TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Over the past few weeks, students in The University of Alabama opera theatre program have used videoconferencing and phone calls to sing to the elderly and others who may be self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic.
Students moved from packed concert halls to virtual audiences to serenade those heavily impacted by social distancing measures with songs ranging from favorite hymns to “Happy Birthday,” each interaction unique and tailored to the person on the receiving end.
“It’s a great feeling to put a smile on someone’s face,” said Dr. Paul Houghtaling, professor of opera in the UA School of Music. “I feel lucky to be constantly reminded of the power of music, and to help to make somebody feel a little less lonely, to calm anxieties that people might have during these times.”
The project started when Houghtaling called a few friends to check up on them, calls which always ended in a song, he said. He decided a short tune could be beneficial for people feeling down, and asked the University’s Opera Guild and those in the opera theatre program’s mailing list if they knew of people who might like a surprise.
The list was larger than Houghtaling could tackle, so he asked his students if they would be interested in helping — a question immediately met with a resounding “yes.” Since then, he assigned students to certain calls based on their range and repertoire.
The unique situation brought on by COVID-19 allows Houghtaling to teach his students they don’t have to receive massive applause from a concert hall to know they move people. Through videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, they interact more directly with the people being sung to, and maybe even have a conversation.
“Music is a constant, and we don’t have to be in person to share our art,” Houghtaling said. “We don’t have to be in the same room. We can do it by Zoom or over the phone. It’s a really special way to do it.”
This project is a great reminder to the students and himself that music is a crucial part of the human experience, Houghtaling said. Even when times are uncertain, they bring a bit of joy into someone’s life with song, he said.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to share with my students, and an opportunity for them to be continually reminded of the power and importance of what we do,” Houghtaling said. “Our skills will always matter, in high times and low times, in good times and bad times. It’s been reassuring.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.