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Going Semi-Virtual

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

by Diana Gilday

Tom Espenshade and Artie Chenault opening the event (Photo by Diana Gilday)

Places all across the globe are still figuring out how to adapt to the new world that is 2020. All Saints Episcopal Church in Bayside, New York, however, has found a perfect balance a semi-virtual coffeehouse.

All Saints Church started hosting monthly coffeehouses, called Major Tom’s Coffeehouse, back in June 2018. Since then, every third Saturday, the common room turned into a stage for all kinds of performers.

“We’ve been doing this coffeehouse for about two and a half years,” said Tom Espenshade, the host and namesake of Major Tom’s Coffeehouse. “It started because we wanted to give performers a place to come and showcase their talent. It’s steadily grown, before the pandemic hit, we would have up to 40 - 50 people in the audience.”

Due to the pandemic on March 13 everything either had to shut down or move online at the church, which included the coffeehouse. After a two month hiatus, Teddy Byrne, a television-radio major with a web development minor at Ithaca College and son of the church’s rector, decided to create a virtual coffeehouse.

“Back in May we produced our first fully online coffeehouse,” said Byrne. “Performers sent in videos, mostly done on cell phones, and then I took the videos and put them together to create the show. We always had a singalong with all the musicians at the end of our in-person coffee houses so we had people send in videos with different parts of a song and then I edited them together to create a virtual band.”

The coffeehouse went on in this form for three months, but as restrictions loosened in New York City, the church decided to create a semi-virtual format.

The way the semi-virtual coffeehouses works is by turning the yard of the church into a stage, where performers could sit socially distanced and watch the coffeehouse live, while people at home could watch it on a livestream on either the church’s YouTube channel or Facebook page.

Byrne running the livestream from inside of the common room of All Saints Church (Photo by Diana Gilday)

“It’s a lot of work, a lot more than putting on a non live streamed, non amplified event,” said Byrne. “It involves setting up the staging and social distant seating, setting the camera and audio setups, running cabling for the audio video and internet, and testing the actual livestream with a bunch of performers who aren’t used to playing for cameras but rather playing smaller gigs in front of a small to medium-sized audience.”

This most recent coffeehouse, which took place Oct. 24, was a matinee event, so he had to get up around 8 a.m. to get everything done for the 1 p.m start.

The event had seven performers with talents ranging from playing guitar to showcasing their art. The event started with Major Tom himself, who performed three songs along with bass player Artie Chenault.

There were several regulars at the event, such as local artist Fred Adell, but there was also a new face. A guitarist by the name of Steve who fit right in, even feeling comfortable enough to perform an original song.

Not only are there in-person performances, but the semi-virtual format also gives a chance for performers who cannot get down to the church to send in recordings of performances. For this edition, there was a submission from the former associate conductor for "The King and I" at the Lincoln Center, Tim Laciano.

A regular of the Coffeehouse, a music major at the Catholic University of America, Dan Bosko enjoys not only performing, but the community element of the entire event.

“Personally, there is nothing more enriching for me, as a musician, than to experience the presence of others who are listening to music I am creating,” said Bosko. “Seeing their faces as I play reminds me of the greater purpose of what I am doing; communication with other human beings.”

Bosko performing at the Oct. 24 event (Photo by Diana Gilday)

Since it's a live event, some things tend to go wrong. There is often dead air when performers are switching and issues with audio, in terms of volume and feedback.

Byrne fixing the audio issue by putting a mic up to Espenshade’s guitar (Screenshot from the livestream on the All Saints Episcopal Church, Bayside NY YouTube channel)

There was one point towards the end of the stream where Espenshade’s guitar battery died. His guitar produced no sound for a whole song, but Byrne was quick on his feet to fix the issue.

Despite all these hitches, the event is always one to look forward to, not just for performers, but for those watching along online.

“This is wonderful!” said All Saints parishioner Stella Libone Elder.

“Very nice!!” said Bayside resident Susan Placella. “Great thing to do.”

Bokso, like other performers, is extremely grateful for the opportunity to perform in front of people again.

“The lack of friends and peers to engage in the music with me has left me without inspiration at times,” said Bosko. “The coffeehouse returns this inspiration for me during these times. When I view and listen to musical/artistic peers, my balance is restored. I feel enriched to pursue my craft again. There is nothing more beautiful than community.”


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