Categories
Choirs Music

I’m dreaming of a white…carol-book

Going from being the centre of attention on the podium, everyone’s breath waiting on your slightest movement, to once more being just another small box in the corner of someone’s screen, is bruising for the usually well-nourished conducting ego. After a precious couple of months back in action this Autumn, November’s supplementary lockdown heralded a return to the awkward arranged marriage of choral rehearsal and video-conferencing software. In leading online sessions for the non-professional choirs I work with, I have been forced into a much deeper relationship with my trusty white volume of carols than I had hitherto considered possible.

In normal circumstances, I try to avoid working on carols more than a couple of weeks before Advent. I know only too well, from my time as a singer, the loss of Christmassy magic that can accompany one’s thirtieth rendition of ‘O come all ye faithful’ during the season (perhaps especially as an alto droning away somewhere in the vicinity of middle C). However, with the short lead time involved, and with music hire companies in much more limited operation, we have been forced to turn to music which everyone would have to hand, and this has meant returning once again to the august OUP collection 100 Carols for Choirs.

We’ve now spent a few weeks mining deep in the rich seams of its (mostly) accessible and festive carol arrangements, taking two or three at a time and merrily bashing our way through them on Zoom. It’s caused me to take a closer look at a volume of which I had thought I had intimate knowledge. One happy by-product has been the discovery of some interesting things I had previously passed over – but it’s also true that its very popularity has led to a certain homogenising of the choral music of Christmas.


In a dim corner of my mind, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Javanese gamelan, where we learned that the once-multifarious regional styles of gamelan music rapidly homogenised in response to the availability of recordings of prestigious ensembles. The dissemination of the recordings led to imitation of the most admired ensembles, so that the peculiar regional differences were gradually ironed out.

It’s not a huge leap to say that a volume with the reach of Carols for Choirs has done the same. Take those Willcocks descants, for example. They are pretty uniformly excellent, tastefully yet dramatically reharmonising the tunes and providing a satisfying conclusion to the congregational carols. However, most are now so universally well-known and well-beloved that their inclusion has become de rigeur. The choirmaster who attempts to introduce different descants is greeted with a chorus of moans from choristers for whom a chord of B half-diminished is the authentic sound of their childhood Christmas. (This is despite the best efforts of OUP, who included a number of new descants in 2011’s Carols for Choirs 5.)

It’s also true that the CFC series has heaped another mound of earth on the idea of carols as belong to any season other than Christmas, despite the token inclusion in 100 CFC of one or two Easter carols. The once-popular Easter Carol Service is now more likely a service of Easter readings and anthems, depriving the Easter season of the fertile interplay between secular and sacred that manifests in carol services during Advent and Christmas.

Contemporary carol composition has also had a hand in taking the genre further from its dance-music roots. We’re rather more likely to hear a delicately-harmonised andante such as Rutter’s Cradle Song than something rambunctious in the model of Willcocks’ Angelus ad virginem or Sussex Carol. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s nice to have both presented side-by-side, giving us options for balance – especially as we’re just as likely these days to use the volume as the anchor of a festive concert programme as the backbone of a church carol service.


Internet choral celebrity Patrick Allies recently took to Twitter to lampoon the way 100 Carols is generally used. It’s a book of two halves; half the ones that everyone does every year, and the half of pieces that still languish in obscurity. Part of this is probably the gamelan effect of choirs such as that of King’s College, Cambridge, broadcasting the ‘authoritative’ carol interpretations and arrangements annually on Christmas Eve.

Knowing that I might otherwise drive myself mad spending two months on carols, I’ve been using the opportunity to take a couple of choirs on excursions around the corners of the volume I knew less well. Willcocks and Rutter took full advantage of editor’s privilege, with the result that just under half of the pieces in 100 CFC are composed or arranged by Willcocks, and a further quarter by Rutter, the unquestioned King of Christmas. There are some real gems: Willcocks tends to arrange traditional carols from various countries, while Rutter prefers to employ the Christmassy Word Randomiser(TM), generating heart-warming texts by assembling ‘stable’, ‘babe’, ‘light’ etc in various combinations. The editors’ achievement is in compiling a very complete and useful volume by casting a wide net, and, where they’ve needed to fill a gap, writing it themselves, in the great Kantor tradition.

There are a few I haven’t yet dared to tackle, even over the sound-proof medium of Zoom (on Zoom, noone can hear you scream). Among them is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ave plena gracia, placed alphabetically very near the start of the volume and a somewhat daunting sight even for the hardened chorister. I’ve never once heard of it being performed or recorded, and it appears neither on Spotify or YouTube. Go on – I dare you to include it Nine Lessons next year. And while you’re at it, write your own descant – a little bit of regional diversity isn’t such a bad thing, and we wouldn’t want to all sound the same, would we?

Categories
Choirs Conducting

Thematic concert programmes: worth the hassle?

