Performance Gone Virtual: The Sabrinas

In a year bereft of lively, in-person assembly, the Sabrinas have stepped up to fill the void. Despite the pandemic and its misfortunes, the stellar a cappella group has trudged forward, coming back stronger than ever this spring with a modified audition process, revamped social media promotions and an optimistic outlook for in-person performances. As the last segment in our pandemic-inspired feature series, “Performance Gone Virtual,” the A&L editorial team spoke with current music director Maya Roberts ’23 on May 7 to scope out how the Sabrinas have reimagined their normal operations in a year of virtual communication.   

Lauren Kisare: Going back a year ago, when everyone was sent back in March 2020, what was the immediate impact on the Sabrinas? 

Maya Roberts: A year ago, we were meant to do our senior show. We were still practicing for a lot of things. We had just come out of our Valentine’s Day show, so we were taking a short break … When the pandemic hit, all of a sudden everybody [had] to leave, and our seniors [had] to leave [without getting] a chance to do their senior show.

LK: Following into fall 2020, what did that period of time look like? 

MR: For us, I think a lot of things happened last year, in addition to the pandemic. There was also the Black Lives Matter movement that surged back up again. And one of the things that we did as a group was raise funds over the summer [of 2020] for an organization that we thought was helpful. We also issued a few statements online, basically saying that the Sabs is prepared to not only support our Black members but also the Black community in general and other marginalized communities at Amherst. We also  reframed our constitution to make it as inclusive as possible, and we’ve also been working with Jxhn Martin from the QRC to organize some programs for our group, in terms of  being able to make it more inclusive for as many people as possible, so that … once people are in, they feel comfortable in [this] space. Just thinking about ways to accommodate that as best as possible.  

In the fall, we [also] didn’t do much, to be honest, because the restrictions were really high, and a lot of our members were on campus anyways. We didn’t even host auditions last semester. This semester, we did have auditions and we actually accepted five people. They’re all really, really lovely singers, and we’re excited to have them as part of our group. Unfortunately, we have not been able to actually sing together yet, because of some of the restrictions that are in place. What we’re hoping to do … as the semester winds down and it gets a little warmer out, [is] to meet as a group just to sing together and have the seniors be able to do [a] song together or individually on the Val balcony, which is something that’s come up within the last few semesters, performing on the Val balcony and using that as an outlet. That’s something we’re excited to take advantage of.

LK: How was the audition process then for this semester?

MR: The way that we’ve been structured this semester, we don’t really have too much of an E-board, just because it felt like a little bit much to do and just because there’s so much uncertainty … But before the pandemic, I had applied to be the junior director. Because of the passage of time, I’ve now become the “director,” but not really because we haven’t been able to do anything. I was meant to take on the audition process, but I’m also a sophomore, so I’ve never, ever seen what auditions look like. Thankfully, one of our seniors, Lauren Simpson, really took the forefront on that. [And] what we ended up doing was … all the a cappella groups sent out an interest form to people who had come out to the club fair early on this semester. And once they had sent in their interest, they told us what days they were available, and we hopped on a Zoom call, auditioning different people [over the course of two days]. And there, we listened to scales, and we let them do an audition song — just a verse in a chorus to show us what their style is, how they like to sing, as well as to assess range and tone. So that’s how we were able to do that over Zoom. 

Once that was done, we did callbacks for the ones that we really, really liked. And, [for] those callbacks, within the Zoom call, we sent them tracks of us singing different parts. And then we went into breakout rooms and taught them the part that was meant to be added to that part … Once that was done, we let them send in a recording of themselves singing along with us just to assess the blend of how their voice sounded with the other people in the group … We listened back to how folks sounded, and from there, we decided on who we wanted, and we ended up with really, really amazing people.

LK: Did you find any troubles with using Zoom? I know that when you’re in person, the acoustics and the physical space really affect how you facilitate the quality and sound of singing. So I wonder, with the audition process especially, were there any troubles with video lagging or troubles with hearing people’s voices, and did that affect how you were able to assess different people’s singing abilities?

