1 in 6 Americans sing in a choir, and lately it looks like they have all joined The Brady Bunch, or the cast of Hollywood Squares. Videos of so-called virtual choirs, with individual videos creating a composite performance of choral music done from a safe distance, are all over social media.
Above is an example, performed by members of Nashville Notes. They’re singing an arrangement by 91Classical Student Composer Fellow Isaac Herrenbruck.
These videos provide an opportunity for creativity in a time when live concerts are simply not possible. But behind the squares lies hours of technical work. Vanderbilt and Nashville Symphony Chorus Director Tucker Biddlecombe has experience with all facets of the virtual choir. He has been rehearsing the Symphony Chorus over Zoom for the last few months. He said that the first necessity is to put all the singers on mute because of the latency between guests on a video call.
I demonstrated this phenomenon by asking my church choir to sing Happy Birthday to one of its members.
That fraction of a second doesn’t make a huge difference when a group is talking. But with half a beat lost here and there, pretty soon the singing is way off.
Biddlecombe outlined his procedure for setting up a video rehearsal, which he says is more of a guided practice. He records an accompaniment in advance, then plays the recording while conducting for the singers. Since the audio is coming from him, it’s all lined up on video.
He said that he was impressed with the singers’ engagement – members of the choir asked questions in the comments, and even owned up to their mistakes and asked to hear a passage again.
“I think it’s indicative of the fact that we have an open, strong culture in the room,” he said, noting that a singer who feels secure in their situation will be honest about mistakes.
Some things don’t change going into an electronic rehearsal. A choir that is engaged will be engaged no matter what. But one thing that Biddlecombe noticed was different? His own exhaustion level. It takes double the energy to be engaged in a situation where, as he says, “there’s nothing coming back to you” since he couldn’t hear how the singers progressed.
But the rehearsals can succeed, leading to satisfying results. Earlier this month Biddlecombe collaborated with his wife, Blair Children’s Chorus director Mary Biddlecombe, to put together the BCC’s spring concert. (note: the author’s child is a member of this chorus). These are the kinds of videos you’ve seen on social media, and like the one above from Nashville Notes.
Virtual choirs are not actually a new concept. Eric Whitacre’s first group of this kind performed Lux Arumque in March of 2010 – about a year before Zoom existed. So, how did they do it? There’s one big trick to know, and it applies to virtual choirs, composite performances like the Disney sing-along and Sondheim celebration, as well as various orchestras’ group videos.
It’s not live.
The director creates an audio file that combines accompaniment and a click track in some form – something with which to sing. And then, especially for choir, this gets combined with a video of a conductor, still helping with entrances and expression. In Biddlecombe’s case, he sent it to the singers via an unlisted YouTube link.
Choir members get the video at home, and record themselves on video singing their own part. They submit the files to in an online dropbox, and then the director or engineer has all of the materials to put together a performance. In the case of the children’s choirs, this took about a week and a half. The next step was to separate the audio and the video so that they could be edited and mixed separately.
Biddlecombe focused on syncing up the voices and matching the levels of volume appropriately, eschewing autotune in favor of the genuine sound of the kids’ voices.
Then, he edited the video separately with no sound, make sure the mouths moving were coordinated, and finally put it together in two big pieces.
There’s a learning curve, and Biddlecombe says he’s getting progressively faster. But nobody is saying this is easy. For every minute of content, he estimates he spends about two hours of editing. The concert that the Biddlecombes put together for the Blair Children’s Chorus had 38 minutes of singing. As Biddlecombe says, “It’s not a pretty tale.” But for the audience, it’s an exciting result.
The concert video only stayed public for 24 hours, but it was watched 4000 times. So while he describes it as a lot of work, Biddlecombe is clear that it’s worthwhile. Especially so given the goal of the video: for the students to have a culminating experience for their year. And in this case, unlike a one-shot concert, performers can send virtual choir performances to family out of town, who may never otherwise hear the child singing.
It’s an overwhelming prospect to teachers who never anticipated meeting their students any way but live. But it’s something that administrators are beginning to ask for as uncertainty about returning to rehearsal grows. In choir, as in everywhere, the priority will continue to be the singers’ safety.
One day choirs will be together in the same room again. But in the meantime, it’s these types of innovation that will keep America singing.
91Classical will continue to share videos of local musicians performing during the 2020 concert hall shutdown on our social media. Find us at 91Classical on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.