Quad-Cities’ Nova Singers Offer “Peace, Love, Joy” for the Holiday Season
In a crazy year when most theaters and choirs have canceled performances, the Nova Singers have found a way to come together in person, to bring some much-needed peace, love and joy into our lives on Saturday.
Under the direction of their fearless, passionate founder, Dr. Laura Lane, the 20-member vocal ensemble will present its first livestream event on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. On Facebook Live, “Peace, Love, Joy!” will feature solos, small group performances, and songs by the
whole ensemble, with commentary by artistic director Laura Lane, director of choral activities at Knox College, who started Nova in 1986.
“Since we cannot give our annual holiday concert, we have created the next best thing: a virtual livestream event,” she said recently. “You will see and hear videos of the Nova Singers, recorded in August and September, outdoors, unseen by anyone before this moment. The singers chose their very favorite songs to sing for you, including A Shoot Shall Come Forth, In Dulci Jubilo, Indodana and Unclouded Day.
“The raw emotion in Indodana is overwhelming and the pure joy of Unclouded Day will knock your socks off,” Lane said. “The singers also poured themselves into their videos of solos and small ensembles. You will love hearing the men’s quartet singing Let There Be Peace on Earth, and the trio of men singing O Holy Night is gorgeous.”
“I admit that the idea of live-streaming on Facebook makes me a bit nervous, but with our business manager Darla’s help, I will brave my fears,” Lane said. “We have done this work for you, our dear Nova family, as a gift for this strange and bizarre holiday season.”
Soprano Callen Sederquist, 24, who sang in her first Nova Christmas concert last year, has felt right at home in the polished, beloved choir – which usually performs regular concerts in the Quad-Cities and Galesburg.
“I’ve loved it; I had never sung in an ensemble of that caliber before,” she said recently. “It was nice to have everybody take it seriously
enough, not have to worry enough about the expression and musicality.”
Nova specializes in performing a lot of works a cappella, without accompaniment.
“It’s tough, but I’ve always had a really good ear,” Sederquist (a band and choir teacher in Sherrard) said. “It’s nice to be surrounded with people who have excellent ears, and can hold their pitch like that without any accompaniment.”
This past spring, Lane and Nova planned to perform “A Voice of Her Own,” a program of all female composers, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote in the U.S. Covid-19 forced cancellation of those concerts.
In late summer, Lane organized Zoom meetings with Nova Singers about reuniting in person.
Lane watched many webinars about Covid and became an expert on the science. She ordered Resonance singer’s masks for her singers both in Nova and Knox College Choir, where she’s taught since 1983.
“It has a structure that comes out away from your lips,” she said of the masks. “In spite of the many layers to protect you and protect everyone around you, the resonance of the singing voice is almost as if you don’t have a mask on…You won’t believe how they sound; it’s like
they don’t have a mask on.”
“We didn’t want to do it unless every single person felt safe,” Lane said of the 20-member Nova, which recorded outdoors Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 at Galesburg’s Lincoln Park. “Every single voice matters in Nova Singers.”
“The first night went so well – we were so high, all of us, to just be singing this music together, and they sounded amazing,” Lane said.
She asked the singers over the summer for their favorite pieces, to compile the program (which is about 40 minutes of music). She then asked them to prepare to record as if they were doing a concert, including a couple members who never sang those pieces before.
“It was so good, I couldn’t believe it,” Lane said. “They actually took it seriously and they did it. What we’re going to show Saturday, two of them were from the first night, when it was their very first time ever singing that song.”
They also came back to sing Sept. 15, very casual, with no recording. Everybody in Nova Singers drives at least an hour to Galesburg, and one guy came from work two hours away in southern Iowa.
“It’s just a miracle honestly, that they would do it,” Lane said. “I couldn’t even believe it. I couldn’t sleep for hours the first night.”
She didn’t want a “holiday” program, to make it as inclusive and welcoming as possible.
“This seems like an opportunity to make that change, because the singers didn’t really nominate Christmas songs,” Lane said, noting she came up with the theme of “Peace, Love, Joy.”
She asked members to record a song that reflected those emotions – the feelings most important at this time of year. Two are solos; one is a
duet, one is a trio and there are some quartets.
“The title came from the theme of the songs they most wanted to sing,” Lane said. “Everything they nominated was about peace, love or joy, so that’s the title.”
