The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Dr. Tim Sharp, Executive Director of the American Choral Directors Association discussed his personal experience having had COVID-19. He bridges that experience into how he hopes that this experience will strengthen the importance of music and community.
Dr. Tim Sharp, Executive Director of the American Choral Directors Association
Interviewed May 13, 2020
TB: I always like to start these interviews with something positive; so, what is the best thing that has happened to you over the last week?
TS: My daughter finally got to come home from San Francisco, and my wife and I were completely cleared for having any problems [from having had COVID-19]. We had an antibody test—both my wife and I—and we did have COVID-19, but we were cleared by our doctor. We tested positive for the antibodies, but he said we were cleared to have our daughter come home, who has not had the virus.
So, the best thing was she finally got to come home. It really lifted our spirits to be back together, because it is a very troubling time. As everyone knows, when you’re separated from family by a forced situation, it seems to exacerbate the hopelessness. That was a big hopeful moment for us and a new lift for our spirits.
TB: I am so glad you shared that. Obviously, we are going to come back to the COVID experience, but would you mind sharing a bit of your background and your work with the American Choral Directors Association?
TS: Certainly, I’m starting my 13th year as Executive Director of the ACDA. The ACDA is the national association for professional choral directors, industry members, students that are going into choral music, or anyone that’s a zealot, particularly related to choral music. It’s a director’s association, so that means the people that join our association themselves are presumably people who are on the podium, teaching, researching or servicing this particular segment of the industry. Of course, a large percentage of our members are teachers or educators, so after you’ve gotten your degree, we are the association that tries to keep the bar high.
In fact, our mission statement is that we “inspire excellence,” and those two words are very purposeful. Inspiring is not a mandatory thing; it is something that people willingly put themselves into, and then excellence would be the standard that we’re working toward. Those areas are pedagogy, performance, advocacy, and composition. So, whether you’re a composer, an advocate, a student, or a performer of choral music, we are the association that’s trying to give you more materials and resources to raise the bar.
Historically, we’re over 60 years old now as an association. As I say, I’m the third director in the history of the organization, in my 13th year. I came from academia, but also spent ten years in the publishing and distribution industry for choral music, both print and recording. I was the US distributor for the Hänssler classical label back in the 1990s. Also, I was in charge of sales and distribution for about 40 different print publishing companies.
I’ve also been a church musician, working in a church. I’ve worked with community choirs, and as I said, most of my academic life, I was teaching at either a college or university. I’m a guy that’s really gone through about three career shifts while staying in choral music but different ways of actually looking at the music. I like to say to people that all of that preparation for the opportunity when ACDA came along came together in a perfect moment for me because I really do relate to a lot of different angles of choral music. Not just the podium stuff, but the sales, administration, and now I’m in a nonprofit. It is a unique combination for me, and I feel it fits my personality very well.
We have about 20,000 members in ACDA in the United States and around the world. We are a national organization, but we are the world’s largest organization of this type. Therefore, we end up being a best practice kind of organization for other choral organizations around the world. Because international interests are a purpose for the ACDA, I’m very active with IFCM, which is the International Federation of Choral Music. I also try to really push one of our agenda items for the ACDA, and that is to be involved in world choral music as well.
That’s what I wake up doing every day, and there is not a dull day in my life because that is a mission that will never be accomplished in terms of all the different angles of excellence.
TB: That’s good because we haven’t had a dull day in the last two months. I want to set the stage for where you were coming from as you prepared for the regional ACDA conferences, just so that we can come into this together. March 2, 2020, “ACDA regional conferences are on! Our artistic teams have planned another great set of conferences that are sure to inspire you. Please know that we are aware and are following news from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on the coronavirus, and we encourage you to do the same. The CDC continues to say that the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low for Americans.”
So obviously, our situation has drastically changed since then. So, from March 2 onwards, could you describe a bit about how that awareness took hold and how that began to affect you?
