virtual choir by the Forward

This year’s High Holiday challenge? Building a virtual choir

Image by Ellie Flier

Weary though we may be of screens, that’s where most of us will find ourselves this holiday season. If Pesach was an out-of-town preview, the High Holiday season is opening night on Broadway. Congregants, especially in Reform and some Conservative communities, have come to expect a certain level of performance when it comes to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But since singing and large gatherings during COVID-19 have been labeled high-risk activities, how are choir-dependent congregations managing? ,

“Creating virtual choirs is a complicated process,” said Josh Goldberg, the founder of Kosher Style Records.

“Complicated” may be an understatement. The Forward reached out to 40 clergy members across the country on a private Facebook group to ask how their congregations are digitally retooling their important musical moments. The majority said that, whether streaming live from their homes or socially distanced in their sanctuaries, they planned to incorporate “virtual choirs” into their services. The challenge, most said, was combing technical and musical excellence with the immediacy and majesty congregants expect — or yearn for.

The generic version of such choirs on social media is now a familiar quarantine sight: an arrangement of singers in little boxes, Brady Bunch-style. Though the final product may look effortless, it demands an extraordinary amount of work.

“I create tracks in my studio,” sasid Goldberg, “send out the music to the singers with instructions on how to record each of their parts on their phones, they send the files, and I mix it all together, working with a video editor to visually sync on those little boxes that you see on one screen.”

In the early days of quarantine, temples took note of several high-profile music videos the company had produced combining multiple singers, entirely remotely. Word got around, and synagogues approached him to take on larger projects individually tailored to their High Holiday services. Some involved just a quartet of voices, others as many as 100.

One large congregation that has gone all out for technology is Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, California. Cantor Lizzie Weiss and senior rabbi Jonathan Aaron worked with Goldberg to replicate as closely as possible an in-the sanctuary experience. The hard work was well worth it in the end, she said.

“Only the rabbi and I will stream live from our sanctuary,” she said. The temple’s many virtual choir pieces will include five intergenerational groups and three contemporary-style music videos featuring clergy and guest artists. In addition to these musical moments, the ark opening and candle lighting have been recorded. “Our goal was to include as much community as possible on our screen,” Weiss said. “We know that people are more invested when they feel like they are part of the service.”

Hannah Madeleine Goodman, a New York-based cantorial soloist who travels annually to be with congregation Shma Koleinu in Houston, this year will instead be singing live and accompanying herself on the piano from her Manhattan apartment. In addition, she turned her own voice into a one-woman choir, singing all the harmonies herself. Goodman likes the addition of virtual choir moments to her service.

“While at first pre-recording our full-band music was simply a necessity due to safety and the logistics of syncing so many performers, it turned out that there have been delightful discoveries along the way,” she said. “I’ve been able to lean into the unique medium and create a rich musical experience that wouldn’t have been possible live.”

There is even a solution for synagogues not equipped to handle the technical and logistical requirements of the virtual choir. In Los Angeles, composer and performer Craig Taubman launched 40holydays.org an online “toolbox” of recorded performances, liturgy, meditation and services that any congregation can license for free.

“We want to level the playing field between the shuls that have the resources to produce high-quality video and the ones that don’t,” said Taubman.

Ellie Flier is a singer/songwriter and cantorial soloist, currently touring virtually from Nashville. Learn more about her at www.ellieflier.com.

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