the 61 members who attended, 53 singers contracted COVID-19 symptoms and two died. 

To salvage what was left of the Stonewall Chorale’s membership and come back together in the safest way possible, Conwill and other board members appointed a COVID-19 task force made up of chorus members with medical backgrounds. The team spent weeks researching and analyzing what choirs around the country were doing and incorporated protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York State Department of Health. They decided they needed a bigger rehearsal venue, mask requirements, social distancing, temperature checks, proof of vaccination, sanitizing, and increased air circulation with open windows and portable filtration units. 

“It’s been quite a journey to get here,” Conwill said. 

Over the months, the weekly rehearsals began to serve purposes beyond singing. Some weeks Powell taught new vocal techniques or had guest performers join in. Others, members logged on for online check-ins just to connect with friends who, too, were feeling isolated. Many rehearsals were even designated as game nights, and once a month, the choristers participated in diversity, equity and inclusion workshops. 

The chorus also managed to organize their entire 44th season virtually with a compilation of pre-recorded videos and announced several online concerts, like their holiday performance, “Home for the Holidays,” on the chorale’s YouTube channel. 

“We all are happy that we hopefully will never have to do that again,” Conwill said. “The point of being in a choir is singing with other people. Sitting at home and singing into a camera and a microphone is not choral singing in any way, shape or form.” 

***

Gwendolyn Stegall, an alto who has been singing with the choir since 2016, first fell in love with the chorale as a devoted fan in the audience. Stegall’s mother started taking her to the concerts when she was 10 years-old to watch their friend David Fanger, a tenor who still sings with the chorale. She recalled attending one show around the holidays when the chorale performed “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas.” 

By July 2020, Stegall joined the board of directors as the new vice president and was driven by the call for social change after the murder of George Floyd unleashed a national reckoning. With in-person rehearsals on pause that summer, Stegall took the moment as an opportunity to encourage the chorale, a predominantly white group, to participate in open conversations about the movement. 

“I think a lot of organizations, especially ones that are mission-driven like ours in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, wanted to rethink the way they operated,” Stegall said. “The pandemic also gave us an opportunity to reflect and have some time to think about things that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to address in a normal concert period.”

One Tuesday per month, Stegall helped organize workshops to explore mission-based initiatives that were covered in The Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) workbook, “A New Harmony.” The conversations ranged from race and ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, ageism to socio-economic status. 

“It reinforced my love for this community,” Stegall said. “The fact that people were willing to show up and have these conversations and then make the connection between the sort of broad, abstract concept and the specifics of how the Stonewall Chorale operates and how we could change the way we do certain things, I think was really helpful and eye-opening.”

***

On December 7, the Stonewall Chorale gathered for dress rehearsals at the concert venue in Chelsea, Church of the Holy Apostles. It was the last time the singers would practice before performing “December Sunrise,” the debut of their 45th concert season, in front of a masked crowd of around 200 people. 

The singers were accompanied by Powell, the conductor, pianist Eric Sedgwick and a symphony orchestra. In many ways, the concert would answer a central question: Can the Stonewall Chorale safely pull off a pandemic-era concert season? If all went well, the chorale’s March concert, “Music for the Soul,” and June concert, “Curtain Up!” could go on as planned.  

“Things seem to miraculously come together,” Powell said that night. “When you get to the actual concert, and little things tend to work themselves out, little fairy dust happens.” 

There was a slight pause during dress rehearsals, and the voices that once bounced off the church’s walls transitioned into whispers. Then, the vocalists focused on the movements from Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” meaning eternal light. The group dedicated this work to the memory of Richard Froehlich, a Stonewall Chorale tenor who passed away at the age of 58 from a heart attack in late September, just when the choir finally returned to in-person rehearsals. 

“It was a shock to all of us because he had just been at rehearsal the week before,” Powell said. “He had just come back after almost two years.”

After three hours, dress rehearsals wrapped up. The Stonewall Chorale roared in applause, and several members exchanged high-fives and bear hugs. 

The evening of the concert, the Stonewall Chorale posted on Facebook a message thanking everyone who came to support the choir, along with a few lyrics from “Alway Something Sings,” a song they rehearsed often during the peak of the pandemic. 

But in the darkest, meanest things

There alway, alway something sings.

***

Before the Omicron strain of COVID-19 struck New York City, the Stonewall Chorale rode on a high. 

“We were very happy with the concert,” Conwill said in early January. “It was the first time we’ve sung in public and masked, and our audience told us that it didn’t make a difference in our sound. It didn’t seem to muffle us in any way. The singing masks must work.” 

Many of the singers in the chorale started utilizing the Singer’s Mask, designed by Broadway Relief Project. These masks are specially designed to contain the user’s droplets and fit closely on the face while giving just enough room around the mouth to sing without distorting the sound.

Record-breaking Omicron cases in New York City, though, brought what Conwill called another “gut punch.”

Days after performing “December Sunrise,” two altos in the chorale tested positive, along with one orchestra member. Everyone who was at the concert was notified. One audience member also tested positive. 

Because Omicron is extremely transmissible, the choir decided to conduct weekly rehearsals for their next concert, “Music for the Soul,” remotely through the month of January. If Omicron cases continue to rise, the March concert will most likely be postponed until a later date. 

“We hope this strain will burn out in cold weather and that things will be a little better when we get into warmer weather,” Conwill said. “But it’s conjecture at this point.”

Written by

Vanessa Blankenship is a grad student at the Columbia Journalism School covering arts and culture.