Selections include “O Holy Night,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Deck the Hall” and “Winter Carol.”
It will also be different for the singers since they haven’t seen the finished product, Lane said.
Sederquist said the singers didn’t know what to expect singing outside, after so long apart, in the new masks.
“It was so nice to be with the group again, to hear that big wall of sound in the gazebo,” she said. “It was really refreshing.”
“We hit the ground running — here’s your mask, here’s your spot, the cameras were all set up, we started right away,” Sederquist said. “It was really nice because most of the members had already sung this music…But it was new to me. I folded into the group; for people like me, it was a decently quick turnaround, really tuneful, catchy music.”
“She picked some really great literature, that gets stuck in your head all day,” she said. “With the masks, it feels like kind of stuffy at first. I had a couple weeks of it since I had been teaching. It’s harder to gauge how loud you’re singing — can the person hear me? Am I audible now? We got used to it pretty quickly.”
Facing a spring of hard Knox
As most artists and arts organizations experienced, March at Knox in Galesburg was a very cruel month, to have Covid cancel planned productions.
Lane’s last rehearsal with the 41-member Knox choir was March 8 and the last with Nova Singers was March 9, before everything shut down.
Most painfully, the college choir tour to southern France (planned March 16-23) was canceled, after two years of planning, preparation and fundraising. “They were grieving and angry and I had to help them to accept that we couldn’t go to France, because if one of us got the virus and came back, we could endanger the entire Knox community and every person in all our families,” Lane said.
“I knew it was exploding in Europe and so I was well-prepared to help them,” she said of Covid (which was very rare among Knox students this fall). “That was my job for the next several weeks – holding their hands and trying to cheer them up.”
This would have been her 11th European tour with the choir; the last was 2017 in southern France. “I absolutely love it,” Lane said, noting she does spring tours every year, including by bus in the U.S.
“These seniors – what an amazing senior class I had last year,” she said. “They were devoted, beyond belief, to the Know College Choir and to mentoring the younger ones and bringing them along, and to the success of the group dynamic. They were so committed to putting their own egos aside, for the benefit of the group.
“It was such an incredible group that year – so full of love and kindness and generosity,” Lane said. “We lost so much at that moment; it was such a huge grieving process for the seniors, and for all the others, but especially that senior class. They lost their spring term, they couldn’t come back in person. And then they lost their commencement.”
In May, the director and about 36 members worked individually to create a virtual choir video – of “Locus Iste” (which means “this place”) by Paul Mealor, edited by Professor Pierce Gradone.
Everyone recorded their part individually from home, without the benefit of accompaniment. You can watch it HERE.
“Some kids did 30 or 40 takes before they were happy – that’s how committed they were,” Lane said. “It worked out.”
“There were many different obstacles; some people weren’t able to make one,” she said of the video. “I’m so glad it turned out so well. The first part I did, conducting them in silence, cuing them in a hallway, I did that all by myself. I sent that to the section leaders, but without the other singers around them in a real time, they don’t know if they’re breathing together. They don’t know if they’re attacking notes together.”
Lane shared it with the college president, faculty, staff and board. The song is about place – “This place is sacred; this place is hallowed,” she said. “We chose it because it was about this place we couldn’t be. We wanted to be together, we wanted to be at Knox and we couldn’t, so we sang about it.
“It’s about the deep meaning about the sense of place,” Lane said. “We didn’t do it for ourselves; we did it for you. Here’s a gift for you from the Knox College Choir, and people were just weeping as they were listening to it, and wrote me these long emails.”
Students were proud of it, but the recording process was very lonely.
“I missed what choir really is; this is not remotely connected to or anything like we do choir for,” Lane recalled. “We do it to sing together with other people. I was alone; it was depressing to be so alone and singing to my computer and I hated it. After I heard this, I said, was it worth it? They said, listening to it now, in this moment, it was worth it.”
She did not want to do a similar virtual video with Nova Singers, partly because she was swamped in the spring.
“We were working around the clock,” Lane said. “Everyone who’s a college professor, we did nothing but work 24/7. We did nothing but work all the time through the fall term, including in the summer. We had to learn Google Meet, how to do this and this, so we could teach, and then the college switched to Zoom. Plus we had to redesign our courses. Everything about everything we did had to be completely different, and we had to learn the skills and techniques to be able to deliver that.
