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A Choir That Cares This year's graduating class of Washington and Lee's University Singers reflects on their college experience.

IMG_5219wp-1024x768 A Choir That CaresUniversity Singers graduating in 2024: top row (l-r) William Pittman, Joe Condie, Josh Lewis, Mynor Lopez, Stuart Robinson, Sarah-Gabrielle Lynch, Kate Lardner, Annie Thomas; second row (l-r) Garrett Price, Adele Roulston, Jordan Jontz, Elizabeth Gonzalez Avalos, Lana Hess, William Dantini; first row (l-r): Catherine McKean, Elizabeth Kent (originally another year), Jowita Chotkiewicz, Sydney Brun-Ozuna (’24L), Colleen Curto, Deuce Smoot

“Choir has always been a haven for me, but my time in University Singers was special — it felt productive, artistic and like I was a part of something that brought joy to our community.”

~ Sarah-Gabrielle Lynch ’24

Washington and Lee’s University Singers will soon deliver their final performance of the year, their annual rendition of the W&L Hymn, “The Road Home,” and “Shenandoah” at the university’s Baccalaureate ceremony on May 29. For the group’s graduating seniors, it will round out a college singing experience that has been anything but ordinary.

The University Singers’ first 12 weeks together on campus during Fall 2020 was at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rehearsals took place in masks and with students standing in dots on the floor spaced far enough apart to maintain social distancing, for no more than a half-hour at a time. Shane Lynch, professor of music and director of choral activities, remembers being relieved that the group was able to practice in person under the circumstances.

“We were kind of fortunate because there were lots of places that wouldn’t even allow that,” Lynch said, “and, for many of our students, rehearsal was one of the few experiences they could have in person at that time.”

The 2020-2021 academic year was a struggle for the group, which was invited to an international choir competition in Slovenia during Winter Term 2021. When the competition was canceled, they began recording the music they had worked on to prepare for the competition and shared it on social media. Sarah-Gabrielle Lynch ’24 remembers that, fortunately, due to the ventilation system in Wilson Hall, the group could meet in person for rehearsals. That experience was a bright spot for her during that time, particularly as the group navigated creative ways to connect with alumni and honor cherished University Singers traditions.

“We were recording a performance of ‘Shenandoah,’ and we normally hold hands during that piece,” Lynch said. “You don’t know how much you’re going to miss things like that until you’re not at all able to do it. Our social chairs came up with the idea to have us hold blue and white ropes, cut to the right length for us to stay the appropriate distance apart while holding onto each end, so that we felt connected in the same way.”

By the end of that academic year, students were able to gather in Wilson Hall and sing together without masks, an experience that Josh Lewis ’24 remembers as one of the most impactful moments of his time with University Singers.

“I’ve thought a lot about how I don’t really know what a ‘normal’ college experience is like, beyond what others have told me,” Lewis said, “but I do know that every year has just gotten better and better.”

Even with the setbacks they experienced early on in the pandemic, the group has been able to have some unique travel experiences together. The singers were able to resume their traditional April international tour during the 2021-2022 academic year with performances in Ireland.

Causeway-with-Annie-Thomas-Lana-Hess-et-Alwp-881x768 A Choir That CaresUniversity Singers pose at the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland while on tour.

The group then went on to place third in the International Open Competition at the City of Derry International Choir Festival held in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in October 2022 — they were the first American choir to have been selected for the competition. The competition trip was made possible through a generous gift from Hannah Dewing ’19, former president of University Singers, and her late father, Andy ’84, P’19, ’23, who wanted to make sure the University Singers never had to turn down a competition or festival opportunity due to funding concerns.

William Dantini ’24 said the opportunity to showcase American-style choral singing in a European setting was a proud moment for him.

“It was validating,” Dantini said. “We know we’re a pretty good choir, and Dr. Lynch is absolutely amazing, but being able to say that we did that well in a competition overseas was significant, especially as a starting point for us to hopefully be a part of more of those competitions in the future.”

Last year’s tour during Washington Break took the group to Hawaii, North Carolina and Virginia. The Hawaiian leg of the tour was made possible through the generous donations of parents and alumni and was coordinated by Olivia Shaves Arnold ’17, a former member of W&L’s choral conducting mentorship program who studied music in Oahu, Hawaii.

IMG_6302wp-977x768 A Choir That CaresUniversity Singers visited Hawaii as part of their domestic tour in 2023.

Rounding out 2023 was the University Singers’ annual Candlelight Service, a beloved campus tradition that returned last year after a hiatus due to the choir’s travel schedule and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The group’s recent March 5 concert in the Lenfest Center for the Arts celebrated the ensemble’s return from their performance tour of the southern United States, a marathon road trip that gave the group opportunities to bond on the tour bus and to meet alumni, such as choir directors Michael Colavita ’18 and Morgan Luttig ’14, graduates of the university’s choral conducting mentorship program. The group also coordinated with the Office of Alumni Engagement on a reception in Atlanta that invited alumni to attend a performance and then mingle with current students at a post-concert reception. Elizabeth Powell ’16 attended the concert and reception and said she treasured the opportunity to reconnect with her University Singers extended family and to meet its current members.

“It was powerful to reconnect with something that was so important to me in my four years at W&L and see that it is just as important to current students,” Powell said. “It’s an experience that is hard to put into words. There is just something different about choral singing and the kind of community that it fosters.”

Shane Lynch said that students who have been here during the years of the pandemic’s evolution have a different outlook on what it means to be a part of University Singers.

“We saw choirs all over the world just fall apart and cease to function,” Professor Lynch said. “These students said, you know what? Yeah, this stinks, but we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen, that it keeps moving forward. It says a lot about them.”

“There’s a feeling of a kind of community struggle that came out of this,” Sarah-Gabrielle Lynch said, “and a feeling of, at least for me, pride in how I handled it. Choir has always been a haven for me, but my time in University Singers was special — it felt productive, artistic and like I was a part of something that brought joy to our community.” Lynch plans to go to graduate school in opera studies, ideally within a program that also offers conducting. She said that she knows that her University Singers experience has been a singular one.

“I probably will at some point be in another very good choir,” Lynch said, “but it is rare to find a choir this good that also cares so deeply about each other, that shares traditions and that people come back to visit, even if they’re on the other side of the world. I know there’s not really anything to compare this to after I graduate.”

IMG_5975-1wp-1024x768 A Choir That CaresUniversity Singers toured various venues in the southeastern United States during this year’s Washington Break.

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