TS: I certainly can. I think it is very insightful that you pick up on that, because that may be something that a lot of people wonder about but don’t really have the nerve to ask because it was an evolving story.
I haven’t really had a peaceful moment since February 29, which happened to be a leap year date. But now I will never forget that leap year because February 29 was when I first really woke up to the evolving nature of decisions. Not COVID (yet), but the evolving nature of what we were doing. The week before, I went to a symposium in Louisville, Kentucky, made up of industry executives and CEOs. We completely hijacked the agenda that was set out for us for that meeting and decided to talk about what this could mean for our organizations.
During that, I got a call from my office staff saying, “We are starting to get calls about our conferences that are coming up in March. What do we need to do?” That was my moment. Because I really had not considered that we were not going to do the conferences, nobody had. I was at a conference at that very moment in a city that had multiple conferences going on, and that was not the discussion.
To your point, I did not hear the term ‘social distancing’ until the second day of a conference that was the second week of our conferences in ACDA. I was in Spokane, Washington, of all places. And if you think back, Washington was really the very first state. We were saying at that time there was a ‘Wuhan 2.0’ feeling. Now that was Seattle on the other side of the mountains from where I was, but we were very aware.
So, when I heard that term, ‘social distancing,’ from the governor of the state of Washington, at that moment, I decided that we had to shut down our conference, and we did. We shut down the Spokane conference that day, and then I called my folks that were in Mobile, Alabama, at our southern conference and told them that we were doing that. Within two hours, the President of the Southern Division Conference of ACDA called me back and said, “We’re going to go ahead and move on this as well.” And they decided to close that conference.
So, when I actually heard it from the governor who was saying we need to now impose ‘social distancing,' that was my moment. I had called the Mayor of Spokane, I had called the Health Department of Spokane, and they had no such warnings during our conferences. That was almost two days from the end of our conference period. They both said, “Our schools are still in session, and we have no cases of that in Spokane,” (or in Mobile, Alabama). That is how quickly it evolved. Then by the time I got back to my office on Monday, we heard these warnings, and by Wednesday of that week, I told the staff to go home and that we would start working from home.
TB: In about two weeks, the entire world changed. Personally, then, when was it that you realized you had something?
TS: That was something I had to really think about because, of course, I came back from the conference and I had no problems at all. My staff was at all those different conferences as well. We had six conferences going on simultaneously over a two-week period. Staff from the ACDA was at each one of those handling registrations. So, we all came back together on Monday and had our debriefing time together. Still, at that point, there was nothing in Oklahoma, where we’re based. There was absolutely no word of social distancing or staying home. That evolved very quickly both in the state of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City.
But it was not true on that Monday at all. So, we were in our office, welcoming each other back, telling our little stories, and sitting around a table sharing a birthday cake for one of our staff—the things we can’t even imagine right now. My guess is most of the people in America were doing the same thing; they were going on with their daily lives. By Wednesday, I said everyone go home.
Now what is interesting is because I was with the staff for two full days during that time, and my wife is immune-compromised, so I was very, very careful when I’d go out of the house and come back in. I would put my clothes in the washing machine when I came into the house. I would take a shower before I actually came into the living space of our house, just because I was particularly concerned about her.
Then on Wednesday, ten days after, I just recalled, my temperature went up, and I started having body aches as a result of the high temperature. Then my back started feeling like I had a sunburn. It was really odd, and one of the oddest things of all to me was that I lost all sense of taste and smell at that point. I knew something was really up. So, by Friday of that week, I went to the hospital in Oklahoma City to get testing. They would not test me there because they said I wasn’t sick enough. That was before they were ready with all the protocols. They said, “Go home, you don’t have enough problems here. We’re not going to be concerned about you.”
So, I came home, and the next Monday, my wife started having the same symptoms, but her symptoms, by Friday, had deteriorated so badly that I was concerned about taking care of her at home. I was facing a weekend, and I was really worried about a hospital situation on the weekend. I was constantly talking to her doctor about "what do I do?" and he was leaving it up to me to make the call about "do I take her in or not?" By the time I got her to the hospital, her temperature was way over 100 degrees, and she was not speaking coherently with me.
