What does safe music-making look like at St. John’s?

When this whole pandemic thing hit us back in March 2020, I started down the rabbit hole of learning how to keep people safe and still have a productive music ministry, one that allowed people to share their voices in worship. One of the most helpful pieces of information I ran across early on was a report about exhaled aerosolized droplets. These tiny aerosols or droplets of saliva are actually sprayed into the air when a person speaks or sings. The droplets are especially concentrated when a person speaks or sings loudly. These droplets could contain and transmit the COVID-19 virus from one person to another in some measure of proximity. I learned that if a mask is worn, emissions are significantly reduced, and the risk of transmission is also reduced. That was all quite enough for me to realize the game had changed – in a big way. And that standard practices for making music would need to be adjusted and modified in order to protect each other going forward.

For St. John’s, at the start of the pandemic, that meant we stopped meeting in-person for Sunday worship. And just like that, we went online. Music at St. John’s suddenly only happened in homes and in videos – no longer gathered all together in a room – because we were not permitted to gather in a single space together. What?!  Wow, talk about taking something for granted…..

I looked around at what other churches were doing, and the varied ways musicians were reacting and adapting to these strange new restrictions. Some slapped up a cellphone to record a solitary musician’s performance, or singing and playing a hymn for others to hopefully sing along to. I wanted to do better. I saw a few people assembling multi-pane windows of video that combined separate, isolated performances into a single collective presentation. I wanted to know how to do that! Because THAT would at least create the illusion of making music together. It could provide an opportunity for each separate, isolated musician to participate and work together for something bigger than the individual parts. And well, at the end of the day, there’s just nothing quite like making music together – even if it’s virtually.

Many St. John’s musicians rose to this mysterious challenge of singing and playing along to reference files from Wendy & Chad that they found sitting in their email inbox. They’d listen to the audio files in their earbuds or headphones while they recorded videos of themselves singing and/ or playing along. They’d upload their self-made cellphone videos to a folder in the cloud, and then a few days later we’d all see and hear them included in a composite hymn video that, in turn, was included in a larger service video for Sunday morning online worship.

Week after week from March 2020 through May 2021, Children’s Choirs Zoom rehearsals and composite video performances, Chime Choir Zoom rehearsal and live outdoor and video composite performances, Festival Choir composite videos, Sunday morning hymns for worship, Special music offerings recorded by musicians at home, were all entirely online.

By June 2021, we were back in-person in our beautiful worship space – known to some as the Nave, others as the Sanctuary of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Linden Hills, Minneapolis. We all masked-up to protect each other as we sang and played together again. And although we’ve needed to suspend our popular Wednesday evening Choir meal program for the time being, our Children’s Choirs, Chime Choir, Festival Choir, and Sunday morning Service musicians have been gratefully able to gather in-person. And music was made together in one space again.

Fast forward to January 2022 and two COVID variants later…and we find ourselves in a bit of a limbo time. On Sunday, January 16 and at least for the rest of the month, a few musicians sing and play in-person, and along with clergy, readers and intercessors, do worship in a largely unpeopled space – captured and livestreamed on a cellphone to a virtual congregation. What’s next is anyone’s guess… The important thing now is to keep people safe while making music together.

Even when we think we can predict what’s coming next, we never can know for sure what the future holds, how long any of us have to do anything at all, together or apart. So while we’re here, we remain steadfast and grateful for this time and place and the souls that gather ‘round, in-person or online, as we make that joyful noise unto God, and with each other.

And I’m SO G.L.A.D. about it!

Chad Smith
Minister of Music

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNzwBitQ_18GWm8jOJ6BFrw