by Rachael Lawrence
Communal singing is an important way we as Christians connect with God and one another in worship. No matter our preferred style of singing or level of vocal skill, we use music as a source of spiritual nourishment. In times of troubles, favorite hymns or worship songs bring us consolation and comfort. In times of joy, we yearn to lift up our hearts in song. However, as we look forward to reopening our church buildings for worship, the future of communal singing is uncertain. On May 5, 2020, the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Association, and the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA) presented a webinar entitled “A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing.” Simply summarized, the act of singing amplifies viral spread. Shannon Coates, a voice teacher, interprets the presentation to mean that singers are “super-spreaders.” As a result, these organizations, who normally work to advocate and improve vocal and choral arts in society, are advising to cancel public singing events until an effective vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 can be found.
As a classically-trained singer who loves sacred music, this news is personally heart-wrenching. My mind is drawn to Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Psalmist knew this pain. “There on the poplars we hung our harps.” While we are not captives of a foreign state in the way that the people of Israel were, we find ourselves captives of an unseen enemy in this virus. Our hearts long for the songs that we love and cherish, to be sung in the places that we think of as our spiritual homes. How do we sing the Lord’s song in this time? How do we lift up our voices in community when to do so may endanger the people we hold most dear?
We may not be able to raise our voices together in person for a while. However, this does not need to keep us from singing. At home, we can find opportunities to sing favorite songs uninhibited. We can sing with our families, sing in the shower, or while doing other work – free from self-consciousness. As Martin Luther, a prolific hymnodist himself, once said, “My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”[i] Alone or with family, familiar, beloved songs can lift our spirits, inspire prayer, and help us remember our connection to friends and family in our church community and beyond.
Church musicians are finding creative ways to connect via music over the internet. Rebecca Redmann, Director of Music and Worship at Saint Stephen’s Church in Monona, WI, invites her congregation to join her in a virtual “Hymns by Request” program daily. Using Facebook Live, she takes requests from the congregants who join her through the comments and messaging features. She plays and sings, live, from the sanctuary on weekdays from 9:15 CDT for about 15 to 20 minutes. This model may be a positive way of maintaining the sense of community singing while maintaining appropriate social distance for congregants at risk. While they may not hear each other, those who join the virtual hymn sings can see that their friends are online with them and know that they are singing together.
Additionally, virtual choirs are a rapidly growing internet phenomenon. Composer Eric Whitacre has gained renown for assembling beautiful, expressive virtual choirs, created by skillfully editing multiple tracks provided via video and other recording technology. While this takes more time and coordination than learning a new choral piece together, the results are lovely. For those who have robust technological resources, skills, and patience, multi-track compilation may provide a safe option for those seeking to retain choral music in services (whether they be in-person in open states or online for sheltering in place).
Another option for creating virtual choirs is the A Cappella app, which facilitates multi-track performing for up to 9 individual voices or parts. There is a time-limited free version for anyone seeking to try it out. Hartford Seminary assembled a virtual choir to sing “We Are Not Alone” by Pepper Choplin. Through this medium, musicians from the seminary were able to contribute to a community Good Friday service that was streamed for the greater Hartford, CT community.
Finally, we may also call on other musicians to help enrich our worship experience. Stringed instruments do not pose the same risk associated with the deep breathing necessary for singing or wind instruments. This may be a time in which the piano, organ, or other keyboard instruments will shine in new ways. Perhaps an appropriately socially distanced handbell choir could help us remember the hymns and worship songs we so miss. Through creativity and persistence, we can continue to offer our songs of consolation, thanksgiving, and praise. We do not need to hang up our harps and weep, but to seek new ways to sing the old songs, embrace the new songs that are to come, and feel assured that we will sing the Lord’s songs together again someday.
Rachael Lawrence, PhD, is co-pastor at Second Baptist Church of Suffield, Conn., and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a classical musician.
[i] John Rae, Martin Luther: Student, Monk, Reformer. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1884), p. 441.
Photo by Andrew Medhat on Unsplash