As the only Christian a cappella group at Amherst, faith is central to Terras Irradient’s performance. In a normal year, the choir shines on stage, making music only with the sounds of their voice. But do these key elements of their performance translate to Zoom? Even with their members spread across the nation, Terras Irradient, or TI for short, has managed to maintain their identity, defined not only by their music and faith, but also by their close-knit community.
When students were suddenly sent home in March 2020, TI grappled with the cancellation of its most anticipated performances, such as its senior concert and an appearance at “Break It Down Boston,” a Christian a cappella group conference in Boston. Beyond calendar events, TI lamented the separation of its community. Music director and social chair Ashley Kim ’22 recalled that the group’s final moments together were bittersweet. “Right before we left, it was really cute because we all met up, and we had one final prayer meeting. Everyone was emotional and crying together. For me, that was a good memory of getting in that goodbye for the time being.”
Amid the national transition from in-person to remote work, TI struggled to preserve the social aspect of the in-person experience. “After we all got sent home, we tried to do some game nights and stuff,” said logistical coordinator Kelly Huang ’22. “Those were decently attended, but as the semester continued to go on, it started dropping off … I think a lot of people were just not feeling super good, emotionally and spiritually. People were kind of dead, and nobody really wanted to connect, so I guess that’s 2020.”
In spite of these setbacks, TI decided to resume in the fall and began planning during the summer. Adapting their in-person operations to a virtual format, however, was a challenge.
“Back then, things were so uncertain when we were trying to plan in July that we basically decided not to go for anything like our normal rehearsal concert things for the fall,” Huang explained. “So we sent out some surveys, asking people about what they wanted to do and how often.” They ended up going from two rehearsals plus one prayer meeting per week to one general group meeting per week. And, Huang recalled, “We struggled a lot to try to figure out whether or not to make things mandatory, which we ended up not making them mandatory, but we made prayer meetings highly encouraged.”
Another critical aspect of a music group at Amherst is recruitment. TI, which is a five college group, sent out audition information to Christian affinity groups at Amherst and UMass. “I know a lot of other groups did them [auditions] asynchronously, but we wanted to try to keep things as normal as possible,” Huang noted. “We had [auditioners] learn [parts] over Zoom and then do a performance for the rest of us, which sounds nerve-wracking, and I think it definitely was for a lot of people.”
Huang also admitted that trying to maintain some of their usual audition practices posed difficulties. “It’s really hard to teach people something over Zoom, because we copy-pasted our normal callback process, [where we] split up [candidates] into sections, and then the section people teach you the stuff, and you learn it and then you perform it. Except people can’t sing together on Zoom. So it ended up being [that] we had to teach each person in each voice part individually, and that took so much longer than we expected.”
The members of TI have struggled to stay motivated to practice and perform on Zoom. But Kim said that the group prioritizes mental health over any perception of success. “We aren’t really forcing anyone to sing because, like a lot of other groups on campus, forcing anyone to do anything at this time is not a good thing,” Kim said. “We’re kind of different from other performing groups where we focus more on the community than the actual singing part. The performances and rehearsals are great, but we’re mostly based on trying to have good conversation.”
For Terras Irradient, it is all about cultivating community, which can be a challenge even in normal years. Still, the group has shown signs of success with an upcoming virtual benefit with other Christian acapella groups across the nation.
The group stays connected through prayer meetings every other week, and a “fun night” on the off weeks. Kim described an activity from normal years that they have maintained, called “Card Swap.” Members are randomly paired, so that they can meet, grab a meal and get to know each other. But still, Huang emphasized the limits of socializing remotely. “It’s just really hard to feel connected and really hard for people to open up and be vulnerable, which is a lot of what helps us grow in our relationships, and that’s just not happening over Zoom. It’s really hard to feel intimate and vulnerable on Zoom.”
TI yearns for a return to normalcy. With a fully in-person fall semester ahead, the group is excited for its First-Year Showcase during Family Weekend, a highlight of the fall semester.
Beyond events, Kim and Huang both shared their vision for fall 2021, which entails a rebirth of Amherst’s thriving a cappella community. Kim remembered one of her favorite concerts, which brought together Amherst a cappella beyond TI. “Last school year, December of 2019, we had a joint concert or a feature with DQ because we have a pretty good relationship with them. And that was just so much fun, just being able to go to people’s concerts [and] have live performances. I don’t think there’s any better feeling than that.”
For TI, the fall represents a return to its mission statement, which Huang says is “to praise God through song.” It is so much more than just producing music. “Just singing together with a group of people who have the same goal as you and are feeling the same way is something that you can’t really get over Zoom at all,” Huang stressed. “So I’m just really excited to be back in a group, to get to know our new people better and to hopefully get to add some more people in and, of course, to perform!”