Ohio University

Joy amid darkness: OHIO doctoral student organizes virtual choir

Published: April 30, 2020 Author: Alaina Bartel

Hosting a virtual choir was on Mario Clopton-Zymler’s “choir director’s bucket list.” What better time to cross that off his list than a global pandemic?

Clopton-Zymler, a doctoral student in Ohio University’s Gladys W. and David H. Patton College Educational Studies program, is currently the director of choirs at Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland, Ohio.

“When the state closed schools due to COVID-19, we transitioned to online learning,” said Clopton-Zymler, who has been a teacher for 10 years. “I immediately started thinking about ways to keep my students singing.”

He opened submissions for the project up to his current and former students, Shaker Heights alumni, staff and friends of his who wanted to participate. The result: 15 singers coming together virtually to spread joy amid darkness.  

The group performed Frank Ticheli’s, “Earth Song,” a piece that Clopton-Zymler performed as a high school student, as an undergraduate, and as a teacher.

“I believe Ticheli wrote the song originally as a response to the disillusion of the war in Iraq,” he explained. “He wrote it as a personal expression longing for peace. The poetry he sets to music is timeless because it feels like we are always fighting a war against something. Today our collective fight is against COVID-19 and I long for the peace Ticheli speaks of in the song.”

To make it happen, Clopton-Zymler first looked for funding because he knew he was not going to have the time or expertise to do the video editing and audio synching. He wrote a proposal and sent it to the principal and to the Shaker Schools Foundation. He was approved for the project, and the Foundation provided funding.

Clopton-Zymler then sought out a video editor and audio engineer, choosing Dr. Ken Wendt from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

“I asked him about any of the technical information I needed to share with those who wanted to submit a recording. I then sent out an announcement and sign-up form to my students, teaching colleagues, and on social media,” he noted. “I made practice tracks, and then a singing track that the singers could listen to while they recorded — an essential element to keep all the singers together.”

Kjell Aspelin, a tenth grader at Shaker Heights, is a member of the school’s vocal ensemble led by Clopton-Zymler. He said his teacher is always thinking outside of the box in terms of performances, and he can’t wait to see what he will do next.

Aspelin, who submitted a video for the project, believes music can convey a unique sense of hope to a listener that is especially necessary in these tumultuous times.

“As a choir member, so much of your time singing revolves around face to face interactions with the people around you,” he added. “It is definitely a challenge to sing into a camera, especially when you have barely been using your voice for over a month. This project is important for the times we live in as many people are cooped up indoors with bad news coming at them from all angles.”

Sarah Grube, another contributor to the project, former student of Clopton-Zymler, and 2018 graduate of Shaker Heights High School, said she’s learned a lot from her former teacher about how the role of a musician can — and should — encompass more than just making music.

She believes this project serves as a good example of that ethos.

“Singing in ensembles is such a big part of my life, and recently, virtual choirs have played an important role in alleviating some of the stress and isolation that have been caused by this pandemic,” Grube explained. “I know that I have really enjoyed seeing other musicians share their music and efforts online, even when concerts are being cancelled. I hope that not only will the singers in the video be brought together by this project, but that its audience will feel more connected as well.”

Clopton-Zymler is a committed lifelong learner, and that is a central part of his teaching philosophy. He said the virtual choir has given him many new tools to use for himself and his students in the future.

“It is important to me that my students learn to be lifelong lovers of music and singing,” he said. “Ultimately that’s my inspiration for teaching. So, this project is a reminder that choir isn’t just a class they take as a high school arts credit. It is part of the human experience that can happen anywhere amid any circumstances- even a pandemic.”