ACU Presents Virtual ‘Rejoice And Be Glad’ Vespers Service

What: ACU Department of Music’s Christmas Vespers program, “Rejoice and Be Glad”
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13 
Access: ACU Department of Music Facebook page,
The 53-minute performance will remain on the page indefinitely for future viewing
Details: Christmas Vespers consists of music and readings of scripture, poetry, and prayer


Among the many challenges of putting together a virtual choral and orchestral performance is one that no one would have thought of before 2020, “The Year of COVID.”

Try singing through a mask. That is exactly what members of various choirs at Abilene Christian University were required to do when they and orchestral ensembles performed in separate groups in three different venues in Abilene. Their performances, with no audiences, were videotaped and combined into a 53-minute performance of a Christmas Vespers service that will debut at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, on the ACU Department of Music Facebook page– It will remain on that  page indefinitely. 

ACU first performed its Christmas Vesper service live on campus in 2007. Since then, until “The Year of COVID,” it was performed live at First Baptist Church. The service consists of music and readings of scripture, poetry, prayer.

This year’s entire production, titled, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” was unique–and one that everyone involved hopes is a one-time deal. Among the top issues was singing through a mask.

“The masks do present unique challenges,” said Dr. Jeffery Goolsby, director of choral studies at ACU.

Consonants are muffled and taking a breath feels awkward, Goolsby said. Singers often rely on “feel,” Goolsby noted, and after years of training they rely on the physical sensations.

“The mask alters the physical sensation on the face,” he said, “so the singers have had to learn to trust these new feelings.”

Joining Goolsby’s choral groups will be the Civic Orchestra of Abilene, directed by ACU’s Dr. Steven Ward, and a string quartet from ACU. Vocal performances will be given by the University Chorale and the A Cappella Chorus. Orchestral ensembles will include the Civic Orchestra of Abilene fanfare brass, the orchestra’s Abilene strings, and ACU string quartet.

Singing through a mask was just one of the challenges that Goolsby and his students faced. Each group, according to size, filmed its part of the program at one of three locations–First Baptist Church, ACU’s Cullen Auditorium, and the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest. Choirs performed at Heavenly Rest and First Baptist. Instrumental groups performed at Heavenly Rest and Cullen Auditorium. Jesse Ratcliff, director of music and organist at Heavenly Rest, accompanied the choirs.

In addition to wearing masks, participants maintained physical distancing, rehearsal and performance times were reduced, and everything was properly sanitized.

Performing to an empty house presented another challenge. Normally, performers feed off the energy from the audience. Knowing the audience is right there in front of them makes focusing on the production easy for performers. But the ACU students not only sang through a mask, they had no audience to concentrate on or to provide energy.

“It required a different kind of attention and focus,” Goolsby said.

Photos at left and at the top of the page show ACU students performing Christmas Vespers in years past at First Baptist Church. The right photo show students rehearsing at FBC this year, wearing masks. Photos courtesy Dr. Jeff Goolsby, ACU.

Another challenge for Goolsby was tracking down legal guidelines for permissions and rights to the readings and music performed. Since the recording will be presented on Facebook and remain there indefinitely, those permissions were required.

“When you put it online like this” Goolsby said, “it’s a different deal.”

Goolsby put in a lot of hours to make the production possible, but he didn’t do it alone. He had help from Dr. Kyle Dickson with ACU’s Learning Studio, Todd Wilson at First Baptist Church, and Dr. Bernie Scherr at B&D Music. 

A production of this magnitude doesn’t happen without careful planning. That started in the summer when Goolsby talked to Dickson about his idea. More formal planning began in October and all the videos were made before Thanksgiving. By the time it was all done, the students weren’t the only ones who had learned something about producing an online performance in the midst of a pandemic, with masks, social distancing, and no audience. Their director experienced all the newness right along with them. 

“Its been a learning curve for me,” Goolsby said.

Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene

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