Who’d have thought it possible to perform in a church choir while sitting alone at home? Or that another member could be lifting her voice from 700 miles away?

Unlikely as that sounds, it’s the kind of thing we choristers from Emmanuel Episcopal Church have been doing for the better part of a year now. This remarkable transition has been necessitated by the COVID pandemic, made possible by the timely advent of some amazing technologies — and pulled off locally by the diligence and dedication of our talented director, Dr. Homer Ferguson.

It’s called Virtual Choir.

“The actual genre was started in 2010 by a Nevada composer named Eric Whitacre,” Homer said in a recent interview. “Back in 2009, this girl, Britlin Losee, put a YouTube recording of herself singing the soprano part to his choral work ‘Sleep.’ He saw it and thought, ‘That’s really interesting.’ He invited others to sing along to a recording and submit their videos.

“So that’s when the first Virtual Choir video, ‘Lux Aurumque,’ ever came out. It went on YouTube and had a million hits within the first two months — all these singers from around the globe performing together.”

At first, the Virtual Choir was just a fun and interesting gimmick. And then came this disastrous pandemic, with churches everywhere shutting their doors and choristers scattering into lonely isolation.

“As soon as things shut down, you started seeing these choir videos appear,” Homer said. “For most of us, the learning curve was pretty steep. The music part of it was great, but the technology part was particularly challenging. I started asking around to choir friends in other places, ‘How does this work?’ And, frankly, the initial work was just daunting.”

Initial reports were that it was going to take a director 40 hours to do a three-minute hymn. Homer, mostly working out of his home in Pinewild, now has that down to 15 or 20 hours.

For each number to be performed, we choir members first receive an organ track to sing to — which Homer has recorded, edited and uploaded to YouTube. We also receive rehearsal recordings for each of the four individual parts, along with scanned copies of the sheet music.

Then comes the hard part — excruciating, actually. We members, each in total isolation, have to sing our individual parts into microphones while listening to the accompaniment over earphones and making video recordings of ourselves. Trust me. It’s not easy. In too many cases, I fear, I have found excuses to avoid participation.

Here’s the problem: It’s one thing for an aging, amateurish singer like yours truly to stand in a choir loft while managing to blend his bass voice into those of all the other basses, tenors, altos and sopranos gathered closely on all sides. It is an entirely different experience to be wailing away while all alone, so painfully aware of just how shaky and squeaky and flat you’re sounding.

But that’s where Homer comes in, spending all those hours creating order out of chaos.

“I’m usually working with 20 or 25 videos,” he said. “I take all those and layer them on top of each other, aligning all the audio and video parts so we’re synchronizing together. Of course, since we’re all singing alone, there is some room for error, and we work to edit that out. But for the most part, it has worked quite well.

“Our strength is in our numbers. Our individual voices might seem weak and feeble, and that’s been a psychological factor for all my singers. ‘My God! Is that how I really sound?’ People get very self-conscious. Individually, maybe we’re not superstars. But together, we create a beautiful sound.”

Indeed, once you get to watch all those faces arranged in Zoom-like rows on your computer screen and hear all those high and low voices blending together so surprisingly well, the whole thing seems almost miraculous. Can that really be us? (Anyone wishing to see and hear some of those Emmanuel Choir videos can do so by typing “Dr. Homer A. Ferguson III” into the YouTube search bar.)

My fellow choir members shared some strongly mixed feelings about this intense experience.

“Your readers have to understand that we wear headphones to hear the organ accompaniment without the sound being added to the iPhone recordings of our voices,” said fellow bass Peter Helgesen. “Therein lies the ego-killer for many of us as we listen to our own individual recordings and say, ‘OMG! I’m sharp, I’m flat, and I squeak and croak!’

“That’s the miracle of the software. Blended together, our errors and our foibles disappear. As I watch and listen to our most recent choir performances, I could not be prouder of our members. And no one deserves more kudos than our leader for acquiring the software, mastering it, and coaxing us members with our own learning curves.”

Sarah Rieth, the aforementioned alto who now lives in faraway New York state, finds that her participation does a lot to reduce that sense of distance.

“It’s meant the world to me to be able to sing with the choir and be part of the holy fellowship that this choir provides,” she said. “Homer has been generous in his direction, and he is supportive and affirming of us as we all worry about how our voices are degraded and how challenging we sometimes find it to record our own parts alone.”

Then there was this from my versatile friend Bob Howell, who sings both bass and tenor:

“Since I don’t have a voice made for solo performance, I depend on blending in with the rest of the choir in order to make anything like ‘a joyful noise.’ So recording just my one part for each hymn or anthem, and listening to the playback, is a particular challenge. But the satisfaction of watching and hearing what Homer compiles is truly rewarding — and it gives me a taste of what it will be like when we can all sing together again in the choir loft.”

But I guess my favorite comment came from another dear friend, alto Carolyn Hatcher, wife of John.

“I think the most nerve-wracking thing to happen while recording your very best effort after many retakes is for the phone to ring or the dog to bark at a squirrel he just saw out the window,” she said. “There’s also the interruption of a family member who doesn’t remember you are recording and comes to ask a question.

“I now unplug the phone and put the dog and husband away.”

Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at bouser@email.unc.edu.

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