She was checked in, and indeed, she had pneumonia at that point, so she was in the hospital for about ten days. Then she came home; we had oxygen tanks already at the house so that she could stay in. But she survived it. I survived it. She came home, and she’s strong now. It’s a success story to that end, but it was terrifying on the front end when no one knew, and really, no one still knows a lot of the issues.
Now, surely, I put 22,000 miles on my body in the first two weeks of March. I was all over the country at every regional conference. But in my own mind, I believe I contracted the virus in Oklahoma City at the post office or someplace that I had been in that week and a half that I’d been home. I was doing what others were doing, but I had not gone to the strict lockdown that came later, that had not been imposed. I had just said to the staff, "We won’t be coming together as a group at work." What is interesting to me is that none of the staff got the virus at all. They’re all healthy. I was the only one. I cannot relate it to travel or being on airplanes as much as that would be a convenient story for me.
She and I both went to the hospital, our doctor asked us to go in and take the test for antibodies. We both tested positive, and of course, we wanted to be on the list for people who could give blood, if that is going to be of research assistance. But as I said, we were then cleared of all problems, and my daughter was able to come home.
TB: First off, I just want to thank you for telling me about those details, because I think that that is something that goes untouched as we are paying attention to our field, the human aspect. So, drawing back the lens, what would you say is the hardest lesson that you have learned in this situation?
TS: I do ponder that question just about every day as lessons learned, and what can we take away from it? I think that the hardest lesson was a lesson in control. I would think most people are resonating with this that we have been control-freaks in the last few years: we’ve moved to control our environment, we control what we see, we control our Netflix accounts. We’ve moved to personal control, and we can manipulate our own universes through technology and other ways of isolation, which is where we are and were evolving.
I realized that so much of what I depend on is outside of my control. It first came with health, I wanted to go to the hospital, and they couldn’t let me in because I wasn’t sick enough. These are all elements of control to me. What had been a very convenient thing of, “I can go and get this done. I can go do that.” I lost control of those things, and I was dependent on others for it. So giving up control was probably the biggest lesson.
That led to the beautiful side—it’s just my personality to say—that meant I had to collaborate with others. I had to be patient, I had to wait in line, and I had to make reservations. That means to me that you’re moving into a mentality of, “I need to take my share.” These are all lessons that theoretically make sense, but before, I had more control over these, which also yielded the virtue of patience. Virtues of recognizing if you can’t control it, how do you give control over to others? Which doesn’t mean weakness, but that you just cannot command. I can’t say that’s a bad lesson.
TB: So how has this impacted the musician, Tim Sharp?
TS: On the very positive side, it has created a yearning for and a focus on what I really miss and what matters so much about choral music-making. For me, it is live music. It’s not recorded. It is being able to be with people and make sound in that moment. That first rehearsal that we all get back will have a moment of crying on the part of lots of people because it has been so missed. It is a value statement on what we love, miss, and find so necessary in culture.
The second thing that I caught onto early is that we’re losing discipline, we’re not practicing the way we used to. We’re not getting down to the details that we used to. I found that because I wasn’t moving around. I was just sitting here on Zoom talking and not doing the things that had been a part of my natural day. Naturally, I was rehearsing; Naturally, I was singing. Now I’ve lost that natural outworking of things. Now I have to go to the piano if I’m going to sing. People are saying they miss singing, and I want to say to them, “Why do you miss singing? Why don’t you go over and sing some?” But what they’re missing is singing with others, and I get that. If you’re missing that, then sing with your family. Don’t let that discipline and that piece of your life go away.
