COVID, Conference, and Choir

The world is facing extraordinary times.  With the COVID-19 pandemic raging worldwide, everyone is (or soon will be) feeling an impact from it in one way or another.  It will likely leave some lasting changes on our society.  Within the Church, it provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on how we have been doing things and to consider how we can change and possibly improve.  In the age of technology that we live in, there are plenty of opportunities available, such as the has been shown with how the Church is handling general conference.

In the past, pandemics and epidemics have changed how the Church has done things.  Towards the end of WWI, a the most severe pandemic in recent history spread across the world, infecting nearly a quarter of the world’s population, shutting down many countries for a time, and killing somewhere between 17 million to 50 million people between January 1918 and December 1920.  During the ongoing battle with this H1N1 influenza virus, the spring 1919 General Conference was delayed from April until June.  Beyond the impact on the timing of general conference, the Spanish flu influenced a few other events and policies in the Church.  It was that pandemic that spurred the Church to change the Sacramental water from being partaken from a shared cup to using separate cups.[1]  It was also in this era of massive death due to the Great War and the pandemic (as well as the death a few close family members due to accidents or medical conditions) that Joseph F. Smith recorded his vision of the Redemption of the Dead, the most recent written revelation to be included in our scriptural cannon.[2]  The Spanish influenza pandemic provided the stimulus for change and revelation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even while it was a sobering time of death and mourning.

In 2020, as we deal with another viral pandemic, we are provided with another opportunity to ponder on and even experiment with ways in which we can do things as a Church.  One has been demonstrated with how can use broadcasting technology to hold general conference.  In the past, pandemics have caused conference to be delayed (as in 1919) or cancelled altogether (as in the case of the H2N2 influenza pandemic in October 1957).  This time around, we are witnessing conference with pre-recorded music numbers by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and meetings held in a small auditorium with only those speaking or presiding present.  Other temporary changes, such as the closure of normal Church meetings and allowing aspects of church meetings to be practiced in the homes of Church members or the impact on the missionary program may also be noted.  It is unclear how these will impact the Church’s function in the long-term, once this pandemic eases its grasp on the world and we begin to return to a form a normalcy, but the format of general conference this weekend points to at least one possibility.

For as long as I can remember, while the Tabernacle Choir has provided music for the Saturday morning and both Sunday sessions, but local choirs provide the music for the Saturday afternoon and evening sessions of conference.  Being local choirs, however, basically limits the membership of the Saturday afternoon and evening choirs to people from northern and central Utah.  While I appreciate the opportunities that provides to me as a member living in northern Utah, I feel strongly that members of the Church around the world should have access to the same opportunities that I have by virtue of my proximity to Church headquarters.  We live in an increasingly global community of Saints, with membership in Utah being vastly outnumbered by those living in locations all over the world.  The possibility of broadcasting from remote locations or using pre-recorded music for use in general conference opens the door to having choirs formed in other regions of the Church that perform for general conference.  We have seen a version of music numbers being provided using this approach before, with special video presentations used during the General Women’s Meeting in April 2014, and could use it again.  I would love to hear a Ghanaian choir, a Brazilian choir, a German choir, or one from any other number of locations around the world provide the music for a general conference Saturday afternoon session.

Another possibility that would allow for massive participation (even if it requires massive amounts of work) would be a virtual choir.  Popularized by American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, a virtual choir consists of individuals studying and learning their part from the sheet music of a choral piece and recording themselves singing their part while watching a specific video of a conductor leading the piece.  The individual videos are then stitched together into one massive recording of the piece.  The Church has already put together a virtual choir of this variety with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah a few years back.  If we can use pre-recorded videos of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (or Mormon Tabernacle Choir, given that some of the recordings used today were years old), it should theoretically be possible to include music numbers by a virtual choir in the future.

Many possibilities lay ahead of us as we look to the future and endure this time of trial.  Being a choir nut, having recordings or broadcasts of Latter-day Saint choirs from around the world or virtual choir recordings used in general conference sessions in the future stands out to me as one possibility that may be worth pursuing.  I’m sure that many other possibilities come to mind to other people as well.  Given President Russell M. Nelson’s statement that there are special announcements coming this general conference, it seems that Church leaders have their own things that they feel need to develop and change during this time of modernization and development as a Church and global community.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Justin Bray, “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918,” Church History Blog, 14 January 2019. https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/sacrament-cup-influenza-epidemic-1918?lang=eng.

[2] See M. Russell Ballard, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” CR October 2018. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2018/11/sunday-morning-session/the-vision-of-the-redemption-of-the-dead?lang=eng

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