If you’ve ever set foot into your local church or temple on a holy day, whether you frequently practice religion or not, you’ve probably looked around and noticed the peaceful sensation of a crowd of neighbors listening to a choir. The music might be deep and sorrowful, reminiscent of a band of angels, or it might be bright and joyful, accompanied by dozens of clapping hands.
Churches and religious establishments across the Roaring Fork Valley use music in various ways to captivate congregations, and they don’t all agree on what kind of music should accompany a service, but they do all agree that they’ve missed the opportunity to make such music on any given Sunday throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although most religious services across the country have found a way to carry on over Zoom or some other virtual platform, many let their music programs fall to the bottom of the priority list. Locally, some church choirs have been put entirely on hold and have been replaced by smaller musical performances like a solo guitarist or a duet.
“We have chosen to avoid live vocal music because of how dangerous it can be. We looked at a few different ways to rehearse and record and then play the recordings, but because we’re a small group, we have not gone the route of doing that weekly,” said Katie Sansone, choir director at the Carbondale Community United Methodist Church, which put its choir on hold until gatherings become safer. “I haven’t talked to [the pastors] about how that’s affecting the congregation, but I know that I miss it — I miss the people, I miss making music together, I miss going to church.”
At the Aspen Jewish Congregation, a volunteer choir would normally perform on holy days such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Emily Segal said. The choir has not performed since the pandemic began, but Segal has acquired the help of a synagogue band called Shir Bliss to perform with her while she plays guitar.
“The thing we missed was being able to sing together,” Segal said. “In terms of music in our congregation, it’s just important to note how music has been essential since the beginning of Judaism. [People] sang songs in the temple every day from the beginnings of temple. It’s never been anything other than central.”
The role that music plays in religion is also agreeably clear between the valley’s churches. Paul Dankers, music director at the Snowmass Chapel, said that he made a decision several years ago to make great music during Sunday services a priority. On any given Sunday, Snowmass Chapel attendees could hear anything from classical music to pop rock.
“It’s pretty eclectic. You never know on a Sunday morning whether you’re going to get folk or bluegrass or country or pop or classical,” Dankers said. “It fits very well with our diverse congregation. I wouldn’t say that everybody is going to love the music every Sunday, but I would hope that at least once every four Sundays or so you’re going to find something that you absolutely love.”
Glenwood Springs First United Methodist Church Pastor Dave Lillie said that the reason music goes along so well with church is because the sermon engages the mind while the music engages the heart.
“If you can engage both those things at the same time, research has shown people can retain much, much more information,” he said.
Lillie and his wife Carol Lillie are co-pastors at the First United Methodist Churches in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood. One usually conducts Sunday morning services in Basalt and Carbondale while the other does the same thing in Glenwood. Dave said that he was struck by the choir at the first church he and his wife preached at because it was formed by congregants rising out of the pews instead of a separate group sitting at the front of the room.
“I thought, ‘How cool, the choir is formed out of us,’” he said. “The additional part of a choir is the fact that everybody comes much more intentionally, and it allows people to say, ‘I love singing, I have a gift for singing and I can use this gift for serving my spirit and benefiting others.’”
Carol added that the UMC churches showcase a variety of local musicians at their services, and that the valley is extremely rich in very talented people. She said that often when she preaches, the lights don’t go on in some people until they start playing music.
“It strikes a cord in the heart and mind where the spoken word can’t,” she said. “Katie Sansone has a gift for taking very small groups and developing a solid sound, and in ministry that’s what it’s all about — empowering somebody to find their gifts because I truly believe that God plays to your strengths.”
Many of the musicians who perform at one church or another in the valley also perform other local musical events. Sansone, who is the dean of students at the Aspen Music Festival and School, said that she and Dankers often work with each other and the same musicians outside of church.
“In any big city, there are many options for denominations, different kinds of churches, and it’s wonderful and somewhat surprising that there’s a similar representation here in such a small community,” Sansone said. “I think it’s really incredible that a church like the Methodist church in Carbondale has really committed their small church with a small budget to beautiful music on a weekly basis no matter how big or small the congregation is.”
The valley’s churches are also not immune to the trend that is facing churches everywhere — very few millennials or members of Generation X in the pews. Dankers said that most churches have alienated young people and while music can’t fix that, younger people who do go to the Snowmass Chapel say that they appreciate the music and the diversity. Some churches like the New Creation Church in Glenwood Springs and Crossroads in Aspen have also tried to play styles of music that younger people would enjoy more, like Christian rock.
Dave Lillie agreed that younger people have been cast off from the church since the 1960s and that they have little interest in traditional church music. He said that church is a reflection of culture, and while American culture has changed so much in recent decades, churches have tried not to.
“There needs to be another type of music that connects with the heart,” he said. “What connects with your heart isn’t necessarily what connected with people’s hearts in the ’50s and ’60s. You have no idea what your grandkids’ life is like. You think you do but you really don’t. I agree completely that younger people who feel that emotional content is curated through music and a certain kind of music, if they do not find that readily available in a church setting, they’re just not interested in being there.”
Sansone and Segal both said that the thing that kept them coming back to church and synagogue since childhood was the music and the opportunity to sing in the choir. Sansone said that singing in choirs at multiple churches helped her connect to her own spirituality and beliefs as well as the community. High school students who, like her, enjoy singing in choirs at school and want to find a similar opportunity elsewhere often end up in her choir at the Carbondale UMC.
“What I really love is when you have a multigenerational ensemble,” Sansone said. “You have someone who’s 16 and someone who’s 60 and they create a bond and a relationship and they sit next to each other, and there might be a little bit of church stuff that seeps in through all of that. What I love about the Methodist church is it’s about giving back to your community and church is a good way to do that.”
Young people aren’t the only ones losing interest in traditional church services. Sansone said that being a part of the choir is a way to be more involved in the church community and encourage others to become involved.
“I’ve noticed as a choir director that the most committed people to the congregation are the people who are also in the choir,” she said. “If you have a choir that is really confident and sings out then more people will sing out. When you don’t have that base, people are usually quiet and reserved and won’t sing out on their own.”
Sansone and Dankers agreed that participating in the choir is a way to serve the community as much as yourself. Dankers added that anyone who wants to should be able to be a part of the choir, and that the choir should be more of a blend of talents and voices, whereas the Chapel has put so much effort into bringing high quality soloists into its Sunday services throughout the pandemic.
“My philosophy of choir is very different from my philosophy of special music,” he said. “Choir is the chance for everybody to sing together, and you don’t have to have a good voice to sing in a choir, so I do not audition my choir, anybody can sing in my choir. That’s the chance if you want to sing and you want to sing in front of people, join the choir.”
The Snowmass Chapel holds services every Sunday online and in person at 9 a.m. More information can be found at snowmasschapel.org.
Shabbat services at the Aspen Jewish Congregation are live streamed every Friday at 6 p.m. Visit aspenjewish.org for more information.