portrait of woman in black holding oboe

Charlyn Bethell, Music Director

It occurred to me that all churches right now must be doing online services. I do not believe that any church would just stop all operations, especially during a pandemic when they are so needed. HOW they do the online services might be quite different. So, I contacted two of my respected colleagues and friends who are UU music directors, one in West Newton and one in Winchester. And, indeed, they do the musical parts of their services quite differently than we do. Each has a singular interpretation of how to do the music for online services. We all three are uncompromising that the quality of music we do must be of the highest quality.

Take hymn singing, for example. At our church, Guy first records the piano part of the hymn and then he sings with it—I add my singing to his recording and we send this to one or two others who also sing with it. These are members of the choir, who are willing to add to the mix. When we get it back, Guy engineers it a bit, adding some reverb, he might correct the balance so the voices are mixed. We use the hymn’s lyrics for the visual, and we send it to Allison for inclusion into the Sunday service. This process takes a few days. We do not do hymns live. This way, we believe that what you hear at home will be familiar, like what you remember hearing when we used to sing hymns together. We hope that you sing along at home and that our preparation helps make that happen.

At one of our neighbors church, the music director leads all the hymns, live during the service. She sings and conducts. She may use a mp3 of a the piano/organ part as background. She likes the music in services to be live. She may delegate this to another of the willing musicians in her congregation. (I know some of them and they are very capable.) Even if she does not lead the hymns, the helpers lead them live. She believes that that congregation prefers to sing with her voice, as they usually do during their services, so she usually leads them.

At the other church, all the music that is presented in the Sunday service presentation is recorded. But different from ours, he uses virtual choir recordings for all the three hymns per service. He does not have any visuals of singers as part of these recordings—they are only audio, but their choir sings all the hymns. He records himself playing piano for other parts of the service. He saves all this work, and has generously offered them to us. He loves the creative possibilities he now has, in doing this. For example, he may create recordings of himself playing some piano-four-hands pieces!

Doing these services is a creative act and it is influenced by the musical background of each music director. I am an oboist and I have extensive training as a music educator, which included choral conducting. Because of my public school experience, I like to engage as many people as possible in our work especially now. Guy is trained as a concert pianist and theory teacher. One of the people I reached out to is himself a fine concert and jazz pianist, composer, and theory teacher, while the other leader is a vocalist and conductor.

They both seem quite facile with the technology for doing online services and one of them is the host of their services—Allison is always our host. I think we are fortunate to have Allison, Lauren, and Guy available, as they can serve as back-ups to each other as needed.

I also think that they know their congregations really well and they work easily with their fellow staff members. We all share a dedication to finding ways to keep our worship transformational by keeping the quality of our work high and finding a variety of musical styles and materials to meet our needs. I remain fascinated by the differences in our three churches.

Remaining questions I have: how do they assist in summer services? Do they have more staff meetings than they used to have? How can we support each other more?

We may share a Zoom meeting soon to deepen our connection, so I will stay tuned. This is just getting better and better!

“See” you in church!

Charlyn Bethell
Music Director | + posts

Charlyn’s professional training has followed two paths: as a professional oboist and as a music teacher and conductor. As Music Director at First Parish, she joins these two paths of her musical life, conducting the choir, coordinating guest musicians, and performing on oboe.