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Creativity

Learning curves: on being bad at things

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which musicians and other artists have been coping with the present situation – one which is, as we are constantly reminded, unprecedented. I know several who launched energetically into diversification almost as soon as the first lockdown was pronounced, pivoting as much of their activity as they could to the internet and going all-in online.

Others have battened down the hatches, keeping a low profile until it all blows over. This better suits those of us with a less entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s a strategy that takes a hit every time another lockdown is announced. I took something of a middle path, educating myself just enough in things audio and visual to be able to keep some form of online engagement just about ticking over.

Right now, this is pretty much all I’m doing: hosting online musical meet-ups with choirs in the evenings, and spending the rest of the time score-learning, battling ennui, and very cautiously planning the 21-22 season. (this latter must be done in whispers – if it hears us it might decide to go the way of the current season…)

However, I’ve also taken up something completely different: drawing. Full disclosure: I am very bad at drawing. Or, at least, I have always thought of myself as very bad at drawing, having displayed no aptitude for it at school – my primary-school cartoon strip, ‘Gauss, the Famous Mathematician’, being notable for its eccentricity rather than for any artistic merit.

After a couple of weeks drawing for half an hour a day, I am pleased to report that I am still quite bad, but joyously, entertainingly and divertingly so. It is a great pleasure being bad at drawing, especially because there is so much room to get better. When I do manage to produce something that actually possesses realistic proportions, or bears a passable similarity to its intended subject, this is an occasion for great rejoicing.

Learning curves

A few reflections arise from this (or would, but I haven’t learned how to do them yet). For one, the feeling reminds me a little of when I took up the organ. Doing so as an adult, post-university, made me something of an exception when compared to my colleagues in church music, who are almost all fantastic prodigies with sparks flying from their fingers and well-earned postnominals coming out of their ears.

What was so enjoyable about it was the almost physical sensation of my brain developing new pathways as I practised. It was as if I could feel the neurons intrepidly mining new channels, whilst I laboured to separate the fingers of my left hand on the keyboard from my feet on the pedals. I was experiencing that exhilarating first rush of the learning curve.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Alanf777_Lcd_fig05.png

Because it had been so long since I’d tried to learn a new instrument, I had forgotten the feeling of making such rapid progress. I’d also forgotten the concomitant feeling of approaching the plateau and the enthusiasm fading away…

Being bad is good

The second reflection is that, at a time when it seems difficult to make material progress on my primary activity, it’s nice to have something that really doesn’t matter. My drawing has no purpose, no end goal, it doesn’t have to accomplish anything, it doesn’t even have to be good. It has no bearing on my livelihood, and indeed, unlike my livelihood, there is nothing currently stopping me doing it.

This chimes with one of YCAT’s recent blogs, by Kate Blackstone:

…find something to be bad at and get better at it. One of the reasons that music practice at a higher level is so difficult is that as you get better, it takes more and more work to make tiny amounts of progress. However, to feel good about themselves, humans have to feel like they’re good at stuff. In psychology we call this ‘competency beliefs’; you can reinforce and support your own competency beliefs by getting better at things, and reminding yourself that it is possible to get better at things.

I would say that in my particular case, even the ‘getting better at things’ part of it isn’t bothering me much – I am enjoying the focus that the activity of drawing is bringing me. But it is prompting a third reflection:

Growth mindsets

If you had suggested I take up drawing even a couple of years ago, I probably would have scoffed at you and pronounced, quite definitively, that I was terrible at drawing and had no natural ability at it, and that would be the end of that. An artistic avenue, closed off forever. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry that if I tried, I would be bad at it – I would simply never try, and therefore save the face of my fragile ego.

I wouldn’t say that my fixed mindset on that has disappeared – it’s still strong. But I’ve learned a lot about mindset since I finally read Carol Dweck’s book (never mind the fact that it had been recommended to me for months or perhaps years beforehand – what if it had contained difficult truths? Better to avoid…). The growth mindset believes that skills can be learned. Indeed, the lower the initial level of skill, the more opportunity for learning.

It’s interesting that if people say to me, ‘oh, I can’t sing’, I have tended to respond that everyone can sing. Why don’t/didn’t I have the same reaction to drawing? We absorb an idea of talent vs hard work early on. My school was a good school, I think, but I don’t remember anyone in an art class ever actually teaching me how to draw – it was just sort of expected. Soon it became apparent to me that there were some people who could just do it, and others who couldn’t, and that I was in the latter camp, Gauss notwithstanding. (The reverse also applied in academics – I seemed to be naturally good without doing very much, at least for a few years – the eventual realisation that I might have to start actually doing some work was deeply uncomfortable and much delayed…)

It’s an impression that stayed with me for a long time, until I realised that a good test of the growth mindset would be whether I could in fact learn to get a bit better at drawing, if I actually worked at it, and had the right teacher. The right teacher, by the way, seems to be the wonderfully enthusiastic Paul Priestly on YouTube. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t draw to spend a bit of time with his videos in order to be swiftly disabused of the notion. He’s the art teacher you always wished for – patient, permissive, bubbling with energy.


