Bower Hill choir

Members of the Bower Hill Community Church Choir perform together virtually in a presentation for a live-streamed Sunday service. Anne Smith is second from the right in the middle row.

Live streaming of worship services at Bower Hill Community Church in Mt. Lebanon features members of the church choir singing in harmony, from the safety of their own homes.

When the church suspended in-person services during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, music director Anne Smith effectively gave herself a crash course in technology to start producing videos of virtual performances.

“In the beginning, to do one took about 50 hours. It was intense,” she said. “But when I started mixing things together and seeing my choir members together, I almost got choked up, because at that point we hadn’t been together in about four or five weeks. It was really, really comforting to hear all of our voices and see our faces again.”

She has continued to edit videos for inclusion in Sunday services. With the advantage of her mastering the technological learning curve – “The time has gone down significantly” – during the past nine months, she said.

The project’s success has led to a special presentation for the holiday season: a virtual Handel’s “Messiah” to be streamed on Christmas Eve. As has been the case since the start, all voices have been mixed to create a homogenous choir sound.

Preparation for the concert actually began quite a while ago, during a Zoom meeting of choir members.

“It was August, and we were facing the idea: What are we going to do at Christmas? This is going to be really a depressing Christmas if we are in the situation that we find ourselves in now,” Smith recalled. “I just said kind of off the top of my head, ‘What if we do a virtual “Messiah?”

“And they all said, ‘Yeah, we would love to try it.’”

The process has involved her recording backing tracks and conducting tracks using Logic Pro, a digital audio workstation, and then sending them to the vocalists to capture their own performances on video.

“I figured out how to customize all the instruments so they sounded as real as they could, and then gave everybody a schedule and tried to follow it,” she said.

From there, she worked with Final Cut Pro video editing software to come up with an innovative group performance of the beloved 18th-century oratorio by George Frideric Handel.

While she was studying at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, Smith didn’t exactly envision herself eventually working on such as ambitious project.

“I took the cursory music technology classes, but none of this technology existed when I graduated in 2006,” she said.

She took note when American composer Eric Whitacre formed a virtual choir of singers from around the world, a novel idea at the time that is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020.

The choir came to mind when Smith heard about the Skagit Valley Chorale of Mt. Vernon, Wash., reporting dozens of cases of COVID-19 linked to two practices in early March, and she realized her church would be forgoing in-person services. So she started to learn about how she could adapt Whitacre’s concept in Mt. Lebanon, where Smith also lives.

“Helping choir members overcome technology and learning the technology, myself, was challenging,” she recalled. “But it helped me, to have a big project to keep my attention focused and give my week some kind of structure.

“I was hearing feedback from my choir members, too. They were appreciating the emotional release that singing was able to give them. So I felt like I was helping myself but also providing something that was helpful to people I care about,” Smith continued. “It had the added benefit of justifying my job when there’s no church.”

Going virtual has offered expanded opportunities for participation, with Bower Hill choir members encouraging family members and friends to lend their voices, wherever they may be. “The more voices, the merrier!” Smith wrote in seeking participants for the “Messiah” performance.

The choir also has participated in combined practices with singers at nearby Temple Emanuel, “so that we were able to create interfaith virtual space,” she said.

Further benefits have come with the new format.

“One member of my choir is a caregiver for her husband, and attending choir had been a challenge in person, being nervous about leaving him,” Smith said. “She has blossomed and has loved this, because she can sing and keep him safe, and that’s been really nice.”

Despite members tending toward an older demographic, they’ve made the adjustment to a virtual choir.

“Really, I have to give them a ton of credit. They figured it out. After about a month or so, it got to be pretty easy,” Smith said. “Some of them actually purchased new computers so they could be able to do it better.”

Handel’s “Messiah” will be streamed starting at 9 a.m. Dec. 24, with a link available at www.bowerhillchurch.org. Live streaming of worship services and links to video archives, including virtual choir performances, are at www.bowerhillchurch.org/live.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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