Art in the Time of Covid: Patricia Norton
Chorus and other group singers have found the Covid-19 pandemic particularly challenging. One of the earliest coronavirus superspreader events tied to a choir practice in Mount Vernon, Washington in March 2020 sickened 52 people and led to the deaths of two. Before we got wise to the aerosolized transmission of the virus, other group singing events also led to outbreaks early on.
So singers got creative. And this was true for Patricia Norton, founder of Juneberry Music. Formerly of Thetford, Patricia had been leading the Juneberry Community Chorus in the Upper Valley of Vermont. When the pandemic hit, Patricia wasted no time quickly bringing chorus rehearsals online. As things evolved and the chorus realized in person rehearsals or performances weren’t going to happen anytime soon, Patricia decided to up the game, professionalizing the Zoom sessions, and Zoomberry was born. With the support of the Upper Valley Music Center, Patricia developed a choral program in the virtual space, and by fall of 2020, more than 40 singers from all over New England and beyond had joined through the magic of Zoom.
Later, in 2021, Patricia created an educational podcast, A Breath of Song, to share songs and songwriters with people singing for wellness. In each 15 minute episode, Patricia shares a favorite song, one that helps her to navigate life, and teaches it to listeners whom she hopes will sing along. In longer episodes, guest songwriters share songs and join in conversation with Patricia. A recent episode featured world renowned singer, composer, lyricist and musician Moira Smiley.
Despite being told in first grade to mouth the words, Patricia has had an ongoing love affair with choral music, which led her to found the Juneberry Community Chorus, aimed at getting singers out of the shower and into the choir. She studied extensively with Alice Parker, Judi Vinar, Bobby McFerrin, and received certification in the Voice Care Network. Patricia has facilitated classes in literature and music with OSHER at Dartmouth and the Vermont Humanities Council, and has performed with Full Circle, Vermont Chamber Artists, and Handel Society.
Patricia shared her thoughts on art in the time of Covid.
How has the pandemic challenged your creative practice and/or business?
Group singing was directly and immediately affected by the pandemic. Not only was gathering in groups no longer allowed, but because of the early experiences of Covid spreading rapidly and devastatingly through choral rehearsals, the sense of singing as a haven was threatened. As a choral director and group song leader, I chose immediately to change to online formats and had to discover how to support people singing alone at home, with me on their computer screen. I needed to figure out the technology to create beautiful, layered sound out of my home—microphones for voice, piano, guitar; interfaces, looping, and recording software! I developed both Pocket Songs, an online group singing session, and the podcast “A Breath of Song,” to explore using our voices, both individually and together, to support us as we heal, adapt, and grow in response to our world.
How have you found strength or support since the pandemic began?
Singing has been my refuge, my haven, and my connection to others. The stories I’ve heard from singers, near and distant, who are moved by the songs I’ve chosen to share are incredibly moving. In Pocket Songs and A Breath of Song, I have focused on songs with messages I wanted in my brain—you could say I was upping my ear-worm game! I’ve also been delighted by what I’ve learned about my own voice through the extensive recording. Before, I had only sung and directed in live situations, focusing on the voices around me, so the intense listening to my own individual voice, was new and uncomfortable to me and has been a source of growth. Feeling like I was growing and evolving helped counter any pandemic-induced anxieties or claustrophobia.
I’ve also been able to work extensively with artists around the world doing vocal improvisation, as we’ve pushed the limitations of online music-making and our own creativity. Partnering with highly skilled improvisers, even online, has been a rich source of strength and connection. During the height of the pandemic, I was excited by working with a young filmmaker, Anna King; a NYC dancer/choreographer, Claudia Rahardjanoto; and 40+ singers from all over New England to create a documentary, Zoomberry, An Adventurous Chorus for Uncommon Times, that explores the choral process in a pandemic. We gathered for a hybrid premiere in July of 2021. These kinds of shared experiences all stretched previously conceived boundaries of online work.
What are your plans or hopes for the future?
In April 2022, my husband and I moved from our long-time home in Thetford to the big city, Burlington, to be closer to family. This is a big change for us, and it is fortuitous to be doing it after these years of Covid restrictions, because so much of my work is now online. Both the Pocket Songs groups and the A Breath of Song podcast will continue without interruption, if all goes according to plan! After we’re settled in Burlington, I plan to see what kinds of group singing people are hungry for—what dreams and longings do people have? Family chorus? Circle-singing? Pocket Songs live? Choral skills classes? Those plans are evolving at juneberrymusic.com, where I welcome ideas and feedback. I am excited about facilitating in-person singing communities again.
What are some ways people can support your work right now?
Visit juneberrymusic.com and explore! You can sign up for the summer session of Pocket Songs, listen to A Breath of Song, learn more about me and my offerings, and consider contributing to the A Breath of Song tip jar. Before the visual artist or I get paid, 25% is donated to the Jazz Foundation of America, which directly supports jazz, blues, and roots musicians in need. Much of the music I share on the podcast or in Pocket Songs has its roots in music from the African diaspora; those musicians have been historically undervalued, underpaid, and uncredited. This is a small step toward recognizing that contribution.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
I am surprised by gratitude for the deepening of my own singing practice that Covid required, and the friendships developed across land masses and oceans.
“Patricia creates a fun, soulful and uplifting space for people to join in song! I appreciate especially her kindness, authenticity, skill and her clear delivery of songs. She puts care into selecting pieces for each time. It’s always a good time, and I leave feeling energized and inspired!”
Pocket Song Singer Pat Cannon of Maine”
“I often use that song as a resource but had no idea of the power it held until I heard it sung to me through your podcast. I cried, took a breath, and a moment to rest as I listened on my yoga mat this morning. My heart and bones felt held. I could listen to your version all day!”
-Songwriter Carole Marie Downing on the Breath of Song podcast