“It was really stressful in the spring,” she said. In the summer, she prepared for gathering back with Nova and in person at Knox. (You can see a 2016 short video about the Knox choir HERE.)
A different choir experience
Many international students could not come back to Knox, so the choir reduced in size to 31 total. The music department was allowed to have in-person rehearsals with 10 people at a time – masked and six feet apart, for a maximum of 30 minutes.
To do that with choir, Lane split up the group in sections (with Resonance masks) and they rehearsed separately, including singers to lead those she could not. They each had a separate rehearsal room, with one (11-member alto section) in an outdoor tent, and three rehearsals a week.
At some rehearsals she created a larger mixed group of 22 outside in the tent, which the students loved. Lane didn’t see every student each rehearsal.
“During Covid-19, young people are incredibly stressed by the whole situation – we all are,” she said. “They were doing a full course load, very stressful and a lot of homework. I wanted choir to be super fun and relaxing and happy for them.”
“I made the music a little easier for them, made sure they were successful,” Lane said. “I had to rely on my section leaders and my seniors big time. And these are not music majors.”
Normally, the best part of rehearsals is not just connection, but the “ad-lib” nature of it, she said. “You’re sorting through the 100 different ways of solving that one problem, and you’re thinking, what’s best for them?”
“That’s what I’m good at; that’s my thing,” Lane said. “I could not do that in this situation, because I had to rely on other people to do it. I could do it in my little group for 30 minutes.”
The top goal for the fall was to make new choir members feel welcomed and part of it, so that they’ll stay, she said. “We decided we would do the same music, so everybody worked on the same song the same day.”
The last week of October, when they couldn’t be outside and they couldn’t do a fall concert, the full choir gathered at Kresge Recital Hall on stage, in a big “U” shape, including along walls in the hall. There was no audience.
“You would not believe how excited they were and how happy they were,” Lane said. “They were thrilled. We sang each one of our four pieces we worked on all fall, once, and I had my recording engineer there and he recorded it from far away, and I shared the recording with them. They were so excited. One said, that was the most fun I’ve had all fall term, by far.”
“It was amazing; it was remarkable,” she said. “I ended up sharing the recording with the entire faculty and staff.”
Lane also announced there will be no tour this March, and Knox is only bringing students back after winter break starting Feb. 22.
She cares most in teaching about helping students become their best selves and she’s been so impressed by them.
“How to be empathetic towards others, compassionate towards others,” Lane said. “Helping them develop the confidence to become strong leaders. Helping develop a sense of what it means to be a citizen of any community you’re in and how to make it better. And that it matters to make it better.”
“You cannot say that directly to them,” she said. “It has to be built nonverbally, gradually and slowly, through millions of baby steps, for years, until you get this. It’s building a culture, and it’s there.”
“They wanted to give the freshmen and sophomores some sense of what it’s like to be on tour, some bonding, so they’ll come back and pass it on,” Lane said, noting they’ll do some of that in the spring.
Singing in Sherrard
2019 was a big year for Sederquist – who graduated from Western Illinois University, got married, started her teaching job and started with Nova Singers all that year. She teaches sixth grade band – now rehearsing only in sections (with over 20 students total) – and directs the
7th-12th-grade choir, which has enough room for the 22 students to sing while distanced, wearing masks.
Early this year, Sederquist was music directing “Once Upon a Mattress,” and two weeks from opening, that show was canceled. In the first weekend of March, she did sing with Quad City Singers, which was able to perform their spring program. They decided not to have their annual holiday dinner concert at Lavender Crest Winery.
“It’s so hard right now, especially, at least for the kids I see,” Sederquist said. “I’m very bummed about not having the ability to do all the projects I had wanted to do this year, especially with kids at school. The kids are very anxious about it — are we going to be able to have this again? Some of my seniors, looking at doing theater in college, some sort of performing arts. I feel obligated to pass along any sort of program, any theater, to give them anything.”
She was set to music direct “Spamalot” at Quad City Music Guild this past summer, and perform with her husband Andy in “Addams Family” at Spotlight Theatre this fall. Both theaters postponed their 2020 shows to 2021.
The program is sponsored by G & M Distributors and Epic Stone. Nova Singers’ 2020-21 season is partially funded by grants from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the City of Galesburg and the Galesburg Community Foundation.