MR: It was a little bit difficult sometimes. We had to go through a process of [showing] folks … how to adjust [their] Zoom, so that all the sound comes out … Unfortunately for some, before we were able to do that, there was some cutting out of the sound, especially as you go into really, really high notes or really, really low notes. The computer thinks that it’s not a human being talking, so [it] doesn’t allow that sound to go through. But overall, I think we were still able to hear what people sounded like thankfully. We also [recruited] someone who’s not even on campus, so being able to do it through Zoom facilitated for her to be able to audition as well, and she’s so great. Despite the technical difficulties, I think it was the best thing considering the circumstances.

LK: Did you find that you got the same audition turnout as you would during a normal semester?

MR: I can’t really speak on that because I haven’t seen the audition process before. I think it was a little bit less than our normal semester, based on what I’ve heard the other folks saying — just because I think a lot more people auditioned, and then we end[ed] up having to sift through a lot more people for the second and third stage. But I think the people who auditioned this semester, in a Covid semester… it was the people who really, really wanted to [audition] and that showed through. [Those were the] majority of people being accepted into the group in the long run.

LK: How do you think promotions played a factor in that? What alternative methods of advertising did you seek out?

MR: We ended up posting different videos. The week before the club fair, we posted different videos of us singing, so that people could get an idea of what the group sounded like and also what our vibe was like in terms of … the diverse range [of songs] that we like to work with. We posted one [per] day the week leading up [to the club fair]. And the day before, we posted a personality video, where we [put together] a compilation of us during practice or during performances doing quirky things, because it just turns out that we have a lot of funny moments — just to get people to see [our] vibe  outside of just singing; [we wanted to show] that sisterhood bond that we try to have with each other, and portray that online. So Maddie made a really, really beautiful compilation. And then post-auditions, we actually did another video congratulating the people who got into the group, and we posted that online as well. I think social media has played even more of a role in the last few months than it has in the past, even though we’ve used it a lot before.

Theo Hamilton: What are you all hoping next year will look like? And what experiences have you been developing this year that you are excited to carry through into the next few semesters?

MR: Something that we’ve really tried to hone in on in the past few weeks, especially with the new members, is [scheduling] things together. So we did something on the [Book & Plow] Farm, we did something in the [LeFrak] Gym [and] we’re hoping to do something again this weekend, just getting to know each other and bonding, and having a good time together as friends. So I think that’s something that we’re looking forward to continuing to do further on into the future.  [We’re] obviously [hoping to] sing together and step up where we’re at, in terms of … actually getting to record songs or just working even more on tone and blend, and making sure that when we do sing in person and live, that it’s the absolute best performance that we can give. [And also we want to] just [work] together so that we not only have that blend vocally but also friendship-wise, which I think makes the music sound even better.

Brooke Hoffman: It sounds like you guys have a lot of really great talent coming in that incoming class of new singers. And I’m just wondering, is there a certain direction you see the group taking in light of having this really great diversity of tones and different styles of voices, and what that might look like for the direction of the group?

MR: It’s hard to say what exactly it’s going to look like. Personally, I have a desire for the group to record some songs and highlight the different voices that we have as best as possible … So I’m thinking about incorporating more songs that … have more of that unison voice because I think that leads to very powerful songs sometimes. Those are some of the things that I’m hoping to be able to do in the future as director. I think there’s a lot of things that we still have to discuss as a group just based on not really having had a structure the last couple semesters and things being up in the air, and thinking, “How do we move forward from now?” What is the structure of leadership going to look like moving forward, as well as with those leaders? How are they going to work together to take the group up to the next level? That’s something I’m excited to work to do, but I’m not too sure exactly what it’s going to look like.

BH: You said you’re a sophomore, and so obviously, your experience with the group has been a little non-traditional, given what’s happened with Covid and everything. But what have you found to be the most engaging or just the best part of your experience thus far in the group? And what are you most looking forward to continuing?

MR: Yeah, I think it’s the sisterhood that I’ve found with the folks [here] … I really do miss being able to practice in person with the [group] and being able to, outside of hearing how lovely we can sound together, [have] those moments when we’re just taking a break, and we’re all joking around … I think those are some of the moments that I have really enjoyed in my time with everyone.

LK: Are there any upcoming updates or events that you want to let our readers know about?

MR: I’ll be performing at Wave Your Flag this Saturday. We’re also going to be doing the senior show within the next week or so. And if we are able to, we might perform at least one song the following week, but that’s to be determined, and we’ll probably post more about it on Instagram.