So, for me, I had to start being more disciplined about practicing, about sitting down and doing things that I used to do fairly naturally in my routine. That routine went away, so I had to create a new one. That’s the warning I give to myself and others; let’s get back to the things that we can do, and let’s supplement what used to be natural that we have to now incorporate, perhaps in a way that isn’t natural for us. Singing, practicing the piano, score analysis, and things like that are things that I used to do because I had a performance coming up, right? I was motivated by performance. Now that performance motivation has gone away.
So, what do I do to motivate myself to stay Tim Sharp, the musician? For me, that has become a new personal discipline. Ten weeks is not a long time to come up with that realization. That could be life-changing, it sets a new routine for me. I have this mantra that I’ve come to depend on; it is my M and M’s. I get up in the morning, and I move. I have to do something moving because if I stay in my pajamas and just sit here and Zoom all day, I don’t know what I’m going to become. Secondly, I meditate because I’ve got to get my act together. So, I listen to a Bach cantata, and I reflect on that every morning. There are so many of them that I’m never going to run out of them.
Now my third M—I’m not trying to be cute, I’m a stoic, and I do believe you have to have mantras like this—is I absolutely master. I either read, I look at a webinar, I watch a TED talk, I go to the piano, etc. I do something to master. Then my fourth M is the unfortunate one; I spend the rest of the day maintaining. That is doing all the other stuff to run the business, to run a house, to grocery shop, and to take care of things—that’s just basic maintenance. Those four things have emerged through this COVID time as saying, “This is going to save your life if you stay on this track.”
TB: So, delving back, let’s say ten weeks ago, how different was your life? What was a day in the life of Tim Sharp?
TS: The interesting thing about the choral life of ACDA is there is not a dull day. We’re seasonal, so if we’re in conference mode, that’s all ramping up with high expectations and getting ready. When we’re in a post-conference mode, we’re paying the bills and trying to put it all to rest. Then we move into the next zone, and maybe that’s my leadership conference or a summer conference. Then schools are going to start, let’s say "normally," in the fall, so academics are coming back, and we’re getting them resources. We’re trying to deal with repertoire and things of that nature that people are going to need.
It is really a wonderful cyclical thing. But what it means to me in a routine is, I go into the national office, where we have 14 staff members. I check in with those departments, publications, accounting, membership, technology, or advertising. I read spreadsheets and have dashboards that show me what the numbers are. Every morning it is the same routine, I check all the numbers to look for the devil in the detail that might show me a pattern of where we are. I check in with the staff to see if they’re motivated and if they have projects that they need help with. Then I go on to my own emails. I spend about 75% of my time maintaining the things that have to go forward, 10% checking in with Chorus America, NATS, Barbershop Harmony Society, or IFCM to look at forward-thinking, collaborative things. I spend about 5% of my time thinking about things that are going to change the world and be revolutionary; if I don’t advance them a bit, they’ll never be launched.
About three or four o’clock in the afternoon, I take a break and come home. My wife and I usually do a FaceTime with our daughter around dinnertime so that we can check in with her. We usually have dinner at home, and then at night, I try to just check out. I don’t have a lot of creativity left in me, so that’s when I watch Ozark or whatever mindless thing. Then I get to bed around 10 o’clock at night, so it’s about that dull. [Laughter]
TB: What is one thing that you’re most grateful for in this experience?
TS: In this time of reflection, I was overwhelmed by the empathy of friends—I’m not a person that would normally just put all my laundry out on Facebook. I realized that this is a transparent moment for me, and I was most thankful for the outpouring of incredible kindness by people all around the world. The very first offer I had from someone when they found out that we had the virus, was from a friend in Shenzhen, China, who packaged up a box of masks to send me. That person wanted to make sure I had an N-95 mask. I had a Muslim friend in Turkey, who immediately sent me a prayer.