Conductors…do not always know how to shape a meaningful whole out of smaller pieces…We often program according to some vague theme or chronological order, perhaps without real thought to or justification for our choices.

I feel, as they say, seen. The themed programme is a staple of choral concerts the world over, and yet it can often feel unsatisfying. So convinced are we of the need to theme an evening’s musical offering, to weave it tightly together to make a cogent whole, that we can often end up in an uncomfortable straitjacket. I find myself casting around for something that hasn’t already ‘been done’ in order to justify a selection of music. But is it really necessary, and can we avoid the hassle that the themed programme so often entails?

Why we use themes

The obsession with themes tends to manifest in classical choirs, and rather less so in orchestras. Partly that’s because orchestras deal on the whole in much larger chunks of music. The standard orchestral concert programme requires an overture, a concerto, and a symphony – three items, increasing in length, and usually filling up a couple of hours quite neatly. There’s often simply no need for any kind of external bracket to unify the music. Job done.

Choirs, on the other hand, have additional considerations, at least when performing on their own, or with a single accompanying instrument. The most obvious is the endurance level of the singers, reckoned generally to be lower than that of most orchestral instruments. The other is the available corpus of music, ranging from miniatures to epics, but often on the shorter side, especially where sacred music is concerned.

To compensate for the lumpy proportions of the music, choral programmes have embraced the extra-musical linking device of the theme. We want audiences to feel that what they’re hearing is a cogent hour or so’s music, and that it hangs together with some kind of consistency.

It comes from a hyper-awareness of an audience, wanting to provide them with a guide, a narrative thread, that will give them a route in to understanding and appreciating the music that the choir has prepared.

Advantages of the themed programme

A theme offers this curated experience, taking the listener lightly by the hand and leading them on a tour of whatever it is that’s being explored. A theme, whether loose or tightly-concentrated, provides a prism through which to view the music, a way to help understand and contextualise it.

Additionally, juxtaposition of items is a powerful tool to illuminate connections in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the most seemingly unlikely of segues can yield great insights into compositional process or musical sentiment. There was a recent, thrilling example of this in one of the BBC Proms’ eerily audience-less concerts this summer – Simon Rattle led the LSO straight from a Gabrieli canzona into Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a striking and unpredictable segue which played up the dramatic contrasts of groups of instruments in both pieces.

Of course, juxtaposition of this sort need not be confined to the themed programme per se. But another reason we value a unifying extra-musical element is that it provides an entry point, especially to non-specialists or those less familiar with the genre of music on offer. Even the presence of just one or two words, nominally applying to all the pieces in a concert, allows someone with little experience of listening to a particular kind of music to find ways to apply these descriptors, and find a way in.

Problems with themes

However, it’s very easy to get bogged down in a theme, or for these themes to become tired and lazy through unthinking repetition. It has become a standing joke in choral circles (if not a particularly hilarious one) that a newly-formed chamber choir will specialise in early music, new music, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell.

When inspiration doesn’t strike, it can be all to easy to pick a well-worn trope and use it as the basis for a programme – or to try and squeeze pieces into a theme that don’t belong there. Audiences can be forgiving (especially if you do this with a wink!), but it’s awkward when a piece is shoehorned into a programme where it doesn’t belong. Constructing a programme within a restrictive theme can be like playing Tetris in four dimensions.

Equally, in the desire to present a theme which hasn’t been ‘done’, it can quickly get quite abstruse. I remember thinking myself very clever for a segment of a Christmas concert which I entitled ‘The Three Kings’ and populated with music by Caspar Othmayr, Melchior Hoffman, and Balthasar Resinarius. I might have been royally pleased with myself – but did it add anything apart from being a little glib?

I sometimes think the use of themes in this heavy-handed way betrays a rather patrician lack of trust in the audience. Do we really feel that audiences can’t handle a programme which is simply a selection of music we want to perform? The enthusiasm gained on our part is surely much more valuable to the success of the concert.

In these situations, why don’t we simply free ourselves from the strictures of the theme – let ourselves off the hook a little? After all, audiences are rarely thinking about the intricacies of a programme when listening to it as much as we are when assembling it. Better to embrace this sometimes and simply say: here is some music that we think represents us right now. We hope you enjoy it.

There’s a palpable sense of relief in casting aside that unworkable theme and replacing it with the answer to the question: what do the ensemble and I actually want to perform at the moment? The results of investigating that question could be of much more value than a too-clever theme.

Teach without being didactic

Ultimately, I like to leave an artistic event, be it a concert or a visit to a gallery, feeling cleverer – but not simply because I’ve been taught something, but because I’ve figured it out for myself. I think the most successful programmes are ones that gently lead an audience to work something out on its own – figure out a connection, understand a form.

That’s one of the reasons the much-maligned chronological programme remains useful. Art galleries still generally arrange works in chronological order from early to late, and that works for us – we notice the developments in style and form, even if we don’t have specialised training. The clever curator leaves clues so that we can teach ourselves what they want us to learn from the exhibition.

