Remembering my hero – Marva J. Dawn (August 20, 1948 – April 18, 2021)

I propose we bring back sainthood in the protestant church. That’s because when someone like Marva Dawn passes from this life to the next, you wish there were bigger words than ‘theologian’ or ‘author’ to describe them – they don’t seem to capture the substance of her life. “Saint” might be better (and apparently CT agrees).

Marva J. Dawn was a theologian. She was an author as well. For me she was a pastor to worship leaders. She was an exemplary thinker about worship, writing many which deeply influenced my life’s trajectory. In Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time (1995) Dawn spoke directly to the burgeoning modern worship movement of the mid 90s; I found myself formed as a young adult and growing worship leader myself in this exact cultural moment. So to say Dawn had a small impact on my life is a vast understatement. As praise and worship music led by guitars and drum sets swept across the country, Dawn neither rejected entirely nor welcomed them whole-heartedly, but offered this kind and pastoral reflection on our theology of worship, our conception of music as outreach, and our understanding of the role of music in worship. She reminded me that worship in the Bible was never done to attract the unbeliever. Worship in the Bible is meant to glorify God. The by-product of this glorifying is that unbelievers would be attracted to God themselves, but this is never the reason why people worship. We get things all upside-down when we make decisions about our worship or liturgy for the sake of the unbeliever. In her follow up book, A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, Dawn goes deeper into the “worship wars” and exposes the problems of viewing worship as utilitarian – a means to an end. As the title itself proclaims boldly – worship should have no other end than the end of glorifying God.

I hope that I carry a piece of Dawn’s legacy in my own ministry. I have always shrugged my shoulders at the term ‘worship wars’ – for worship is indeed a war, but not between opposing worship styles. Worship is a war between the powers of heaven and the powers of hell, and the battlefield is the human heart. When we coin the term ‘worship war’ as between two stylistic preferences we not only forget about the hundreds of other worship styles other than ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’, we put ourselves as enemies of each other, instead unite ourselves against our common enemy of sin, death, and the devil. And regardless of that, Dawn reminds us that worship is always traditional because it is based on the faith of those that have gone before, and worship is always contemporary because it’s happening here and now. She never picked sides. She proclaimed strongly that we ought to use ‘the music of the whole church for the sake of the whole world‘. I hope to honor Dawn’s legacy by promoting this in my own ministry for years to come. May you rest in peace, Marva J. Dawn. You are a saint to me.

{Adam Goes to Seminary} March 2021 Update

Happy Spring! Our first semester of 2021 is well underway and classes continue to be a source of energy and excitement. At the same time, days that I head into work at TCC are also full with the many weekly tasks, but also new problems to solve, vision to cast, and relationships to strengthen. I am grateful for the balance of study and work that I have at this season of my life, and will be sad when it comes to a close. At the same time, I’m also excited to return to full time ministry work this summer. After the summer I will have just 4 classes remaining for my degree at Gordon-Conwell, which means one more year taking 1 class per term. This means I expect to graduate in the spring of 2022!

Greek continues to be challenging, and this impatient student who was never good at languages can’t wait for the day when I actually get to use the greek to unpack the scriptures. For the meantime, I’m restricted to simply studying vocabulary and grammar, and translating simple sentences out of context. It reminds me a bit of technique exercises for piano. I hated them, and couldn’t wait to just play music; but at the same time I see the value of slow methodical practice. I just wish it wasn’t that way! This summer I will be taking Interpreting the New Testament, which (I hope) means finally putting my greek study to use in understanding God’s word better. More on that to come…

Christ in the Old Testament is one of those ‘drinking from a firehose’ kind of classes. The professor (retired Senior Pastor from Park St. Church) lectures for 3 hours straight each Wednesday night while students furiously take notes. Though I heard many of his sermons from my time attending Park St. Church, this feels not only like 6 sermons per night, a survey of the OT and how Christ is prefigured and predicted in many of its texts, but also a glimpse into unique and compelling interpretations of key stories and passages that we all know. I could share many, but her is one such example that struck me: when God clothes Adam and Eve before they are expelled from Eden, he does so as a symbolic act that reminds them of their sonship and their kingship. He is having mercy on them despite their disobedience. The reason for this interpretation? To clothe someone in the OT was to symbolize care and compassion (as a father/mother clothes their children). It was also to symbolize inheritance (money was kept in the ‘hem of the garment’ in the same way we keep money in a wallet or purse; think also to how the prodigal son is given the cloak by the father upon his return).

