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Kate Williams on the Coronavirus and Sacred Music

When COVID-19 forced churches and schools to go virtual, GIA Publications helped church music ministers and music educators adjust. Some digital adaptations are here to stay because they help connect music ministers, worshipers, and music educators.

Kate Williams is senior managing editor at GIA Publications (GIA), a sacred music publisher in Chicago, Illinois. Williams served as a music minister for St. Nicholas Parish, a bilingual (English/Spanish) community in Evanston, Illinois. She often substitutes as a pianist or cantor for Roman Catholic churches. Williams edited Of Womb and Tomb: Prayer in Time of Infertility, Miscarriage, and Stillbirth and leads GIA’s social media outreach. In this edited conversation, Williams discusses what GIA, church musicians, and music educators have learned about staying connected despite the pandemic.

How has the pandemic affected the church musicians and music ministers that GIA Publications (GIA) serves?

When the March 2020 lockdown started, many churches had never done a virtual worship service. Even now, in Lent and Eastertide 2021, many churches are still able to gather only in very small groups. So church musicians have had to learn how to work digitally. Also, since GIA’s sacred music sales have temporarily decreased, we know that giving is down in many congregations and parishes. Yet most face unexpected expenses.

What have you done differently to help them adjust?

We quickly announced ways to help music ministers pivot. Congregations that can’t gather are unable to use physical copies of hymnals, books, and videos. So we offered free digital copies of our periodical worship resources to our subscribing parishes to use while they were unable to use physical copies. We worked hard to release digital editions of music, books, and videos that had not previously been available in a digital format. We also launched the GIA Cares program in May 2020, offering GIA Cares account credits for parishes to offset unexpected and unbudgeted streaming and reprint license fees. Those credits totaled close to $40,000.

How have you led GIA to use social media to support church music ministries during the pandemic?

We knew our customers would need help streaming various church services, creating online lesson plans or resources for children, supporting congregations through virtual outreach, and caring for their own family members while social distancing in general. So we used a new website called Soundboard to create a sense of community among church musicians, music ministers, and music educators. We also cross-post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Soundboard offers liturgical planning sheets and music suggestions two months ahead of a given Sunday in the lectionary. Other Soundboard features include Five/For (five GIA music resources for a theme, such as funerals, African American music, or solos for when choirs can’t gather), curated GIA playlists, and downloadable free guides, such as how to do Audio Divina (praying with music) alone or with a small group.

GIA has been offering lots of live videos, virtual reading sessions, and free webinars.

Yes, we’ve been dedicated to staying connected to people via a series of live videos, such as our Audio Calendars for Advent and Lent. Each segment is simple and short and shows the power of music every day in Advent and Lent. The Audio Calendars create community internally among our staff members and extend our reach to pray with our community. We archive them so people can watch later.

It used to be that people got introduced to new GIA music resources by attending reading sessions at conferences they paid to attend. They also had formational conversations with other conference attendees. When COVID-19 cancelled in-person conferences, we started offering more webinars, including free show-and-tells about GIA resources. We presented summer music showcases in a digital format exclusively, which was something new. We’ve gotten so much positive feedback about our webinars, such as ministry to Hispanic churches. A woman from Alaska joined us for every single webinar. There’s no way we’d have been able to connect with her under the old model of paid, in-person conferences.

How has GIA helped music educators affected by the pandemic?

Like church music directors, many music educators had to quickly go virtual. GIA offered permission for music educators to digitize classroom resources for virtual education. Many of our webinars, such as how to do a virtual choir rehearsal and making great music with limited forces, serve music educators as well as church musicians.

We expanded our music education resources by acquiring World Library Publications (WLP) in January 2020. WLP ran a parallel track to us with music, composers, and resources for churches and schools. Whereas GIA has always been more ecumenical, WLP has been more Catholic-forward. WLP resources can be tailored very specifically for Catholic elementary schools. GIA has more sacred music that can be used ecumenically. GIA also has robust music education materials, like teaching people how to learn to read music.

How do churches use WLP resources?

While GIA specializes in hardbound hymnals that stay in pews, WLP is known for renewable resources. Catholic parishes subscribe to receive boxes of print resources quarterly or annually. You can make them datable, with everything you need for a specific Mass. You can use them with hymnals, but it also gives you a chance to put newer music in front of people more frequently. These resources have everything you need—no more flipping back and forth for the right readings in a hardbound three-year lectionary book.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that the U.S. Catholic Council of Bishops (USCCB) owns the rights to the readings from the lectionary and New American Bible translation. They also get a share of hymnal royalties. When we reprint those, we have to go through a whole permissions process. (We’re grateful that USCCB provided free downloads of the Mark and John passion narratives in Spanish and English for Easter 2021.) If people ask, we’re able to give what they’ve paid for as a PDF, but it’s harder to verify that they are paying for the correct number of PDFs they’ll reprint.

