The COVID-19 pandemic sent businesses, organizations and communities to a screeching halt last March, including the vibrant community of Church Street choirs. 

An active ministry, the adult choir boasts 60 members, the youth choir 50 and the children’s choir 25, and the handbells choir, on average, has 12 members at a time. Although each choir member hasn’t been present during each Zoom, the adult choir has gained three new members during the pandemic. 

Once it was evident that a shutdown would cause a shift to virtual worship, Director of Music Tim Ward knew recording would be the natural starting place. 

Virtual worship quickly became the norm. Organist Edie Johnson coordinated singers and musicians, while Ward recorded and music secretary Eileen Weber edited the audio and video of each virtual piece.

“We decided a long time ago, ‘we’ve got to make this work,’ and so we did,” Ward says.

Making it work has relied heavily on the creativity of Ward, Johnson, Weber and the members of each choir. Johnson says she’s enjoyed including all ages, even if it has to be virtually. 

“We’ve really kept the entire community engaged even when we can’t meet in person,” Johnson says. “By having the children and the youth in the virtual choirs, it’s been able to involve a lot of people.” 

Each choir soon found a way after the shutdown to sing or play to a new tune, with five recitals and countless virtual choirs produced since March 2020. 

Learning new skills, getting creative

Weber wasn’t a video and audio editor prior to the shutdown. Although her previous experience was limited, she quickly learned how to separate audio from video, combine audio to make individual voices blend into one choir and then add back the video previously separated.

Each virtual choir member is sent a video or audio file to practice before recording. Weber then takes each individual member’s video submission to create the final combined piece.

“It’s been a creative outlet that I think has been so rewarding for me,” Weber says. “I’ve been more excited about this kind of work and I’m so grateful to Tim and Edie and the ideas that spring from their minds to keep all this going.”

As a member of the adult choir, Weber has also taken on a teaching role, as she helps choir members understand the best lighting and sound setups to get the highest quality video and sound.

In addition to at-home recordings, Ward has been lead cameraman on the recording of soloists in the nave and Johnson’s organ playing for worship services, and he has learned new ways to capture each music presentation. Soloists have been recorded by as many as three cameras at once, and a dancer for one of the virtual recitals was recorded from six different angles. 

“I wanted to make everything up close and personal and didn’t want to record from far away,” Ward says. 

Another way that virtual worship has allowed for more personal connections is through the organ pieces. Each recording shows Johnson’s face, hands and feet as she plays. 

“That’s a new connection that people have made,” Ward says. “They’re able to see what Edie does, and before, no one saw it unless you got to sit by her in the choir.” 

Making new connections, even over Zoom 

While many have felt less connected than before the pandemic, Ward and Johnson have made sure that members’ needs are put before singing and presentations. 

Rehearsals and meetings immediately started to provide connection for each choir. Ward met nearly every  Wednesday night with the adult choir, and Johnson with the children’s choir every other week in the summer and weekly during the spring and fall.

In a typical year, members usually arrive, practice and then leave and don’t normally stick around to chat or get to know one another outside of who they sit next to each week. 

“In the adult choir, it’s amazing to me that people knew faces, but they didn’t know names,” Ward says. “This has really allowed people to put a name with a face. I had several people say, ‘You know, I know more now.’”

Weber says she’s also created more connections in the youth and children’s choirs and the handbell choir than she had previously. 

“I’ve actually learned more people than I knew before at Church Street. That’s been very rewarding to me,” Weber says. “Now I feel like I know some of the youth choir and have had a really good time joshing around with them or exchanging comments.” 

Members of the adult choir are now known for offering any and all information they can about vaccines, and offer help when it comes to groceries and other tasks. Ward says that they’ve included time on each Zoom to connect and check in with each other before singing in order to provide a bridge while apart. 

Johnson also invited a teacher to lead conversation related to the Alexander Technique, which is a way of learning how you can get rid of harmful tension in the body. Members learned more about ways to cope with anxiety, loneliness and other issues produced by the pandemic.

Looking forward to in-person worship opportunities, new recitals

As the church reopens for Sunday worship opportunities, Ward is excited to have in-person music at both the 8:30 am and 11 am services. 

On March 14, an eight-piece ensemble sang all musical pieces for the service , and that will stay the same until Easter Sunday when additional choir members will join in the balconies.

“Your vocal chords are a muscle,” Ward says. “Just like with weight lifting, if you don’t use them every week, the muscles go away.”

Johnson and Weber echo the sentiment, adding that singing together again will help singers strengthen skills they have lost and get back in the practice of having a conductor to follow. 

In addition to a return to worship, a special recital, “Mother Goose, Nursery Tunes and More” will feature clergy and staff members as characters in a variety of well-known children’s tunes, as well as the opportunity to get to know the organ in a more whimsical way 

“I guarantee anyone who watches this won’t be able to help but smile,” Ward says. 

The special recital will premiere on YouTube at 3:30 pm on Sunday, March 21, and a special Meet and Greet will start 30 minutes prior to the premiere on Zoom.