NEW ORLEANS — Normally this time of year, Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in eastern New Orleans would be bustling with singers, musicians, dancers and actors finalizing a concert, cantata or musical to celebrate the Christmas season.
“We would be having dress rehearsals right now,” Shay Keju, overseer of music for the church, said recently. “We have a production usually, not just our choir. All the fine arts — dance, drama, of course the music ... always shine at Christmas.”
But this year, Christmas arrives in the midst of a pandemic that essentially shut down church choirs in mid-March. At Greater St. Stephen, 60 to 75 people sing in the choir on a normal Sunday. But the second Sunday in March was the last time the choir was in the building.
Voices lifted in song — especially indoors and in close proximity to other people — can also spread droplets carrying the coronavirus. So during the past nine months, churches have been turning to soloists, small ensembles and praise teams — even technology — to ensure that praises still ring.
And with Christmas approaching they’re having to rely on creative solutions to ensure that the observance of Christ’s birth won’t be a silent night.
The online services that have been a mainstay for congregations during the pandemic will also be a vehicle for delivering special music programs. Greater St. Stephen, for instance, will air a pre-recorded program on Wednesday with a few singers, dancers and youths doing readings, Keju said.
In Mandeville, St. Timothy United Methodist traditionally packs the sanctuary on the second Sunday of each December for two performances of what it calls “Christmas on the Northshore,” choir director Kenya Jackson said. Not this year.
“Initially, we wanted to do what we’ve always done, but the closer you get, you realize that’s not going to happen. Even if the pandemic ended tomorrow, we would have been practicing since September.”
Instead, St. Timothy’s aired a music program on its website and Facebook page on Dec. 17 that was created by pre-recording the singing and then shooting video in a variety of outdoor settings — including the fishing pier on Lake Pontchartrain at Mandeville’s Sunset Point, where a couple that was fishing provided an appreciative audience.
“I literally took out a speaker and my phone,” Jackson said. “They sang along with themselves.”
Jackson had to take additional steps to ensure that the return to in-person choir practice would be safe. Every Monday she sent out an email to see how many of each vocal section would attend and spread them out in the pews.
“It’s a challenge, you can’t really hear the same way,” she said.
Even churches that haven’t returned to in-person practice are managing to continue having a choir. Leonard Raybon, who directs the choir at Rayne Memorial Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue, has been using a virtual choir both at church and Tulane University, where he is director of choirs.
Every month he sends out a new piece using an audio click track so the singers can hear the music and the click in the background to ensure the timing. They record themselves and send the results back to Raybon, who puts them together on a screen with other visual elements.
The first piece, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” included photos of church members, including some who had passed away. Choir member Laurie Phillips recalled previewing it during a Zoom meeting. “We were just crying, it was so emotional,” she said.
Raybon said that the process has not been easy — but that he’s learned a lot along the way.
“I had to teach myself video editing,” he said. At first it took perhaps 100 hours to produce a virtual choir video, and he’s learned as he’s gone along. After spending lots of time editing out paper rustling as choir members turned pages, for example, he started providing the written music on a screen.
Raybon views the virtual choir as an important way to keep going, but he says not as enjoyable because it’s isolated. “The whole reason why choir is so fun is because of the community, the harmonies you make in real time with each other.”
Indeed, choir members talk as much about missing each other as missing the music. When the “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” virtual choir piece was posted, Phillips saw that her face was between those of two of her closest friends — one of whom, Ebonee Davis, now lives in Dallas. “I could hear myself with Ebonee,” Phillips said.
Singing that song was therapeutic, Davis said, and being able to participate from far away was a silver lining.
But singers say they miss being together. “A lot of people’s form of worship is to be in the choir,” said Dale Hubert, a member of St. Timothy’s choir. “It’s heart-breaking to look up at the choir loft and see no one in it.”
Jarrett Follette, choir director for Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans, said music was limited for months, with one soloist, wearing a mask, standing very far from everyone else wearing a mask. “There were only three of us here for a long time, playing for the radio,” he said. “It was not satisfying at all for us.”
St. Stephen’s choir is having Zoom meetings and group texts, Keju said, and some older members are warming up to social media. “We try to stay connected, but it’s not the same,” she said. “It makes you miss what was, and you have a new appreciation. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. When we do come together again, what a time it’s going to be.”
Choir members aren’t the only ones who miss singing this season. Congregational singing isn’t being allowed at Christ Church Cathedral because of COVID-19 guidelines, Follette said.
It’s something he said that people find depressing, and even more so on Christmas.
“The biggest complaint is, how can we have Christmas without being able to sing ‘Joy to the World’,” he said.
The other carol they’re telling Follette that they’ll miss is “Silent Night,” typically sung at the end of the Christmas Eve service.
“They’re talking about walking outside and singing it after,” he said.