Leisha Smith (at piano) and Holly Cerveny led a virtual choir that produced 59 songs during the pandemic. (Submitted photo)

When the music stopped at parishes across the archdiocese last year, some creative choir directors found ways to work around the pandemic lockdowns.

For more than a year, voices came together in song each week to celebrate and sing the praises of God at St. Joan of Arc and St. Catherine of Alexandria Parishes — through a virtual choir.

Since the pandemic began, the ensemble recorded and published 59 songs, including a Virtual Choir Christmas Concert, played during all Christmas Masses. Members of the choir joined a Zoom call and practiced their parts without hearing each other. Each member recorded their part or instrument, submitted it, and the parts were edited to create a song.

According to Holly Cerveny, principal of St. Joan of Arc Parish School, it took a bit of finagling with choir director Leisha Smith to make it work.

“We practiced while muted on a Zoom call; the piano part was sent out via email to all so they could make sure they were singing to the correct tempo. Sometimes, we had Leisha’s daughter sing along on the piano recording so people could sync to her, and this helped,” she said. “When she didn’t, I used the editing software to adjust how long people held notes and to line up words as needed.”

While Cerveny said she thought of the idea on Holy Saturday morning in 2020 to have the choir record the song “Alleluia! Give the Glory” for Easter Sunday, singing together wouldn’t happen for another week.

“Leisha brought me down to reality, and we tested out whether we could do this or not about a week later,” she explained. “For me, we were all locked in at home, the world was scared and we could not come together. Though I was running a school and teaching a couple of middle school classes during the shutdowns, I wanted to find a way to give something back to the music ministers and our parishioners. I was away, but I could do something to bring light when everything seemed dark.”

Smith agreed, adding that it was a therapeutic way the choir could be together for an hour a week when everyone was shut in. That first song was attached to the Mass recording, and the parishioners were surprised and happy to see and hear the choir.

“People have responded all over the United States how much they enjoyed listening to the choir when they couldn’t be in church or could be in church, but choir could not exist.

“Parishioners especially missed the choir at Christmas, and we piped the choir recording in for all at church to hear before Mass started. They heard all our favorite Christmas pieces. It was like the choir was there even though we couldn’t be,” she said. “Fr. Mike (Strachota) thought this virtual choir was a great thing, and he couldn’t wait to hear what we would sing for the next week. I would often send him the preliminary recording late at night so he could share in our excitement. That’s when we would do our best work.”

While the result seemed to be effortless, Smith said the most challenging aspect of the virtual choir was holding practice when she was unable to hear the singers.

“I relied on them to tell me where they needed parts plunked. We would talk through the song as far as dynamics, interpretations, who was singing what, etc.,” she said. “I had to anticipate where they would need the most help. Although this was challenging in the beginning, it got better in the end. It was a challenge to find pieces that most of the choir knew and ones that we could pull off successfully in this environment. Eventually, we started learning new songs that we hadn’t done before.”

It would have been easy to omit the music ministry, but Cerveny felt as if singing the song “Alleluia! Give the Glory” would bring hope to their members and help them to remember life was a gift even during the difficult time, and to remember to give glory to God.

“We didn’t end up doing that song, but rather, ‘Mighty to Save’ as our first song,” she said. “We did end our run of Virtual Choir with the song that inspired the idea, though. I was so excited to work on that one.”

Smith said she is the type of person who finds a way to accomplish a task despite the odds being against it. When Cerveny had the idea to sing virtually, she was willing to try if the choir members agreed.

“Holly was willing to edit; I was willing and able. I soon discovered that it was a need for our choir members to stay connected and continue music. I was inspired by how persistent some of our older choir members were in learning the technology when they could have just given up choir during this time,” Smith said. “I received numerous calls about connecting to Zoom, how to record or where to send their recording, etc. They did not give up. It gave them purpose during this time.”

The choir members grew closer during the weeks of working together to produce music through their Virtual Choir. The weekly Zoom choir practices were challenging for all, as each member had to mute their voices while singing along to the piano, but they persevered for the greater good.

“They could only hear the sound from the piano due to internet lag. It was really something the first couple of times and was incredibly challenging for many,” said Cerveny. “But on top of this giving us the opportunity to discuss the music and practice our parts, even if it was only our voice to the piano that we could hear, having that opportunity to see one another ‘face-to-face’ was such a gift, as we could feel a human connection while we were separate.”

Smith said she ended each practice with the phrase, “you guys sound great,” despite not being able to hear anyone sing.

To listen to the Virtual Choir of St. Joan of Arc and St. Catherine of Alexandria, visit https://youtube.com/channel/UC-q4RsCkRsgMQaBW0LNAO0g.