Preparing Church Music in the Age of COVID

My wife has been a church organist for over fifty years.  Like most churches in the early age of COVID, hers closed its doors and wrestled with how to do a service on-line, something that up to now has been the domain of the TV evangelists.  She was encouraged to provide an account of how she prepares the music for these broadcasts for the church newsletter.  She agreed, but I know this usually means she provides me with the rough draft and I write the article.  So here’s our article. 

Was it only a few months ago that I was able to arrive nice and early at the church, do a warm-up practice with the choir and then happily play the service music I’d prepared for that Sunday?  Didn’t life seem so simple back then?

Then it was late February, 2020.  I was shopping at Lifestyle Market and heard another customer mention he was stocking up for the pandemic.  I shook my head at the silliness.  Then suddenly, everything changed and the fellow didn’t seem so crazy.  For a while, finding toilet paper was like searching for the Holy Grail and there were line-ups in front of grocery stores that looked like the kind of thing you’d see for the opening of a new Star Wars movie or big rock concert.  Once inside I’d be faced with gaping holes in the shelves where I used to find the gluten free flours and other necessities.  Social distancing and isolation became the norm and ‘mask or no mask’ was the hot topic of conversation – if you had anyone to talk to anymore.

All this pandemic pandemonium has had quite a profound effect on everybody – not to mention those preparing music for services.  How to do a Sunday service with the church closed and social distancing in force?  If you’re in the younger set, the words ‘on-line’ don’t strike the same terror in your heart as those born long before computers became a household item. 

I will confess that I’ve used a computer for some years in a rather dabbling way.  My children managed to show me enough to do basic email, banking and Google searches – even if I had to endure a lot of eye rolling at my constant mistakes.  If I was going to prepare music for an on-line setting, I had to learn more computer skills than I ever imagined.  After three months of trying, it’s becoming a little easier, but if I look thinner and more frazzled these days, it’s not just because of my hip surgery.   

The ‘delightful’ on-line process of music making begins, as it always has, with choosing hymns to go with the themes and scriptures.  I only need to choose 3 hymns for each week – one for a Wednesday ‘pre-service’ and 2 for Sunday, giving some thought to how many verses to include and which ones.  After that I plan out other music: preludes, meditative pieces and postludes.  When I can, I like to choose these pieces with the hymn tunes in mind – a lovely postlude that’s based on the tune of one of the hymns is often just the thing to end a service.  As nimble as my fingers are, all these pieces require a great deal of practice so that they flow in a performance.  I personally find it an advantage to choose the music about a month in advance so I have adequate time for practice.

Once the pieces are chosen and practiced, it comes time to record.  Perhaps you have thoughts of recording studios with sound-proofed rooms, numberless expensive microphones, acres of wires and mixing boards with more knobs and buttons than the command post on the Starship Enterprise.  In these places sound engineers can mix the sounds from different sources, fix wrong notes, correct intonation, make things play faster or slower and a multitude of other amazing things that make you wonder if they actually need the musician.  Of course they also cost hundreds of dollars an hour to use.

So, that’s not quite an option.  I do some recording here in the church sanctuary where the sound-proofing consists of luck and a few signs on the doors that say ‘RECORDING IN PROGRESS’.  At home I have my little music room and the sound proofing is…

Well, there’s a husband and Max, our schnauzer cross dog.  I’m not sure who can create the most noise but I’m sure they start competing with each other whenever I start recording.  So, I wait until they leave for a walk before attempting to record anything and hope the phone doesn’t ring in the middle of things. 

While our church’s sound person provides some good microphones and mixing at the church, my home studio is equipped with the microphone built into my iphone and a program (I call them ‘apps’ if I’m feeling modern) called ‘Audio-recorder’.  One of the choir members with better skills than I can sometimes patch in a new ending if there’s enough space in the music to make a cut.

Since I hate having mistakes in the recording, it can take two, three or more times through a piece before I get one that’s acceptable.  I don’t have the luxury of a sound technician that can fix a wrong note or any of those other cute things.  If I mess up, I record the whole thing again.  Once that is done I send them from my phone to my computer by email – that takes another app, by the way.  That way if I drop my phone or lose it, I haven’t lost the recording.  From the computer I play them through my ipad connected to small Bose speakers – that took some learning and a few purchases.  When I have the recording I like, I file it for use later. 

The process for hymns and anthems is slightly different from a straight instrumental piece.  If I am recording a hymn myself I play them on my piano at home and sing along.  It’s quite tricky to play the piano part, sing the melody and remember all the words.  It might take quite a few run-throughs to get all the words and notes right.  When one of our delightful choral scholars provides some hymns or music, she does basically the same thing although. Another of our talented choral scholars is able to record multiple lines and put them together, something that causes me to sin… yes, it’s called envy.

When you hear a duo singing, it starts with me recording the piano part and sending it to the singers.  They record themselves as they sing along and send the result back to me.

Some hymns and anthems are recorded at the church with three voices.  Our sound person does the recording.  We set up mics at least 6 feet apart and check before we start recording.  Our best take is sent to me in an email.  Any other musicians you hear playing on the broadcasts have recorded themselves and emailed me their recording.

Now comes the time to upload the music onto a program called ‘Slack’.  Yes, I had to learn another program to do this.  It’s a handy program as it also allows the whole worship team to communicate on-line as a group.  So the music gets uploaded a week before broadcast so to give the secretary time to put it all together and adds all those wonderful, lovely pictures with the music.

That’s how I am able to sleep in on Sunday morning and still provide music.  This way I get to sit and listen to the lovely service with all the parts – mellow and relaxed.  This feeling is good for about five minutes after the service finishes.  Then I’m back thinking about choosing, recording etc. the music for the following week.

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