Oakland’s Pacific Boychoir Academy changes tune to survive COVID
By Lou Fancher
The greatest peril during the last two years to the Pacific Boychoir Academy and its Grammy award-winning Pacific Boychoir was not the COVID-19 pandemic or its delta and omicron variants.
As schools across the country locked down and resorted to virtual-only formats, the faculty and students at the small independent school for boys (pacificboychoir.org) carried on. Zoom choir rehearsals had the boys singing separately in their bedrooms at home. Able to hear only the director — who could see but not hear them — and the sound of their own voices, the 24 boys’ lonely solos bounced off walls and into the digital netherworld.
When circumstances improved with vaccines, social distancing, masking and other safety precautions, the academy’s students, directors, administrators, staff and teachers followed ever-changing policies. Thrown constant hurdles as public sentiment vacillated, politicians argued and general parental outcry waged war about mask and vaccine mandates, boosters, hybrid learning and other adaptations, the Pacific Boychoir leaned into its strengths under the leadership of Executive Director Summer Dittmer.
The academy offers a rigorous, secular academic curriculum, small class sizes, a diverse student body, top-level music instruction for day students, stable, highly dedicated, skilled faculty and strong after-school training choirs for boys and girls ages 4 to 18. In March 2021, the campus reopening plan was announced.
Plans were made for the 24 Troubadour choir members to resume live performances. Hopes built that the international travel tours that have won the choir numerous awards and acclaim worldwide were imminent. Dittmer says the ability to creatively “think on our feet” meant the school was able to battle back to stability after months when ensemble singing in any setting was considered a superspreader activity.
“Choirs had become a metaphor, a kind of scarlet letter entity during the pandemic,” she says.
Dittmer breathed a sigh of relief, attributing students’ robust morale and academic skills — recent testing found the students above grade level overall — to maintaining the daily schedule; students wearing their uniforms at home: town halls held online: and movie and game nights overseen by teachers. In April 2021, the celebratory curtain came crashing down when the school was notified that the landlord planned to place the property on the market. The school would have to relocate — or shut down indefinitely if a new home could not be found.
“We got a postcard in the mail in April, right when we were back to school, that they were selling the property,” says Dittmer. “We knew we couldn’t compete with developers with millions of dollars.” Her next thought: “It’s a one-of-a-kind institution, and I said, ‘I’m not quitting now.’ It was massive for us.”
“Massive” meant Dittmer sold her home to save the Pacific Boychoir and the organization raised the remainder needed for the $950,000 down payment on the property.
“We ended up buying it as we were planning graduation ceremonies,” she said.
Preparing to kick off another capital campaign for necessary renovations in 2022, Dittmer has no doubt — despite no longer being a homeowner — that keeping the choir and school going is valuable to the community. During the pandemic the number of after-school choir participants doubled. Keeping enrollment relatively stable took tremendous effort, and recruitment relied on studies finding that music increases attention, develops empathy and boosts frontal lobe connectivity.
“Music was especially critical during COVID, when people lost their human-ness and schools lost their academics,” she says. “Music improves social harmony and boosts your immune system. Those are things everyone needed then and needs now.”
Dittmer, whose duties also include teaching math, praises teachers and staff who devoted extra hours to keep kids engaged. Andrew Brown, the academy’s director of choral studies, eventually found a digital platform with only mild latency problems that improved rehearsals and allowed the boys to hear each other while singing together.
“The only choice for rehearsing in real time was Jamulus,” Brown said. “Still, it was tiring for them. Singing alone was not as satisfying as singing in school with 20 other people. Now, they’re staring at a screen … but they could hear each other at the same time. You could create chords and harmonies.”
Brown says supplying equipment such as microphones and headphones for boys who could not afford to purchase them was a surmountable task, “but it was a real challenge for some because not all the boys had the bandwidth to use Jamulus successfully. If you have a slow Internet, even one person being slow can make the whole thing slow.”
Brown says extra efforts were applied to make choir pleasurable and maintain students’ sense of joy despite being isolated. He created activities in which students took turns leading the choir or sang in duets, told stories, shared jokes or just talked.
“The boys also had opportunities to see each other outside of school because they created social bubbles. They did this on their own out of their need to be together. Every one of the 24 boys was in a bubble.”
When the choir performed in December at St. Mary’s College in Moraga and the Montclair Village Holiday Stroll before that, Brown says singing live again after almost two years was unbelievable.
“We sang in October in Rockridge, but (for) the Montclair Stroll, the boys were thrilled. The Harmonies of the Season program at St. Mary’s was what they live for. They remembered why they’re in a choir school. That concert reminded us of why we love this choir. The sound was incredible. There’s just nothing that can compare to being in a live concert.”
Brown says the choir will continue to represent the breadth of American choral traditions and simultaneously seek the music of living and female composers along with Black, indigenous and other composers of color; and folk music of underrepresented communities.
“Choral music is a living art, and so it must reflect history, traditions, the present and future,” Brown said. “We look for diversity that the boys can sink their teeth into and get that sound they love to make. What we value as representatives of Oakland, of the Bay Area, is our history, our body of work.”