Virtual Choirs Inspire Social Connection During Easter and Beyond
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Coronavirus can’t stop choirs in the Texas Annual Conference. When the pandemic required social distancing in March, it seemed choir rehearsal would become impossible, especially when the recommended gathering size dropped below 10 and then shelter-in-place became the standard. Rev. Suzi Byrd, Pastor of Music and Worship at St. Stephen's UMC in Houston, however was determined to keep the music going. She collaborated with colleagues to form the Houston Virtual Choir, connecting various congregations and individuals through song.
There’s something special that happens while singing, Byrd said. “There’s a connection that cannot be explained,” she said. “We’re meant to sing together.”
When a choir comes together, Byrd said, breaths synch. In fact, researchers have shown that even heart beats will adjust. “When we sing together, we breathe together and our hearts beat in unison,” she said. “We don’t do that in any other activity.”
That’s precisely why singing is such a powerful way to praise God – and also why Byrd went on a quest to preserve worship in song during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Distancing can happen from one another, but we cannot distance from God,” Byrd said. “When we turn our backs on God, that’s when we really walk into the darkness.”
She knew that connection to Christ had to continue – as well as the community that is built in choir practice. “What if we brought people to rehearse together?” she wondered.
While technology could hold the answer to getting together while remaining socially distanced, there was a problem – delay, that audio slow-down.
Ideally, everyone could join together through a video call platform like Zoom and sing at the same time, but delay would prevent that from happening. “That’s when compromise came in,” Byrd said.
Her vision for the Houston Virtual Choir was born. Choir directors from various churches could get together to warm up voices and record sections of music. Singers would then follow along at home. By muting their voices, they still enjoy the camaraderie and the singing without anyone else hearing the delay.
Byrd called colleagues to discuss the possibilities. First, she reached out to Rev. Lindsay Smith at Strawbridge UMC to explain the concept. “I’m in,” Smith said.
Then, they called Rev. Bodie Gilbert at Westbury UMC, who said, “Let’s do it.” Next, they added Christopher Carter at Westminster UMC and Rev. Deandre Johnson at Christ Church Sugar Land.
Initially their goal was to prepare music for the multiple streaming Easter services. The core crew brainstormed rehearsal ideas and musical pieces to include.
At the same time, the group grew, adding Lahonda Sharp, director of music at FUMC Missouri City, Dr. Ernest Boamah director of worship arts at Lufkin FUMC, and Matt Robinson, director of music and worship arts at Kingwood UMC.
At the first rehearsal, a small group of five directors gathered on March 10 at Christ Church in Sugar Land. They kept a safe distance and recorded the session on Zoom. Then, they each hosted watch parties on Facebook Live.
The music was either licensed or public domain, making it possible for choir directors to share sheet music with their congregants. “It was an actual choir rehearsal,” Byrd said. “And it was life-giving. This rehearsal was a good first start.”
Then, the shelter-in-place orders meant no more gathering for the directors even in small groups. Instead, Byrd explained that they were able to record separately and provide music to viewers through the Choral Tracks website. “We could still do the same thing, but we just weren’t in the same room,” she said.
Before Zoom calls started or Facebook groups met, Byrd noticed that choir members from various churches would virtually congregate early. “People needed that communication, that fellowship and community,” she said. “I opened the mics before rehearsal so everyone could say hello and left the channel open afterwards.”
She also found that the choir members were enjoying interacting with other directors, several of whom had served their church before. “Not only were people connecting with their own choirs but also with their old directors,” she said. “It was just neat to see people reconnect.”
The virtual choir has been such a hit that the directors decided to keep rehearsals going long past Easter. “I don’t think we’ll go back,” Byrd said. “I think we’ll go forward.”
During coronavirus, she said, creative and innovative ideas are coming forward that will serve the church in the future. “Collaborations like this will bring so much more light, so much more for the kingdom,” she said. “God is transforming us in the midst of this pandemic, which is something worth praising.”
In the meantime, the music made by the Houston Virtual Choir will be streamed in the multiple churches that are participating. Byrd said it’s not too late for directors and congregants of other churches to join.
“You don’t have to belong to a choir to rehearse with us,” she said. “You don’t have to be in Houston either. I have friends overseas who are becoming a part of it.”
Byrd also enjoys working alongside her colleagues and learning from them. “These are opportunities we don’t normally get, and I’m really grateful,” she said.
Byrd also noticed that virtual worship has something unique to offer. At first, she felt it odd to lead worship and singing to empty pews.
Then, she realized that worship isn’t about the people in the pews. “Our worship in God is exactly that,” she said. “It’s for God. It’s not for us. We tend to create worship to please people. Suddenly all of that was taken away.”
In the midst of the pandemic, she said there is an opportunity: “We can focus on the main thing – which is God.”
Email Byrd at firstname.lastname@example.org for a Zoom invite to join the rehearsal.