For many churches, this weekend will include a milestone on the path back to normalcy after a devastating pandemic: the first in-person Easter services with congregational singing.
In 2020, most churches were entirely virtual for Easter, which took place mere weeks after COVID-19 hit American shores. Last year, in-person services were relatively common, but some churches still had music-related restrictions in place.
Although music leaders generally supported the safety precautions, they’re looking forward to this weekend’s group singing with glee. For Christians, Easter services are supposed to be a big celebration. In the past two years, it was tough to make them feel that way, said Joan Figley, music director for St. Walter Catholic Church in Roselle, Illinois.
“For the congregation to be able to really sing is incredible. We’re very excited,” she said.
The risks of group singing became clear in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 10, 2020, 61 people met for choir rehearsal at a Presbyterian church in Washington state. Over the next few weeks, more than 50 of those singers tested positive for the coronavirus. By the end of the month, two had died.
In response to this outbreak and others, religious leaders and public health officials urged congregations across the country to rethink their musical routines. Music directors either leaned on solo performances or taught their choirs to perform together on Zoom.
“Conversations I have had with church music directors around the country reveal the creativity employed to keep the music going: utilizing solo performers, prerecorded music, reducing the amount of music to the essential in liturgical services and creating virtual choirs,” wrote Donna Cox, a professor of choral music at the University of Dayton, for The Conversation in June 2020.
At her Catholic parish in the Chicago suburbs, Figley went from overseeing a full choir and individual cantors to providing music almost entirely on her own.
“My daughter also sings, so that first Easter she came in and we did it together,” Figley said.
Similarly, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the nature of the music director’s work shifted overnight.
“My job at the cathedral changed completely. I went from having a live music-making job to a virtual content-generating job,” Kent Tritle said.
Over the course of the first few months of the pandemic, Tritle and his team planned and adopted brand-new music protocols. They learned how to record a conductor, organ performer and singers individually and then splice the recordings together into a single performance.
“It was so important for our congregation to see a video of the choir singing. ... It was incredibly moving to see that we could create a sense of togetherness in spite of our isolation,” he said.
Music in worship
Figley, Tritle and other music directors struggled with more than the pressure to find solutions and minimize risk amid the pandemic. They were heartbroken that normal congregational singing was no longer possible, and they missed the sounds of worshippers loudly and joyfully singing together at church.
Taking away in-person music, “takes away a huge part of who we are,” Figley said.
Although different Christian denominations approach music differently, most churches incorporate it into their worship services in multiple ways. Instrumental music may greet people as they walk into church. Choirs or praise bands may perform one or multiple special pieces during each service. Congregants may be invited to sing hymns that feature the same themes as the day’s scripture readings.
Regardless of what form it takes, music is an essential part of Christian worship and it has been from the beginning, wrote Cox for The Conversation. She noted that the Bible is full of stories of people praising God through their songs.
“Singing has tremendous power, both spiritually and physically,” she wrote.
Statements like these help explain why congregations were horrified to have group singing opportunities taken away during the pandemic. One church in California took its challenge to singing restrictions all the way to the Supreme Court. (The justices eventually overturned the state’s ban on in-person worship but kept singing restrictions in place.)
At Figley’s church, worshippers generally accepted both government- and diocese-imposed restrictions, but she still had to find creative ways to reduce the temptation to sing.
“There were times when we were not singing some of the Mass parts that we knew people would want to sing along to. There were times when we did piano music instead of singing. We were just trying to keep people from joining in,” she said.
For a music lover and regular churchgoer like Figley, such steps felt “so wrong.”
“I’ve spent my whole life — I’m also a music teacher — encouraging people to sing and participate and express themselves and I was saying, ‘Don’t sing,’” she said.
After the struggles of the past two years, Figley is looking forward to the music this Easter weekend with a sense of gratitude and relief. She said the holiday will feel like even more of a celebration than usual this year.
“Everybody is so excited to be able to sing this music that is so full of joy,” Figley said.
Holy Week services weren’t the same without in-person music, Tritle said, adding that live performances by singers and brass instruments and drums help capture the emotional highs and lows of the Easter story.
“Music expresses what words can’t. That’s always true, but it’s especially true for the church during the period between Palm Sunday and Easter,” he said.
Among the many lessons that the pandemic had to teach, it made it clear that we shouldn’t take in-person music for granted, Tritle said.
“The pandemic showed us that there’s nothing like being together with other people and there’s nothing like being in a room where live music is being offered or made,” he said.