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Pandemic Pods

by Gary Penkala

Saint James Nave and Choir Loft Without a doubt, the COVID virus situation produced the most unusual Holy Week (2020) of our lives. Churches were closed, singing was prohibited in some places, and many of the Holy Week liturgies proceded with empty churches, save the clergy, a reader, a singer and an organist. Not what we liturgical musicians would call ideal by any stretch of the imagination.

Six months later, much has changed. We do have congregations back in church, although they're widely spaced and wearing masks. In the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, we are perhaps more fortunate than many. Ever since churches were open for Mass (May 24, in our case), congregational singing has been allowed. The newest protocols, issued Fall 2020, also allowed for small ensembles (about 4 singers), appropriately spaced. Here's how we've handled liturgical music at Saint James Church in Charles Town WV.

Ever since Easter Sunday, organ music has become more abundant. We have two formats for Masses on the weekend.

  1. Most Masses have a single cantor (singing totally from the choir loft), who sings the Gloria with the people (usually an alternating chant setting), the Responsorial Psalm, the Gospel Acclamation, and leads the congregation in a familiar Mass setting [Sanctus, Mystery of Faith, Amen, Agnus Dei]. The congregation sings from memory, since no Liturgy Sheets are prepared for these Masses. No hymns are sung, since all printed materials were removed from the pews.

    The organ handles Prelude, Entrance Processional, Offertory, Communion and Recessional music. Communion time was very long, due to very limited distribution stations and intermittant hand sanitizing. Rather than use all organ music (often up to 15 minutes), we began allowing the cantor to sing a vocal piece or hymn at the beginning of Communion. Lately, we've been singing a Communion Psalm, which uses a refrain that is familiar to the congregation and verses sung to a psalm tone formula.
  2. For the principal Mass on Sunday morning, we do prepare a disposable Liturgy Sheet each week. Because of this, the congregation can now sing Entrance music — this alternates between an Introit Hymn and an Introit Psalm (using the text from the Roman Missal and verses sung by the cantor to a psalm tone formula). We also include a public domain Offertory Hymn, along with all the music from the other Mass format noted above.

    The organ plays only a Prelude, a piece near the end of Communion and a Recessional at this Mass. Because the protocols advise against "choirs," we have been scheduling "pods," small ensembles, that sing at this prinicpal Sunday Mass.

South Organ Facade Our well-attended Wednesday evening Mass follows a pattern similar to the prinicpal Sunday Mass, although there are Liturgy Sheets only for feasts and solemnities.

The large seating capacity at Saint James Church has allowed us a little vocal "leeway." The Choir Loft previously could seat 40+ singers and the same number in a very tall-ceilinged Choir Room. We've removed all the chairs in each place, save 6. We can accommodate 4-6 widely-spaced singers for a 30-minute "warm-up" [we're not allowed rehearsals] prior to the Wednesday evening and Sunday 11:00 Masses.

The pods are assembled from all the choirs [except the youngest K-gr.2]. Most are made of four singers, but if there are weaker singers in an SATB group, I may double one or two of the parts, leading to a group of 6.

These pods sing only music they know well [Palestrina's "Sicut cervus," Tye's "Laudate nomen Domini," Byrd's "Non nobis Domine," Schubert's "Ave Maria."] at the beginning of Communion time. No attempt is made to introduce new music or to manufacture practice audio or video materials.

On Mondays, I send PDFs of the music to the Wednesday and Sunday pods. I put together folders for them, which they put on music stands at their positions in the loft — they feel like British choir boys who enjoy their own stands in the cathedrals!

This is obviously not an ideal situation, but the choristers get to sing 2-3 times in the Fall (loving the challenge of singing SATB music one on a part) and the congregation gets to hear some of their favorite choral music. We anticipate continuing this procedure at least through Advent and Christmas 2020. We're all praying for the day we we can again meet for choir rehearsals — to fully sing together once more and to explore some new repertoire.

Article written 15 October 2020

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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