Church music still resounds, but in different ways

  • Athol Congregational Church Pianist/Organist Stephanie Parker and soloist Jenna Sujdak record music to be included in online worship services. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A small group of choir members of the Ashfield Congregational Church rehearse from distant corners of the sanctuary. Left to right, back row: Margery Heins (also choir director), Phil Schuster, Kare Marshall, Bert Marshall; front: Lori Wyman. Not pictured but present as accompanist for is Amy Roberts-Crawford, organist. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • St. Mary’s Parish in Orange is set up for a recording session. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Cindy LaJoy, volunteer videographer at Athol Congregational Church, presides over a recording. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • MEISNER

  • ROLLINSON

  • CORTINA

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2020 4:33:46 PM

Choir directors agree that music is a vital component of worship.

“Folks love to sing,” Organist and Music Director Keith Rollinson said, based on his experience leading choirs at All Souls Church in Greenfield and Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls. “Many people come to church based on the fact that they’re going to sing. I don’t want to discount their other religious motivations, but they really love to sing and people have told this to me.”

In the time of the novel coronavirus, however, singing has been identified as a risky behavior.

Michael Cortina, music and choir director at United Church of Bernardston, explains: “Singing is a deeply diaphragmatic process and in an indoor space, even with really good ventilation, singers spread aerosols and, particularly, virus particles.”

Thus, music and choir directors in Franklin County and the North Quabbin area are responding with different strategies, all aimed at enhancing the worship service, keeping their choirs together and keeping everyone safe. Their methods range from small group, socially distanced singing to outdoor rehearsals to various digital and recording techniques.

In Athol, the Rev. Dr. Candi Ashenden, pastor of the Athol Congregational Church, UCC, said that the choir is not meeting at this time, but individuals continue to volunteer their musical talents, both vocal and instrumental.

“We have one recording day a month and schedule our musicians to come, one at a time, to perform pre-selected musical pieces that are then included as part of our online weekly worship services,” Ashenden said. “This allows our congregation not only to enjoy some familiar and uplifting music, but to ‘see’ one another online as a way of keeping us all connecting during this uncertain time.

In Ashfield, Choir Director Margery Heins of Shelburne Falls has led a choir of about 25 singers at the First Congregational Church of Ashfield since 1997. Now the choir is pre-recording its music using a digital recorder or a simple voice memo on an iPhone for insertion into a Sunday morning Zoom service.

Heins is breaking her choir into “tiny groups.” At different times, that has consisted of a duet singing from opposite ends of her deck, a quartet socially distanced on her porch or a group of up to five rehearsing from distant corners inside the church. Singers run through their warm-ups at home, bring their own pencils and try not to use the restroom in the church.

“For my part,” Heins said, “I know that I need to get the windows open, keep the door open; it’s a little chilly.”

Recently, for an Oct. 4 ordination service for the Rev. David McLean Jones, Heins put together a group of five, including herself, and practiced and recorded inside the church on Sept. 30.

“We were 15 feet apart from each other,” she said. “We had two couple-pods and another person standing in front, and our choir accompanist and church organist Amy Roberts-Crawford at the piano.”

Their music was pre-recorded and played at McLean Jones’ outdoor ordination service the following Sunday, attended by about 10.

“I think they were very happy to hear choir members singing,” Heins said.

Heins admits it’s challenging to harmonize with other singers at a distance.

“You start off singing from so far away or not standing near somebody in your part, which is an issue for a lot of people, and so I said, ‘Can you hear each other?’ ‘No,” was the response. And so I say, ‘We can get used to this, and then you will hear your fellow singers.’ And it’s happened every time.

“What I play up is the fact that we can sing together simultaneously if we really observe safety rules and stay really far apart,” she continued. “So we’re learning new things and if we can just stay positive, we’ll come through this.”

In Shutesbury, Worship Leader and Arts Director Veronica Richter leads a team consisting of two keyboards, a violin and three singers.

“I send out videos of me doing the songs via Google Drive for everyone to practice with,” Richter said. “We come 45 minutes early to run through them. We are socially distanced across the front of the sanctuary and everyone wears masks or face shields. Everyone has their own equipment that is not shared with anyone else. We sanitize the equipment after use.”

In Shelburne Falls, Rollinson takes a different approach.

“I think until we’re through the coronavirus epidemic, there won’t be any singing at Trinity,” he said. “What Trinity’s doing at the moment is asking members of the congregation to submit musical interludes that are included in the taped service, and that is, I think, almost invariably somebody or some bodies singing. So their love of singing continues, but just individually.”

Rollinson explains that people might sing a solo accompanied by piano, play the guitar, or two voices together, record it on their iPhone and send the resulting MP4 file via Google Drive to the church secretary, who downloads that as just another element to insert at the right place into the worship service, which is pre-recorded by a skeletal crew Thursday mornings. Rollinson also plays a hymn on the organ, and the lyrics are superimposed on the video so if people want to, they can sing along from home.

Alex Meisner of Northfield, who is music director of St. Mary’s Parish in Orange, oversees the production of a video service.

“We coordinate our schedules — the pianist, accompanist, cantor and Fr. Shaun (O’Connor) — and we all show up and under social distancing guidelines, we do a digital recording of the Mass,” Meisner said. “That involves using a microphone, an iPad and movie studio software. We have it set up so the cantor and the musician are off camera, so you just hear the singing. And then we have a reader who comes in and does the first and second readings, and it just plays out like a regular Mass.”

Meisner said it’s challenging to pull off every week, but important, “because we have to let the people know that we’re still here and we’re still keeping this all together.”

“When you have music for a church, it really says a lot about your type of church,” he continued. “So when we do this, this isn’t just for us, it’s for the congregation as well, and I think it means a lot to them when we’re able to do something like this.”

In Bernardston, Cortina has been leading choir rehearsals outside on Thursday evenings.

“Current health code guidelines state that singing is one of the most dangerous ways of spreading aerosols from the body, based on the fact that it’s really deep breathing,” Cortina explained. “What we had to do was rehearse with masks, outside, in a social distance minimum of 6 feet apart, in a straight line. It’s been an incredible experience for everyone involved. When it starts getting cold, that’s going to be a different story.”

In the meantime, Cortina and his choir have been rehearsing and recording in the parking lot, with an electric keyboard plugged into a car battery. On Sunday, the Rev. David Neil livestreams the service from inside the church and when it’s time for music, he has the recording of the choir synced up and ready to play.

Cortina does not anticipate rehearsing inside.

“Just the fact that we’re getting together outside and singing seems to be a humongous motivator,” he said. “Every week, we have a couple more people come and say, ‘Oh, we can do this, we can rehearse again,’ so that’s keeping our numbers up.

“So my job is to keep us together through music and I’m going to put all my effort into that,” he added. “Once things get back to normal, I’m not interested in doing any of these fancy online recordings anymore. I just want to sing in person.”

“It’s a question of patience,” Rollinson said, in a sentiment that spoke for all. “We’ll get through this and I know folks are champing at the bit to be able to get back and sing. So it won’t be an ‘if,’ it will be a ‘when.’”

Chris Harris can be reached at charris@recorder.com and 413-772-0261, ext. 265.




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