Verdigris Ensemble Tells Personal Pandemic Stories Through Song in 2020-2021 Season Premiere

Singers select music to reflect an emotional journey through the coronavirus pandemic

Verdigris Ensemble Erinn Sensenig
Dickie Hill

Verdigris Ensemble is singing its heart out in its 2020-2021 season premiere, “Life in Our Time,” November 6-8 at Arts Mission Oak Cliff in Dallas. 

This season is like no other, beginning with a series of outdoor recitals with socially distanced seating. Singers will be singing solos and small ensemble pieces while wearing masks and audiences will be asked to wear masks.

The pieces have been selected by the singers, reflecting their emotional and professional journey through the pandemic. Three of the singers talk about the season premiere’s music, the emotional and financial consequences of being a singer during pandemic, and what it is like to sing while wearing a mask.

NBC DFW:  What are you singing for this concert and why?

Derrick Brown: My portion of the concert features three songs which try to tell an emotional story, beginning with a sudden loss, feelings of isolation and powerlessness, and ultimately finding faith in love. I’ve chosen to sing “To What You Said” by Leonard Bernstein, featuring a cold and blunt separation from a loved one; “Not a Cloud in the Sky” from the musical Urban Myths, featuring a Type A personality dealing with constant anxiety towards losing control amidst chaos; and “Lean Away” by Gene Scheer, featuring a turn towards hope, love, and faith that while the path isn’t clear, we can trust in those intimate connections we’ve made to hold us steady until we’re out from the storm.

Verdigris Ensemble Derrick Brown
Claire Behan
Derrick Brown will perform in Verdigris Ensemble's "Life in Our Time" concerts.

Erinn Sensenig: I'm singing a set of songs featuring the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the famously shut-in poet. While her solitary life was a choice, the pandemic forcefully thrust us all into the smallness of the four walls of our homes. Like Dickinson's poetry, our worlds simultaneously grew as small as our back gardens and our musings grew large as we were gripped by anxiety of global pandemic and the shape of the uncertain future. I end with some gentler sounds from musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown as he considers hope and the ways we choose to react amidst uncertainty.

Katrina Burggraf: For this concert, I’m singing “What Only Poetry Can Do” which is a song cycle by Dale Trumbore. I sang it for the Verdigris launch party and am thrilled to be able to reprise it. The pieces deal with pain of all kinds, and how we deal with it and heal. Each piece seems to speak to me directly, be it the silly piece about rejection slip paper cuts, or the existential pain and healing of “Why Write, Because I’m Here”. I love the hope at the end of the last piece, advising us to put down the electronics, turn off the noise, and look up to the stars.  I’m also singing “Landslide” and “Sound of Silence” with the amazing Alex Bumpas on guitar and harmonies. These pieces speak to my experience of dealing with personal healing during the time of COVID. It was easy to say I’d been healing before COVID when I could pack my calendar with gigs, friends, stuff, but with COVID, everything came to a screeching halt. It left me with myself, my thoughts and pain, with silence and in this I truly discovered healing.

NBC DFW: What was the immediate impact of the pandemic on your lives as the shutdown began in March?

DB: Within two weeks every one of my gigs and contracts were canceled, and not long after that my sales position was let go— I had nothing. With all of my responsibilities suddenly canceled paired with the city shutting down in the weeks to follow, I learned very quickly how difficult it can be to sit with yourself alone all day. Instead of saying the pandemic ripped away my livelihood, I’d rather say in hindsight that I was brought to a place where I could focus on myself, specifically my emotional well-being.

ES: My full-time job is as a freelance musician and music teacher. The second week of March, all gigs for the foreseeable future were canceled. Students rapidly dropped as we were hastily moved into virtual study. It felt like freefall. Life turned into a blur of cancellation and financial uncertainty.

KB: The immediate impact of this pandemic and the subsequent shutdown was the loss of thousands of dollars worth of scheduled gigs. Live performance came to a screeching halt. Once the dust settled, we all had to pick ourselves up and figure out what the new path of music was going to look like. 

NBC DFW: As this pandemic has continued over the last few months, how have your professional and personal life been impacted? As a singer, how have you adapted to meet the challenges of the pandemic?