God does not give us what we deserve – expulsion from Eden without protection, but extends his fatherly mercy and while still punishing, does not leave us out to dry. How do the clothes of Gen 3 prefigure Jesus? The temporary clothes Adam and Eve received prefigure our ultimate clothing – Jesus Christ. So when we read that we are ‘clothed in Christ in the NT, it means we are covered by God’s grace, mercy, compassion, and kindness. It is in Jesus that we receive the ultimate and eternal sonship, kingship, and inheritance. Christ the ultimate protection from God’s wrath, and this is good news!

Finally, Women in the Church is a challenging and thought provoking class where we discuss gender, sexuality, what it means to have sexed bodies (something the church talks little about), and social and ecclesiastical concerns in a safe and supportive environment. Readings have been really great. My favorite so far has been Icons of Christ. For anyone who has wanted to think deeper about women in leadership in the church (and whatever side of the aisle you fall within that debate), I would recommend it. Discussion is, as you can imagine, lively and impassioned, which is just what I was hoping for in a seminary class.

In other news, my car died so Shauna and I got to make our first joint adult purchase of a new (to us) car. It’s a VW Golf Sportwagen and we love it!

Spring time new (to us) car!

{Adam Goes to Seminary} January 2021 Update

Happy New Year! 2021 has started off pretty well for me, as Shauna and I GOT MARRIED on January 9th. We had a small ceremony (‘micro-wedding’ is the term these days) with just a few friends and family, though my parents and our siblings had to join via Zoom. Even still, it was a perfect day and exactly what we wanted in a wedding celebration. A very cozy and intimate ceremony and a warm home-cooked meal at l’Abri Fellowship – the place where we met. Plenty of pictures will be shared on social media and on our wedding website soon!

We really hope to have a larger party in August 2021 here on campus at the Seminary if at all possible. We know more and more people are getting vaccinations so we are hopeful that something can happen then. We’ll certainly have a good reason to throw a party!

As I kick off my second full-time semester, I’m excited for my coursework this term. I’m continuing the slog of Greek II, tackling the verb system which is mighty confusing. Not much to say about that. I’m also taking Christ in the Old Testament, which was one of Shauna’s favorite courses and one I am really excited about. This meets on zoom, which is a bummer, but with a lecture-heavy class is not that bad. I’m also in “Women in the Church”, which explores the intersection between gender and theology, and how one can interpret critical biblical texts relating to women’s leadership in the local church.

Shauna and I are settling into our apartment on campus here. Since I lived here in the fall on my own, Shauna is taking time to make it her own, and make it ‘ours’ at the same time. We have lots of plants, and the space is feeling cozier every day. Good thing, since we’ll be spending lots of time here with half of our classes meeting virtually!

Blessings to you all!


{Adam Goes to Seminary} December 2020 Update

We made it. I just clicked ‘ submit’ on my final work for the semester. It was a huge push at the end so it feels really good to finally check off that last assignment and get everything turned in. All total I had over 100 pages of written work (102 to be exact) to turn in this semester, which is quite easily the most writing I’ve done in any semester of my academic career. One prof actually required our final to be hand-written in the 3-hour exam. My hand is still sore. I should have kept up my rock climbing to train for that.

Eventually, of course, I did manage to get those 100+ pages written and turned in after only moderate amounts of sleep-loss and existential dread. Huzzah!  I finished the 4 major papers (that I mentioned in last month’s post), and did my Greek Exam. I also happened to get a flat tire right between my Greek final and my Church History final, so right now I’m borrowing a friend’s car until I can get it fixed on Wednesday. What timing, right? Thankful for the friend who let me borrow his car while he’s home for Christmas!

Perhaps you’re not surprised by this: I really enjoy being a full time student again. It is such a gift (to which I’m so thankful for all of my partnership supporters) to be able to focus a majority of my time on being filled both intellectually and spiritually. When in full time ministry, it’s hard to find the time and motivation to just sit, read, and think, but that’s literally my job here in seminary.  Yes, reading and writing papers is hard, but it’s ultimately for me – for my edification and growth. Reading is hard (it always has been for me…just ask my high school english teachers), but reading is filling not emptying. It’s taking in new ideas, or integrating new thoughts with old ideas. It’s not about producing (which makes it hard for this Ennegram Type 3), but about savoring and enjoying, which is a gift.