In live performance, we know that even the most carefully-designed programme only comes to life if it is presented engagingly. When I first started programming and conducting concerts, I was very determined that the music should speak for itself. I remained resolutely tight-lipped as my meticulously planned programme segued imperceptibly from one piece to another. I’m sure there are times when this approach can work, but now I think it can alienate as much as it can draw in, especially with a new listener. These days – depending on the programme and the place and all sorts of other factors – I’m generally much more comfortable interrupting the musical flow at intervals to speak to the audience and offer a few thoughts on what to listen for, or how.

Clearly, these extra-musical elements are important, especially to those new to the form. It’s interesting that some of the most successful and artistically interesting choral presentations to come out of the Year of Hell that is 2020 have involved a heavy dose of narrative, implied or actual: Marian Consort’s sequence of collaborative filmed projects, or Stile Antico’s recent Journey of the Mayflower.

The challenge, then, is to find extra-musical narratives, be they thematic or otherwise, which help us generate programmes that we are actually excited about performing, and that audiences will find energising and informative.

Categories
Choirs

Diversifying repertoire: some practical considerations

In 2018, I set myself the challenge of programming a week of daily services, for my choir at Christ Church Cathedral, which would feature only music by women. The hope was that we’d find some music to introduce into our core repertoire. In this post I write about why I thought that was worth doing, how I went about it, and what I learned from it.

I think I knew, in abstract terms, that bringing in compositional voices from different backgrounds to musical genres was a Good Thing – that art being representative enriches the art form, and therefore culture more widely. But it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realised I, as a director of several musical groups, was probably in a position to put this into practice myself.

I’m not going to spend long on the arguments for diversifying repertoire; others have done so much more articulately than I could. Instead, for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that it’s probably a good idea, and go through how I tried, in a somewhat limited way, to implement it.

Suffice it to say that, as I understand it, it’s a kind of positive discrimination. We give an artificial bump to a particular demographic to correct a historical imbalance, with the aim that future generations have a level playing field. For now, we assemble the musical equivalent of ‘binders full of women’ so that in the future, it won’t matter.

I decided that the way to jump-start this process in my own creative world was to see if it was possible to mount an entire week of choral services consisting of music by women. At Christ Church Cathedral, I’m responsible for the music in those weeks of the year when the choir I direct, the Cathedral Singers, is ‘in residence’.

Several factors complicated this process, and I think they reflect a number of reasons why musical organisations sometimes find it difficult to broaden their repertoire, even when the will is there.

Challenges

In the British cathedral tradition, we generally have about 45 minutes or so to rehearse an evening’s music before performing it in the context of a service. This particular choir faces the additional restriction that it has a flexible membership – it can be an entirely different group of singers from one evening to the next. It pretty much means that anything we perform has to be either already well-known, or rehearsable in a very short amount of time.

Instantly, that knocks out a certain quantity of contemporary music. It means we lean heavily into the traditional ‘canon’ of Anglican choral music, which clusters around the 19th century and Tudor periods, and accordingly consists with few exceptions of music by white men. We’ve come to rely on the institutional knowledge of those who’ve been singing in parish, cathedral, and college choirs since they were children.

I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of reconciling these limitations with the need of any group to expand its repertoire and skills. But, as you can see from the following box diagram, it forces a number of restrictions on would-be innovators:

And there’s a further box, really, which is ‘good quality’. If the music fits in all the other boxes, but isn’t actually any good, then it’s not doing it’s job in the liturgy (not to mention the singers won’t want to sing it).

Resources

Finding music within this small box means casting a wide net. There are web resources, curated like Cecilia’s List (now a little out of date), open to all like CPDL or IMSLP, or publisher pages for more established composers, like OUP, Boosey & Hawkes, and Edition Peters.

Immediately frustrating was the lack of score samples across many of these. Publishers are improving, but it’s far from consistent across the board. It’s hard to know if a piece is right if you can’t see the score. Additionally, the ‘rehearsable in a short amount of time’ constraint inevitably led me to simpler music, much of which wasn’t very good – it’s much more difficult to write simple music well, and it is much more the preserve of amateur composers writing for amateur ensembles.

Conclusions

In the end, our success rate was about 89% – all the music we sang was by women, except for the hymns and the mass setting, used twice that week. Music included Amy Beach, Margaret Rizza, Sarah MacDonald, Debbie Rose, Stephanie Martin, Sarah Rimkus, and Eleanor Daley, almost all of it new to the choir.

We bit off slightly more than we could chew on a couple of occasions, but the singers had prepared well. Several of the pieces have, as I’d hoped, found a place in our regular repertoire.

