Without music ministry at Mass, choristers bring labour of love to digital space

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, choirs and singers are letting their voices be heard.

Congregation limits have been lifted for Catholic Mass. The Alberta government has suggested some ways for singing to resume at worship services, under strict conditions. However, under guidellines from Alberta’s bishops it’s still not allowed. After three months, the forced silence remains a heartbreaking situation for amateur and professional vocalists alike.

“It’s very, very difficult. Not singing is absolute anathema to our understanding of the liturgy,” said Roderick Bryce, the director of music at St. Joseph’s Basilica. “We basically have to put on hold 150 years of liturgical and theological understanding. The texts find the highest expression by being sung by both priest and people.”

“To take that out is almost is almost like a suppression of one very important element of the theology of Mass … It’s a very, very odd thing. It’s been like cutting off a limb. It’s as important as that,” Bryce said.

“People who are involved in ministry are really feeling it, even if it wasn’t their profession. There’s a huge part of their lives that’s been suppressed just now.”

Roderick Bryce, music director at St. Joseph's Basilica, has been the cantor during Archbishop Smith's livestreamed masses.Courtesy of Roderick Bryce

Bryce himself had been serving as cantor during masses celebrated by Archbishop Richard Smith and livestreamed from the Basilica. Now that masses have resumed with a congregation, there’s no singing allowed at all.

“It was a very strange experience singing in an empty church,” Bryce recalled. “It’s amazing how deafening that silence is when it comes back at you.”

However, with a little ingenuity, organization and computer software, singers and choirs in the Edmonton Archdiocese have refused to be silenced. Music groups are finding a way to keep singing to maintain a sense of community among each other and with their audiences.

One such joint performance was a virtual recording, a collaboration of 17 singers from the Vital Grandin Chaplaincy choir and St. Joseph’s Basilica and St. Andrew’s parishes. The choir sang Omni die dic Mariae (Daily, daily sing to Mary) a Latin hymn so favoured by St. Casimir that he was buried with it. Their recording was uploaded to YouTube June 10.

Elizabeth Grigaitis is the conductor of the Cathedral Cantorii women’s ensemble, which provides music for the ordinary form of Mass at the Basilica, and the Vital Grandin Chaplaincy Choir, which has 20 male and female singers who provide music ministry for the extraordinary Mass, all of which is sung in Latin.

One of her tenors, Carlos Lara, came up with the idea for the virtual recording. “It’s hard, especially since I feel it’s an important part of my vocation to try and bring people to God through the beauty of music,” he said. “It’s a piece of you that you feel that’s what God made you for.”

“You feel the loss, not being able to participate in that way,” Grigaitis added. “The whole purpose of music in the liturgy is to direct the faithful hearts and minds to God and inspire them to prayer, really. Ultimately sacred music should be prayer. It’s sung prayer.”

Elizabeth Grigaitis is the conductor of the Vital Grandin Chaplaincy choir.Courtesy of Elizabeth Grigaitis

Grigaitis chose the piece because the recording took place in May, the month in which the Church honours Mary. It’s also a piece of music that’s familiar to the Vital Grandin Chaplaincy Choir.

Each participant was emailed the piece, as well as videos of Lara and Grigaitis conducting, and singing key parts. They were then asked to record themselves singing the piece, on their phones or computers.

Lara then spent hours in post-production using editing software to put all the recordings together in a single video. He also added reverberations to make it seem as if they were in a chapel. A medical student at the University of Alberta, Lara edited the recording in between studying and taking care of his 18-month-old daughter.

Carlos Lara

“It was a lot of work!” Lara admitted. “The learning curve for some of the software was steeper than I thought it was going to be. But it was worth it in the end.

Online software makes these performances possible. However, because there’s a slight delay, the singers can’t sing together and produce a harmonious performance. That has to be spliced together at the editing stage. Also missing is the sense of community that comes with singing in the same room.

“The biggest loss still with these things is that it’s individual,” Bryce said. “There are a lot of things that happen when you’re singing chorally, and many of these are very subliminal. There’s an incredibly deep sense of community. People are breathing together. There’s enormous synchronicity within the singers in the choir. They’re a real labour of love certainly.”

Grigaitis noted that it’s much more challenging recording as an individual because the singer can’t follow the conductor or see and listen to take cues from the other vocalists.

Nevertheless, participants say the performance is well done, even with slight imperfections.

“It’s tricky to coordinate things as smooth as a performance when you have individual parts that then need to be integrated, because the music wasn’t being made at the same time,” Grigaitis said.

“The few mistakes contributed to the beauty of the piece,” Lara said. “Those extra frequencies of sound, which is maybe not exactly what you intended, generate more interest overall. That beauty really speaks to your heart. I think you can find that in church as long as there are people like us willing to make it, right? I really do hope that it brings people closer to God, because that was the main intention.”

At this point, there are no plans to record another song, although Lara said that may change after the summer depending on how long COVID-19 restrictions stay in place. In the meantime, singers and choirs in the Archdiocese are doing their best to keep their vocal muscles limber.

Grigaitis, who is also a private voice and piano teacher, has been hosting music appreciation and music theory classes online.

And throughout June, Bryce has been hosting weekly rehearsals for the Schola Cantorum, the professional choir at the Basilica. The choir members each stand in a corner of a room, separated by plastic sheeting as a COVID-19 precaution. They rehearse pieces appropriate to each liturgical feast day and time for a future date when singing will be allowed at Mass.

The Schola Cantorum rehearsals have gone online and are opened up to other singers.Courtesy of Roderick Bryce

They’ve also opened it up to Vital Grandin Chaplaincy, St. Andrew’s and other singers online. The singers who join online mute themselves, but they can sing along while hearing all four singers.

“It’s a wonderful way of outreach and retaining community spirit during these weird times,” Bryce said. “The whole point really is to engage people on a weekly basis and not have them just sing on their own.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Bryce said he’s most worried about professional choirs and music groups who face an uncertain future, with concerts and – in some cases – entire seasons cancelled.

Locally, however, singers are doing their best to cope.

“I think in this day and age we’re very, very fortunate that we have such technical capabilities that we can still do these things,” Bryce said. “We can still make beautiful art in such restrictive times. We’re trying not to be silenced too much by it. There’s a great resolve in the music community to let our voices be heard.”

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that while the Alberta government has provided guidelines on singing at worship services, Alberta’s bishops have determined it is too high risk.