Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The very nature of their work forces performers to think outside the box or the confines of a theater space as is the case for students at Kellogg Community College who will be showcasing their talent during a virtual gala on April 27.
The online event, titled “A Celebration of Performing Arts at KCC: A Virtual Gala,” will stream live from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, on the college’s YouTube channel here
. The event is free and open to the public, but virtual attendees are asked to register in advance here
or by calling (269) 965-4161.
Music and theater are the focus of the event, as this year marks the 65th anniversary of choral programming at KCC and the 60th anniversary of the college’s first theater production, says Dr. Gerald Case-Blanchard, Director of Vocal Arts at KCC and coordinator of the College’s music programming, adding that the year also marks the 65th anniversary of the College’s 1956 founding in Battle Creek.
Conversations about the Gala began five years ago between Case-Blanchard and Teresa Durham, Executive Director of the KCC Foundation. The Gala was planned as an in-person event with a week’s worth of activities which would culminate in an evening of live performances in various areas of the college’s Davidson Visual and Performing Arts Center.
Dr. Gerald Case-Blanchard and choir in rehearsal.
“I said I really wanted to do something where the choir could be celebrated. I wanted to make sure that when we did our 65th-anniversary celebration there would be some way to collaborate and show the history of the college and the connectivity between the college and the choir, which were founded the same year,” Case-Blanchard says. “We were talking about having strolling tables in the main lobby of the Davidson where people could get food and beverages and visit various rooms to see performances by band, theater, and choir members so that it was an experience.”
The Gala was originally scheduled to take place at the beginning of the anniversary year, but COVID put a pause on these plans. Organizers pushed it back to April 27 based on a degree of optimism that the virus would be under control and live performances could once again happen.
When it became clear that a live event was not going to be an option, Case-Blanchard says Gala organizers and performers did what they do best -- pivoted into a creative problem-solving mode.
“I refused to let the 65-year anniversary of the choral program not be recognized,” says Case-Blanchard. “I am a passionate person and a former salesperson and I refuse to be the one to drop the ball after 65 years of this program and I won’t let it go away.”
Relying on the skills and knowledge he’s amassed when his program, like so many others at KCC, had to move to a virtual format, Case-Blanchard says of the Gala, “All of a sudden it became this big thing. What we have come up with is pretty dang spectacular.”
When the choir can't be in the same room they still find a way to perform together.
In addition to remarks from KCC President Dr. Adrien Bennings, the Gala will feature musical performances by KCC Music Faculty Artists; alumni; and choral and theater students. There also will be pre-recorded performances and live remarks from KCC students and faculty, including KCC Theatre alumnus Lance Barber, who currently stars on the CBS sitcom “Young Sheldon” and Maestra Anne Harrigan, conductor of the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra.
The program also will feature a music and theater collaboration featuring a performance from the cast of KCC’s upcoming 2020-21 production of “The Wiz,” with choreography by Shantese La’chy Robinson, artistic direction under Bard Poer, KCC’s Theatre Director, music direction under Case-Blanchard and featuring Lori Hatfield as principal pianist and associate music director.
The gala celebration will double as a fundraiser to support future performing arts initiatives at the college, including future theatrical productions and concert tours, says Case-Blanchard.
“Those who want to make a monetary donation are encouraged to do so, but there is no charge to register and attend,” he says.
Adapting to survive and thrive
Dr. Gerald Case-Blanchard conducting.
While the pandemic and its ongoing impact could have silenced the performance arts programs at KCC, Case-Blanchard and fellow professors teaching classes in the various disciplines did not let that happen.
“The way COVID impacted the arts programs is how it impacted things across the nation. We had to stop everything,” Case-Blanchard says. “Face-to-face engagement and all choirs had to cease. We were literally one week away from opening ‘The Wiz.’ All of that came to a screeching halt -- all voice lessons and band performances -- within a 48-hour period we had to stop everything that was music-based. There was no quick easy fix.”
Unlike other classes offered at KCC that could be easily adapted to an online format, those focused on music, theater, or any of the arts would prove to be a challenge for both students and instructors who knew they were facing some major challenges.
Towards the end of the summer, several studies were being released about the aerosol spread of the virus through vocal music. Case-Blanchard says he was among voice teachers and choral instructors who were paying close attention to these studies because “this is about our livelihood and these are our programs.”
He attended numerous webinars to figure out how he could safely teach his students and keep the choral program going. What resulted was virtual choral rooms where students were recording themselves in kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, and any other spaces that afforded them privacy and a measure of sound quality.
“Because of latency issues with feedback on a virtual platform, I couldn’t accompany students at the same time. I had to pre-record all of that accompaniment. I would hear it and give my students feedback, but at no point could we sing together,” says Case-Blanchard whose home became his classroom.
Besides the one-on-one student instruction, there also were recitals and masterclasses.
As the comfort level and confidence of students learning virtually increased, Case-Blanchard found a recording engineer who would blend the individual recordings to create the type of choral piece that students pre-COVID performed live and together. That piece was “Praise the Lord” by Florence Price.
“It was at the end of December when I got my hands on the final product and it was released in January and that was the beginning of our comeback,” Case-Blanchard says. “We are in the process of completing our fourth recording right now.”
That initial recording has been followed by recordings of “A New Blessing” and “Sing We Enchanted.” Students will finish out their semester with “Hallelujah, Christ on the Mount of Olives.”
Even though the virtually recorded choral performances sound and look like those live performances that came together pre-COVID they required a lot more time and focus.
“The level of intensity and stress is far greater for the creation of that art than it would have been if it was a shared experience. It puts a lot of pressure on that person who has to record something solo and send it in,” Case-Blanchard says.
This has discouraged some would-be choral students from engaging with the choral program.
“In any given semester I have anywhere from 40 to 50 singers combined in my choir. Right now, I’ve got about 22 singers. Those are the bravest ones,” Case-Blanchard says. “I’ve started getting a few more of them creeping back in. With each new semester, I get a few more of them. But, that first semester, it was like pulling teeth to convince them to come back.”
For those students who have stuck with the choral program, the culmination of their hard work will be their virtual performances during the Gala. While not the experience they had hoped to have, Case-Blanchard says they are eager to be seen and heard.
“My singers have worked so incredibly hard to put something together that is beautiful and enjoyable,” he says. “The Gala is more about acknowledging a history and legacy. Not only will people be able to enjoy music and theatrical performances, they also will learn about the history of the choral program and its place in our community.”
Although the April 27 event has been kept to one hour, there will be an extended version available on the Performing Arts at KCC YouTube channel. Case-Blanchard says he’s pleased and proud that he and his colleagues were able to pivot to make sure the Gala happened, but he says he looks forward to a return to in-person performances for his students who miss the applause and the opportunity to interact with audience members after a show.
It is through these interactions that students have learned of the impact their music has on others.
“After a performance in 2015, we had one lady come up to us with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘You have given me hope. My husband of 63 years died this morning and we were supposed to come to this event together.’ I gathered some of our choir members together and we thanked her and hugged her,” Case-Blanchard says. “Music heals the soul and the broken heart. The fact that we’re still putting music out into the world is the thing that gives me hope.”