Notes from a shutdown

Posted: April 11, 2020 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

What a strange time to be alive. 

It would be petty for an artist to complain about their loss of earnings during a global shutdown, when there’s people risking their lives at the front lines of the health services, so I won’t. Yes, it’s scary when you see every event you were scheduled to perform at for the next few months, from weddings to festivals, cancelled or postponed. But not as scary as being sent out to do your job anyway, knowing it’s dangerous. So massive respect and admiration to those that do. 

Not a lot of bright sides to this, but if there is one, perhaps it’s a new appreciation on the part of musicians and audiences alike for the value of live music. Performing music will probably always be underpaid, but the shutdown has helped to underscore that it can’t be done remotely, and it can’t be done by a robot. We all have different things we’re struggling without since the shutdown started; for me, the things I miss most profoundly – besides seeing loved ones in 3D form! – are playing with other musicians, and going to gigs (and pints, honestly, but that’s just the Irish in me). 

Luckily for me, there are two areas of what I do that can be at least attempted remotely, and those are teaching and choral direction. Teaching violin via Zoom is awkward, but it’s not impossible. Teaching choirs via Zoom, on the other hand….let me tell you a little about that:

Like many other conductors , I spent the first week or so of the shutdown chasing the ‘end of the rainbow’ software that would allow my choirs to sing together remotely. While I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how anyone could be working around the latency issues – and just to prove the point I even tried it on Zoom with one of my more advanced choirs, to hilarious effect – I kept hearing these marvellous tales of other ensembles….People would send links…’Have you tried this App? ‘You just need to adjust your audio settings’ ‘My friend’s choir is able to sing together on Zoom’ ‘What about a virtual choir’? So let’s put this to bed once and for all: there is no platform – not Zoom, nor Skype, nor Facetime – that allows for singing together, in real time, in an online choral rehearsal. If your friend’s choir claims to be doing that, good for them, but I’d be very interested to know how. They may be putting a Virtual Choir together, á la Eric Whitacre, with each singer recording their line independently and the director collating and mixing all the recordings (and, most likely, discarding some of them!) Which is impressive, but quite a different beast to singing together live, in separate locations. Incidentally, my deepest, deepest thanks to the person that put this together – it made me feel a whole lot better! 

So, how to continue with choral rehearsals in the face of these limitations? For me, it’s been about finding a solution that goes beyond giving homework – private practise is valuable, but in theory at least your singers do that anyway, pandemic or no – something that answers to singers’ need to connect with each other, even if they can’t sing together for the time being. Here’s the compromise I’ve come up with; I create rehearsal videos, covering everything from warm-ups to drilling that tricky area the tenors had been having trouble with, and post the links at our usual rehearsal time. I give singers about an hour to work privately, and then there’s a Zoom meet-up to chat about any challenges/questions arising from the videos, as well as some Choral Discussion time. For the latter, it’s useful to give themes to get the ball rolling e.g. ‘think of a choir whose sound you like and tell us why’. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement on the part of the singers with the private rehearsal videos – unless they’ve simply found some way to rig the YouTube stats! – and the feedback suggests they appreciate the connection provided by the Zoom meet-ups in the 2nd part of rehearsal as well. Is it anything like a face-to-face rehearsal? Nope. Would I want to do it indefinitely, or under any other circumstances? No way. But these are not any other circumstances, and this is better than nothing.

Footnote: Another bright side; it’s been a great time for conductors and musicians sharing resources and ideas, I’ve benefitted massively from some of the material shared by my choral colleagues in Online Teaching forums, as well as by the wonderful people at Total Choir resources. Thanks folks.

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