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USM Student Choristers Are Music to Ears of Hattiesburg Church’s Congregation During Pandemic

Tue, 01/19/2021 - 13:49pm | By: David Tisdale

 USM Student Choristers sing at Trinity Episcopal ChurchA longtime tradition of beautiful, sacred music continues filling Hattiesburg’s historic Trinity Episcopal Church each Sunday with the help of a group of devoted University of Southern Mississippi (USM) students.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began posing a health crisis almost a year ago, many senior adults in church choirs across the country suspended their participation—such was the case with Trinity Episcopal’s choir. So, to keep lifting songs of praise each Sunday, the church turned to the voices of four of its student members, including Danielle Watson, Matthew Aiken, O’Neil Jones and Hanif Lawrence.

The choristers have earned the praise of the church’s congregation, staff and interim rector Dr. Susan Hrostowski, who is also a professor of social work at USM. Though they serve as part of what is similar to a paid internship with the choir, they’ve become more than just interns, Dr. Hrostowski said.

“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,” she said.

Like many churches, Trinity Episcopal has employed online delivery of its services to curb the spread of the virus, as well as with limited in-person attendance rules. Having the students continue providing music in their roles with the choir is a comfort for those unable 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.”

Jane Butler, organist and music director for Trinity Episcopal, said “musically, they are incredible.”

“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.”

Kristin McNair, administrator for Trinity Episcopal, concurred. “Our members have always highly valued beautiful music here at Trinity Episcopal, and these students have really delivered that for us during the pandemic,” she said.

“And I love good harmony, and they’ve definitely got that,” Dr. Hrostowski added.

*A native of St. Catherine, Jamaica, Watson is pursuing a doctor of musical arts degree in voice performance at USM. She says singing at Trinity has contributed immensely to her musicianship and ability to please audiences with her voice.

Watson was recommended by a former voice teacher, Dr. Byron Johnson, who was a past choral scholar at Trinity Episcopal and at USM. Watson said Dr. Johnson emailed Butler about taking her in as a student singer. In the choir, her role is complementing the soprano line, and sometimes as 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.”

*Aiken, a graduate student from Jackson, Miss. is enrolled in USM’s biological science’s master’s program for ichthyology. He first became connected to Trinity as a member of the USM Canterbury Club, whose members attend services and participate in activities at the church. Later, he was 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 across the country ensued at the outset of the pandemic, Aiken knew the choir would be affected.

“Serving the congregation now feels more important and rewarding than ever,” he 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.”

*Jones is a Master of Music student in Choral Conducting and Vocal Performance and Pedagogy from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Like Watson, he connected with Butler and Trinity on the recommendation of his former professor, Dr. Johnson.

As music is a major part of the worship experience, Jones said, “It means a great deal to be able to enhance the services through the giving of ourselves through our God-given talents” as he and his fellow students maintain the choir’s integral role in that experience.

“The safety and health of our Trinity choir and church family are paramount, and so we’re honored to do all we can to continue making music here,” Jones continued. “It means a great deal to still be singing to the glory of He who has preserved us through this most difficult time in the world, and it is my hope that the congregation continues to feel closer to Him and is surrounded by a sense of full worship, as we engage each other virtually.”

Jones said the Trinity community “has become our family in so many ways.”

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

*Lawrence is from Kingston, Jamaica and pursuing a Master of Music in Choral Conducting. He joined the choir when isolation orders were in full effect, so his experience has been exclusively with the quartet.

The USM choral program allows Lawrence to practice many necessary skills, including sight-singing and good 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,” he said. “As a conductor, this will benefit me in my professional life.”

He’s hopeful 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.”

And whether congregants attend services from the church pews or from home online, Lawrence believes his role in the choir has the same impact. “I hope everyone who worships with us feels the music helps create a mood of reverence within which they can truly worship,” he said.

Trinity Episcopal congregant Stacey Calloway Ready said the quartet is “amazing and very talented.”

“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” among the student choristers.

“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.”