Penn State choirs adapt with online musical 'March Madness'

May 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What does a choir director do when his university moves to remote instruction and the beloved March Madness basketball playoffs are canceled? Launch his own version of “March Madness” using pieces of music, of course.

According to Christopher Kiver, director of choral activities in Penn State’s School of Music, rehearsing large ensembles in a way that resembles face-to-face instruction is practically impossible, because video platforms do not cope well with simultaneous sound from multiple sources. So he needed to come up with a way to keep students engaged and thinking critically, as they do during an actual rehearsal. When Concert Choir member Michael West suggested a musical version of March Madness — an idea West had gotten from his high school choir director — Kiver knew he had found his solution.

“As well as making music, a regular rehearsal normally requires students to think critically about the music, from compositional details to understanding the historical and cultural context of the music,” said Kiver, director of the Concert Choir and Glee Club. “While we are unable to sing together, March Madness helps us further our critical-thinking skills by listening and discussing the music featured in the bracket.”

For each choir, the “Legacy” side of the draw included 16 pieces of music each choir sang this year or last, while the "Cool Kids" side included pieces of music recommended by students, from choral music to pop, rock and video gaming. Pieces of music were randomly matched and students had to listen to each composition and select “winners” from each “match.” Instead of rehearsing, class time has been used to discuss the music and give students a chance to explain their choices and what factors impacted their decision-making. According to Kiver, the first round included some heavyweight match-ups and some upsets ... and, just like the basketball playoffs, after the first round nobody had a complete bracket.

Christopher Kiver

Christopher Kiver, director of choral activities in the Penn State School of Music

IMAGE: Penn State

Students are responding positively. West, a junior music education major, said the musical March Madness has helped students both academically and socially.

“Although we are very sad that we cannot be making music together, meeting at our normal class time and conversing with each other on Zoom has really boosted morale for myself as well as the entire choir. Still seeing the faces and voices of my friends reminds me just how lucky I am to have met such great people at such a great university. Plus, we get to discover and listen to new music!" 

Fellow Concert Choir member Natalie Ondrey, a junior majoring in secondary English education, agreed that being unable to meet in person has been a huge loss, but noted March Madness helps the choir members to still feel connected. “We meet on Zoom at our regular class times to defend our bracket picks, as well as catch up and offer good news, advice, resources and laughs. It’s a comforting reminder that we still have a strong community in choir, and although we can’t meet in person and exercise our voices, we can exercise our minds and strengthen our musicianship through thoughtful listening and conversation.”

Concert Choir President Olivia Blackmore said musical March Madness supports the choir’s ongoing goal of establishing a sense of community.

“When an ensemble consists of people who really know and care about each other, it adds so much to the music-making,” noted Blackmore, a junior music education major. “With the nature of social distancing, it can be difficult to feel connected to other people. Our musical March Madness bracket gives us a chance to get together to spend time just chatting and learning about some fantastic music.”

For Devon Tighe, a junior in the Glee Club, March Madness has been fun, educational and engaging. 

“It inspires competition and encourages us to continue to engage with music, both choral and beyond, thoughtfully and purposefully. It also has kept the Glee Club together in a time where companionship and, for lack of a better term, brotherhood, are not just a luxury but a necessity. … It has been a genuinely fun and refreshing way to spend class time.”

At the end of the semester, the winners were, for Concert Choir, “Os justi” by Anton Bruckner, and for Glee Club, “Ave Maria” by Franz Babel. Both winners came from repertoire the ensembles had sung, rather than from songs they had chosen.

Last Updated May 21, 2020