Music programs find challenges and creativity in move to online worship

Music programs find challenges and creativity in move to online worship

Congregational music programs had to adjust quickly when the coronavirus pandemic forced worship services online. Now many are facing the reality that they might not meet in person again until next spring.

Joshua Eaton
Screenshot of a video of the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, Ontario, choir singing virtually, May 3, 2020.

The virtual choir of First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, Ontario, performs “One Voice” by Ruth Moody/The Wailin’ Jennys for the congregation’s May 3 online service. (YouTube)

First Unitarian Church of Hamilton


It’s hard to sing together over Zoom. The choir at First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, Ontario, tried rehearsing with one person singing melody while everyone else sang harmony on mute. Otherwise, delays in their video feeds meant that the notes didn’t sync up. That just wasn’t very satisfying, so at one rehearsal they decided to all unmute themselves. It wasn’t melodious, according to Beverly Horton, the church’s music committee chair. But a few times, for just a moment, an intentional chord would ring out.

Those moments of harmony reminded Horton of what the choir had been missing for weeks—the connection and creation that come with singing together in the same physical space. “It was a beautiful thing,” Horton said. “Made me almost a bit teary.”

Church music programs had to adjust quickly when the coronavirus pandemic forced worship services online in March. Months later, many are facing the reality that they might not meet in person again until next spring. Music leaders from churches of all sizes told UU World that online worship has put stress on their already strained resources and staff. They also talked about the lessons they’ve learned and how they are building remote worship for the long haul.

There is no central authority in Unitarian Universalism, and decisions about when and how to move back to in-person worship are up to individual congregations. But the Unitarian Universalist Association issued a “strong suggestion” on May 14 that congregations plan to not meet in person until May 2021. That guidance could change if, for example, there is a widely available vaccine by early next year, as some U.S. officials have cautiously suggested. But right now new coronavirus hotspots are popping up across the country, and new confirmed cases are at an all-time high.

In the meantime, many music directors have found themselves producing online worship services, checking in with choir members, editing videos, and doing tech support—often on a less-than-full-time contract. “In a lot of cases, our ten-hour-a-week job or twenty-hour-a-week job has doubled in size,” said DeReau Farrar, director of music at First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and president of the Association for Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries.

I Believe,” by Mark A. Miller, performed for the May 17 Music Sunday service by the Virtual Choir of First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, directed by Rip Jackson with soloist Elizabeth Walsh; video by Chris Hess.

Some church musicians are feeling pressure to pour their own time and money into online worship out of fear that the pandemic would make their positions less relevant otherwise, Farrar said. Other church musicians worry that they may not be able to find other paid work if a church lays them off or furloughs them because there are so few other jobs for musicians right now.

The switch to online worship has taken an emotional toll on music directors and choir members alike, Farrar said. In many cases, choir is central to members’ lives and their experiences of what it means to be part of a faith community. As choir rehearsals have moved online and singing in unison has become all but impossible, the work of many choir directors has shifted toward pastoral care.

Farrar said that he has had difficult conversations with some of his choir members about the fact that they won’t be singing together any time soon. “Lots of tears. Lots of mourning,” he said. “People have never had to imagine their lives without this seemingly simple activity being central to it.”

Sarah Jebian is director of music at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville, Maryland. Her congregation has been prerecording its service and broadcasting the sermon live, and her job is now much more focused on creating and editing the weekly video worship service than it is on music. Jebian said that she had worked around sixty hours during the week that she spoke to UU World in early June.

Jebian described the realization that remote worship would last through next spring as “a gut punch.” When the UUA’s guidance came out pushing the return to in-person worship back to spring 2021, she began a conversation with other leaders at her congregation about how she could get one Sunday a month off from their time-intensive prerecorded worship services.

“I was like, I will die,” she said. “I cannot keep this up for the next year.”

Still, Jebian said that she has found silver linings in the crisis. She introduces every hymn by asking people on Zoom to keep their microphones muted but to please sing along. She sees that as an opportunity to break out lesser-known hymns because there’s less pressure to rely on the standards that everyone in the congregation knows.

Jebian has been experimenting with using one hymn during the same spot in the service for a month in different styles. One Sunday it will be a capella. The next Sunday, it will be an ensemble. The Sunday after that, she will perform the hymn on guitar. That gives the congregation a chance to “dig in and get familiar” with a hymn that it might not know as well without the music getting stale.

Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout sees musical opportunities in remote worship, too. As director of worship and music at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rideout has created elaborate videos of himself singing hymns in multipart harmonies. Some of those videos, which are designed for the congregation’s prerecorded worship services over YouTube, even include gaps the congregation is asked to fill in with their own voices at home.

Rideout hopes that what he called “Black-based, Brown-based songs” can begin to take a vital, essential role within UU congregations. “I wonder what happens to our storied classic Western European hymns,” Rideout said. “Actually, I'm very excited to see what happens. Because after another year of this, you know, those old standards have never seen a challenge for ubiquity quite like this.”

Part of the reason Rideout sees those Western European standards being displaced is practical. When congregations went online in March, grabbing a hymnal to take home was the last thing on people’s minds. That’s meant that it isn’t always practical to sing many traditional Western European hymns that people need a hymnal to follow along with.

The second, deeper reason, is what Rideout called “a heart question.” In a crisis, Rideout said, we fall back on “what is installed in our hearts.” That could be a favorite verse from a scripture, a hymn we grew up with, or something our mother told us as a child.

“The types of songs that offer the easiest portals into that and the deepest portals into that are not the ones that are 300 words, five verses, and four parts,” Rideout said. The songs Rideout has recorded include “My Life Flows On,” “Woyaya,” “Yonder Come Day,” and “Open the Window.” They’re full of joy, sorrow, and heart, with strong repetition that encourages people to join in at home.

Yonder Come Day,” a spiritual of the Georgia Sea Islands, improvisation by Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, director of worship and music ofFirst UU Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan; audio mix & video editing by Mike Halerz.

Rideout’s process for these one-person, multipart videos is intense. Once he decides what to sing, he’ll typically spend a day “obsessing over the melody,” singing it over and over. His initial draft recording the next day usually takes about four hours, after which he starts the process over and completes a second recording that takes another three to four hours. That final recording then goes to an audio-video editor, who pieces together the final product.

There are time- and cost-efficient ways to do remote worship music, Rideout said. But he’s skeptical of making the conversation about how to do the most with the least, especially when it comes to compensating music directors, musicians, and other artists.

“The creative force inside of everyone is the most direct path to anything divine or godly,” Rideout said. “What does it mean when we can't afford God, or the Uber to get to him?”

An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 edition of UU World.