Here are my main takeaways from the project:

  • Non-standard repertoire doesn’t come to you; you have to seek it out, and this takes a lot longer than you would think

Conductors are used to piles of unsolicited scores arriving in the post, or in their inbox, but in my experience it’s been rare for these to be from women. Instead, it means a lot of trawling on the internet

  • Constraint breeds creativity

I knew I wanted to use Beach’s lovely Nunc dimittis, but it doesn’t have a doxology, or a Magnificat partner – standard requirements for evensong repertoire. We paired it with a plainchant Magnificat, and I wrote a Gloria for the Beach using the music from the opening

  • Composers, especially early in their careers, need to put score samples online

Finding appropriate repertoire took so long that I ended up instantly dismissing composers whose scores I couldn’t see. Recordings aren’t a good substitute

  • If I made this work(ish), within the limitations outlined above, then those programming with fewer constraints can too

I don’t always, or indeed often, manage the amount of inclusion that I should, and I’m very aware that much of my programming falls short in this regard. But the fact that I did it once reminds me that it is possible.

What I hope to do now is help enlarge the size of that small box, in the little ways that I can, be it by competitions, commissions, or simply recommendations. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a situation of unconstrained choice, which can only be good for us.

Categories
Choirs Leadership

Musical leadership without music

The role of conductor changed abruptly in mid-March of this year. For me, it’s thrown the nature of musical leadership into the spotlight: how can those of us with responsibility for musical direction maintain this responsibility when a direct musical relationship isn’t possible?

The business world tells us that the companies that do well are those that are light on their feet. They adapt; they are, in teeth-grinding but somewhat useful management-speak, agile, alert to market conditions and ready to respond.

Musical groups are not businesses, or at least they don’t like to think of themselves that way. But the substantially ‘market-altering’ conditions which 2020 has visited on the performing arts have forced change on a genre which is normally remarkably resistant to it: western classical music. Likewise the leader or conductor of the group has had to make changes, and in this post I’m reflecting on mine, thinking out loud about musical leadership in a time of crisis.

A change in goals

Until earlier this year, the goal of the groups I direct was largely to work towards musical performances, and build up our common musicianship along the way. Goals are important for the motivation of any organisation, and musical groups are no different – indeed, many now have ‘mission statements’, a concept imported from the business world.

Our goals have adapted and evolved during the various stages of lockdown, roughly along the following lines:

  1. Keep our community intact

The immediate priority for me was making sure that, however long this all lasted, there would still be a strong sense of community within the group. The worst thing would be if, after all this, there remained only the husk of an ensemble to come back to. Zoom meet-ups, virtual pub quizzes, seminars and workshops formed a large part of this initial phase.

During this time, we became familiar with and adjusted to the requirements of online meetings, a necessary relearning of the rules of interaction.

  1. Maintain our musicianship

After these initial experiences with online get-togethers, my focus turned towards how to preserve any gains we’ve made in our musicianship, technique, or other skills, so that when we return, we can hit the ground running, without having lost too much momentum. This is where online music sessions came in.

I’ve generally resisted the term ‘virtual rehearsal’ when talking about these – it’s not really the same thing as a rehearsal, at least in the OED’s sense of ‘practice performance…in preparation for later public performance’. The most cynical way to think about it would be a sort of ‘choral karaoke’ – but I think even this has value.

The online sessions had a similar structure to our in-person rehearsals, but with a shift in focus: away from an eventual performance, and towards preservation of key skills. The warm-up was slightly longer, focusing on maintaining healthy technique even in a confined space or if sitting. The preparation of a piece was necessarily more basic, with no possibility of rehearsing anything involving ensemble. Instead we looked at possible interpretations, attention to details in the score, poetry and text. Performance was done along to a guide recording, either pre-existing or recorded by me for this purpose.

The performance element of the rehearsal had an almost completely different function – not so much cementing an interpretation honed or notes learned, as listening and reacting to an unfamiliar recording. Sometimes this led to critical listening of a performance or recording.

3. Produce something

Being a performing ensemble ultimately means generating a performance of some kind. Most of us are still in the process of working out what this looks like within the constraints currently imposed on us. I’ve written about one answer here. And with my cathedral choir, we’ve been recording items for use in broadcast services along the lines described here.

The autumn will provide the real test of ingenuity, if current restrictions continue. I’ve got some ideas, and I’m excited to see what others will come up with.

Lest this sound self-congratulatory, I think I was slow to react in the early stages, when we didn’t really have a notion of how long this might last. I was initially sceptical of taking everything online, and I might have been tempted to batten down the hatches and wait for it all to blow over. It was seeing others boldly pushing out of their comfort zone that inspired me to do the same.

Setting the tone

Perhaps more strongly than the move to redefine goals, the thing that came home to me was how much people look to leaders/conductors for moral and emotional leadership. No big surprise, you might think; but it reminded me of my responsibility.

When the message comes down from the top that ‘everything will be OK’, or ‘we’ll get through this and emerge stronger’, it permeates through the ensemble. If it’s true that what counts is ‘not what happens to us, but the way that we react to it’, then, in organisational terms, leaders set the tone and pattern of that reaction.

