St. Matthew Lutheran Church – Waco, TX
Gifted Choir Ensemble
The Rev. Kelsey Fitting-Snyder, Pastor
Pr. Kelsey joined St. Matthew September 2019. She holds a MDiv from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA. Pr. Kelsey is a member of the very active Heart of Texas Conference of the NT-NL and she is also serving the NT-NL as Secretary. St. Matthew contributed to the Mission Endowment Fund 2020 online worship service with a beautiful performance of “Secure.”
Sha Towers, Musical Director
Sha has served as St. Matthew’s music director since 2006 and as a professional church musician in the Waco area since 1992. He holds degrees in church music and music history and literature from Baylor University and a degree in library and information science from the University of Texas at Austin. He serves as the Associate Dean for Research & Engagement for the Baylor Libraries. His has a true gift for creating online choir presentations
View St. Matthew’s Virtual Music projects at: https://tiny.cc/musicprojects
The Story of Creating Online Ensembles from Sha:
One of the things that has made the tremendous amount of work to create virtual music ensembles worth it is the ability to bring together people from all around the globe to participate in these projects. People who’ve sung with us in the past but now live beyond our geographic community, as well as friends from other churches who were longing to sing together have been able to join with us in making music at a time when making music together has been challenging. Instead of labeling these projects as «the St. Matthew Choir,» we began referring to them with labels such as «St. Matthew & Friends» to recognize and honor the contributions from beyond our congregation. The various musical projects became our gift to a broad community during the pandemic when in person worship was suspended.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were recording our services live in the sanctuary with the minimum number of participants, socially distanced and masked (pastor, pianist, and videographer). The video was edited, loaded into Facebook and scheduled to premiere at our regular service time. As we sought to include more participation from the congregation without increasing the number of people in the same space, we continued recording the pastoral spoken parts of the service and all other participants were recording on their own at their own homes.
This shift required a significant increase in video production, receiving many recordings from different sources and creating a unified video experience for worship. This remote, isolated recording was especially important for the inclusion of singing, as that activity bore more significant risks of transmission and exposure. To accommodate, our pianist would record hymns and musical liturgy segments and share those with me (via the free online file transfer service WeTransfer.com). I would then record the singing and assemble all of the parts together in Adobe Premiere Pro, the software we used to produce the complete service video. After we got all the logistics worked out, we began inviting other singers to record other voice parts to fill out the hymn singing.
We created a similar process to enable us to involve the choir, something sorely missing from our service during the beginning of the pandemic. This involved a lot of trial and error (and literally thousands of hours of technical video production work over the course of the year), but in the end, was worth it for giving voice to the choir, albeit in a way very different from what we were used to. Rather than sideline the choir until we were able to return in person, we decided to explore new territory as a virtual choir. This process involved a great deal more planning than our normal pre-COVID life and required a much longer lead time that our normal planning, rehearsing, and presenting music for services.
A choir director is always assessing and analyzing music to successfully match it to the resources and abilities of a choir. Two significant considerations in this experiment were the absence of rehearsals and the inability to have a conductor visually shepherding the choir (which some choir members probably saw as a blessing!). Successful guidance by a conductor and the amount of rehearsals greatly increases what any choir can accomplish, and we would have neither of these things! Ok, maybe that was a little dramatic? While we had no in-person rehearsals to prepare music, we achieved this through a great deal of experimentation. Sometimes I prepared detailed notes on a piece and sometimes I recorded «talk through instructions» over the top of the accompaniment recording prepared by our pianist. The latter was useful in music that required a clear, unified cut off or ending, something easy to do when there is a conductor to watch, but not so easy otherwise.
We also experimented with optional zoom sectional rehearsals. I had very mixed feelings about these. Attendance wasn’t great and zoom isn’t a replacement for being together in the same room. Zoom sectionals basically requires everyone to mute and hear only the leader over Internet audio with each person singing along without any sense of the rest of the section or choir. Not ideal! However, I think the biggest benefit of this was some semblance of connecting with others and an opportunity to say, «can we go over that again?» or «I’m not getting that section» or even just an opportunity to hear the message: «this is new for all of us and you know what? it’ll be fine, we’ll get through this, and you’re not getting a grade here!»
We also evolved and improved our instructions and process for choir members to create their own video (while listening to the accompaniment audio). As you can imagine, we had a wide spectrum of comfort levels with all the various technologies on which we were relying. One universal truth we discovered is that no one enjoys recording their own voice part by themselves!
Depending on an individual’s comfort level and available devices (varying from laptop computers, tablets, phones, etc.), some used the same device to listen, record, and view digital scans of the music (of music that we purchased!) and others used separate devices and printed out music. This is the reason I didn’t create a video of me conducting. The choir already had too much going on and that would have likely required another device. The timeline for all of this required a much longer lead time than usual, giving the pianist enough time to record the accompaniment, me enough time to create part recordings and instructions, loading all the materials online, giving choir members enough time to prepare and record their part, submit everything back to me, and then to assemble the entire project. It was not unusual for a project of a single choir anthem (maybe two or three minutes of music) from start to finish to require more than 100 hours. As a result, we did NOT sing every week like we’re used to! It is important to note that this grand experiment required a great deal of skill development and in some cases tremendous learning curves. Before this, I had no experience with virtual choirs and had never used this software. In the end though, I think we found ways to create community and contribute to worship in important ways.