We are fortunate to have Jerry Phelps as Music and Choir Director. He also serves as accompanist and vocalist. Born and raised in Louisiana, his talents include a unique and dynamic vocal styling that clearly reflects the varied, eclectic musical environment of his youth: rhythm and blues, zydeco, and gospel, to name a few. Jerry has a Bachelor of Music Education from Southern Nazarene University, a Master of Vocal Music Education from Boston University, and completed the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy Certificate from University of Pennsylvania.

His talents and leadership have added and helped to organize musical events both in-person and virtually during the Covid pandemic.

Jerry Phelps wrote this article for the Danbury News-Times Forum on Faith: Music, singing and Community in a Global Pandemic (to read the original) February 6, 2021

Every other Wednesday, my ritual had become such that I was fortunate enough to spend 90 minutes singing and teaching and learning music with the volunteer choir at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury.

As the music director at UUCD, I am the newbie to the group since I started in May 2019. Many of the singers and musicians have long been a part of this congregation and welcomed me with open arms and minds.

Rehearsals were brimming over with singing and storytelling and laughing and frustration with new music and intricate harmonies and grappling with how to direct a choir and accompany them on piano simultaneously, all while attempting to ensure accurate pitches and appropriate style and diction for the song, not to mention lyrical interpretation and communication. Anyone who has ever made music or art understands how complex and tricky it can be. But, the camaraderie, friendship and electric synergy we would achieve superseded any of the complexities.

Research has indicated many times over that when we sing together, we are healthier and happier. Really.

Jacques Launay, a postdoctoral researcher in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, states, “The physiological benefits of singing, and music more generally, have long been explored. Music making exercises the brain as well as the body, but singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture and muscle tension.”

Launay continues, “Improved mood probably in part comes directly from the release of positive neurochemicals such as β-endorphin, dopamine and serotonin. It is also likely to be influenced by changes in our sense of social closeness with others.”

Social closeness with others

For the myriad reasons I love singing with others, I’ve once and for all learned that social closeness with others is precisely the reason I keep doing it. So much of what we do in a congregational setting is rooted in this idea of togetherness and community.

When everything came to a screeching halt in mid-March as the COVID-19 global pandemic began to rear its ugly head in the United States, I felt entirely lost. How could we keep having services? What in the world am I going to do for the music? I’m the music director. I guess I’m supposed to know what to do? But, all of this was new and I certainly had never considered that we would ever not be together on Clapboard Ridge Road.

Enter Zoom

We, at UUCD, are incredibly fortunate to have a congregation with infinite gifts. One congregant and congregational leader had already spent many years running online events for many organizations through her own company, The Creter Group. She was much farther ahead of the game than any of us. She patiently taught us, rehearsed with us, problem solved sound issues, helped improve backgrounds and screen positioning, and provided an incredible level of technical support. That which felt impossible quickly became possible. We pivoted to services on Zoom and haven’t stopped since.

Admittedly, at the beginning, I was not particularly optimistic about how I could ever attempt to lead a group of people in song without actually hearing any of them sing. But, somewhere along the way, it began to feel somewhat, dare I say, normal?

While I am hopeful that we are seeing a glimmer of light at the end of a never-ending tunnel, I have found “social closeness with othersthrough music to be one of the only things I can rely on during this bizarre time. Turns out, it was physical distancing more than social distancing.

I’ve developed an even more profound gratitude for UUCD, its people, the music we make and our commitment to remaining in community despite what has felt like impossible circumstances. As we near a full year of being unable to be together in the same space, I am longing for the day where I can hear their beautiful voices in harmony ring out through our halls. This will surely pass and when it is over, those voices are going to sound sweeter than they ever have before.