Choral Music in the Middle of a Pandemic

Choral Music in the Middle of a Pandemic

Greetings, UUCC family!

As we get closer to gearing up for another church year, and the fast-approaching Ingathering month of September, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about how different our gatherings and worship at UUCC will continue to be for the foreseeable future. As a member of your staff, we’d had to re-create much of what we do and offer at UUCC…brainstorming about possibilities and ideas to keep the fabric of “church” alive, offering opportunities for connection, as well as meaningful worship experiences over the Zoom platform. While we’ve been fortunate to be able to offer some beautiful and moving services, there is no doubt that we are all somewhat dissatisfied with the reality that the pandemic will force us to continue this model of worship for a while longer. We can only hope that the not-too-distant possibility of a successful vaccine will once again make it possible for us to be with one another in the ways in which we had long become accustomed.

These new realities are especially challenging for your music director and music in general, at UUCC. In addition, the compounding fact that in-person choral singing may be the last thing to return to our building is disheartening, to say the least. You’ve all read the reports in the news of the tragic impact of various choral groups singing with one another during the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic – and I remain grateful that we put our choir on hiatus when we did. The interruption in our regular musical activity has been especially tough on me personally, as I had just started to “get my wings under me” (so to speak) in my new official capacity as full-time music director after the retirement of Tom Benjamin. I was only a little more than half-way into a first year of creating a vibrant vision of an enhanced music program at UUCC, and establishing a new relationship with our choir as their leader, not just pianist. So, you can imagine my frustration having to interrupt this vision as it’s only just begun.

All the members of your staff who plan and participate in worship have had to come up with new ways of doing things, and often, it is extra and more cumbersome work – and which often involves tasks for which we haven’t planned or practiced…it is a learning experience as we go along, and we have little choice but to embrace the challenge. Thankfully, those occasional silver linings do much to alleviate the headaches and Zoom fatigue that can visit from time-to-time. I admire how our congregation has shifted to a virtual focus as well, and am gratified at the consistent numbers of folks who tune in for worship remotely each Sunday.

Although creating and producing music in a virtual space is nothing that I’ve received any official training for, I’ve made every attempt to try and offer UUCC the same quality of music they have been accustomed to receiving in the past. I am immensely grateful as well for the deep well of musical talent within our congregation, which has helped to buoy our services over the last 6 months, and which I will continue to make use of going forward. It is especially frustrating that we are unable to really sing “together” over Zoom, missing those spiritual aural moments of communally combined voices. In this time of our choir’s physical absence from in-person rehearsals and services, I hope you will have appreciated the occasional live recording from the Chalice Choir’s past that we’ve been able to share. And, of course, we have offered now a couple of virtual projects for Sunday services – and I am grateful we’ve been able to do that. There will be more of these projects come fall, and we are excited that with the purchase of some new fancy computer software, there will be the possibility to merge audio AND video for some upcoming presentations. This at the very least, can help keep us creatively “singing” for the future months.

You may not be aware of the technical aspects of creating one of these many combined virtual choral projects that you may have seen from time-to-time on the news, on Facebook and/or YouTube. It takes hours to put these videos together, and demands sophisticated computers with lots of processing power. For example, if you were able to tune in to the UUA General Assembly worship service back in June, you saw two wonderful choral music videos that were presented. Back in early July, I had some email correspondence with the gentleman who produced these videos, who by the way, was NOT the choral director, but someone separately hired to put together the audio/video, specifically. He informed me that this task took 20+ hours to create…often close to an hour for each individual voice who participated, times his hourly fee charged to do the actual work. Whew! In being in touch with other music directors in our denomination, the few who have been able to produce these kinds of videos have typically hired-out the task from the outside – unless they had the good fortune of having members within their own congregations who specialize in that kind of editing.

At UUCC, we are fortunate and lucky to have two wonderfully talented and capable computer experts, Alan and Laurie Coltri, who have been gladly willing to help out with these projects…although they’ve had to upgrade their computer to do the work, and are just now receiving new software to assist in the task. The Coltri’s expertise may come as no surprise to many of you, and the choir and myself sure are grateful that we have these personal resources amongst us – right here in our own congregation. When this awful pandemic is over, I urge you to hug a Coltri when you see one!

Working on these virtual projects has been a new challenge for our choir as well – one that is obviously a lot less gratifying than singing together…they have had to embrace the new technology of recording themselves solo with an accompanying instrumental track, then sending that in to be combined. This takes bravery, as most of our choir are not soloists, and are unaccustomed to the challenge of singing and recording themselves without the uplifting experience of other supporting voices which usually surround them. Yet, the great majority of them have been willing, and they are discovering that it gets easier with practice – like most things. I am hopeful that even more of our Chalice Choir members will be willing to add their voices to these projects for the future. While I am able to send them the usual musical instructions for breathing, pronunciation, cut-offs, phrasing, etc…the magic of leading an in-person group on a Sunday morning will be missing from this formula, as well as those special moments when an anthem or hymn goes especially right and gives us all those irreplaceable goosebumps of communal spirit.

For now, these virtual offerings will have to be an acceptable substitute for our more typically moving “in-person” choral moments. Although I am unable to shape and sculpt the sound and phrasing in the way in which I usually do when I lead the choir, I am amazed that they still come out sounding familiar, like themselves! In additional to our weekly Zoom gathering (our choir chats), this is at least one way in which we can continue to SING together for worship at UUCC. While it may lack something for now, won’t it be a Big Glory Camp Day of Great and Noisy Hallelujahs when we can finally create music together again in our sanctuary!? This, and HOPE, will have to be enough to sustain our commitment until then. Blessed be.

3 Comments

  1. Diane E Page

    Michael: The choices we must all make on an individual basis at this time are should be based on our understanding of risk versus benefit to our quality of life. Our ethical mandate and value to not harm others by our choices can help. I love the choir and miss hearing them, also members of the choir may enjoy spiritual singing with the choir community.
    I read with interest a recent article on NPR about a choral group in Freeville, NY at the Freeville Methodist church. They met in a socially distanced , outdoor rehearsal in the backyard of the church, they and the director had a very pleasurable, safe get together, HUMMING HYMNS!

    It is just a thought, but maybe you can consider? Also the Catholic Church at the Wilde lake Interfaith Center has been having broadcast services with Parishioners and families in cars. I have seen people stop walking and stay to listen. Humans need to see and hear others.

  2. Kathy Parker

    Hi Michael,
    I read your reflection with great interest as I have so much appreciated the music offerings you have brought to our virtual services — your piano playing as well as choral recordings. I would like to add that I personally loved the Schumann pieces from last Sunday, 8/16. I found other recordings for “Of Foreign Lands and People”. Hard to listen and not be transported.
    Thank you for all you are doing for our virtual services!
    Kathy Parker

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