Again, these are things that would not normally be a part of my life. I don’t see that kind of outpouring, but just to see that community... This world got really small to me in terms of empathy. I saw an immediate outpouring by people of cultures that sometimes are not a part of your normal circle. That, to me, was incredible. I knew it was there, but when you have a tangential, absolutely touchable reason for you to get together with people, they acted on it, and they did it in a way that was concrete and that had some vulnerability on their part. That was really touching to me, and it said to me, “Wow, look at what we have here.” Other organizations have this too. I’m not going to say it is unique to choral people. But I do give great, great thanks for this choral community that I have been afforded over the last few years because I’ve met these people from all over the world. Because I do have them in my life, and they responded... I’ll never be the same, it just changes your whole feeling about whether this meant something or not, all of this networking and context that we have. I’m very grateful for the empathy that I received personally for this period.
TB: Looking at the future of the vocal performing arts, choral, opera, musical theater, etc., one of the aspects that we’re looking at is how it is going to change. What are your thoughts on the future of the vocal performing arts?
TS: As you know from the webinar [A Conversation: What do science and data say about the near term future of singing? May 5, 2020], we are very concerned and really heartbroken that the virus does seem to be spread through aerosols that are in the air when we speak or whatever activity goes on. But those of us that are singers and those of us that are in a room in which we are actually putting out air, I think we’re really stunned by the thought that we have to show a new level of concern and care. This has changed us.
I have to add; there is a huge conversation about the mitigation of risk right now in terms of what level of risk people are going to be willing to take. It is an enormous social experiment right now, and mitigation of risk is a part of that conversation. So, I think those of us that are directors or in the ensemble community are looking very hard at what are we going to be able to do? That is a gamut of different opinions, but from my bias, I am siding on science with this.
What we are going to do is to pursue, as hard as we can, a scientific study. We are going to cooperate and be a supportive agency to look at scientific studies for what this means to ensembles. It’s exactly what an organization like ACDA should be trying to do, so we’re reaching out to see if we can help with both funding and support to look at; can we have studies and research that can show us what can be done? What can we actually do? What do we need to mitigate risk? What can be used in filtration systems? This has immediate implications, but I see it as long-term positive implications.
Let’s say this thing doesn’t go away, let’s say there is another outbreak in the future, we will be better equipped if we know more about something that was not known about before. That’s what I think we have to do, and it has been changing my life in terms of what resources we’re going to be able to give to people.
We’re working 24/7 because, at night, I’ve got people in New Zealand, Europe, and all over the world that I’m in touch with. In Germany, for example, I’m talking to the head of the German Choral Association with a very bright person, Sonja Greiner, who is my peer for the European Choral Association. I’m asking her to send me their reports about any research and resources that are going on there. Of course, I’m talking to people in New Zealand who are actually considering being able to get back together. I’m asking them how they are going to do it? For me, it is a matter of constantly feeding resources into our public spaces that will inform people on what they can do and what we need to be looking at for solutions.
I also feel strongly that great leadership fosters conversations. We need to talk about it, and we need to share best practices and findings. So, I’m trying to cut through the noise and get to the science and into real tests that are going on and results that I can believe in from first-tier research groups. I have to be the first to believe in it before I’m going to pass it on. I’m not going to give two sides to the story. To me, there’s only one side of the story, and that is what is true and factual. That’s really hard to do.
TB: One of the things that you mentioned was the way that you’re approaching this leadership role. In that leadership role, I know that one of the things that you pay attention to is the next generation of music makers. So, what challenges do you see facing that generation, and what advice would you give to them?
TS: I’d first say, hone your pedagogical skills, because this couldn’t be a better time to learn new skills and new technologies that can help us. I found two already that are going to transform my own work. One is a sight-singing, ear training software, in which a person can practice their part in the musical score and be able to see whether they were on pitch and rhythm. The second, at first was condemned as non-choral, but now it is beginning to get a bit more acceptance. That is the idea that you can actually record your individual singers and perhaps coach them and help them individually, which is something that we weren’t really doing before.
