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An insight into virtual evensong

One thing I’ve learnt over the last few months is that so many practices which seemed impossible to do remotely, have found their way through. Chapel choir, which is the highlight of my week in normal term time, is now my lockdown saviour. The dedication and genuine innovation of the choir directors, organ scholars and chaplains across the university is extraordinary, and many colleges have found their own way to share evensong, one of the oldest university traditions.

Trinity College Chapel Choir, where I am a choral scholar, has adapted to a virtual trinity term. Like many other choirs in Oxford, Trinity records, rehearses and curates virtual evensongs which are published every week on the chapel website. I spoke to Trinity College chaplain, Rev Canon Emma Percy and organ scholars Alexander Tucker and Tristan Weymes to discuss the challenges and unexpected delights of stay-at-home choir.

Trinity College chaplain, Revd Canon Emma Percy, said: “At Trinity, as in other colleges, we decided that keeping a regular Sunday evening service through term was an important way of staying connected both to each other and to our college tradition. Trinity chapel has always been focused on our choir and the joy that comes through singing together. Having music from the choir recorded in their homes and blended together, plus readings from other chapel members has been a way of keeping true to the ethos of Trinity Chapel.”

While congregations at church services and evensongs have declined in the recent past, the uptake of virtual services has bucked the trend. On the first Sunday of the UK-wide lockdown, 5 million people tuned into a national virtual service led by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recorded at Lambeth Palace.

At Trinity College, the audience has seen a similar increase. Revd Percy says that “The feedback from some of those who have listened is that they find the services calming, a time to pause and to pray and to hope that we will in time gather again.”

Organ Scholar Alexander Tucker, in his final year at Oxford, has said, “it’s great that our services can be online. It means more people can hear our singing, and they can do so from within their own home. Members of my family have loved listening to the choir every Sunday at 6pm, and they normally wouldn’t have been able to.”

While the services have been made significantly more accessible for everybody, the practical considerations of virtual evensong present significant challenges.

At many colleges, choirs are attempting to rehearse over Zoom. The choir is set the music for the week ahead of time, practices on their own and joins together for virtual rehearsals. The choir then sends in their recordings, which are mixed together to produce the final tracks.

Organ Scholar Tristan Weymes discusses how he puts the weekly service together, and the challenges of virtual rehearsals.

“I only have access to free editing software, so I put the choir members’ MP3 recordings of them singing their own part in, until we get a massed chorus singing the music. With the magic of technology, I re-arrange and fix some timing issues, as well as attempt to recreate a performance ambience and setting – it makes it all seem a little nicer! As I’ve been going through the process, I’ve been learning more about how the software works, and how best to work with things. The biggest challenge is doing it on a weekly basis, with so many choir members contributing to it. But that’s part of the fun, and I love a challenge.”

Many choirs have also been attempting new repertoire during lockdown, with the aid of guide tracks and recordings. While done before – the Helicopter String Quartet envisioned by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen a famous example of remote recording – it presents significant challenges to organ scholars new to music production.

Organ Scholar Tristan Weymes said: “It’s also a different way of approaching new repertoire – and gives us opportunities to do more music that we might not have done before.”

The organ scholars are also responsible for leading rehearsals. Alex Tucker reflects on how he has adapted as a conductor: “It has been so lovely to see everyone and to have a rehearsal, albeit on a screen. In a way it’s slightly easier – you can just look at everyone on the screen, you don’t need to turn around to look at the different sections. There are some difficulties – when we first attempted a rehearsal, the different internet speeds played havoc with the sound, and I kept hearing the same parts at completely different times. We solved this issue by muting everyone except the conductor – so everyone can only hear me. That way no one is put off with the lag.”

“As it’s online and we’re in lockdown, we’ve invited alumni to come back – and it’s been so lovely to see people from my first year as organ scholar! They’ve been very enthusiastic, and for the current members of choir, it’s wonderful that the alumni can share their past memories with the current choir. They’ve said how great it is to sing in a choir again, and it also brings back good memories from Oxford.”

“Overall it’s been a very positive response from everyone. With everything happening it’s been lovely to see people, and we can forget about the troubles for a little bit and be our own special community.”

Oxford chapel choir virtual evensongs (available to all):

Trinity College Virtual Evensong

Merton College Virtual Evensong

University College Online Evensong

Wadham College Virtual Evensong

St Edmund Hall Virtual Evensong

Queen’s College Chapel Virtual Evensong

Lois Heslop

Lois Heslop is the co-founder of The Oxford Blue and was Editor-in-Chief for HT20 and TT20. She is in her second year studying Physics at Lady Margaret Hall, and hails from South London. Her other interests include classical music and opera, and she is currently a choral scholar.