With choirs in every church limited or on hiatus, some choir directors are turning to technology to keep their communities and their singers together.

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic closed Masses to the public, there has been a small contingent of singers uplifting those around the archdiocese who tune in to participate in Mass at Portland’s St. Mary Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The trio is tiny compared to the large choir that usually sings at the cathedral’s 11 a.m. Mass. The singers require little practice at this point with choral operations now running smoothly. Still, there’s a big difference from Masses just a few months ago.

“We all miss the sound of the full choir and the breadth of music we regularly are singing,” says Angela Westhoff-Johnson, music director at the cathedral. Westhoff-Johnson has had to get creative and adapt pieces for her small Sunday choir.

The cathedral choir is staying connected through regular Zoom calls.

“We are all missing our weekly choir rehearsals more than we can put into words,” added Westhoff-Johnson.

Maureen Briare, music director for the ministry department at the University of Portland, dreamed up her own way us using technology to connect not only her singers but also the school’s students. Briare directed a virtual baccalaureate song during the university’s virtual graduation weekend in May. The video opened with the faces of musicians, many in university attire, playing instruments surrounded by a video of the University of Portland campus. As the song progressed, the choir members came on screen.

The musicians performed “O God, Beyond All Praising,” a hymn played each year during the university’s baccalaureate Mass. The hymn was especially important this year because the man who authored two of its verses, Thomas Greene, is retiring as the university’s provost. Briare says she felt stirred to keep the tradition going this year, despite there being no in-person ceremony.

“I was seeing virtual choir videos pop up and thought, we should try it,” said Briare. Her vision was larger than a virtual choir. She needed an orchestra, as well. It was going to be a big project, but Briare decided to go for it.

“I’m so glad I did,” she said, commenting on the messages she’s received from alumni, graduating seniors and even Greene.

“It really meant a lot to have some of the tradition there to feel like they were at the university,” said Briare.

The process of bringing the virtual choir to fruition was a tricky one, however. And the video was Briare’s first, she said, adding she doesn’t consider herself to be tech savvy. She created a master track and recording track, which the musicians listened to while recording their contributions for the project. Then the contributions were submitted to Briare, who had her brother make them into a video. This proved time consuming.

“We did the best we could with the sound and getting everybody’s S’s to not sound like a snake,” said Briare.

The video has been viewed on YouTube more than 3,600 times since it was released May 2.

“The virtual choir, while it’s not ideal, it has been a wonderful way for the community to connect,” said Briare. “But, to infuse prayer and song into the commencement weekend was really meaningful and worthwhile.”

The students at the university miss the in-person education, especially the performing arts students.

“Being able to create something beautiful together and work toward that is such a gift,” said Briare.

Briare concludes that in the reality of the pandemic, music directors may need to become more tech savvy with audio and video recordings to continue to make harmony happen.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org