For decades, the Kenyon College Chamber Singers’ annual spring break tour has operated like a well-oiled machine. After several years of COVID-related cancellations or modifications, the 48 members of the group, plus their conductor, Professor of Music Benjamin “Doc” Locke, were excited to once again cram into a coach bus for seven nights of concerts in early March.
The tour was a success, traveling through six states in the Midwest and South. “The choir grew together on tour like crazy,” said Locke. “You could just look at the friendships developing and people realizing that this was fun. That happens to some extent every year, but this year … I think [the pandemic] created a real hunger for that connection beyond the digital.”
After the second week of spring break, the singers reconvened to prepare for their home concert. They had the music more than memorized — it had been internalized and refined through seven straight days of performance. Knowing this would be the last time the senior singers would perform with the group, tears were guaranteed to flow during the traditional “Kokosing Farewell” encore, so reliably that one might wonder if that emotional release is choreographed into the concert program as well.
They were ready to sing. Then the power went out.
Outages happen every so often in Gambier, and this year the area has been hit especially hard by a series of windstorms that damaged transmission lines. Locke, a longtime Knox County resident, was accustomed to the occasional blackouts. “I absolutely detest canceling,” he said. “I’d rather sing for five people than have to try to reach everybody to say, ‘Oh, we’re not doing it tonight.’ So we just charged ahead.”
In the early evening, as Locke gathered the singers to warm up onstage in Rosse prior to an 8 p.m. showtime, Campus Safety showed up. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to shut us down’,” Locke said.
Instead, the officers asked how they could help. Until that point, Locke hoped to rely on lingering daylight to illuminate the hall during the concert, or maybe present a shortened program. “But the students automatically took on this role of, ‘All right, we’re going to do this and we want to do our whole program.’” Some ran back to their dorms to grab supplies, one returning with a battery-powered string of glowing orange pumpkins.
Others had high-beam flashlights that they installed in the balcony. “They were bright in your eye, sort of almost laser-like,” said Locke. “But they illuminated the stage.”
In the midst of the extended outage, the next order of business was to spread the word that the show would go on. The Campus Safety office fielded phone calls from community members wondering if the concert was happening, while students spread the word virtually. “Chamber Singers Concert — AS SCHEDULED,” read the subject line of an All-Stu email sent out at 7 p.m., signed Love, the Chamber Singers.
Over 300 people showed up.
“I often find that I enjoy singing in a choir more than listening to a choir from the audience — sitting and watching can make me restless, and I want to sing!” said Chamber Singer Theodore Schwamm ’24, the group’s tour manager. “However, our power-outage concert is one I wish I could have watched.”
“You could just feel it in the air,” Locke said. “Everyone was there and enjoying it and glad it was happening.”
Ten years prior, a similar blackout disrupted a planned concert in Rosse Hall for the Kenyon Jazz Ensemble, lead by Professor of Music Ted Buehrer ’91. Buehrer was leaning toward canceling or postponing the performance. “It was the students who — I give them all the credit — who said ‘No, we have to do it, we have to make this work.’”
For a jazz ensemble, a power-free performance meant no electricity for the amplifiers for the guitar and bass, and no light to help them read their music. “In 2013, not everybody had a smartphone,” said Buehrer. “Some students had flip phones, other students had smartphones, but they went out into the audience and they started asking, ‘Could we borrow a smartphone?’”
The performance went on, the stage illuminated by phones and various other small sources of light, with one player sporting a baseball cap with built-in LEDs. The horns played quietly, while the guitar and bass tried to generate as much acoustic sound as possible. “I’m sure they were plucking as hard as they could and making their fingers bleed,” said Buehrer.
“Somebody said afterward, “It wasn’t the quality of the performance, it was the fact of the performance,’” remembered Buehrer. “Which I thought was a really cool way of thinking about that, because we didn’t play our best. There were definitely some challenges in that concert. We couldn’t see the music half the time and the balance was all off. But it turned into this moment.”
“Sometimes it’s crises that create memorable events,” said Locke. “Maybe the seniors feel robbed [of their final traditional home concert]. But in another way, they’re the ones who stepped up and made this happen. Can-do spirit, that’s what it was.”
That spirit was present from all perspectives during the concert. Campus Safety officers walked the aisles to monitor the lights in case of fire. The choir sang, not in the warm glow of professional lighting, but under the sharp beams of flashlights affixed to the balcony. Students and community members showed up in the dark to listen.
“When we got to rests, pauses and lifts, the absence of any mechanical noise from air conditioning and lights made the silence absolutely exquisite,” said Schwamm. “It seemed everyone listening was waiting breathlessly for the music to continue.” In the lack of background noise, music took center stage.
“I've had students stopping me,” said Locke, of the days following the concert. “Even today, somebody said, “Oh, good concert.” I didn’t know them. But they came out because what else was there to do? So they showed up. People in the community showed up.”