BEMIDJI -- Virtual rehearsals, online auditions, learning choreography all alone, singing and dancing in masks.

Those are just a few of the curveballs thrown at Bemidji High School’s all-women show choir, La Voce Ballo, this year.

Still, the talented voices of the group were not muted by the pandemic.

As the show choir comes to the end of what would’ve been the finale of their competition season that never was -- its director and captains reflect on the unusual circumstances this year brought along.

“It's a sisterhood”

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La Voce Ballo -- which means “the dancing voices” in Italian -- has been a Bemidji High School show choir staple since 2004. It came a decade after show choirs first arrived in Bemidji on the back of BHS Choir Director Chris Fettig, who after seeing a show choir competition in Onalaska, Wisc. in 1994, wanted to bring the lively phenomenon to BHS.

Show choir programs in Bemidji draw in over 250 students to participate every year, and unlike many high school sporting events, have not had any form of a modified competition season this year.

Walking into the choir room during an LVB rehearsal, you’ll surely witness an atmosphere full of laughter, mask-covered smiles, vocal warm-ups and girls braiding each others’ hair.

One La Voce Ballo member braids another's hair during a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
One La Voce Ballo member braids another's hair during a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

One of the marked differences between LVB and the other choirs, LVB Director Emily Paine said, besides the obvious, is the sister-like relationship the members share.

“We’re a big sisterhood. There’s a lot of camaraderie,” she said of the group.

The captains, senior Hailie Thompson and junior Alyse Kanani agreed. “It’s kind of like a big family,” Thompson said. “It’s a sisterhood,” Kanani affirmed.

Paine said she felt proud at the resiliency of the choir and the creative ways they found to still enjoy themselves and be supportive of each other -- like hosting a virtual holiday party while wearing festive sweaters.

During full distance learning, the group participated in a “Secret Sister” gift exchange, similar to a “Secret Santa,” within the choir and dropped gifts at each others’ homes.

“My favorite part was hearing all of the stories from when they delivered each other gifts like, ‘I was trying to be sneaky but your automatic lights went off,’ or ‘Then your dog started barking at me,’” Paine said.

La Voce Ballo director Emily Paine leads a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
La Voce Ballo director Emily Paine leads a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Paine has been the director of LVB for more than a decade. When she was a student at BHS, she was involved in Vocalmotive, as well as participating in choir, madrigals and a women’s quartet.

The year without a season

Captains Thompson and Kanani both had experiences catching glimpses of high school show choir as young children and had the immediate thought, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.”

Thompson, now reflecting on her senior year in the program, finds it hard not to be upset at the way the past year has shaped up.

“It definitely sucks,” she said. “It sucks. You don't get to perform, you don't get the camaraderie that you normally would. It's kind of sad, my last ever competition was last year. I mean for a lot of seniors around the country our junior year was our last time to ever do what we love, so going through high school knowing that, ‘Oh my senior year will be my best season,’ and having that basically taken from you, it sucks. You kind of just have to adapt and overcome.”

There are only a handful of seniors in the program this year -- three in LVB -- but they are in a particularly unfortunate situation.

La Voce Ballo members work on their dance moves during a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
La Voce Ballo members work on their dance moves during a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Last year’s crop of seniors were able to wrap up their competition season prior to everything shutting down when the pandemic hit, missing only the final home performance. This year’s group missed the competition season in its entirety.

COVID hurdles

Despite the lack of competitions, the choir was quick to adapt and overcome. Virtual rehearsals soon became the norm.

“We have a computer set up in the middle of the room with students tuning in,” Paine explained. “Especially when we were hybrid, we'd have half of our students coming in person, and half joining online.

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Kanani said the hardest part of online rehearsals was not being able to hear the other students singing, as they generally turned off their individual microphones during these video sessions. One perk of this, however, Kanani noted, was that she felt she had learned the music much more thoroughly than in other seasons.

“I know the music a lot better than I have in past years,” she said. “You couldn’t rely on someone else.”

“We couldn't really practice singing all together, so we couldn't hear each other,” Kanani added. “Once we all got back together. It was like, ‘Oh, it's kind of bad,’ because we were all singing differently.”

Choreography rehearsals were also particularly challenging -- as everyone’s webcams were a little different, it was hard to judge distances when learning dance moves, the captains explained.

La Voce Ballo members stand on chairs while singing during a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
La Voce Ballo members stand on chairs while singing during a rehearsal on March 16, 2021, in the choir room at Bemidji High School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Another major difference between rehearsals in 2021 is the face mask requirement. Singing and dancing while wearing a mask was a new challenge for everyone.

Paine said performing with masks is, “interesting,” because, “so much of what we do is facial. And so I'm like, ‘use your eyebrows,’ ‘use your hands more,’" she said with a laugh. “The kids have actually handled it really well.”

Thompson and Kanani said learning to breathe with a mask on was tricky, but that a professional singer once joined a video rehearsal to give breathing tips, and that helped.

Back on stage

The group, while not having a competition season this year, has gotten the chance to perform, albeit in strange circumstances. Members performed during the BHS spring concerts held in March and then held their own LVB concert on March 20.

As the possibility of in-person performances was uncertain earlier in the year, Paine also planned for the group to make a recording of their show. This may be livestreamed on April 9, Paine said.

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“When this all started, I didn't know that there'd be an opportunity for a live performance,” she said. “I wanted to have at least one thing that they could walk away from the season with and say, ‘This is our capstone, this is what we created.’”

The show’s music was not selected haphazardly. Themes of 2020, the pandemic, and resiliency are present throughout the 20-something minute performance. Beginning with, “Into the Unknown” from Disney’s Frozen 2, then moving into “What About Us” by Pink, and closing with “Not the End of the World” by Katy Perry.

“I kind of made it about what we've all been going through, so our theme this year was, ‘through the darkest night there's a brighter day,’” Paine explained. “Our opener is “Into The Unknown” -- which is how we often felt. Then it transitions to (asking) ‘What about the kids?’ ‘How are they going to be included in some of this stuff?’ and then turning into tomorrow, we're all hoping for tomorrow to be a little bit better.”

“I feel like it's been very good for me to still keep going with this because the kids are just so in it, still trying to make something happen,” Paine added. “Music has been so cathartic this year, it feels pretty normal when you're doing it.”