So, what I’d say to anybody that’s a student right now is you have a golden opportunity to hone your pedagogical skills. Now, will the performance time come back? I totally believe that it will, but right now, it may be more of a time in which we have to focus on the educational side. I would also say that this is a great time to hone your analytical skills. This is a great time to look at your advocacy side. I would say to a student, don’t just obsess over your performance piece in your portfolio. As much as I personally live for that, I feel like I’ve had to put it on the back burner. There’s no reason that it has to be a depressing conversation though, I’ve just had to pull other things to the front burner.
TB: Looking at the musical community-at-large, would there be any additional advice that you would give to them?
TS: They have to be advocates. What Allen Henderson [Executive Director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing] said in our webinar is my strongest advice: be at the table. Ask to be there when this is discussed because if you wait for the phone to ring, you are going to be a very disappointed artist. People think that you somehow get chosen in life. I would like to crash and burn the idea that you’re chosen. Get at the table, be there when this is discussed, and then add the advocacy piece at that point. People may think they’re way too far down the food chain, I’d say now. Just find a way to get into that conversation and don’t that people at the table necessarily understand what else is in our discipline. You have to be at the table to say that we foster communities in other ways. You have to be there, or you’re not going to be able to really voice that side of the equation.
TB: Is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation?
TS: Well, I applaud your research and what you are doing because this is exactly what we need. That is a great opportunity for us, and I would also say that folks need to get way up and take a six-mile-high view of this. We live minute-by-minute, I get it. But let’s view this time period from a much higher level and say, what are the opportunities during this time. I get that some people feel threatened by this time because they are fearful of the future. But we should let this time propel us into some solutions here because this is a golden opportunity.
I have a daughter who is an opera singer. She was looking at the lead role in an opera that got cancelled and is not being rescheduled. She also makes her living doing certain things related to the arts. I couldn’t be more empathetic to the idea that that has been taken away from her. But our conversation at home is, what can we do? What can we do at this moment to keep this thing going? So, I am not dismissing that this is a challenge for us. But we can’t sit around in fear; we have to look at a higher level and a longer-term. As I said on the webinar, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Let’s do it with some optimism.
TB: You mentioned earlier that you were watching Ozark before, but what would be your other video binge recommendation for this time?
TS: My wife and I do counter our Ozark addiction with The Great British Baking Show. I’m not too keen on the news right now, but I do look at a number of publications, the Washington Post and the New York Times, as a source for my reading habits.
But when it comes to just pure fantasy and an escape, my go-to place is Wheel of Fortune. ‘C’ is probably the most important consonant in the whole alphabet.
TB: That is great. Well, I want to thank you again for your time and chat today.
“La Rosa Bianca” by Daniele Venturi
AERCO Virtual Choir
Quartetto Sassofoni Conservatorio 'G. Rossini', Pesaro
Tim Sharp (Conductor)
Testo poetico di Attilio Bertolucci
To be conducted live December 16, 2020 in Bologna, Italy.
About Tim Sharp
Tim Sharp (BM, MCM, DMA) is Executive Director of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), the national professional association for choral conductors, educators, scholars, students, and choral music industry representatives in the United States. He represents choral activity in the United States to the International Federation for Choral Music and serves as IFCM’s Vice President.
Sharp, himself an active choral conductor, researcher, and writer, has varied his career with executive positions in higher education, recording, and publishing. Prior to his leadership of ACDA, Sharp was Dean of Fine Arts at Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, and earlier, Director of Choral Activities at Belmont University, Nashville, TN.
Tim’s research and writing focuses pedagogically in conducting and score analysis, and various published essays and books betray his eclectic interests in regional music history, acoustics, creativity, innovation, and aesthetics. He has conducted university, community, church, and children’s choirs, and continues to serve as choral conductor and clinician in the United States and internationally. He is in his twelfth year as Artistic Director/Conductor of the Tulsa Chorale, Tulsa, OK.
Dr. Sharp is a Life Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge University, with degrees in music and conducting from The School of Church Music of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Belmont University, and Bluefield College. He resides in Edmond, OK, with his wife Jane and daughter Emma Jane.