Another gift and blessing of this season is seeing how TCC is continuing to not just function but thrive despite my reduced hours there. We have a new tech intern who is really stepping up our live-stream production quality for both video and audio, and our community life coordinator and new executive assistant have organized TCC’s own advent devotional, written by people from within the church. These are two projects that I, if I were not in seminary, might have had a hand in planing and executing. It’s such a gift to see these things flourish without me. I’m grateful for our staff!

Next semester will be here before I know it (already looking forward to it and signed up for classes!), and in the meantime I’m about to get married! Shauna and I are ‘eloping’ (read: small Covid wedding) in January and will honeymoon for 9 days in Costa Rica, all pending Covid case numbers and travel restrictions of course. Please pray our very small wedding will be a safe and joyful celebration at the end of a very hard year for all of us.

May you all find joy and special moments of connection despite the chaos and dis-connection this year has thrown at us. Don’t hesitate to write back or comment below!

Merry Christmas!




Bonus: My new friend Victor made this facebook live post, which I shared. If you haven’t seen it, check it out! Victor is from Zimbabwe and is in my Greek section, so we get to struggle through that together.

{Adam Goes to Seminary} November 2020 Update

Dear Friends and Family,

Though this is a thanksgiving like none before, there is a great deal to be thankful for this year. I’m grateful for all of you who support me in this seminary journey both financially and through prayer. If nothing else, this thanksgiving is teaching me to truly be thankful for the little things we took for granted last year – sharing meals around a common table and being together! I’m staying local for the holidays this year, which was a hard decision to make, but I think is the right one. I’ll be spending the day on my own, which at first I was quite sad about, but am trying to re-frame and look on the bright side, seeing it as an excuse to have a day of rest and retreat (I’m supposed to take a day long retreat for a class anyway!) before the end of semester push.

Speaking of which, the semester is nearly wrapping up, which means full paper writing and finals studying mode. It’s a bit stressful, but when I decide on paper topics and begin researching and writing, I find that I really enjoy putting words on the page and integrating ideas that have been marinating for the semester. Paper topics include:

• The marks of spiritual friendship in Aelred of Rievaulx (12th cent) as compared with modern understanding of friendship,
• Responses to revival by church leaders during the first great awakening (hint: apparently not everyone was happy about it!)
• Personal reflection papers on my own personal spiritual design and my own response to the ‘project of reconciliation’ course

Needless to say, I’ve got my work cut out for me for the next 3 weeks! I’ll therefore keep this update fairly short, and share three pictures from the past month. Guess what order these were shot in.

Scroll down for answers!






Fall bike ride: November 5th

Snowy day at Gordon Conwell: October 30th(!)

Sunny day outside at church: November 8th

New England weather is weird.

Happy thanksgiving everyone!

{Adam Goes to Seminary} October 2020 Update

Dear Friends,

Biggest news of this update is unrelated to seminary studies – Shauna and I got engaged!

In case you haven’t heard the story yet, we got engaged in the forest behind L’Abri … incidentally it was this same place where we met three years ago. I had our friends from l’Abri invite us over for dinner as the decoy plan, and then request a short delay in start time due to a ‘busy afternoon.’ Shauna took the bait and even suggested we take a walk in the woods while we waited for our friends to get ready. Perfect! The plan went off flawlessly, and (in case you were wondering), she said yes!!

Wedding will be a covid-wedding of course, which we are still trying to figure out what will look like: where, when, with who…all these details pray we can sort out in the coming weeks and months so that we can have a special and safe wedding.

In other less interesting news, I’ve been getting involved in the Gordon Conwell chapel worship team. It has been so refreshing to be involved in worship here as a musician but not the primary worship leader. Even though the worship services are short (we play just 2-3 songs), and even though the congregation is masked and not singing, they have been powerful and moving times of corporate praise. I enjoy seeing how other leaders lead, and experiencing the simple but powerful Gordon Conwell chapel liturgy.