Given that GIA has lost revenue, how have you supported artists and composers?

Like most music publishers (especially those who specialize in music for congregational song, choral music, hymnals, and missalettes), COVID-19 has impacted us negatively. I estimate that our sacred music sales have temporarily decreased close to 40 percent.

For the first few months of the pandemic, we, along with other One License Member Publishers, agreed to temporarily waive annual license fees for churches. Once that initial effort ended, GIA specifically chose to offer credits on our customer accounts versus offering free use of our copyrighted music. This ensured that our composers would not be further negatively impacted by the decrease in music sales—neither economically by losing licensing revenue nor by setting a precedent that devalued their creative work for the future, whether they have one published piece or dozens.

We also did our best to keep composers and pastoral musicians informed of opportunities for grants and other support available, through outside organizations like Music Covid Relief and As Music Heals. We were really glad we could financially support As Music Heals directly and create opportunities for our affiliated musicians to be part of their online concerts and apply for aid if needed.

Based on your connections with other sacred music publishers, which coronavirus-induced changes are here to stay in worship and music education?

We work in a really special industry and know our colleagues at other houses have had to adapt similarly. What I can say for GIA is that we have always kept our focus on what we believe really matters: issues of faith, issues of justice, and the belief that the music we make and share makes a difference in the world, especially during difficult times.

Digital formats and devices will remain important. Long before COVID-19, we began digitizing our catalog, so a choir director could download an octavo rather than wait for print copies to arrive in the mail. It works on an honor system, so you have to trust that the choir directors won’t pay for rights to reprint ten copies when the choir actually has 30+ members.

I think webinars and devices are here to stay, because why not? They help us stay connected. When I worked at St. Nicholas, I always thought of the choir as a small faith community because we prayed together. One year we offered a program at St. Nicholas called Re-Lent. It was born out of the intentionality of the Lenten season. People met once a week to talk about the Lenten readings, pray, and share. Many of those small groups continued and, during the pandemic, have stayed connected over Zoom.

How will worship be different when most congregations resume in-person worship?

Environmentally conscious people have always questioned using so much paper in worship. The pandemic has forced us to find ways to use liturgical elements without printing out so many pages. GIA’s Hymnals app uses a location setting so that, when people walk into church, pages automatically sequence the day’s readings, responses, and music for tablets or phones.

With so many churches livestreaming worship, it opens opportunities for people to participate in prayer. People who are homebound feel more connected in worship when they know others are also worshiping from home. Now that so many of us have adapted and learned new technologies, I think it would be a shame to lose the connectivity of being able to type in a prayer request, “Lord, hear our prayer,” “Amen,” or heart or hand emojis.

We also have to remember that having electronic devices is a privilege, so we need both kinds of resources and experiences.

Is there anything else you want to say about GIA or church music and worship?

We are all going to have to keep adapting. GIA invented Homecoming Sunday to help us all stay hopeful about what it would be like when we all “go back home” to church. We envisioned it as a six-week series and thought we’d all have brass quartets on our church lawns welcoming people back that first Sunday in September—only we didn’t realize it would be September 2021, not 2020. Then came the news about David Haas, so we had to recalibrate and do webinars about how to care for survivors of abuse.

Between acquiring WLP and needing to work remotely, we had very little time to get to know each other and our diverse product lines. I am so proud and grateful for colleagues who think creatively and strategically about how to work together, fulfill our mission, and remain present even in these difficult times. We are truly better together! 

The challenges of virtual music and worship have shown that our desire to find ways to pray and make music together is so much stronger than we ever imagined. It has led us to connect with other people in ways we never thought possible. The resiliency of our song, ultimately, has taught us about the resiliency of ourselves.


Follow GIA on Facebook, Instagram, Soundboard, Twitter, and YouTube to find music, webinars, and other helps for music ministry and education. Music Publishers Association offers guidance on distance learning and using copyrighted music.

Listen to this National Association of Pastoral Musicians interview with Kate Williams, who compiled and edited Of Womb and Tomb, and this GIA podcast with her about the book. This podcast episode on exquisite worship includes Williams’ moving reflection about visiting George Floyd Square.