Stand Together: Hickory Choral Society Fall Concert 2020

Togetherness is hard to come by these days. We are physically isolated in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, ideological conflict is spreading through our families, community, and nation.
In response, and joined by area high school choral students, the Catawba Valley Community College Chorus, Lenoir-Rhyne Youth Chorus, and the Lenoir-Rhyne A Cappella Choir, the Hickory Choral Society will present Stand Together, a virtual choir concert on October 25 at 3:00 p.m.
HCS will perform a variety of music rehearsed and recorded while physically distant, including an arrangement of the hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus.” The concert will conclude with “Love is Love is Love” by Abbie Betinis and “Undivided” by Karen Marrolli, selections that will feature a mass choir of nearly 250 singers from the above groups.

And when the world exalts derision,
We can choose to lift each other high.
And undivided we will stand,
Stand together, hand in hand.
-Karen Marrolli, from “Undivided”

Facing the Challenge…

Like so many things in our world right now, the challenges we face in choral and church music are unprecedented. As a member of two virtual choral ensembles, Hickory Choral Society and Hymn of the Week Virtual Choir, and as Director of Music at Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Conover, NC, I would like to share my experience and perspective on music making during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hickory Choral Society began preparing for the virtual fall concert in September, and that meant thinking about our music making in new and very different ways. Singers met on Zoom to rehearse, practiced independently with audio guide tracks, and recorded videos of themselves singing. Clicking the submit button to turn in those videos, may have been one of the most difficult tasks in the process. Since we tend to be our own worst critics and are very self-conscious about how we will be perceived, many of us were hesitant to turn in a solo submission. Thankfully, HCS Artistic Director/Conductor Dr. Ryan Luhrs continued to keep us focused on the outcome – a choral sound – voices combined in a beautiful, unified song that would be shared with others. He reminded us of a quote from Brene Brown, “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.” I know I have experienced personal growth in this process as a singer and have come to truly appreciate the gift of choir. We can do so much more together than we can do alone, and we need each other.

Hymn of the Week Virtual Choir, also led by Dr. Luhrs, has been a unique way to unite singers from churches in the Hickory area. Hymns are chosen weekly based on the lectionary cycle and singers record to audio guide tracks while physically distanced. The completed hymn videos are posted each week on Facebook and are also shared with area congregations to support weekly worship themes. Many of the hymns are common across denominations and have been a source of comfort to listeners during these difficult times in our world. The singers have also been joined by instrumentalists and children’s voices, something that has added an even greater communal element to the project. I look forward to listening to completed hymns, knowing that each individual voice and instrument have been combined in a song of praise to God, and that the music will be meaningful to so many listeners.

Since congregational singing is deemed a high-risk activity in the church setting, I have worked with Mt. Zion Lutheran Church staff and lay leaders to create musical variety in worship. Our focus has been on the use of instruments including flute, guitar, piano, organ, and handbells. We do have several cantors who sing to provide special music and help lead the congregation in singing virtually or while inside their cars at drive-in worship. And though we did not previously have an active handbell choir, we are starting up rehearsals this month! At Mt. Zion, we have also been able to offer worship on Facebook Live. This was a new venture for us in March but is something that we plan to continue utilizing even as in-person worship resumes. This format has allowed us to reach a broader community that includes homebound members and friends of the congregation who are not local. It has become apparent that music is a vital part of worship and the faith life of the members and friends of Mt. Zion.

Even though virtual music making doesn’t look like anything we have ever seen before, I believe it is making an impact in my own life and in the lives of others. Initially, the tasks before us that would allow us to make music together seemed daunting, and I know I was tempted to sit on the sidelines. Rather, it seems we banded together and followed the mantra I often share with my two young sons, “We can do hard things!” We dove in headfirst to figure out the ways in which we could make music together as a community choir and in our churches.

We did this because music isn’t just a hobby or simple pleasure for us. It is part of who we are. Many voices, one song. And so, the song goes on.