In those weeks where I was able to successfully project this optimism and reassurance – even if I wasn’t completely convinced myself – we ended our sessions with a sense of positivity and potential.

I’ve been trying to stay on the right side of a fine line: between the energetic, tigger-ish buoyancy that completely ignores what’s going on; and the quieter, more stable outlook which acknowledges the difficulty while believing in the strength of everyone involved to overcome it. There’s a place for both approaches. The first style might beget the response ‘I completely forgot about all the bad things for a couple of hours’, while the other might lead to ‘I didn’t forget about the bad things; but I remembered that we can overcome them’.


In Oxford, I used to occasionally act as a guinea-pig for MBA students and others at the University’s Said Business School. Unsuspecting lawyers, engineers, middle managers, or students would be thrust in front of a group of professional singers and told to conduct. They had no prior training, and, with few exceptions, no idea what they were doing.

Some would get up immediately, wave their hands around enthusiastically, and be rather surprised when nothing happened. But the most successful at this exercise were not the ones who tried to bulldoze their way through on pure confidence. Instead, they got up, and, with a mixture of openness, positivity, and humility, engendered a genuine connection, making us want them to succeed even when their technique was deficient.

I often miss the mark; but I think this is what I’m going for.

The last few months have frequently held up a mirror – literally, in the case of online video conferencing, or self-videography – in which we can see our attempts at leadership played back to us. I’ve found it a salient reminder of the need to try and maintain that openness, positivity, and humility.

Categories
Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free* software: Part 3 – Video

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online [though see update below!], and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 1 & Part 2

[Update, March 2021: I’ve recently done a couple more of these videos, and decided to return to these posts, to see if they can be made more helpful, in the light of my more recent experiences. Most importantly, I’ve downgraded the headline from ‘free’ to ‘free*’. It’s definitely possible to do this with freely available software – but I’ve found that spending a little money on professional editing software makes the process roughly 10 times easier and more enjoyable.]

We’ve got our audio. Now it’s time to put the video together.

Step 3: Transcoding the video

This sounds fancy, but it’s really just the process of making sure all the videos you’ve been sent will play nicely with each other. Different phones produce different kinds of files, and film at different frame-rates. Handbrake will put them all into a format that Premiere/Lightworks can handle.

NB Phone cameras generally use variable frame rate (VFR) to make the size of the file smaller. Many video editing programmes don’t like that, as it makes things much harder to line up – that’s why we’re ‘transcoding’ the videos to use a constant frame rate (CFR)

  • Add the file to Handbrake when prompted
  • From the presets, select ‘Production Standard’
  • On the ‘Video’ tab, make sure you’ve selected ‘Constant Frame Rate’, and specified a frame rate to work at. 30fps is fine for our purposes. It should be the same for all the video files in the project
  • Press ‘Encode’ to generate the new file, and give it a new name so you know it’s the version you’re going to use
  • Do this for all the videos you’ve been sent
Transcoding in Handbrake

Step 4: Assembling the video

  • Create your project in Premiere Pro/Lightworks (or use the preexisting conducting video project) and add all the newly-transcoded videos, each with their own Video and Audio track
  • To create that split-screen effect, select each clip, and make each video smaller (using Scale), then change its position along the X and Y axes (using Position) (DVE in Lightworks) (see Note below)
  • Soon enough, you’ll have a screen full of videos. Now, in the EDIT tab, you can line them up with each other by using the audio of each track, and lining up the ‘clap’ waveform, just as you did when lining up the audio
  • This done, you can mute all the audio tracks and import the one you’re actually going to use – the mixdown from Cubase we made in Part 2
  • Export the edit
  • You could leave it like this, but if you want to add transitions and fades-in etc, rather than use the same project, create a new project and import the video you just made. This reduces the burden on the computer processor
  • That’s it!

Note: The Grid

There’s some maths to be done here – work out by what factor you need to make each clip smaller in order for them to fit into the grid.* In the end I used a 7×7 grid to accommodate my 27 participants. I suspect there’s a more elegant solution out there. I could have used a 6×6 grid, of course, but then my conducting video would have been off-centre, and I couldn’t allow myself not to be the centre of attention!

This is greatly complicated by the fact that not everyone will have sent you a video of the same size. A video of dimensions 1980×1080 will need a different scale factor applied to it to make it the same size as one which is in 640×480. Get out the calculator if you can be bothered, or you can eyeball it if you’re feeling lucky.

I got sent a couple of portrait videos. At that stage I decided that rather than asking them to repeat in landscape, I would simply crop and scale them to look landscape, in a rather trial-and-error process.

In my first videos, I just nestled the videos up next to each other with no gap in between – I felt it looked neater than separating them. However, subsequently I experimented with ‘feathering’ the edges of each individual video, which helps make them look more uniform (see here for an example).

