Duke University Chapel Choir Finds Musical Harmony Online

Choir members keep community and artistic expression going amid pandemic

The Duke University Chapel Choir perform God's Got the Whole World for a recent service. Photo courtesy of Duke University Chapel Choir.
The Duke University Chapel Choir perform God's Got the Whole World for a recent service. Photo courtesy of Duke University Chapel Choir.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Fides Schwartz and 40 other members of the Duke University Chapel Choir rehearsed the anthem “Easter Dawn” over video for an upcoming performance.

As she sang in her living room, Fides imagined the soaring gothic arches of Duke University Chapel and dozens of voices around her harmonizing. 

“It’s nothing like singing in the beautiful Duke Chapel, but there’s a lot of joy in finding a way to perform together,” said Schwartz, a research fellow for Duke Radiology.

The Duke Chapel Choir has kept the beat going since their last in-person rehearsal on March 4, 2020. Since then, the choir has met weekly over video for rehearsal, releasing performances for Duke Chapel services and other events of songs by composers such as Johannes Brahms, Rosephanye Powell and Williametta Spencer. 

The choir’s next online concert, Faith and Love and Hope Abide, is April 11 and will feature songs of love and hope.

Director of Chapel Music Zebulon Highben said the weekly rehearsals are a source of comfort and community bonding for the nearly 100 members of the choir, including the 10 Duke staff and faculty who participate.   

Fides Schwartz, bottom left, performs virtually with fellow Duke University Chapel Choir members. Photo courtesy of Duke University Chapel Choir.“We didn’t have a musical objective when we started rehearsing during the pandemic,” Highben said. “We were holding a place in our lives to do what we love. It is about community, artistic achievement and keeping a tradition going.”

For Duke Chapel services, which have been held online, the choir records about one performance every two weeks. To do so, each member individually records a video or audio clip of themselves singing. A local recording company, The Workshop, then edits the recordings together into a unified performance for the Chapel’s Sunday service or other concerts.

Seongwoo Hong, database analyst for the Duke Office of Biomedical Graduate Education, rehearses and records songs on an iPhone in his apartment’s living room. 

Seongwoo Hong, with the Duke Office of Biomedical Graduate Education, is a member of the Duke University Chapel Choir. Photo courtesy of Seongwoo Hong.“It’s been an adjustment,” he said. “We can’t harmonize together to match pitch. Music has always been a part of my life. I’m so happy the choir has found a way to keep going. It’s been an outlet for me through the pandemic.”

Highben has incorporated interactive elements into the virtual rehearsal to keep choir members engaged. He leads history lessons on hymns, and choir members share devotionals. He reserves time for small talk at the start of each session.

“For some members, performing is the way they decompress. For others, it’s about getting together with a great group of people once a week,” Highben said. “Our choir is only strong because the people care about one another.”  

Karen Steinhauser, professor in Duke Population Health Sciences, leans on friendships with other choir members to maintain well-being without in-person visits during the pandemic. Steinhauser, who has been with the choir for 25 years, meets virtually with others in the choir about once a month to chat about books, family updates, challenges and strategies of pandemic living and hopes for future music-making together.

“The choir has been such an enriching experience for me, and that has continued through the pandemic,” she said. “The music and my fellow members engage my heart, body and soul.” 

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