by Amy Nathan
“If you give yourself to something that you think isn’t going to work, sometimes it does,” says retired school teacher and lifelong choir member Linda Bluth. She’s commenting on a surprising new musical bright spot that has popped up during the coronavirus pandemic: ordinary people becoming recording artists. From Brooklyn’s Grace Chorale to the New Horizons ensembles of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and East Lansing, Michigan, as well as students at New York’s Third Street Music School and Baltimore’s OrchKids program, lockdown-frustrated avocational musicians and music students have been making their recording debuts in online videos of virtual performances.
Professional orchestras started this video boom in the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown. With in-person concerts cancelled, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and others posted videos showing screens of rectangular boxes, each containing a professional musician in their own homes, playing a piece together, providing some sense of normalcy, that at least the music world was alive and well.
Soon avocational musicians gave it a try, including Linda Bluth’s Baltimore church choir. In-person choir practice was out of the question, as were online rehearsals. A lag time in sound transmission between online devices makes it nearly impossible for those on different ends of an online connection to play or sing in sync. “The need to make music with other people just throbs; it is such a deep ache,” says Kathy Fleming, a singer in Bluth’s choir who persuaded the others to make a video, with each of them recording themselves at home singing their parts to a song. Bluth wasn’t sure she wanted others to hear a recording of her singing. “I’m older,” explains this alto. “My voice isn’t what it used to be, not that I was ever a soloist. Kathy prevailed upon me to do it. I’m happy I did. It was satisfying to see how it all came together. But it felt so lonely to be doing this at home, by myself. I like the communal making of music, doing it with other people.”
To help choir members learn their parts, Fleming prepared tapes of the piece for singers to listen to at home. On the tapes, four of the choir’s strongest singers sang the separate parts—soprano, alto, tenor and base—to piano accompaniment. When choir members felt they knew their parts, they used a cellphone or tablet to record themselves singing it. While recording, each listened to the reference tape through earbuds, to keep the right rhythm. Only their own singing was recorded. Their church, Govans Presbyterian, hired a tech person to combine the recordings. “It’s embarrassing to hear yourself sing,” notes fellow alto, Patricia Short. “But I knew they would blend it all together. If it’s not exactly right, they’ll blend it.” Their first blended virtual performance video was such a hit that they made another.
Dr. Joyce Garrett used a similar strategy with the choirs she directs at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. “We have all ages and levels of ability participate because you want to include everyone you can, connect with all these wonderful people,” she explains. “If some don’t have the best voices, we may not use their audio as much, but we include all their faces in the video.”
A small choir I sing with in White Plains, New York, used a different method for helping us learn our parts. Our accompanist, Georgianna Pappas, made a recording of the piano accompaniment, and then made additional recordings, over-dubbing herself singing each part on top of the piano track. We then spent several weeks having weekly Zoom meetings so each of us had chances to turn on the mic on our computers and sing a section of the piece for the choir director to hear and correct. As the lone demonstrator struggled to sing, the others put their mics on mute and sang along at home, even though nobody could hear their singing until it was their turn to be the guinea pig. As choir member Kim Force notes, “It was harder than I thought to record one perfect, uninterrupted take. I was so proud of the final product. Seeing everyone’s faces and hearing their voice was incredibly joyful.” A British ensemble, the St. Giles Festival Choir, has created a video on the ups and downs of making these videos.
However, an ad-hoc woodwind quintet found a way around the online lag time. They recorded a lovely four-minute piece, “Waiting Room,” that they played together at the same time via Zoom with all mics live, as if they were in a pre-pandemic recital hall, even though they were in their own homes. The group’s French horn player, New York pediatrician Dr. Marc Wager, asked Zeke Hecker, a retired Vermont school teacher-turned composer, to write a piece for the quintet in which the online lag wouldn’t matter. “It didn’t take long to realize that I had to write a piece in which people don’t play together,” Hecker explains. “I made sure that people don’t have to enter and exit at precisely the same time or keep the same rhythm. Some are playing long drone notes against which someone else plays a melody line. They all have the score and can hear when someone has stopped playing and that it’s then their turn to start. There are also silences.” The quintet recorded a live Zoom performance that they’ve shared privately with friends. “I’m astonished at the favorable reception,” says Hecker.
Other avocational musicians—and some pros, too—are turning to a new free software program to conquer the lag-time issue and also create some online videos: Jamulus, which permits online audio-only same-time playing from different computers. To use this software effectively requires some technical savvy, as well as an investment in several hundred dollars worth of equipment, in addition to a laptop or desktop computer. Those who have mastered this option, including the Concordia Quartet and a retired data specialist who plays violin, Tom Frenkel, have created websites with how-to advice.
Until in-person performing can safely resume, musicians of all ages and abilities will continue to find creative ways to keep the music going.
Amy Nathan is the author of Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Life (2018).
Feature image: A virtual performance video by the choir of Govans Presbyterian, Baltimore, Maryland.
Originally posted on the Oxford University Press Music Blog. Reprinted with permission.