Premiere Pro has an effect called ‘Edge Feather’ which is supposed to do this, but for reasons best known to itself, it didn’t work in the largest video I’ve made (circa 40 participants). I hit upon the (very fiddly) solution of using an online picture editor to create a 7×7 grid, blurring the edges, then overlaying it on top of the other videos. Here is the result. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to create the grid before importing any of the videos.

Note: The Background

By default, your background will be black, but this makes the videos show up very starkly and will highlight any inconsistencies in the way they are filmed. Instead, I used the colour-picker tool to lift an off-white colour from the background wall of one of the videos, and created a background ‘matte’ from it, to go behind all the videos. I like the ‘clean’ effect it gives the final video.

Assembly in Premiere Pro

Final Thoughts

There are probably a number of ways I’ve made this more complicated than it has to be. I have, though, generated a work-flow that seems to get the results I’m after. As I’ve mentioned, you can take bits of it that you like, and incorporate them into your own way of doing it – let me know what you come up with!

I’m probably going to end up making more of these, and I’m keen to refine the process. I think it’s worth conductors dabbling – these formats are not going away. Judge for yourself below..!

Categories
Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free* software: Part 2 – Audio

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online [though see update below!], and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 3

[Update, March 2021: I’ve recently done a couple more of these videos, and decided to return to these posts, to see if they can be made more helpful, in the light of my more recent experiences. Most importantly, I’ve downgraded the headline from ‘free’ to ‘free*’. It’s definitely possible to do this with freely available software – but I’ve found that spending a little money on professional editing software makes the process roughly 10 times easier and more enjoyable.]

We’ve looked at why we might want to have a go at a split-screen music video. Now let’s look at one way of actually doing it.

Note: This is just one of a thousand different ways you could approach this. I’m not claiming this is the best way – just the one that worked for me, which I mostly figured out as I went along.

Further note: I’m going to address this to the moderately tech-savvy. This is purely a guide to what I did – take all or none of it. It presupposes using YouTube tutorials to get the basics of the software, so I’m not going to cover these in the guide.

What you’ll need

This is the most basic version of the equipment you’ll need to put this together.

  • A reasonably well-specced computer
    • There’s no getting away from this, I’m afraid – video editing eats processing power for breakfast. You’ll need a reasonable amount of RAM and a decent CPU. If you’re using a MacBook, you’ve probably already got this. If not, check your system specs – I reckon 4-8 GB of RAM and a reasonably modern processor should do it, together with enough space on the hard drive for quite a few videos!
  • Audio editing software
    • I used Cubase, which is available as a free trial. If you need longer, it’s not too expensive to buy, or you could try Audacity, which is rather more fiddly, but free for life
  • Video editing software
    • Adobe Premiere Pro. It has a really good introductory tutorial built in. I initially used it on a free trial, but subsequently decided it was worth the money to purchase a subscription for now (~£20 per month)
    • There’s also Lightworks, which is free and does the same sorts of things, and Shotcut, which is also well-specced. However, I have found that these free editors become unstable after a certain number of tracks are added. A little investment in the software prevents a multitude of headaches down the line
  • Handbrake
    • This helps us make sure all the video files submitted to us can be edited by the software, by converting them all into the same format
  • Time

Step 1: Create the Guide

You could simply make your performers record audio and video at the same time. However, this can be a little overwhelming – it’s a lot of pressure to think about both the visual and the audio at the same time when you are recording yourself, and it makes editing and controlling the audio trickier.

We’re going to record the audio and video components of the video separately, then put them together afterwards. This means that the performers can focus entirely on getting their performance right, then, having done so, can effectively mime the video. This allows for a more engaging presentation.

Creating the Guide

The performers need a guide recording to perform along to. It can be as simple as a metronome, but the more the performers feel like they’re performing with others, the better, and some have used preexisting recordings for this purpose, grafting their own voices or instruments on top of it.

I don’t find either of these solutions particularly gratifying. Using a metronome can lead to a rather mechanical performance, and singing along to someone else’s recording doesn’t allow the freedom of your own interpretation.

Note: in fact, some the pieces I chose needed a flexible tempo, which a metronome would make impossible, and there weren’t any extant recordings to use.

Here’s how I made my guide recording:

  • Using my phone, I took a video of myself, clapping on the fourth beat of a metronome – beep, beep, beep, clap – followed by me conducting the piece to camera.
  • I then recorded myself playing the choral parts/accompaniment on the piano into the audio software (Cubase), while watching the video I had just made (making sure to clap along at the beginning), then exported this as a .wav file
  • In the video editor (Premiere Pro), I lined up my new piano recording with the video, by lining up where the two ‘clap’ waveforms were on the audio tracks – they’re pretty easy to spot. I then exported this video
  • Watching the new video, I repeated the piano recording process, except this time recording myself singing the vocal parts, always lining them up using the clap

Make a rough mix of the voices and piano in the audio editor by adjusting the track levels on the mixer until you’re happy. Then add it as the audio to your conducting video.