I’m chugging along in coursework. Greek is hard and getting harder. Kyrie Eleison. The emotion of anger is not one I experience much, but when it comes to something in Greek I don’t understand (or one of the 986324598762349576y43 exceptions), I find myself so angry at the language. Why are there two words for the same word? Why is that word ‘untranslatable.’ Ugh. But there are still moments of clarity and inspiration while studying. I have to keep reminding myself (and the textbook is good with small reminders along the way) that studying the Greek language is a tool with a very important end – knowing the word of God better. We don’t study greek because we enjoy it (well, at least I don’t), but because it is the tool by which we know God better.

Hope you are all well during this ‘second wave’ of the pandemic. I’m certainly not looking forward to the possibility of another strict quarantine, but am remaining hopeful that 2021 will be a year when we see a vaccine and come out of this thing together. Until then, stay safe and stay well. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me with a phone call or email.

{Adam Goes to Seminary} September 2020 Update

When I last wrote, I was right in the middle of sorting out moving up to campus, having just found out I did get a spot in the on campus apartments. I asked for your prayers for what I was sure would be a crazy few weeks orchestrating a move with about 1 week notice.

Well thank you for praying! By God’s grace everything worked out wonderfully. It has been really neat to write these updates because I have a tangible reminder of ways that I’ve asked for prayer and can see ways that these prayers were, in some cases very quickly, answered.

I found someone to take over my lease in Watertown, found a moving truck, packed the thing up with the help of 12 friends (thanks, all!), and got settled into my apartment the second week of September. This is the first time I’ve lived on my own, and I have to say I’m really enjoying it. I miss my roommates, of course (and our late night video game sessions), but am also really enjoying getting connected with the student body here on campus.

As a part time student for the past two years, I have become aquatinted with many people, but have not really gotten to know anyone that well. As a full time student, I’ve already met tons of new people and am reminded that seminary students are an awesome bunch of people. I’ve really enjoyed making connections over shared interests and learning all the crazy ways God has led people to study at Gordon Conwell. The student body is quite diverse in age and gender and cultural background, but somehow I feel at home here already. I had lunch with the president (with a bunch of other students) and am excited by his vision for the future of the school.

I attend chapel worship services on Wednesday mornings, and am learning how awful it is to stand and not be able to sing. We are indoors, masked, and physically distanced from others and it’s such a strange feeling of incongruity to be present in a worship service but not able to participate with my voice. I was not planning to get involved in the worship ministry here (I do enough of that at TCC), but after two weeks of drumming on the pews, humming to myself, and generally being quite antsy, I couldn’t take it anymore and emailed the chapel director to get involved 😂😂😂. So I’ll be playing in the chapel band soon. If you know me (and if you’re reading this you probably do), you’ll know that I just can’t NOT make music. It hurts my soul to just stand there.


Three classes this semester:

  • Greek I (a re-do of my summer intensive Greek experience). This is a much more reasonable pace to learn a language and so far I’m mostly understanding things. (In person, masked and physically distanced indoors)
  • Spiritual Formation for Ministry. This course focuses on not only spiritual formation for yourself, but learning how others are spiritually formed and learning tools and resources to help people grow in faith. Great readings and some great papers that I’m excited to write at the end of the term. (In person, masked, and physically distanced indoors)
  • The Project of Reconciliation. A course that was petitioned by several students to be moved up a semester (originally planning on taking this Spring 2021), this course examines the racial tensions happening in our culture and seeks to equip students to be agents of reconciliation for the sake of the Gospel. Assigned books are really great. (Online via zoom)

As always, if anyone out there is interested in hearing more about any course don’t hesitate to reach out!

Ministry Updates:

At TCC, we’ve moved to outdoor services in September. As we launched our ministry year theme “The Return,” we invite people to return to church, but also see this return as a metaphor for a greater return we all need to make in our hearts of repentance and renewal, and long for the ultimate return of Jesus that we all hope and pray for.

Outdoor services have been so life giving. If leading worship for the frozen chosen here in New England is hard, when they are masked and can’t sing, it’s even harder. Being outdoors, even while still masked, and spread apart has allowed ~200 people to feel comfortable to gather and sing. The first day, I chose the call to worship from Psalm 95, and felt so grateful to be leading the church in the words “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.”

Thank you all for your continued support!!! These updates are a joy to write and I hope they are a joy to read as well.


Prayer Requests:

That I would make life-long connections with students, staff, faculty, and administration here at the seminary.

