March 15, 2021

COVID Challenges Bring Clarity for a Choir Director

COVID Challenges Bring Clarity for a Choir Director
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace –– only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” –Anne Lamott

I am not sure if we will be reflecting on the “graces” of coronavirus in April 2021, but I do know that its reshaping — perhaps forming and developing — of our music ministries has carried the potential to leave us indelibly changed.

I am in something like Phase 43.7(b) in the throes of our Archdiocesan re-opening procedures — a phase marked by themes of doubt and confusion, phosphorescent tape marks in church, eager anticipation, liturgical reservation systems and undeniable Zoom fatigue. Our last gathering as a full choir (March 8, 2020), drifts farther and farther into our ministerial memory because, despite small gatherings of the worshipping faithful, studies suggesting the dangers of singing during the COVID-19 pandemic hover like a menacing caesura over our music ministries.

Though coming from a place of relative stasis, imposed social distance, gnawing uncertainty, and cessation of participatory singing forced us quickly into a period of instability — into, if you will, a “development section” in the sonata of our ministries. Bear with me: thematic fragmentation, subversive harmonic progression, tonal instability, variation of course on our ministerial themes, but ultimately, evaded closure and unpredictable modulation — all attributes of choral life in 2020.

“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” –Friedrich Schiller

For me personally though, as a choir director (I rarely actually use that term), the challenges of a quarantined choir brought unexpected clarity, opportunity and closeness in my ministry. Between my comfortable introversion, a proclivity for technology and 14 years with a global consulting firm, I had a head start, I admit that. As a consultant, spirited continuous improvement was prized and everyone had a healthy aversion to “admiring the problem.” I entered professional music ministry late in the game, but I did so with malleable creativity and attraction to flexibility.

I minister at a large, vibrant church community in Chicago’s West Loop; in the pre-COVID-19 time, we had a total of about 60+ singers in the various choirs ministering at five weekly liturgies. After our city shut down last March and cancelled St. Patrick’s Day, we immediately began weekly Zoom Evening Prayer on our usual rehearsal evenings. I probably didn’t do it “right,” but we selected relevant Psalms, composed prayers and invited various voices (composers, editors, clergy) from around the US to offer reflections (it’s virtual after all). We heard each other’s voices in new ways — as prayer leaders and preachers within our music ministry. And if not in that full group setting, then it was part of the choir small groups facilitated by our young adult leaders. In the absence of physical Sunday gatherings, this exposed an important theme: the meaningful work of shared prayer and hospitable encounter.

So the choir could engage with their instruments, avoiding dangerous vocal dormancy, I created YouTube content with physical and vocal warm-ups and sectional rehearsals. I then devised and built a multi-part web-based Music Theory for Music Ministers curriculum, so I could teach elements of music theory in a more intentional way, using music common to our repertoire. These different avenues of engagement restated and affirmed for all of us the critical work of continuously improving our gifts.

Finally, virtual choir performances (despite a frustratingly steep learning curve) provided a way to share publicly our collective sound. In the eerie silence of our post-Holy Thursday livestream, 40 singing faces appeared on the screen, offering the surest sign of hope and connection our community had seen in a month. Sometimes though, as we know, the gift of our work often lies in the journey itself. Through multiple virtual choir projects now, I have had the unique opportunity to encounter videos of 75 different members in the choir singing, alone, just to me. I heard their voices in completely new ways. For those who struggled with the technology, countless one-on-one Zoom sessions walked them through this new way of connecting; these encounters unearthed previously unexplored commonalities and inspired engaging dialogue. While the results may not garner Grammy nominations, these projects varied the theme of what it meant to sing together. Through cultivating a deepening of relationship, singing together meant more: modalities shifted, roles of teacher and student inverted.

None of these gestures or learning opportunities would have happened without lifting our eyes from the page and challenging ourselves. Certain themes of our ministry require clear restatement, while in other cases, what was mere “transition material” gains a greater prominence, even permanence, in our post-COVID world.

Conflicting research, rumors about choral singing, contradictions about re-opening at the state and local level: this, in our search for stability, is our cadential evasion. Learning to pivot through fragmented gatherings, navigate murky progressions, remain unflappable during the uncertainty: this is our retransition, our establishing of a new tonal center. As a ministry director, I used this opportunity to recapitulate important themes, but also to address problematic voice leading [that is, leading of voices] on my part to clarify and reaffirm what matters. Distancing from the Sunday churn allowed me to recognize that the “relative stasis” I mentioned earlier was medial, liminal and unresolved.

As we emerge, slowly, to sing our songs anew, I urge creative flexibility and malleability paired with solution-oriented practices. These transitions cannot be ephemeral detours; rather, they are new roads on which we can hope to be better poised to encounter the future. The future of music ministry may very well lie in this state of instability, in the ability to introduce new material and new tonalities, to mediate new relationships and to modulate our communications. As we emerge, quelling our doubts and confusions (and perhaps our inauthentic stops and starts), may it be with renewed clarity and closeness to those in our ministry.

After all, everyone knows it’s a mistake to ignore the caesura.

The content for this blog was taken from the 2021 Lent-Easter Triduum-Easter Season edition of Today's Liturgy. Subscribe here!

Mark Scozzafave
Mark Scozzafave

The writer is a consultant, composer and Director of Music Ministries at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, Illinois, where he lives with his wife Aimee and shih-tzu poodle Crowley. Along with studies in information technology, Mark has a degree in music theory from the University of Notre Dame and music theory and cognition from Northwestern University.