It’s interesting how hard it has been to quieten that part of the brain that thinks everything has to lead to something. Occasionally, as I admire a finished drawing, I catch this part muttering: ‘we could get really good at this and then sell them and then it wouldn’t matter if there’s a pandemic and you would be a proper artist’; and all sorts of other strange, ego-flattering pretensions.

Not everything has to lead to something. I didn’t really make any New Year’s resolutions this year – it felt like I could do with a break – but in my mind somewhere is the idea of ‘setting systems, not goals’. Goals can arise out of a good set of well-balanced systems – but they don’t have to. So I’m trying to silence the goal-brain, and just let the rest of me enjoy being quite bad at something quite fun.

Categories
Creativity

Will ‘design thinking’ save classical music?

I recently happened on an online webinar series hosted by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), entitled ‘Introduction to Design Thinking for Musicians‘. Now, this is sort of thing is perfect clickbait for me. ‘Design Thinking’ sounds like a cool piece of Silicon Valley tech-speak – and we can use it as musicians? Sign me up!

Like most of these cool-sounding strategies, though, there’s some pretty nebulous stuff hiding under the hood, which we’ll have to unpack before we get to whether this is actually going to revolutionise the concert experience as we know it.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design Thinking has a few definitions, but from what I can see it’s mostly about developing products by reverse engineering the problem a consumer has, and solving it. But hang on – why use normal words when we could do this?:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.

A ‘solution-based approach to solving problems’ sounds a little like the winner of an early 00’s Tautology of the Year competition. The more useful part of that paragraph is to do with the word ‘iterative’. You try something out, make small adjustments in response to feedback, and put out a new version, with a tight loop that should quickly generate improvements to the product.

Apple is a classic example of a company that’s renowned for this way of designing. They think their way into the consumer’s head, and solve their problem before they know they have one. The process is supposed to force you out of ingrained patterns of thought about how to frame problems and provide solutions.

There’s one more concept we need to introduce here, before we dig into the applications of this strategy to music, and that’s User Experience, or UX – the way the customer actually interacts with your product. In most use-cases, you want this to be fuss-free, accessible, and efficient. As an early social-media engineer now puts it, ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ UX design helps funnel people towards where you want them to be, or what you want them to do (or click).

Can we leverage this to improve the experience of music to audiences?

Come on, less talk, more saving classical music

OK, we’re getting there. A couple of people have begun to make the leap from UX to AX: ‘Audience Experience’. Essentially, centre the experience of the audience and design a concert around their needs. Zachary Manzi, an orchestral performer himself, has written on this extensively for Medium. The pitch is a good one:

…the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

So far so good, and even if you feel the ‘traditional concert experience’ gets a lot of unfair flak these days, it’s no great leap to suggest it doesn’t appeal to everybody. Manzi’s solution is to apply design thinking to the concert experience:

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of whether creating a better Audience Experience necessarily results in creating better art – there isn’t space here for me to take on Milton Babbitt, even were I the right person to do so. For now, we can choose to evaluate this through a lens of ‘getting bums on seats’ rather than ‘creating great art’.

I like the idea of an experience tailored to a particular group who you’ve designated as ‘your audience’ for the purpose of a particular project or concert. There’s a little problem of scale if you choose the wrong niche, though, specifically whether there are enough 20-something poets to fill the space and make the event commercially viable.

Manzi’s description of an event created along these lines takes a solid premise: people aren’t always feeling what we’re feeling when we’re listening to music, so let’s create a programme where musicians explain what particular pieces mean to them:

Musicians of the orchestra…introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Whether you read that with approval or horror probably says something deep and meaningful about your cultural background. Regardless, it’s an inventive solution to the problem, though you would have to have an audience willing to play along – and presumably listen to a fair amount more talking than a traditional concert.

Audience Experience

The ‘creating an experience’ mentality has had benefits in related fields. Secret Cinema (recently, and not un-controversially, awarded a grant from the very fund I was writing about a few weeks ago) has made the cinema-going experience into a thorough-going event that has proven very popular, and (until this year at least), lucrative.

I imagine it helps that cinema at its most mainstream has an incredibly wide base of appeal. I’m not sure everyone would be as enthusiastic as me about a Handel soiree experience in which the audience is greeted by bewigged attendants and interacts with actors playing, I don’t know, Hanoverian royalty, while swanning around an 18th-century ballroom.

Critics of Design Thinking warn that non-STEM disciplines are being forced into models that simply don’t apply to them. It’s safe to say Lee Vinsel isn’t a fan, here quoting an architectural professor:

“It’s design as marketing,” he said. “It’s about looking for and exploiting a market niche. It’s not really about a new and better world. It’s about exquisitely calibrating a product to a market niche that is underexploited.”

That said, in the current climate, classical music would probably settle for exploiting some market niches.

Give the people what they want?

A broader concern is – to risk another nebulous concept at this late stage – to do with authenticity. Artists are generally encouraged to communicate something personal through their art, rather than simply something that will appeal to the consumer. If we concentrate on chasing the audience experience and designing our offering around them, how much are we communicating of ourselves, and how much do we simply end up chasing trends?

