SPOTLIGHT: Virtual Church Services are Alive with the Sound of Music

SPOTLIGHT: Virtual Church Services are Alive with the Sound of Music


Despite pandemic, church finds ways to keep musically active

Despite pandemic, church finds ways to keep musically active

Many local churches have struggled over the past year with offering worship and other church activities online; and that is also true for continuing the music, which is a large component of worship for many churches. Since group singing in church is discouraged because of the higher probability of the spread of the virus, many churches have shown just soloists or single musicians live on screen, while others have abandoned the musical component for the time being. More technically savvy music directors and choirs have sewn together video clips and Zoom recordings and inserted them during worship.
The Music Ministry at First United Church of Christ, Congregational in Milford (CT), however, stepped up its music program and is adapting to the unusual times. They are offering a wide array of musical events, from utilizing their mighty pipe organ, choirs, bell ringers, and guest musicians during online worship, to separate hymn sings, music meditations, music sessions for children, and even virtual concerts.  (See their variety of videos on YouTube.)
March 2020 was a terrifying time,” explains Dan Brownell, the churchs Music Minister. No ministry had to essentially reinvent itself the way and to the degree that music did, since so much of our area revolves around singing which was and still is one of the most dangerous things you can do to spread the virus.”
After the music program was suspended in March 2020, the Music Ministry spent the remainder of the spring and summer planning and experimenting in order to launch a virtual ensemble program in the fall.  Initially, First Church’s goal was to continue to reach people online and mitigate the possible perceived void of music being absent during this time because of the lack of ensembles.  The Ministry (and Brownell) thought well outside the box, examining the essentials of music in worship and then adding virtual music meditations for worship during the week, and hymn sings on Sundays before online worship to fill the void left by the lack of congregational singing in worship. Then they took more steps forward, being mindful of the community, adding opportunities for music for children (filling the void left by the schools having to shut down), and virtual concerts so people might reengage with their mighty pipe organ, a cornerstone of worship at the church. 
For choir music, Brownell found that starting with familiar music was the best way to ensure success.  The choir progressed from the Doxology (Old Hundredth) that they sing every week, to hymn projects, and now moving to full anthems.  Eventually, the contemporary choir added a project, and just recently the bells joined the choir for hymns on Reformation and All-Saints Sundays.  Its all done virtually, recorded in pieces, and then edited together by Brownell. He cautions against using Zoom for music because it lacks the ability to sing (or speak) simultaneously, and its simply not designed for music.”
Each Sunday morning before online worship, First United hosts a 45-minute hymn sing live on Facebook with planned hymns and suggestions from the audience.  The idea is to give people a chance to sing togetherand to pick any hymn they want to sing,” said Brownell who is able to sight-read music and can accommodate most requests. If folks cannot participate live, they can still email a hymn request ahead of time and watch (and sing along with) the videos later.

The hymn sings bring many together and the energy and fellowship behind the screens is shown as folks greet good mornings to each other, banter, and comment on particular songs.  One post in particular got 24 comments, in which one attendee, Joe Jeffery, wrote: Its like Car Talk. Only Hymn Talk.’”
These videos are some of our best performing posts on Facebook, meaning they get the greatest engagement throughout the week. Because of that, Facebook often offers us a boost credit to be used for some of our other posts.” Paying for a post booston Facebook means promoting it to a wider but specific audience via the newsfeed, which can help increase visibility.
Music meditations are simple and meant to be a calming mid-week worship opportunity to reconnect, recharge, and disconnect with the chaos and din of life.  At first, they were just online videos that usually began with a short message or thought of the day; later, they morphed into full videos where the sound recording is put together with pictures of the church and nature. Beautiful, just what I needed to center myself,” wrote Pam Brownell on one Facebook meditation post. Patty Weller wrote, Music from the chapel organ fills my soul! Thank you.”
I feel these meditations help people to know that we are still here for them, and the comforting music they seek in these troubling times continues to be available,” said Brownell.
Soon the church will be launching a community-wide Christmas carol recording project, where anyone, regardless of musical ability or talent may record themselves for the season.  (Refer to the church website for information on this, and the church’s other Christmas season offerings.)

Dan Brownell

Putting together all these offerings was not an easy task.  Brownell relies heavily on the Music Ministry Committee, a group of eight dynamic individuals who help brainstorm and run the events, plus a group of musical volunteers, and a healthy stream of guest musicians who contribute to worship and concerts. He also has been mindful of copyrighted materials. (Please read Brownells blog on copyright issues). 
“These have been challenging and unchartered times for everyone and particularly for our music program which is dependent upon in-person participation,” explained Alison Gottsegen, co-chairperson of the music committee.”  “When we, as a music program, faced this adversity, Dan not only stepped up to the plate, he hit a home run!  Dan has thought out of the box to find ways to include musicians and all of our choirs to bring music to our online services.  We have been blessed by his dedication and resourcefulness.” 

Brownell, himself, had to learn to become an amateur sound engineer, recording music for worship and conceiving of virtual music projects for a variety of ensembles. He spoke of the need for experimentation this summer, and even received some of the computer technology via a grant from the Louisville Institute. He made use of a Zoom H2 recorder, and computer and iPhone technology for recordings, Logic Pro X for sound mixing, and FinalCut Pro X for video mixing.  Luckily he did have previous video-editing experience, and he encourages other musical directors to become as versed in the technology as possible.  He still strives to make musical participation in worship as simple as possible, appreciating and sympathizing with the stress associated with these challenging times, and with the abundance of online and screen time. (He demonstrates the process on a Facebook video here.)
Essentially the key to a successful virtual performance is the vitality of the initial planning; that is recording a clear accompaniment, and that the singers record themselves while listening to that accompaniment on headphones,” said Brownell.  Some have been able to handle this on their own and others who prefer assistance, have come to record with me one on one.  The goal is comfort and as much meaning as possible for our congregational musicians.  Obviously, its been a learning curve the whole way.”
The congregation has been able to hold itself together during this time of physical separation by worshiping online with liturgy and music that highlight the diversity of backgrounds, ages, and gifts among us,” said Rev. Adam Eckhart, Senior Pastor. As Paul writes in First Corinthians 12, there are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit...the same God who activates all of them in everyone,' (v. 4, 6). Under the direction of Dan, the musical gifts of our congregation have been shared week after week so that we can listen; 'pray twice'; and sing with hope, joy and praise to God who has activated these gifts.”
Its absolutely vital to keep a strong music program in these uncertain times,” said Brownell.  Connection is the best way for us to weather these times, and a strong online program has often allowed others whose churches aren't as fortunate to participate in music.” 
You can reach Dan Brownell at the church office at (203) 877-4277 or email  Follow them on Facebook at and Youtube by searching: firstuccmilford.

You may reprint this story by including the following line in your article:  Reprinted with permission from Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, Spotlight



Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane

Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry. You have a prayer request to ...

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