That I would find a life giving core community of friends.

That I would be able to balance the demands of ministry with the demands of school work.

Prayers Answered:

Partnership program goal is 90% met. The rest can come from my supporting church(es) in 2021. So while I can’t officially say I’ve finished fundraising, I’m essentially done.

Apartment swap and move went so well! Moving is stressful and it seemed to go pretty well without any unexpected difficulties.

Some Pictures

We finally got everything in. Now what?

Played and livestreamed a COVID-era wedding. Musician/techie your service.

After Shauna made it look pretty.


{Adam Goes to Seminary} August 2020 Update

Hi Friends,

Here’s a real quick update for the end of summer.

It’s been a crazy few weeks here. After a short but lovely vacation with Shauna’s family, I came back to MA and quarantined by way of a short retreat to New Hampshire with my two roommates. Pictures below. Little did we know it would be a farewell tour of sorts.  In a matter of about 72 hours I went from not being sure I’d be able to live on campus to grabbing a spot and having to now quickly scramble to find someone to take over my spot in Watertown. As I write this I *think* i’m all sorted for a fall move up to the campus. Please pray that the final leases, paperwork, and the daunting move goes smoothly so I can feel settled for the semester to begin on September 14

I’m going to miss living in Watertown, but am excited for the idea of having my own space for some time. I’ve never lived by myself, and though I’m sure it will be at times lonely, I know there are plenty of folks nearby and of course I’m now just a 10 minute drive to Shauna’s place.

The semester ended well with a couple real big papers. For those interested here are the three papers that concluded my semester. I was surprised how much I enjoyed writing these papers, chipping away a little at a time with of course a final push at the end to complete them. The contemplative listening paper is the most compelling to me for personal application. In it I argue for the need for protestants as a whole and evangelicals in particular to embrace the practice of spiritual formation for lay people and for clergy as well. I began meeting with a new spiritual director myself, and it has been wonderful to have the time set aside (just an hour a month) to explore how God has been speaking to me, make meaning out of past memories and events over the course of the month, and consider where God is leading me and guiding me next. I specifically explored the subject of gender and spiritual formation, which was an underrepresented topic in scholarship.

Theo Survey II – Personal Statement of Faith (pdf/27pgs)

Contemplative Listening – Integration Paper on Gender and Spiritual Direction (pdf/17pgs)

History and Theology of Worship – Statement of Worship and Culture (pdf/12pgs)

Hope you all had a lovely summer. The ‘quick update’ ended up a bit longer than I expected.

Here are a few pictures from our recent end-of-summer adventures.


{Adam Goes to Seminary} July 2020 Update

I’ll be posting monthly seminary updates on this blog! If you’d like to support my studies through Gordon Conwell’s Partnership Program, you can do so here.
July 2020 Update

Out to dinner … first time in 5 months!

Greetings, friends! I hope this update finds you well. Here in Boston we are in the indefinite “phase 3” of reopening. This means that Shauna and I went out to dinner for the first time in like 5 months. Yes, we wore our masks – just not when we were eating or for this picture.

Coursework Update:

Yikes! Now only if I knew English grammar, this would be a lot easier…

I’m now a bit over a month into full-time seminary work, and I can say it is fun, fulfilling, and also very hard! When the summer started I was enrolled in Summer Greek, which is a summer intensive course that crams an entire year of study into just 9 weeks. After a few days I quickly realized that this was not possible to do while taking two other courses and working part time, so I swallowed my pride and dropped this course. It felt hard to “fail” right out of the gate. I felt badly at first, knowing that my friends and family are supporting my studies financially, to not be taking the most classes I could, but Shauna reminded me that you are supporting me so that I can learn and grow, not so that I can pass as many classes as possible in this year. So I heeded her (and others’) advice, and swapped Greek out with a course on History and Theology of Worship which begins next week. The short week I was in greek, however, was really cool. By the end of a week we were translating (the easier) sentences from the New Testament on our own. In the moments I was not completely stressed out, it was neat to begin to be able to read the Bible in the original language. . I’ll take Greek in the fall, at the regular pace and am excited for it now that I know what I’m getting myself into and the time it will require.

