Easter choir

Community United Church of Christ choir members practice the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus via Zoom.

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CHAMPAIGN — The premier event of the Christian church’s liturgical year will be marked with songs of praise, but not necessarily by singers inside area churches.

A spot check of a few churches shows that while many intend to hold smaller capacity Easter services in house Saturday night and Sunday morning, congregants won’t be able to look into the faces of their choir members.

But thanks to the Herculean efforts of music directors turned technical whizzes, they will definitely hear great music.

At First United Methodist Church, 210 W. Church St., C, worshippers will hear organ, hand bells, trumpet and voices, blended together by director of music and worship Barbara Zachow and her team of helpers.

“It’s not the same as live music, but it’s the best we know how to do and still make music,” Zachow said.

Consider just some of what goes into her making the sausage:

“Six people spread out over the sanctuary, and we sing in masks for rehearsal,” she said. “Then we recorded a base track for one of those rehearsals.”

“Our scholarship students made practice tracks for the other parts,” she added. “Choir members practiced with those then came in and recorded their parts against a green screen. Then I take the recording, strip the sound off and match it up … to get a full choir track. Then I take that and put it in Movie Maker and pull in videos and try to match it up.”

If that sounds exhausting and/or complicated, it can be. Any guesses on the time commitment for producing pre-recorded three- to five-minute hymns accompanied by lovely pictures?

“We don’t talk about that, because it’s insane,” said the veteran musician, now in her sixth decade of making, teaching or directing music.

But because of the importance of music to worship, Zachow and her helpers believe their efforts are worth it. Pre-recording their work frees up space in the sanctuary for the people who want to worship in person.

At nearby Holy Cross Catholic Church, 405 W. Clark St., C, those who attend or watch on Facebook will hear quartets of singers accompanied by organ music from Jonathan Young, the music director who also sings.

“The quartet is upstairs in the loft, distanced. We have had our shots, so we can take our masks off when we sing, but we still stay distanced,” said longtime cantor Penny Devall.

Choir members have taken turns signing up to sing in quartets at weekend Masses.

“It’s so different singing as a quartet instead of as a choir, because there is no one else to support you,” she said. “If you mess up, everyone is going to hear you.”

Still, she’s just happy to see some people back in the sanctuary, celebrating with singing.

“Singing is praying twice,” she said.

At St. John’s Catholic Chapel on campus, director of music Heath Morber has been blessed with singers in the house since the church reopened in June for Masses.

“Our biggest Mass is the Easter Vigil on Saturday. We plan on having about eight socially distant singers, which is what we’ve been doing all along,” he said. “Then we will add in brass and strings and be as spaced as we can.

“The singers are masked all the time. We’ve been doing that from Day 1,” said Morber, who said the sound is still pretty good through a surgical mask.

His ensembles include two tenor, two alto, two soprano and two bass voices, which, given the youth of his singers, can make a joyful noise.

“Young college voices are a real boon to be sure,” Morber said.

His choir members have taken turns singing on weekends and practice about an hour before Mass instead of meeting midweek.

Kathy Lee, music director at Community United Church of Christ, 805 S. Sixth St., C, said neither choir nor church members will be under the roof for Easter as the congregation waits for continued improvement in community health.

Church members have been livestreaming services through Zoom and Facebook throughout the pandemic. Thanks to Zoom, the choir has been practicing diligently to produce pre-recorded arrangements, some more challenging than others, that congregants will hear this weekend.

The organist supplies Lee a piece. She then records the different singing parts, sends them to the singers, who then practice with her voice and send back their voices to her. She and colleague David Wilcox blend all that electronically into a finished product, a process she estimated at 100 hours.

“Part of the huge value of a church choir was the community aspect of singing together. We are all really missing that so desperately,” she said, admitting that their Wednesday night Zoom practices, while not the same, have filled a void for them and brought her more pleasure than she expected.

“In a way, some of the barriers have been removed. People with young kids who couldn’t come out on a Wednesday night,” for example, she said. “I’ve gotten new people who have never sung before who are trying it. They are looking for community.”

Like other church music directors, Lee has gotten more adept at using technology to pair her choir’s voices with another congregant’s beautiful photography. She credits Wilcox and other helpers with “the labor of love” involved in creating the virtual worship service.

Tonight’s Good Friday service will feature a tune called “For God So Loved the World.”

“This is a piece that is very difficult to sing apart, but because it’s something we know and love, we have done it,” Lee said.

Sunday’s service will feature classic hymns, an amateur trumpet player, and the “highlight” — a replay of last Easter’s choir mix of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

“That was a huge amount of work,” she said.

While the Community United Church of Christ congregants won’t be gathering in their church, members of Covenant Fellowship Church will use their space.

Matt Lee, who has played guitar in the worship service band for 22 years, said the nomadic congregation just returned to having a hybrid service on Palm Sunday.

“There is a real difference between performing in front of a camera and imagining our congregation versus being there with other members and worshipping in one building,” he said. “It was definitely refreshing and exciting.”

On Sunday, two guitarists, a bass player, percussionist, a piano player and a couple of singers will supply the musical joy of Easter to a maximum crowd of 50 socially-distant worshippers. The rest of the congregation will be able to see a livestream.

Kathy Lee expressed what other music directors and worshippers alike must be feeling as they prepare for the biggest day of their church year.

“In the past, I wanted Easter to be very polished and perfect. Now we want Easter to feel like it’s for us, no matter the circumstances,” Lee said. “We don’t have to be physically together to have the resurrection. We don’t need the church building to feel the resurrection spirit.”


Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).

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