Over the decades, J.D. Steele has earned a reputation as one of the Twin Cities' most creative, innovative musical forces. Now that stature is being put to quite the test.
The challenge: Making the immensely popular, open-to-all-comers Capri Glee! choral performance work in a format that's particularly incongruous for choirs. In the Era of Zoom, choir director Steele and his brother Fred (who plays piano and mentors the baritones) are conducting rehearsals in which the participants are each in their own space and on their own screen rather than gathering in physical unison.
"Choir is about getting together and blending voices, singing and caring and sharing and hugging," J.D. Steele said. "So being a choir director in these times and being a member is really challenging.
"But I'm also finding that music is more important than ever [during the pandemic]. Music truly is a universal language, and music soothes. When people are down, nothing is more uplifting than music."
That made the decision to carry on with the program an easy one. Capri Glee! launched in February 2015, with non-professional singers gathering every spring and fall to rehearse for five weeks and then perform at Minneapolis' Capri Theater. (Last November, with the Capri undergoing renovations, the choir played to a packed house at Minneapolis Henry High School.)
The ensembles have grown from about 30 voices to close to 100 in the past two years. With that kind of momentum, the Steeles and Capri Theater officials were determined to keep the program going. At the first session on May 19, 78 singers participated, with personal instructions from the brothers and a chance at least to gaze upon one another in groups of nine.
"We looked kind of like 'The Brady Bunch,' with all these squares," said Elaine Love, who has sung in the choir since the beginning. "The joy in this choir isn't just about hitting the right notes. It's really great to see all these faces. J.D. and Fred were able to take us by section, experiment with that, and some of us did little solos. It really went like a rehearsal."
Added J.D. Steele: "We had a blast. It was a very moving experience, because everybody was so glad to see each other. We had some great laughs."
As it turned out, there actually was an upside to going virtual, as several aspiring crooners who ordinarily couldn't take part, including Love's daughter in California, became part of the proceedings.
"Some people who had moved away joined us from their respective locations," Steele said, "plus some people who physically can't come to rehearsals. One lady who hadn't been for several years since she became blind was able to join us."
The songs they practiced ranged from some of J.D. Steele's own compositions and Swahili tunes he had gleaned on regular trips to East Africa to gospel and R&B numbers such as the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow" and more recent pop hits such as Maroon 5's "Three Little Birds."
"I tend to lean toward songs that are inspiring in nature and not too challenging to record," the choir director said, "and especially now trying to be as universally inspired as possible for the times we live in. Next Tuesday I'll be teaching some Sly & the Family Stone."
The process, of course, is not without its obstacles. While singing, the participants are true soloists, able to hear only themselves; the Steeles can also hear them, but on a 1.5-second delay. Plus individuals are ensconced in markedly different spaces acoustically.
"I'm trying to make sure everyone can get maximum sound quality," J.D. Steele said, as he aims to "make available external mikes and external speakers. I'm becoming more of an expert on computers."
He actually came into this endeavor with a wee bit of experience, as his other two units, the Mill City Singers and the MacPhail Community Youth Choir, had started online sessions a few weeks earlier.
"This is a major social experiment we're going through," he said.
The new format actually has afforded a chance for more one-on-one time.
"One thing I've learned over the years is when people can reset the dial, they can develop more confidence," Fred Steele said. "We're still sharing the love and joy of music with people who want to step up and try to sing."
"J.D is eternally optimistic and very resourceful, and he really believes we're going to be able to do a virtual performance [of a song to be selected]."
"I have no doubt," she said. "If J.D. says it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen."
So does the man himself.
"We will be getting everybody to record their parts at home and then get the band to record their parts at home," J.D. Steele said. "We will get everybody a cameo spot in the video. We'll put it on the Capri website and the social media Capri uses.
"If it's really good, we'll post elsewhere. And as I said last night [at the initial rehearsal], if it kinda sucks, we'll keep it in the family."
Capri Glee! is open to aspiring singers 18 and older of all experience levels (including none). Rehearsals are Tuesday evenings through June 23.
Those interested can register here. It's free, but contributions are welcome. For more information, call 612-643-2058.