As I sit here typing, there’s an open tab in my browser about upgrading and/or doubling up your masks due to emerging variants of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
So what on earth am I doing writing about planning choral performances?!
Well, right next to that tab is another one with an article about how the Biden administration has ordered 200 million more doses of vaccine. Optimists are talking about having up to 300 million people in the U.S. vaccinated by early fall.
In other words, there seem to be pinpricks of light in what has felt like the darkest year many of us can remember. However imperceptible that light may seem, we should be ready for it lest we be caught unprepared!
As always, communication among staff, board, chorus, and community to process the best information available, make decisions that prioritize public health, and provide a safe and enjoyable experience to your patrons are paramount.
Should Arts Organizations Plan Outdoor Concerts in 2021?
So… should we do it? Should we start planning outdoor concerts for when the weather improves and the sun stays in the sky past 5pm?
This critical question doesn’t have a universal answer. Different regions have different rates of virus transmission. The audience of your chorus may comprise people at more or less risk than the audience of another group’s. Your singers themselves may comprise people at more or less risk, too. Your state or county may have more or fewer restrictions on crowd sizes, types of activities, etc.
Before you get too far in the weeds, determine whether an outdoor concert in your area is even permitted. If not, then your journey ends here for now, and it’s back to your ring light, your smartphone, and that one spot in your home that looks okay in virtual choir videos. (How’s your sourdough starter doing, by the way?)
If outdoor concerts are permitted where you live, there are a number of questions to answer. I’ll try to address them in order of "absolute top priority" to "this definitely doesn’t need its own committee," but this list doesn’t represent a timeline. You can decide plenty of these details out of the order presented and it might be helpful to get some of the easier issues decided sooner rather than later.
Will Members and Audiences Return to Live Performances?
So you’ve determined that outdoor concerts are allowed, and that the leadership of your organization is ready to move forward with producing a safe concert. Will your singers and audience show up? It might be time to roll out a survey and find out. Be very specific with your chorus and audience about all the details surrounding the event: location(s), safety precautions being taken, protocols they’ll be expected to follow — distancing, masking, testing, etc. Your ability to carry on will depend on how many folks respond, how balanced an ensemble you can get from those willing to participate, and whether your community will feel safe returning.
Finding the Right Outdoor Venue
Once you know how many singers you’re working with, you’ll need to identify locations for rehearsals and performances. If your chorus is anything like mine, you’ve been scouting out such concert venues for months, hoping for the chance to perform safely — even if not inside a concert hall — and cataloging all potentially-suitable locations. The venue search poses bigger problems for bigger choruses, and might mean dividing up your group to rehearse in smaller cohorts. It might also mean putting a cap on the number of singers allowed to perform. Don’t forget to take distancing into account when determining how many performers you can put on stage. For now, the more elbow room the better.
Save the Date(s)!
Especially for larger groups, finding a venue is likely to be your biggest hurdle. Secondary to that may be finding a date. If open-air venues are booking outside groups, demand could be high. If it’s possible, book a primary date and a rain date — a very real concern depending on where you live and the time of year.
Reopening Considerations for Live Events
Each venue is different, and these are unfamiliar circumstances to just about everyone, so be sure everyone is clear on a few key points:
- How does this venue handle ticket sales? Do they even allow ticket sales? Is there a way to go entirely paperless so that nothing is changing hands at the point of entry?
- What are the masking requirements? How will audience distancing be enforced? Will the venue staff manage that? Will you have to provide staff/volunteers to assist?
- Taking safety protocols into account, what are the maximum capacity numbers for audience and performers?
Here's a comprehensive list of other reopening considerations for arts organizations and performance venues.
Musical Considerations for Outdoor Concerts
Just because I’m listing repertoire way down here doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Obviously, what you sing is a critical piece of the puzzle, but your Artistic Director has been choosing repertoire for ages, and let’s be honest: they’ve been planning this concert in their mind for months in the hopes it comes to fruition.
There’s more to consider than just the artistic piece here, though. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with outdoor performances, you’ll want to consider the following:
- Acoustic — Is there any kind of shell, canopy, or other physical structure that will help your group to be heard by the audience? Is there other technology you can tap into to limit acoustic challenges, such as the FM transmitters used for drive-in choirs? Singing in an open field is unlikely to result in the kind of sound you’re after. If nothing exists at the venue, they may have recommendations about where to rent such equipment.
- Amplification — Do you want to mic the choir? The piano? Other instruments?
- Electricity — The Executive Director of my chorus has a venue on her list that might work really well for us in just about every way but one: there’s no electricity. Will we have to rent a generator? Will that be noisier than it’s worth? Should we move on? Be sure you have this information and avoid being... shocked.
The Finer Details of Planning an Outdoor Concert
This is a non-comprehensive list of fine-grain details of planning a concert outdoors that will wake you up from a dream in the middle of the night. Don’t ask me how I know that.
- Attire — If you’re a group that usually performs in "concert black" and you’re planning an outdoor concert in the middle of August, perhaps something less heat stroke-inducing is in order. You know the personality of your group best, so I won’t make specific suggestions, but after this long hiatus, we want our singers to have an enjoyable and comfortable experience as possible.
- Masks — Two thoughts come to mind about masks:
- What kind should they be? By now, we’ve all seen various iterations of masks made specifically for singers, and have heard all kinds of reviews about them. Consider ordering a couple different types to try out. Ask your singers if they’ve had experience with any of these. If you need suggestions, try asking The Chorus Management Network facebook group.
- Should they match? Masks with your chorus’s name and logo? Just a bulk order so that everyone’s blue mask is the same blue? Let folks express themselves by not having an aesthetic requirement? There’s no wrong answer, but it’s worth having an answer before the question shows up in your inbox... twelve times.
- Literally every COVID-safety-related detail — Which entrance to use, how to find places on stage, where the hand sanitizer will be, the availability of restrooms, whether or not folks can lift their masks to drink from a water bottle. All of it. It’s worth planning every detail so that when your singers arrive, they know exactly where and how to be, and can focus instead on giving themselves fully to the music-making process.
Will we be able to gather this summer to make music? If you’re allowed to gather, will your chorus feel comfortable doing so? If your chorus is into it, will your audience show up? These are just a few of many questions I can’t answer.
Here are a few things I do know: we all miss singing together a great deal. As I write this, I know that more than 56 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the U.S., and that number will grow exponentially (fingers crossed!) in the coming weeks. As more of the population becomes vaccinated, more opportunities to gather are likely to emerge. Be smart, be safe, be ready. The time to plan is now. Good luck!
Kenny Litvack is an arts nonprofit consultant focusing on younger organizations seeking to gain a foothold in their communities. He is President of Princeton Pro Musica in Princeton, NJ, where he has sung as part of its professional core since 2005, and has served on its Board of Trustees since 2015. When not engrossed in the world of choral music, Kenny enjoys spending time with his husband, their dog Murphy, and their eight nieces and nephews. He welcomes inquiries about chorus management, recommendations for excellent craft beers, and invitations to Harry Potter trivia events.