Other courses I’m taking this summer include Theology Survey, which is all done except for the final paper that needs to be written – my personal statement of faith. Finally, Shauna and I also both took a course through Regent College (Vancouver, Canada) on Contemplative Listening. This course showed me how important and how rare it is to truly listen to someone – not just wait for your turn to speak. Each day we had exercises where we took turns practicing listening, which sounds simple but was actually quite hard. We were not allowed to ask questions, offer advice/suggestions, or relate to the speaker with our own stories. We were simply to listen, and notice things the speaker said, reflecting and mirroring back to them what they said as an invitation to explore the thoughts and feelings deeper. After the initial awkwardness, I found the exercise indeed worked. Both myself and the people I listened to were able to go deeper into our own thoughts. By not immediately hearing advice or suggestions from our listener, we had the space, the silence, and the freedom to go deeper. I realized how much this is needed in ministry, and how bad I am at it! The church needs better listeners, and I was grateful to spend two weeks studying with others (through zoom, of course) how to better do that.
Fundraising Update
It has been so encouraging to see you all respond to my initial email with offers of support. There were several days when I was having a stressful or bad day, that I would be so encouraged by seeing a new email come in with an offer to join my team of supporters, whether financially or with prayer and simply wanting to hear more of my journey. As of last week, I am about 80% of  my goal, which is wonderful! This means I am fully accepted into the partnership program. If you haven’t officially given, you can still do so here.
Other Life Updates:

What else is there to do during Covid-19? We take lots of walks around Beverly, MA. Here’s one of them. Again, we wear masks … just not for this picture 😁

I am planning on moving to an on-campus apartment in September. This will be another hard transition, as I’ve really enjoyed living in Watertown with my roommates, but being on campus will help me focus on seminary work, cut down on the commute (GCTS is planning on having in-person classes this Fall), help me find community at the seminary, and give me a chance to have my own (very tiny) place at a pretty good price!
Prayer Requests:
– Adjusting to full-time seminary and part time ministry work. Prioritizing seminary is hard when there are always things to do at TCC!
– For me to find on-campus housing for the Fall.
– For the last 20% of fundraising to go well (what this means is one or two more supporters plus a church partnership through TCC or my home church PBC)
– For Shauna and I to find a bit rest/vacation time in August (even during Covid-19)

Virtual Choir: How We Did It

With churches around the world gathering virtually, and choir rehearsals suspended indefinitely, I took the past few weeks as an opportunity to “gather” our choir for a virtual choir anthem last Sunday.

Check it out!

How We Made It

See my instructions to my choir here

The process of creating a virtual choir video is not for the faint of heart. It involves many hours of editing click tracks, instructing choir members, mixing audio, editing video, and syncing clips all together to create the final product that looks so simple. This was my first go at it, so it was a learning process for me. Along the way I figured out a few things that I would do differently next time. If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, get a bit frustrated, but really want to work hard to produce a virtual choir, keep reading!

What You Need:

  • Computer. A new-ish one. If you don’t have that then you can quit now.
  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is the software that lets you record and edit audio on the computer.  I used Ableton Live as I am most comfortable and familiar with the interface, but you could use also use ProTools, Logic Pro X, FL Studio, or free software like Garage Band or Audacity. There are dozens of DAWs out there, so I won’t get into the pros and cons of each but there’s plenty of info online about how to use each one of these. If you’re just starting out with music production, learning how to use one of these (I’d recommend the professional software: Ableton, Logic Pro, or ProTools) will be the a great time investment that will benefit you for the long term. Learn it.
  • USB Digital Audio Interface. This is a piece of hardware that lets you plug microphones and other line inputs into your computer. It also lets you monitor sound through headphones and external monitors. I have this one from Scarlett but they are even cheaper today.
  • A decent microphone. For recording instruments it is well worth the investment to get a good quality microphone. Spend more than $100. Don’t spend over $500. I love the Rode NT5 because they sound great, come as a pair for recording in stereo, and can be used for so many different applications: single acoustic instruments like guitars or strings, stereo piano mics, and even choirs. This mic can do it all and won’t break the bank.
  • Option 1: Headphones. DO NOT try and do this with only your laptop speakers. You need a way to accurately hear the sound from all the different sources you’ll be mixing. A pair of studio monitor headphones will set you back about $100-200. Again, a worthwhile investment on your path toward music production glory. I like these from Beyerdynamic because they’re comfy. These from AKG are only $76 and are good for the price.
  • Option 2: Studio Monitors. Active speakers are better because you don’t have to wear headphones all the time and can sit back and listen more comfortably. I bought a pair from Event Electronics for $300 back in college and they have been with me ever since. They’re going on 15 years of use and still sound great. Spend $200-300 on something from here.