DB: Professionally, gigs are still very difficult to come by. That said, I’ve had the opportunity to direct a digital opera project from behind my computer with a cast of sixteen brilliant young artists, and I’ve been fortunate enough to begin digitally teaching the local students here at W. E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Middle School through the Verdigris Ensemble’s outreach program. Every day has presented new challenges to our profession, so we have to keep trying everything we can, both in and outside the box, until something sticks. Then try again.

ES: Gigs still remain infrequent at best. Student load is lower as many families face financial uncertainty. My income has not yet recovered, and it seems unclear when I can expect to have a full calendar again. As a classical musician, my training is in acoustic, live music making. I was woefully unprepared to enter this new world of recording, mics, and live streaming. However, it has been an important learning process. The sudden emptying out of my calendar gave me the time to learn important A/V skills that my classical training - to its fault - did not touch.

Verdigris Ensemble Erinn Sensenig
Claire Behan
Erinn Sensenig will sing in Verdigris Ensembles "Life in Our Time" concerts.

KB: I am the most tech savvy I have ever been in my life or will be again! I've always made jokes about how electronics sense my presence and cease working. I've had to grow my knowledge in order to survive. I’m also way less prideful about asking for help!! Personally and professionally I've been forced to come to peace with less: less business, less insane hustle and bustle, less noise. I've actually come to treasure the quality of experiences and life that has come from this. It was a hard, forced lesson for which I’m now grateful.

NBC DFW: What is it like to sing with the mask?

DB: In a word, frustrating. While learning vocal technique we learn to rely on technique and muscle memory over judging our own sounds as we sing, which can be easier said than done. Singing in the mask, my perception of how I sound when I sing is muffled, so I have to really focus to make sure what I feel is correct and trust the sound is getting through the mask as best it can.

ES: As long as the mask has ample structure to keep it away from the mouth and nose, it's not much different. It deadens consonants, so crisp diction becomes particularly important. However, it blocks the sound much less than I was expecting.

KB: It has taken time and experimentation to find masks that are okay to sing in. In the beginning, regular everyday masks were all we had. Obviously, they weren’t great to sing in because every time you took a breath, you’d inhale a mouthful of mask! I’ve used one version of the “Broadway” mask. I don’t sweat much typically, but I was soaked by the end of that session! I felt as if I’d run a marathon, and tuning was a whole new ballgame. It was very hard to hear anyone but yourself and there was no chance of hearing someone not standing next to you. I’ve had the best luck with the singers mask I ordered from MyMusicFolder.com. It seems the easiest to breathe in and to hear others. Overall, it definitely challenges the listening and also there’s the basic barrier of communication. I’ve always loved to “sell” a song with facial expression, I have to figure out ways to keep the emotion and meaning of a song alive with just my eyes and voice.

NBC DFW: What is something positive to come out of this pandemic? What gives you hope?

DB: My partner and I moved in with one another by mid-April, which seemed like a big step at the time, but now seems so natural. If anything can bring me hope in this pandemic, it’s the fact that love is still all around us if you listen and know where to look. With that love comes hope, solidarity, and the courage to keep trying in this new normal.

ES: It's hard to say right now. This year has been extremely difficult. I'm not sure that it feels positive or hopeful, but this year has required resilience and has encouraged me to be intentional about gratitude. I've felt vulnerable, financially fragile, and totally scared this year as the bottom dropped out of my life. However, I've received care and support from family and friends, I've learned new skills, and come into a clearer sense of how I want to use my skills and training. It will take a year or two of hindsight to see how this year positively affected the course of my life, but I am confident that it's functioning as a refining fire from which I'll emerge stronger and more prepared to play my part in the world.

Verdigris Ensemble Katrina Burggraf
Claire Behan
Katrina Burggraf will sing in Verdigris Ensemble's "Life in Our Times" concerts.

KB: There are a few positives, actually. This helps so much in the daily light of fear, rising numbers, deaths. One I’ve mentioned a little already is knowing the quality of true silence. It’s just been me at home alone during this. I also treasure my beautiful friends more, friendships are “tended" now. We check in on each other. There’s a special treasuring quality of silent time, rest time, friend time, and most beautifully of all, the way we all treasure making music now… it’s amazing. I actually had a group of friends early in the summer that would gather outside, distanced, and bring our favorite pieces to sing together. We did everything from “Shenandoah" to “Jesu, Meine Freude”, and there were many tears and emotional moments. We don’t take each other for granted anymore; not in music or friendship. This is a gift.

Learn more: https://www.verdigrismusic.org/

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