For a recent video, I actually made four different versions of this ‘guide’ mix, each one emphasising a particular voice-part by putting it forward in the mix, and the others back. This was a lot more work, but the singers found it helpful to have a strong lead on their part to sing along with.

After exporting, this left me with a video of me clapping, then conducting an invisible ensemble of piano and singers. By following myself conducting, instead of using a metronome, I was able to allow for breaths and a slightly more organic performance. It also forces you to learn whether you’re easy to follow or not!

Note: I asked friends to supply the voice-parts I couldn’t sing. If there’s no one around and you don’t feel like doing it, why not engage some professional singers to lay down guide tracks for a few bob – they’ll appreciate the work.

Send it to the Performers

Send the video to the group, along with detailed instructions as to how to contribute – everything from positioning the recording device, to warming up beforehand, and clapping with the guide. I based my guidelines on the excellent list available here (geared towards the acappella tradition but mostly applicable).

Experience suggests the following problems are most common (and need highlighting in the instructions!): the orientation of the videos (I prefer landscape, but everyone has to do the same or it looks messy); forgetting to clap in the audio/video/both.

Each participant records audio (with headphones in) and then video separately (no headphones), and sends you both files. Use a service that permits the transfer of large files, such as WeTransfer, wesendit, iCloud, Google Drive, etc.

Step 2: Assembling the Audio

Lining up clap waveforms in Cubase

As you receive the audio files, import them into Cubase, and line them up with the guide recording using the clap.

NB You might need to make sure they’re in a format Cubase can read – for example, it doesn’t like Apple’s m4a format, so I used this website to convert those to wav.

Hopefully this should mean they’re vaguely together with each other – you can make micro-adjustments if not. You can trim ‘rogue’ moments out, add some reverb to distance the sound a little, and use the Mixer to get the balance right between parts. Play about until you’re happy, then export to a single file. Remember to leave in the ‘clap’ so that you can synchronise it to the video in the next stage.

If you can access plugins, I’ve found the following invaluable, used on the whole mix: DeEsser (to de-emphasise those sibilants); Limiter (to prevent the audio from getting too loud and creating distortion); EQ (taking off highs and lows creates a bit of distance); Reverb. The latter presents an interesting challenge: you want it to sound like the listener is hearing a choir at the normal distance away (10 meters or so), but must reconcile this with the fact that the singers’ faces are right up by the screen, which psychologically suggests a more intimate sound.

If you’re just making an audio virtual recording, you can stop there. If hubris hasn’t yet got the better of you, though, the final stage is video. Hold on to your hats (and spare a thought for your poor computer).

Next week:

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 3 – Video

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Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free* software: Part 1 – Why

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online [though see note below!], and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 2: Audio and here for Part 3: Video

[Update, March 2021: I’ve recently done a couple more of these videos, and decided to return to these posts, to see if they can be made more helpful, in the light of my more recent experiences. Most importantly, I’ve downgraded the headline from ‘free’ to ‘free*’. It’s definitely possible to do this with freely available software – but I’ve found that spending a little money on professional editing software makes the process roughly 10 times easier and more enjoyable.]

You can’t escape them, it seems. Open your social media account of choice and there they are: serried ranks of faces, at once charming and somehow alien, singing directly at you. It seems almost magical, like they’re under a spell.

These kinds of videos aren’t new, but Covid-induced lockdowns have prompted a remarkable surge in interest in this quintessentially 21st-century form of performance. But how hard are they to produce? Do you need to hire a professional video editor, or can it be done by anyone with a bit of time on their hands and a taste for masochism? More importantly, is this a bandwagon worth jumping on?

I’m going to try and answer those questions over three posts, from the perspective of a musical professional but a technological amateur. My hope is that it will be a helpful resource to anyone thinking about doing this over the next few months, or beyond.

Let’s begin with the philosophical, before moving on to the technical.

Why make a video?

First things first: ‘because everyone else is doing it’ probably isn’t a good enough reason. I’ve joked about the bandwagon, but ultimately I think it’s only worth doing if it satisfies certain criteria: will my ensemble enjoy it? will it serve our mission/purpose? does this format serve us? Let’s address them in order.

Will we enjoy it?

If you’re working with an amateur ensemble, you presumably want this to be an enjoyable venture, or at least not an actively disagreeable one. The difficulties for the amateur contributor are not inconsiderable and shouldn’t be underestimated: 1) noone is at their peak of technical or vocal health during lockdown 2) not everyone has the same technology, or aptitude for it 3) there’s nowhere to hide and no safety in numbers, and 4) hearing/seeing yourself alone can be a very disheartening experience – even for professionals! Not to mention that everyone is adapting to different demands on their time and energy.