Note, you will notice I didn’t actually even include a video camera. I used this one because we have it at the church, but these days your cell phone takes great video under the right lighting conditions, so most people can get away with just that. When your final product is a little square in the middle of a huge grid of videos, you don’t need the best quality video.

Got it all? Let’s get to work.

Before We Proceed…

Just so you know what you’re getting into, this is what my final mix looked like. It doesn’t even fit on one screen:

Yowza…That’s 44 tracks.

The timeline view doesn’t even fit on one screen.

ONE: Create a click track

This was probably the hardest step for me to accept as a musician. As someone who trains the choir to be musical and allow the tempo to ebb and flow as we sing together, the idea of syncing everyone up to a click track and then conducting seems to go against everything I learned in conducting school, but these are strange times and this was the best way I could think of to get us all to sing together. But that doesn’t mean you have to start a song at 100BPM and stay there the entire time. Ableton allows you to manually automate tempo changes throughout an arrangement.

Tempo Automation in Ableton Live

As you can see there are about a dozen or so tempo shifts throughout the piece. The downward slopes are ritards. The steep downward and quick upward slopes are slight lifts for a breath together. It took me a while to get the tempo change to feel natural. I think there might be a way to record tempo automation by tapping live while recording in ableton, but I didn’t figure that out. I just drew it in.

TWO: Create the reference instrumental part.

For any piece for piano and choir it means recording the piano part, since singers will likely sing to the piano more than they’ll sing to the click. To do this I simply recorded the piano into Ableton (I didn’t bother recording video, but in hindsight I could have also recorded video at this point). You’ll sync up the video later. Confession: I didn’t want to learn the rather tricky piano part to this piece so I actually recorded the left hand and right hand parts separately. This actually allowed me to add more notes to fill out the harmonies and make it sound more orchestral, which is what I think the composer would want out of the piano part!

THREE: Record the virtual conducting video.

Ableton doesn’t handle recording or editing of video but it can actually import video, which is a nifty feature.

I then played back the music on Ableton and recorded myself conducting to a video camera. The result is this:

FOUR: Record rehearsal tracks for the singers. (Optional)

Because I work with amateur singers, many who don’t read music, I went in and recorded each vocal part. As much as I wish all my singers can read music, the fact is that their experience is so much better when they have someone singing in their ear, so I’m happy to oblige. I then exported them individually to create these:

Soprano 1 | Soprano 2 | Alto 1 | Alto 2

Tenor 1 | Tenor 2 | Bass 1 | Bass 2

FIVE: Export a final virtual choir demo. (Also optional)

This step might not be necessary for choirs with music readers and I would also discourage it for music educators or school choirs. If your goal is still to be teaching music reading and musicianship, this step might be seen as a crutch. But for church choirs, and amateur choirs, where the goal is community, having fun, and praising God, this step makes sense. Ableton (remarkably) can actually export a video, so I made a rough mix and exported video. Result is this:

For this one I turned OFF the click track, but in hindsight I might have kept it on for this one too.

SIX: Recruit your choir!

Now you have all the components the choir needs to record their tracks. I used our church website to host all this stuff so the choir can easily access the rehearsal tracks and recording. I also included a few tips, the most importantly being use headphones when you record your choir part! I also wrote all the tempo adjustments in there so they could write notes in their music before they sang. Whether or not they did is up to them.

SEVEN: Request Video Submissions

For uploading, I bit the bullet and got dropbox plus. I’m requesting large files for upload so after doing a bit of research it seemed like the best option and gives me 2TB of space. Google drive and seem like good options too.

On dropbox, I used the “request files” feature to create simple perma-link that the choir members can upload. Uploading video is sometimes a hard slow process, so be ready for choir members to ask questions and need help. If people have apple devices, airdrop makes transferring the file from the phone to the computer very easy.

EIGHT: Mix the audio.

