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Request to censor BLM imagery in high school video sparks nationwide outcry in choral world

video produced for the virtual Connecticut Music Educators Association 2021 All-State Choir Project opens with multiple clips of people walking, as the choir sings "You gotta put one foot in front of the other and lead with love," and closes with stock footage of people holding hands and photos of past CMEA choral groups.

But it was an attempt to censor part of a 25-second montage in the middle of the 5½-minute video that led to a national outcry in the choral world.

This was when the video included clips of Black Lives Matter protests.

Under pressure over the issue, CMEA released the video this past week — four months after its completion — and announced in a Facebook post Friday that its president, Jason Bouchard, had resigned.

Edits requested

The virtual festival took place the last weekend of April, and CMEA contracted with Ledyard High School choral director Melanie Cometa, who has learned video editing by trial and error during the pandemic, to create a video. She was also an All-State cohort leader.

CMEA received her video in July. After Cometa didn't see the video published anywhere, she checked in with Amanda Hanzlik, one of the choir co-chairs on the All-State Festival Committee. Hanzlik is the choral director at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs and past president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Choral Directors Association.

After some back and forth, then President Bouchard wrote in an Aug. 27 email to Hanzlik, "Before CMEA can put up the video there are three signs we will need to have removed, two 'BLM' signs and one sign that reads 'Let Black People Breath.'"

With the backing of the co-chairs and guest conductors, Cometa let Bouchard and the executive board know she refused to censor the words "Black Lives Matter."

"I have found this entire discourse to be disappointing and embarrassing, and I truly believe that you have missed the mark here," she wrote on Sept. 7. "You are afraid of being perceived as political, but all art is political."

On June 4 of last year, the National Association for Music Education wrote a Facebook post linking to a statement titled "What We Believe: Black Lives Matter." CMEA shared the post and added, "We, the leadership and membership of Connecticut Music Educators Association, support this statement. Black Lives Matter."

Cometa implored Bouchard to release the video without any censorship.

The co-chairs sat down with CMEA leadership in October. Hanzlik said they were told the students needed release forms to have their vocals used, even though there were no images or names of students from the virtual festival in the video.

"We do not believe that this is about release forms," Hanzlik said. "We believe that the request for release forms is just a loophole that (they) can hide behind, and this kind of leadership is unacceptable."

The four choral co-chairs and four cohort leaders ultimately decided to go public with the ordeal, signing a statement that Hanzlik posted publicly on her personal Facebook page on Nov. 12. As of Friday evening, it had been shared more than 290 times.

The same day, Bouchard emailed CMEA members and said the video was produced without the knowledge or permission of the Equity and Advocacy Committee, Student Affairs Commission or executive board of CMEA.

But CMEA Executive Director Barbara Skrebutenas emailed Cometa a conductor/clinician agreement for video production work in April, before All-State. The contract, for a $500 honorarium, did not include a description of work expected.

Bouchard reiterated that parent permissions weren't obtained and said, "This is a legal and permissions issue, which is why the video has not been released by CMEA."

On Tuesday morning, CMEA put out a statement and released the video — unedited.

"Black Lives Matter. That should have been said outright in our previous message following the release of the statement by the All-State Choir chairs and their cohorts, and not doing so was a misstep," the statement read. "CMEA is 100% committed to racial justice, as we are toward other issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but having had a few days to reflect on the issue, we do not believe that we are taking a political position."

CMEA acknowledged "the harm that was caused through the perception of CMEA's actions," but many people took issue with the use of the word "perception." And many found the response too little too late.

The fallout continued.

'Singing to social justice'

The All-State guest conductors were music professors Tesfa Wondemagegnehu of St. Olaf College and Jeffrey Douma of Yale University. Wondemagegnehu co-founded the Justice Choir movement, "a template to encourage more community singing for social and environmental justice."

The two songs students sing in the All-State video — "One Foot/Lead with Love" by Melanie DeMore and "We Walk in Love" by Deanna Witkowski and Lemuel Colon — are part of the Justice Choir Songbook, which Hanzlik's co-chair Matt Harrison described as "kind of like a hymnal for social justice."

Hanzlik noted that CMEA had approved the music. She said the repertoire wasn't announced before All-State auditions but students knew before the festival they would be singing music from the Justice Choir Songbook.

"This whole project was based around the connection of singing to social justice, and this was all about how singing as a part of a protest is literally a part of the fabric of choral music," Hanzlik said. She said that showing "modern images of peaceful protest" in the video is "part of the lived experience of these kids."

The students participating received a survey to reflect on the festival experience, and it asked what imagery they wanted to see in the video.

Cometa shared some of the responses: "People standing together, holding hands." "Protests throughout history, fighting for a greater cause." "Videos of BLM protesters! Show what we have been fighting for."

Connecticut resignations, national attention

The American Choral Directors Association National Board said Sunday it was "shocked and disheartened" the video hadn't been released and called on CMEA to release the video immediately.

Wondemagegnehu and Douma said in a joint statement, "It should never be seen as political or divisive to clearly affirm that a Black person's life has the same value as anyone else's. If we claim to be educators, we have a responsibility not only to acknowledge that this transcends politics but also to teach this to our students."

The Facebook page ChoirBuzz, which has more than 300,000 followers, then shared the video once it was released and asked people to donate to the New London-based Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund.

Cometa and Harrison both said there's been a "flurry of resignations." Harrison resigned as one of the chairs of the Southern Region High School Festival, and Hanzlik said she withdrew from volunteering to conduct the Eastern Region Middle School Festival in March.

While Hanzlik said her involvement as a CMEA volunteer is over, she decided not to cancel her membership at this point, as she has students participating in the Eastern Region High School Festival in January and didn't want to take that experience away from them.

Cometa said her membership recently expired and she's not renewing. That means her students no longer can participate in the CMEA All-State Choir; instead, she said, she would "seek out new opportunities for my students to collaborate with their peers and learn from world-renowned conductors."

Cometa said she talked to the two Ledyard students who made All-State last school year about how she was considering not going to the festival this year and they were OK with it.

"With this same board in place, how could I ever trust them again, to represent me again as a music educator, and my students?" she said. "I would never come back without a new board, never. And I think that's a shared sentiment."

Bouchard, before his resignation, canceled an interview scheduled with The Day for Thursday and didn't respond to written questions about why he had an issue with the Black Lives Matter signs, what feedback he heard from students and parents about the All-State experience, why parent permissions would be needed for audio and his response to people calling for his resignation.

Executive Director Barbara Skrebutenas then emailed a statement: "We made a mistake. Plain and simple. No excuses. And we're sorry for it. We're examining our internal processes to figure out why and how it happened, and once we figure that out, we'll make whatever changes we need to make to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. We believe Black Lives Matter."

e.moser@theday.com

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