My solution has been to be upfront about these difficulties – to stress that the final product will be worth it, and that noone is being judged on their performance. As I’ve said numerous times, I wouldn’t anyone judging me on the current state of my lockdown-lapsed breath control! I’ve encouraged members of my ensembles to just give it a go, and promised that most things can be fixed in the edit.

Additionally, I’ve put in the caveat that if we as an ensemble don’t think it represents us as we wish to come across, we won’t release it publicly. Which brings us to the next criteria: what does it do for us?

What does it do for us?

Ultimately, once things are out there in the public domain, it’s pretty hard to close the box. You’ve got to be fairly sure that what you do put out there is going to reflect positively on the group.

There have been some terrific videos, which will certainly have long-lasting reputational benefits to those ensembles. This one is effective. And this one, below, from my old choir, is really slick and shows the group at home in their core repertoire. But it’s probably fair to say that not all the groups that have put videos out there are going to want them to stay there for time immemorial. So take a moment to think about reputational benefit vs risk.

Perhaps there’s a particular repertoire that’s under-recorded that your group specialises in. There might be a unique interpretation you can bring to bear, or a piece that says something about your identity as a group, or about the current situation. I think these are the most compelling reasons (and incidentally, I think they apply to commercial CD recordings too).

Ultimately, the way I’ve framed it to my groups is this: we’ll challenge ourselves to have a go. If we think it represents us well or is of value in some way, we’ll release it. If not, at the very least it’s generated something that we can keep and share internally, a memento of a bizarre year.

There’s a solution to the current situation which is group-shaped, by which I mean there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Each of my main choirs has come at it differently, and come up with approaches to addressing it which suit them. Some will involve remote recordings, but not all. There’s no shame in not doing these, and they’re not right for all situations.

Next steps

Now we know why we’re doing this and what we hope to get out of it. Next comes the fun part.

Next week:

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 2 – Audio

Categories
Choirs Creativity Technology

Lockdown lessons: three habits to take back with us to normality

2020 has seen choirs, orchestras, and all manner of other cultural organisations forced online. It’s fair to say that for many it’s been an uncomfortable transition. But what can we learn from the adaptations we’ve made? And could there be things we’d like to take back with us into normality?

During the lockdown months, I got into habits – some good, some less so. Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about what I can take forward from this time into ‘normal’ life. For me, habits such as the mid-morning coffee, brewed slowly and deliberately, and daily exercise, are ones I’d like to continue. But are there new habits that ensembles have formed in this time that can be of value in a theoretical virus-free future?


Community

A choir of a hundred people subdivides into voice-parts, and probably then further into multiple social groupings. It can be difficult to break out of those and get to know who else is performing at the other end of the room.

One thing several members of my ensembles have commented on recently is that they feel that they know more people in the group. The online ‘rehearsals’ that we’ve been having weekly present everyone in a very egalitarian way, each in an identically-sized box, and, importantly, next to their name. It’s been invaluable to me as a conductor and ensemble-members have benefited from it too.

The randomised ‘coffee’ break-outs, which put attendees into smaller rooms for a chat for a few minutes, before unceremoniously dumping them back in the main room, have also helped with encouraging interaction beyond automatic social groupings.

It’s a truism that people who go through adversity together form strong bonds. The challenge will be to maintain and further strengthen them once the adversity is over.


Technical Skills

Both participants and leaders of groups have had to learn new skills to maintain their connections. Even some of the more technology-shy have been surprised by how easily they’ve been able to learn to attend online meetings, or make and submit recordings.

Leaders have learned these skills too, managing newly-digital ensembles, and have often strayed quite far into the technical realm, making guide recordings or assembling multi-tracked performances.

These skills are not temporary assets, and the requirement to master digital skills is not going to go away. Even in a post-virus world, the arc of the social universe tends towards the digital. In a world that, whether we like it or not, will increasingly view its culture from behind a screen, these skills are necessary evolutionary adaptations. Even predominantly live groups are going to have to learn how to exist in both physical and online dimensions.


Presentation

Closed door performances, live-streamed. Pay-per-view singalongs and workshops. Pieces designed for performance over video-conferencing. Innovations are being made not just in rehearsal but performance, and we’ll see even more imaginative variants this autumn.

In the amateur world, some may feel able to return to regular activities, while some will prefer to remain online. There may be hybrid concerts, with some performers live and some pre-recorded. We may see outdoor venues being used in different ways.

This kind of variety is good for the art. It keeps performers and audiences from complacency. It may even herald the ‘shake-up’ of live performance conventions which we are often told is so badly needed, especially in the ‘classical’ sector.


It might seem unfeeling to write of hopes for the future at a time of fundamental uncertainty for creative people of all kinds. All around us, cultural institutions are crumbling, and many involved in the arts are considering their options.

I remain hopeful that there will be a future for us. And if there is, we could do worse than taking into it with us any positive things we’ve learned.