USM students help local church choir during COVID-19 pandemic

USM students help local church choir during COVID-19 pandemic
In an effort to keep songs going during service on Sunday, the church looked to the voices of four of its student members: Danielle Watson, Matthew Aiken, O’Neil Jones and Hanif Lawrence. (Source: University of Southern Mississippi)

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - A group of students from the University of Southern Mississippi is helping a local church continue its tradition of singing songs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many senior adults in church choirs around the country stopped their participation as the pandemic started to become serious - such was the case with Trinity Episcopal Church’s choir.

In an effort to keep songs going during service on Sunday, the church looked to the voices of four of its student members: Danielle Watson, Matthew Aiken, O’Neil Jones and Hanif Lawrence.

The choristers have earned the approval of the church’s congregation, staff and Dr. Susan Hrostowski, a professor of social work at USM.

Even though the students serve as part of what is similar to a paid internship with the choir, Hrostowski says they’ve become more than just interns.

“They earn a stipend and gain valuable experience through their participation, so that’s a win-win, but now they’re playing such an important role for us as we meet the challenges of the pandemic,” Hrostowski said.

Trinity Episcopal has embraced online delivery of its service to slow the spread of the virus, like many churches across the nation, as well as have a limit for in-person attendance.

Having the students continue to provide music in their roles with the choir has made it easy for those who aren’t able to attend in-person.

“When some members of our congregation can’t be in church and are watching online, the feeling you have of being there in person, the holiness that the physical church environment exudes, is lost,” Dr. Hrostowski said. “But because their (student choristers) voices are so beautiful, it helps with the fact that we’re working within the restrictions of the current situation. And they are more like family now than student interns. Our congregation has been so welcoming of them.”

Organist and Trinity Episcopal music director Jane Butler talked about how well the students are with the music.

“Musically, they are incredible,” said Butler. “We do pretty difficult music, plus it’s been hard having to wear masks,” Butler continued. “But they are so talented – their sound, their blend, is excellent.”

Trinity Episcopal administrator Kristin McNair also spoke highly of the students’ efforts.

“Our members have always highly valued beautiful music here at Trinity Episcopal, and these students have really delivered that for us during the pandemic,” McNair said. “And I love good harmony, and they’ve definitely got that,” Dr. Hrostowski added.

Danielle Watson was recommended by Dr. Byron Johnson, a former voice teacher, who was a past choral scholar at Trinity Episcopal and USM.

Watson, a Jamaica native who is pursuing a doctor of musical arts degree, said Johnson emailed Butler about her taking her in as a student singer, and in the choir, Watson sings soprano and is sometimes a featured cantor or soloist.

“I see this experience at Trinity as another form of music training and practice, specifically in areas such as developing aural skills in sight-singing and mastering the skill of singing another genre of music,” Watson said. “It has also helped to maintain a connection to my spirituality in Christ. It’s also a privilege to serve the community with good music and to lift spirits, especially during these challenging times. I hope amongst those watching or hearing us, near or far, that at least one heart is filled with joy and blessings.”

Matthew Aiken, a Jackson, Miss. native and graduate biological science student, first became connected to Trinity as a member of the USM Canterbury Club, whose members attend services and participate in church activities. He was later encouraged to join its choir.

“When I built up the courage, I started going to rehearsals, and was received very warmly,” Aiken said. “I’m usually a tenor, but since there are only four of us at the moment, I’ve taken on the role of alto.”

As shutdowns increased throughout the country at the rise of the pandemic, Aiken knew the choir would be affected, but he is hopeful things will return to normal.

“Serving the congregation now feels more important and rewarding than ever,” Aiken said. “There is a lot of fear, stress, and general negative emotion and energy in everyone’s minds and hearts during this terrible pandemic. I hope our members get moments of meditation, calm, and joy from the music we sing to them. There will be a day when we are all singing together again, and I can’t wait to reunite with the rest of the choir family.”

O’Neil Jones, who is also from Jamacia and music major, was connected with Butler and Trinity from a recommendation from Johnson, who was also his former professor.

Jones speaks about the importance of music during the worship service.

“It means a great deal to be able to enhance the services through the giving of ourselves through our God-given talents,” said Jones.

Jones also comments on how Trinity has treated him so far.

“We are very blessed to know and worship with these amazing people who, through their time, love and generosity, have welcomed us so warmly,” Jones said.

Hanif Lawrence, another Jamaica native who is pursuing a Master of Music degree, joined the choir when isolation orders were in effect.

The USM choral program lets Lawrence practice many skills, including sight-singing and vocal technique.

“...but since our [choir] repertoire is drawn from across the breadth of the western church music library, that exposes me to standard and unfamiliar works from many composers,” said Lawrence. “As a conductor, this will benefit me in my professional life.”

Lawrence hopes that his and the quartet’s service to the church during the pandemic leaves a legacy that includes “a consistently high standard of worship music that kept the congregation engaged and spiritually connected.”

“I hope everyone who worships with us feels the music helps create a mood of reverence within which they can truly worship,” Lawrence said.

Trinity Episcopal member Stacey Calloway Ready shared her thoughts about the quartet.

“We’re thrilled to have them devote their time and talent, especially in such an unusual time and trying situation,” Ready said. “What they’re doing adds so much to our service each Sunday. Their voices are incredibly uplifting.”

Butler said there are no “prima donnas” in the quartet.

“I just love this group, and they love each other. They’re all such good friends,” Butler said. “There’s no competition between them. And as Rev. Hrostowski said, they are like our children - it’s a real family.”

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