A Silicon Valley Girls Chorus Finds Unexpected Silver Linings in Online Collaboration

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A chorus of young girls raise their hands to their ears while smiling.
iSing singers at their 2019 holiday concert. This year, they had to get creative with online work-arounds for their Dec. 19 virtual performance. (Kyle Cavallaro)

Videos made by choir members: 592.

Hours each singer spent practicing: 203.

Total notes sung in Zoom classes: 1,345,652.

Keeping a tight-knit community of girls together: priceless.

The award-winning all-girl chorus iSing Silicon Valley isn’t letting a global pandemic dampen their holiday spirit. Sure, singing in large groups has proven to be a potentially deadly, COVID-19-spreading practice. But growing up at ground zero for high-tech innovation has its advantages.

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Instead of returning to Mission Santa Clara, where the group’s annual holiday concerts have sold out every year since 2015, iSing is presenting Holiday@Home on Dec. 19 featuring the choir's 215 singers (though free, digital tickets are required). Constructed from hundreds of video and audio tracks recorded at home, the virtual concert has provided the iSingers with yet another creative summit.

“We’ve been rehearsing for the holiday concert since late August,” said Hannah Kloninger-Stever, a high school senior from Menlo Park. “Everything about this year feels flipped upside down. Last semester we were trying to get on our feet and figure out how to work with everyone. This semester got back into the groove a little bit with everyone coming to class ready and motivated.”

At a time when so many kids and teens are struggling with distance learning and extended social isolation, the opportunity to focus on a fulfilling creative outlet while staying connected to a community of peers has proven invaluable.

“Working on something greater, even when we couldn’t be all together, has been really cool,” added Reese Ford, a junior from Palo Alto. “There’s this responsibility, this goal, knowing we’ll have everybody in the video together. On two occasions we had opportunities to do distance rehearsals in a parking lot as a way to check the temperature on how we were doing. We hadn’t sung together for so long the emotional aspect was so rewarding.”

Though not as well known as the San Francisco Girls Chorus, which was founded in 1978, iSing has quickly gained renown since Jennah Delp Somers and Shane Troll launched the program in 2013. The group attained international stature by winning first place at the 8th International Robert Schumann Choral Competition in Germany, besting 16 other ensembles from 11 countries.

The momentum from that victory led to iSing’s debut album, Here I Stand (Innova Recordings), which was quietly released this summer. Mostly recorded at Skywalker Sound, the project focuses on material commissioned by the choir and takes its name from composer and Menlo School choir director Karen Linford’s powerful setting for a speech by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai.

Keeping the group together under lockdown presented a whole different kind of challenge after years of rigorous rehearsing with specific goals in mind. With five age-divided levels for girls ages 6–18, iSing has lost a significant number of the youngest tier as the kids are already inundated with screen time. Responsible for teaching and directing the middle and high school singers, Somers has worked hard to maintain the choir’s high standards and esprit de corps at a distance, providing the singers with online opportunities to play and socialize.

In many ways, rehearsing on Zoom means the girls have to take more responsibility for honing their voices. To create the holiday concert, every singer became her own producer, recording video and audio tracks at home. After Somers and Troll collected more than 1,000 files, they sent them to the Los Angeles production company Arts Laureate to build the concert layer by layer.

“They put everything together,” said Somers, who sought out guidance from Chanticleer bass vocalist Andy Berry “who’s really creative with video,” she said. “Shane and I spent a month and a half meeting and talking through every song bar by bar. I’m a huge control freak, so we knew exactly what we wanted this to look and sound like.”

The statistics at the top of the story are artifacts of her perfectionism. “We have a lot of spread sheets a lot of data tracking,” Somers said. “There are thousands of emails to the kids and their parents. There’s a huge Dropbox archive, Zoom rehearsals, and you have to keep track of everyone’s contribution. Then the teaching. How are they doing? How are they growing vocally?”

A woman at a podium conducts a chorus.
iSing co-founder Jennah Delp Somers. (Kyle Cavallaro)

Rather than focus on commissioned works, the holiday program leans heavily on traditional material such as Benjamin Britten’s “A New Year Carol,” the Italian carol “Gesu Bambino” (arranged by Pietro A. Yon), the French carol “Noel Nouvelet” (arranged by Michael McGlynn), and “Come All Ye Faithful” (arranged by Dan Forrest). But there’s often room for a singer to take the initiative for something different.

Over the summer Paly High junior Reese Ford created an animation using Photoshop for a section of “Tundra” by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. Eager to include an ensemble favorite in the concert, her choir-mates prevailed upon her to animate the entire composition, and it’s now a centerpiece of Holiday@Home.

“I was thinking about a wolf, something that has emotion, that the audience can follow,” Ford said. “I wanted something easily recognizable, and I didn’t want to develop a really complicated plot.”

If the sadistic plot of 2020 has a bright spot, for iSing it’s that creating a virtual holiday concert allowed the choir to recruit a dream team of musical collaborators. Joining the iSing choir for Holiday@Home are special guests such as New York Met soprano Angel Blue, pianist Jungmee Kim and the all-women string ensemble Amaranth Quartet.

“It’s the pandemic silver lining,” Somers said. “Normally all of these amazing people wouldn’t be available for a concert. This is usually the busiest time of year.”