A mandatory distance learning directive in mid-March turned daily life upside down for teachers and students across the state.

The disruption hit especially hard for music students, who heavily rely on in-person interaction with their fellow singers and musicians. But safety guidelines put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 meant those fine arts students no longer had end-of-the-year concerts and musicals to look forward to, for some begging the question of, “Why rehearse at all?”

But that didn’t stop music students and instructors at Aitkin High School. Thanks to leadership from choir director Kelly Blake and senior Sam Sadlowsky, the school put on its first ever virtual spring concert, available on YouTube as of Friday, May 15.

Through the use of various programs — like Soundtrap, GarageBand and Acapella — students were able to sing and play instruments on their own at home before melding tracks together, making it sound like everyone was in the same room.

Blake said she cooked up the idea as a way for her and her students to have some closure at the end of the year, even though they can’t physically be together.

“Choir is singing together. It’s listening to each other and blending, and there are all these different things that go along with it,” Blake said during a Zoom interview, adding the virtual concert was a good way to feel like she was back together with her students.

“It’s just good to be together,” she said. “That’s a huge part of it, and then together working on a project, I think that even made it more important.”

For Sadlowsky, a student in both band and choir, the virtual concert helped ease the pain of some other losses he experienced during the unconventional end to his senior year.

“It was absolutely huge,” he said in a phone interview. “We seniors are faced with all of these events that we were looking forward to, and then them not happening. Now, of course it would have been great to have the concert in person, but it means a lot that we were able to do it.”

Senior choir students Hannah Paulbeck and Joe Cummings shared similar sentiments, expressing gratitude for being able to have some semblance of a final concert to round out their high school careers.

“While it obviously cannot live up to a real concert being together, it was really great to be able to see it and see the teamwork and everything that it took for us to be able to do one last thing together, of course,” Paulbeck said during a phone interview.

The concert consisted of several musical numbers from large groups down to soloists, with duets and other small groups mixed in. Sadlowsky put his video and audio editing skills to use, acting as the editing and production engineer for the finished product.

For larger group ensembles — like the madrigal choir and concert choir — students all recorded their parts separately, and Sadlowsky used the online digital audio workstations SoundTrap and GarageBand to meld the voices together into one track. Blake edited together her guitar student ensembles, and Sadlowsky said students who sang in duets used both SoundTrap and Acapella to record their parts and put them together.

“That was a challenge for some of my students to sing by themselves or record by themselves,” Blake said. “They’re used to standing next to people in a choir, and so for some people it was really going outside of their comfort zone. But they’re very proud of the work that they’ve done.”

Once distance learning started, Blake began meeting with her concert choir students three times a week via Zoom. Online choir classes aren’t quite the same as in-person, though, as each student has to mute their microphone because of internet lag time. That means they can only hear themselves and not their classmates.

Sophomore choir student Alaina Hagestuen said she doesn’t mind singing by herself as much as some other students might, but, she added, being together is preferred when it comes to matching pitch with other singers.

And for Cummings, missing out on choir class means missing out on one of his favorite parts of high school.

“The bonds that I make in choir class are different than any other sport or class. It’s special compared to anything else because you have to match pitch and you have to do certain things with these people that you won’t ever have to do with anyone else,” he said. “... And not being able to do that just kind of sucks.”

But the virtual concert helped him recoup some of his choir losses, especially while filming a music video of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” with Sadlowsky.

“It was a blast,” he said. “If I’m being honest, it was a lot of fun thinking of places to sing and how to act when you’re singing and things like that. It was an experience that I want to keep doing.”

Other portions of the virtual concert included a video from the handbell choir’s classics concert in February and the jazz band’s performance at a regional contest at University of Minnesota-Duluth in early March.

Traditionally, the spring band and choir concerts in Aitkin offer an opportunity to recognize seniors for their dedication and dole out end-of-the-year awards. The virtual concert video included a photo slideshow of each student, along with the announcement of the following award winners:

  • Choral Pepsi music awards, given to seniors for dedication to the choral program at Aitkin High School — Joe Cummings and Hannah Paulbeck.

  • Chorus Director’s Award, given to a senior in recognition of outstanding enthusiasm, dedication, leadership and talent — Chloe Palkie.

  • National School Choral Award, the highest award given to choral students at Aitkin High School for overall excellence — Sam Sadlowsky.

  • Band Pepsi music award — Karly Shereck.

  • John Philip Sousa Award, the recipient of which is voted on by fellow band members — Sam Sadlowsky.

Sadlowsky said he was grateful to be recognized for the time and effort he put into his music studies throughout high school and plans to go onto college to study vocal music education.

The virtual concert is available on YouTube at https://bit.ly/2X3Q0uj.

The video had garnered 1,492 views as of Tuesday afternoon, which means the concert reached far more people than could have shown up to watch in the auditorium.

“It’s cool because we get to show that this still works,” Sadlowsky said. “And even amidst this difficult time, we still have opportunities to do things through music and do things with other people and share joy. And that’s the most important part of doing this concert, is to share that message.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.