By Kirk Petersen
Social distancing made for a less festive Easter than usual this year, but the Episcopal Church managed to bring hundreds of far-flung singers and musicians together virtually for a joyous hymn.
As part of the National Cathedral’s live-streamed Easter Day worship, the Office of Communications debuted a video that blended together individual performances by more than 600 people into a seamless rendition of “The Strife Is O’er.”
More than 55,000 people viewed the service on the live stream, and more than half a million people have seen the video since then, either on the National Cathedral site or on the Church Center’s social media platforms. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to episcopalchurch.org/virtual-choir right now and watch. Then come back for the story of how the video was made.
Six key people on the project team sat down with TLC later in April for an hour-long Zoom meeting to describe the effort.
The project started with a daunting deadline.
On March 15, Natalee Hill went to Facebook to watch the live-streamed Sunday service for the National Cathedral, which she had enjoyed in the past. But this time she found it deflating. The Diocese of Washington had just become one of the first dioceses to suspend in-person worship in all its churches, and the live stream featured a skeleton altar party and four singers.
“I just knew in my gut we were not going to look any different from that for Easter,” said Hill, who runs communications for the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia. “What are we going to do? Easter can’t look this sparse.”
She remembered seeing videos of virtual choir performances, a technique pioneered a decade ago by composer Eric Whitacre. Hill thought it would be a great way to bring together choir members from throughout the Episcopal Church.
From the Episcopal Communicators organization she knew Jeremy Tackett, head of creative services for the Church. On March 16, just under four weeks until Easter, “I sent a message to Jeremy and I said, hey, I have this crazy idea, and the only people I can think of to make this happen are your team, whaddaya think?”
“One of the things I love about this team,” Tackett said, “is that we specialize in doing the crazy and impossible on very quick turnaround times.” He conferred with Mike Collins, manager of multimedia services, and they sprang into action.
They had worked on other projects with Kory Caudill, a producer with a recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee. “I texted him and said, hey, I’ve got another project that can’t be done, when do you want to start?” Tackett said. “We had no idea then, what it took to do.”
As they blocked out the timing for the project, they realized “we’re going to have about four or five days to get submissions,” Tackett said. “If we push really hard, maybe we can get 100 people to do this.”
There was a lot of work to do before they could even ask for submissions. The first task was to pick a hymn, and to research that, they turned to another collaborator, Erik Meyer, minister of music at St. John’s in Salem, New Jersey.
“The best thing to do would be to be as inclusive as possible, so we took a fairly traditional hymn out of the hymnal 1982,” Meyer said, “knowing that a majority of Episcopal congregations have sung it.” They chose “The Strife is O’er,” a hymn in the public domain that has roots in the 16th century.
Meyer used Sibelius, a leading musical notation program, to create “a giant score for every common instrument,” as well as separate sheet music to support a six-part harmony – soprano 1 and 2, alto, tenor, and bass 1 and 2, as well as for singers who wanted to stick with the melody.
Each instrument and singing part had its own “click track,” an instrumental recording of the part for each musician and singer playing softly in the background, while the clicks kept a One-two-three pattern at 144 beats per minute. Performers were instructed to listen via earphone while they played or sang, to keep everyone on the same cadence.
When they were ready to solicit people to participate, there was no time to make a formal news release, so “we just used a series of tweets and Facebook posts on the Episcopal Communicators page,” Tackett said. The first post was shared 600 times, which hinted at the roller coaster to come.
“I just want to give a shoutout to the Episcopal Communicators,” said Hill, who is on the organization’s board of directors. “They respond fast, and they can get the information right to their people,” to their music directors and clergy. (Disclosure: the author is a member of Episcopal Communicators.)
Meanwhile, Collins was setting up to manage the workflow, not yet realizing that there ultimately would be 777 video files to manage. (Some of the 600-plus participants submitted multiple videos, singing more than one part or playing more than one instrument.)
Rather than create a database to manage the files, he created a project in Wistia, a video-hosting platform, and devised a standard naming convention, with all files to be named Your_Name_Your_Part. There was a separate Wistia “receptacle” for each voice part and instrument, so performers could drag and drop their files.
Then the files went to separate team leaders for video and audio, and the real grunt work began, with “these guys touching every single file,” Tackett said.
“Even though I’ve been editing for 32 years now professionally, I’ve never attempted anything like this before,” said Tom Verga, a video freelancer who works with the Episcopal Church and other clients. “I knew it was possible,” he said, but he had to figure out how.
The files were all submitted in the standard 16:9 aspect ratio (16 units wide by 9 units tall). Working with two freelancers, he started by cropping each file to 1:1, making them square.
He then used Adobe Premiere, a powerful video-editing program, to line up all the videos at a common starting point, using the click track as a guide. “A lot of people thought I used AfterEffects, but there was no time,” he said, naming an even more sophisticated post-production platform.
Meanwhile in Nashville, Caudill was wrangling the audio files using Pro Tools, a digital audio workstation. He worked with two colleagues, and “we were absolutely floored with every single performance, it blew my mind that these were from folks who were not professional musicians,” he said.
While the performances were great, there were some issues with sound quality, as most of the videos had been made on laptops or smartphones. “I would look for any ambient noise, page turns, coughs during rests – those kind of things – and I would get rid of those,” he said.
He and his team processed the recordings one by one, starting with the sopranos, again using the click track to line them up at a common starting point. There were about 100 sopranos, and “when I hit unmute on all of them, it was one of the coolest moments of my career,” Caudill said. “Something happened when they were all going together that would just make the hair stand up on your arms.”
TLC asked each member of the team to estimate how many hours they had spent on the project. The responses added up to nearly 300 person-hours. Verga alone accounted for about 120 of those hours, wrangling video files for 12 straight 10-hour days.
That of course doesn’t include the time spent by more than 600 volunteers who made their individual recordings. Tackett said submissions came not just from the United States, but from Europe, Asia, South Africa and South America. “It’s a very intimate thing to share” a recording that will be put under a microscope, Caudill said. “The fact that so many people had the courage to do that, and took the time to do that, was just incredible, knowing that a stranger was going to be listening to their audio.”
Tackett said the project cost about $12,000 to produce, including staff time. “We want to measure what the cost is related to the impact, and by that measure this was certainly one of the cheapest projects that we’ve ever done,” he said. He wasn’t ready to reveal details, but for an encore, the team plans to produce something for Pentecost, which is May 31 this year.
The video has touched off conversations in a variety of clergy and church music circles, with people wondering if they can do “a Zoom performance” for their own choir. The video visually resembles an intricate Zoom meeting, but Zoom is for real-time meetings, and had nothing to do with the project. Differences in latency and network speed make it impossible for even a small handful of people to sing together over Zoom.
Despite all the technical expertise and expensive equipment and software behind this project, Tackett said it would be possible to do something on a much smaller scale with a Mac computer running the GarageBand app.
“We had to figure out how to do this, too,” Collins said. “Somebody else can figure out how to do it in a setting and scale that works for them.” Virtual worship “is a new ballgame for everybody.”
Tackett said people may not be able to reproduce the same quality production, “but you can certainly do it in the same spirit.” As the five other team members nodded, he said “if you’re gathering people together, and they’re connecting in some way around something that’s common in a time when we’re all apart, then you’ve already done the part that we care more about than any of the technical stuff.”