Not even a pandemic could stop an annual tradition for the best choral students in California: the show will go on in a virtual format for the All-State High School Honor Choir this year. That was great news for 18 students in Kern High School District, and a whopping nine students from Ridgeview High School.

"My students are all so over the moon," said Elizabeth Provencio, choir director at Ridgeview.

She said in previous years maybe a handful would make the cut, but this year her students had an outstanding showing among the 260-student statewide choir. Some of the honorees are upperclassmen who have been working hard at it for their high school career.

Senior Laeloni Lee said she made the cut for regional choirs in previous years. But this is her first year in the all-state choir, a recognition she's worked hard for. She teared up when she got the news.

"I can’t explain how excited I am," she said. "It feels so good to be getting validation for your work and talent."

Five who made the cut for the prestigious choir from Ridgeview were "really brave" freshmen, according to Provencio. Many of them had previously been under the tutelage of Stonecreek Junior High chorus director Jeff Malone last year. 

"He really just prepared us for high school," said freshman Jacob Ellis. "He gave us songs that were hard and challenging."

In a typical year, the all-state honor choir would have been chosen from regional state choirs, which were canceled this year. Auditions would have been in person. Selected students would have been given music to rehearse, and then they would come from all the corners of the state for an in-person rehearsal and performance.

Honor choir students will be spending a lot of time practicing their pieces on their own, but other than that, this year is far from typical. Students submitted a virtual audition. That's a new set of skills, Provencio said: learning how to make a recording and being comfortable in front of a camera.

This year's rehearsals and concert will be completely virtual, too. Students from all over the state will gather together in a Zoom call for two group rehearsals in January and February. And their final performance will actually be a virtual choir presentation that edits all the students' individually-recorded videos together.

One of the big draws of being in the honor choir is being able to work with some of the world's best choral directors. Ellis said he's looking forward to "learning everything they can from what they teach us." 

Lee said one of her favorite parts about singing is the sense of community she feels on stage. When she performed in regional choirs, there was a heightened sense of camaraderie because she knew everyone had worked just a little harder to get there. 

"It’s a sense of accomplishment and unity, too," she said.

Initially, she wondered if auditioning for a virtual choir would even be worth it, but music was far too important for her to miss this opportunity. Choir is what helps her keep going in a year where it feels like everything has been falling apart.

"It’s frustrating to stay motivated each day, but it fuels that motivation," she said.

She knows even in better times, choir is a safe, welcoming community and a reason a lot of her classmates feel like it's even worth it to go to school. Provencio said she hears that a lot, and she's heard it even more this year.

"Students will say 'This is the only online class that makes me happy or makes me laugh,'" she said. "Our music and arts classes: I think they’re the most important classes we have."

Ellis said, even in a year of distance learning, he's been able to make a lot of new friends as a freshman through joining the school choir.

"Is the singing as good as it has been in the past? No. But in a year like this it doesn’t matter," Provencio said. "We have these communities that support each other."