From each video submission I used adapter to easily extract the audio as a wav file from their .mp4 or .mov video submission. Then I brought this audio into Ableton and got to work mixing. A few tips about audio mixing for virtual choirs:

  • Some recordings sound good. Others sound bad. Depending on the quality of the cell phone microphone, some may have a muffled sound, some may have a high pitched hiss, some may have a lot of ‘noise’. You work with what you have. For the better ones, I used minimal compression and some simple EQ that looked like this:

Simple EQ and Compression for vocals

For others that had some background noise I had to cut a lot of high frequencies. You loose some of the vocal brightness, but with 44 tracks, you can’t really have any audible hiss or noise in them or it will really ruin the final product.

Ableton Channel Strip – EQ to remove hiss

  • As with a non-virtual choir, sometimes it’s hard to get all the singers to sing in tune and at the same time. Hard consonants are particularly tricky, as any minor variations come through as a muddled mess of t-t-t-t-t-t-t in the final product. In hindsight, I would be super clear about where I want those harder consonants like T/S/D/K placed. I did quite a bit of adjusting in Ableton after bringing the voices in. In the example below you can see the cuts and shifts I made to make some of the vocals line up with the rest of the choir. Yeah sopranos.

Ableton single track editing

  • Using Ableton’s automation feature, you can also automate the track volume throughout. I know the guy who mixes NPR’s tiny desk concerts uses volume automation very liberally to achieve a natural even result.

Volume automation. Sometimes singers don’t do the dynamics as written so a little bit of help can go a long way. (This one was actually me trying to sing the alto part so I needed all the help I could get as my falsetto is very much NOT even in volume throughout my vocal range and varies quite a bit depending on what vowel I’m singing. Voice lessons would help, but in a pinch we fix it in post).

  • Add some ‘verb. Jesus’ blood is the most effectual thing for covering sins. A sweetly tuned reverb is probably the next best thing. I used this as a return track, which means I can dial in the amount on a per-channel basis. I used about %60 on my vocal tracks and only a very little on the piano so the piano cut through and the vocals blended together. You could never get this result in a live acoustic performance.

Reverb settings. Note you can EQ the reverb after in the channel strip. I pulled out the highs to reduce that ‘fake’ reverb sound. Yes that is 6.53 seconds of reverb. 

  • Group tracks and apply glue compressor. This tool helps “glue” your tracks together to make them sound like one unified unit. I don’t really know how it works (but I’m sure someone else could tell you), but I know it works. Here are my settings for the “men’s voices” group.

    Glue compression and group EQ
  • When you’ve spent 9865873648245 hours mixing and are ready to make the final master audio track, head over the master channel for a rough go at audio mastering. I’m aware mixing and mastering are really two separate skills and art forms, so I acknowledge that I’m very much a beginner at this. Ableton has a nice audio effect rack that has mastering tools. Here’s what mine looked like. This should all be very gentle … no harsh adjustments here. Listen on multiple outputs (Nice headphones, cheap headphones, nice speakers, cheap speakers) to see what your track sounds like across multiple devices. It might sound amazing on your nice headphones, but what about when 90% of the people listen to it off their phones or laptops. You gotta make it sound as good as possible on as many devices as possible. A bit more compression is your friend here.

Master channel with some gentle EQ, more glue compression, and a final limiter to stop clipping.

Okay all done? Now export it! Make sure you turn off the click for your final export :-).

NINE: Video Editing

This is actually the step I know the least about. If you’ve gotten this far and were really hoping for help here, I’m really sorry! You’ll need video editing software: Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe’s Premiere are the standard software for video editing. You will struggle if you try to use iMovie for this. I had a colleague that is much faster at video editing grab all the video submissions, sync them up, and generate the final product. It involves cropping, resizing, and arranging all the videos one by one. It takes a. long. time.  I started at it, and used Premier’s effect controls to adjust the position and scale and cropping of each clip. Syncing is tricky here. In hindsight, I would ask the singers to clap for the camera four times during the intro so we could sync the video easier using the audio spikes as they are visible in the video editing software. This is why movies use those clap-boards to start takes.

So that was my journey of doing a virtual choir. It was fun. It took probably 50 hours of work and another 10 from our video editor. I’m sure I’ll be faster if I do it again, but it does take a TON of work! People loved it though, and there’s a special joy you get when you see everyone’s faces singing “together.”

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

– 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20

Have Fun and Enjoy! Questions? Email Me.