Charlotte Botha, instructor of music and director of choral activities, talks about the challenges of directing a chorus during a pandemic. She joined the faculty in July.
What do you teach?
As the new director of choral activities … I should be teaching chamber choir, a large university or college choir, and masterworks chorale type of thing, but that’s not really happening this semester because it’s so tough with the transmission of COVID. I’m teaching a great course called Social Justice, Activism, and Artistry in Group Singing. It’s been a fantastic journey of thinking about what’s in the choral canon, what are the works that are considered part of what we sing all the time, what are the works that are regularly published and bought and are in circulation, and thinking which are the works that aren’t in there and why aren’t they.
What is it like teaching during a pandemic?
I have found exclusive online teaching to be really helpful for a subject like choral music that uses a lot of video and podcasts and audio and these kinds of things. And then, for Hamilton Voices, ... it’s very flexible and you can kind of do with it what you want every semester, which was actually perfect for a first semester during a pandemic. We went all out in terms of collaboration over distance, using every source of technology we could on campus and addressing those things that make choral singing harder during a pandemic.
I feel like our testing program and attention to detail when it comes to protocols at Hamilton make me feel like I can take more artistic freedoms and I can dream a little bit bigger.
What experiences stand out?
We were singing this piece by Mason Bynes, she’s a composer from Texas who’s now living in Boston, called Incipient Sonority. ... We don’t have a handbell group at Hamilton, but a friend of mine has [one] in Kansas, so they recorded their part, and we recorded our part, and when we finally got to put everything together, and kind of breathe through the music together and emote the text, I think there was one moment that everything was perfect, and luckily that was the moment that we recorded.
How has the experience been overall?
I feel like I am safer than all of my colleagues who are elsewhere in the country at the moment. I feel like our testing program and attention to detail when it comes to protocols at Hamilton make me feel like I can take more artistic freedoms and I can dream a little bit bigger.
How did you decide to become a choral director?
I came out of my mother singing, I think, and just didn’t stop from there! I dabbled in so many other things, like a brief mechanical engineering stint that was not for me, a little bit of art, a little bit of journalism, took some political science, and throughout all of this, I was just singing in the choir all the time. ... I was basically a professional musician who just wasn’t studying music. … I did my undergrad in Pretoria, [eventually] studied music, was singing initially, and then I got a vocal injury and was like, ‘This is the worst. I can’t sing, I can’t speak. I don’t feel like this is my personality.’ And somehow, I don’t know, by the biggest grace, I discovered that I could make music if I moved my body in some way. And until my voice came back two years later, that’s what I did. I whistled my final singing exam and then just conducted from there.
Who are your favorite musicians?
Florence B. Price is a fantastic composer, and I would recommend every single note that she has ever written. Caroline Shaw is exquisitely creative and just mystifying. She is so humble, she’s just the most down-to-earth person. ... I’m really loving the work of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. She’s an Icelandic composer who is just, I don’t know if it’s something in the water in Iceland. I used to listen to a lot of Björk when I was younger, and I feel like they share something in their creativity in how it’s always visual. And the other obvious songwriter/performer is Moses Sumney. I think he’s been carrying me through this pandemic.