‘Give the people what they want’ might work for mass media (and James Bond), but part of the problem in generating new audiences for declining art forms is that the people don’t always know what they want. We should absolutely be applauding any effort to present music in original and effective ways – and looking to the tech world for solutions is fine, if we remember that what works in one field doesn’t always transfer neatly over to another. There’s a balance to be struck between creating a more appealing product and making better art. Right now we’d probably settle for a little security, and if ‘design thinking’ is a tool to help us get there, maybe I can let go of a little cynicism.

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Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.

Categories
Creativity

Creative portfolios: diversifying against risk

I recently made my first, tentative foray into the stock market. I know very little about stocks and shares, but what I have managed to glean so far is this: diversification helps inoculate against risk. Diversifying your holdings, by spreading them out across multiple kinds of investment or country or genre or ‘asset class’, means that if there’s a crash in one area, you’re still (hopefully) not going to lose out too much. I’ve been wondering if this is a useful analogy for professional work in the creative world.

[…] diversification is the investing equivalent of a free lunch. Research suggests that, not only is it the best way of managing risk but, over the long-term, also leads to higher returns. 

Lars Kroijer

In the past six months, we’ve experienced the equivalent of the bottom dropping out of the creative market. Anything creative that was generally done in front of other people became mostly impossible, overnight.

Everyone going into a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, knows the risks. Precarity. Uncertainty. Vulnerability to market forces completely beyond our control. But just as in investment, in return for accepting the higher risk, we receive various rewards: maybe it’s a degree of control over our lifestyle, or flexibility with working hours.

We might be tempted to think Covid-19 is an isolated occurrence, but there have been other market-altering calamities, and there will be more to come. All manner of events can affect our ability to do what we do, be it external, such as a market crash, or personal, such as a change in circumstances, or an unexpected illness.

Is there a way of inoculating ourselves against these risks? And how feasible is it for a creative person to ‘diversify’?

Risk tolerance

In investing, you decide how much to put into the riskiest assets – equities, for example – vs the safer options – bonds, cash – by determining your individual risk tolerance. Younger people are advised to take more risks; the market generally evens out over time, meaning over a longer time-frame, you’re less likely to lose out. Those coming closer to when they might need the money are advised to shift the balance to less risky assets.

So, as someone just starting out, you might justifiably put all your eggs in one creative basket, and commit full-time to your passion. In the event of a Calamitous Event(TM), your liabilities are few, and you can dust yourself down and try again, or try something else.

But not everyone has the same tolerance for this level of risk. Those with more liabilities, or dependants, might want to swim more cautiously in these waters, to have a backup plan, or even something else running along the side.

Transferable skills and ‘side hustles’

Let’s assume for now that we want to do the latter. We’ll commit to our chosen focus, but we’ll try and spare 5% or so of our energy to keep something else on the back burner. What that something else is depends on a number of things.

The investment analogy suggests that to be diversified against risk, our supplementary activity needs to be in a different enough field that it would be unaffected by anything that might threaten our core activity. Here’s an obvious example: if our core focus requires live performance and travel, then the ideal bulwark against this year’s particular obstacle is a job that can be done at home.

If our subsidiary focus can be one that informs and enriches the main discipline, so much the better. The classic supplementary job in the world of musical performance is teaching or tutoring – leveraging existing knowledge and pre-gained experience to generate a more securely predictable income. And teaching can be just as valuable for the teacher as the pupil – something I’ve certainly found as I’ve begun to teach conducting. For me, teaching and writing have been sidelines that enhance and help me reflect on what I think of as my main discipline – and inevitably the balance will keep shifting.

We want something that will enrich and be enriched by our main specialism, but is sufficiently separate from it to avoid the same risks. Of course, not everyone will have a sub-specialism that meets these criteria, but there are other ways – perhaps there’s a related hobby that can be monetised.

I’m wary of what’s become known as hustle culture – the idea that we should always be trying to monetise our activities, spending all our time thinking of new ways to make money. I can’t imagine it’s possible to be a reflective, creative person without a bit of space in our lives, and I’m not suggesting that we need to adopt the ‘hustle’ mindset to achieve diversification. Instead, I want to safeguard that creative space by attempting to mitigate the risks associated with it.

The world as it should be vs the world as it is

This position might seem a little cynical. Shouldn’t artists be free to pursue their art to the exclusion of all else? The answer, in an ideal world, is yes, absolutely. Whether the solution ends up being a Universal Basic Income or something else, a world in which we can all exercise complete freedom of creative choice, unconstrained by market forces, or what will make money – that’s surely the goal.

However, we don’t live in this perfect world. The real world has yet to catch up to this ideal. We are, unless we are very lucky, tethered to the fortunes of the financial systems in which we live, as well as subject to the vagueries of taste or politics. For me, that awareness breeds a certain caution, and it’s why I’m going to try to keep myself, at least a little bit, diversified.


Now, you might say: Pavarotti never ‘diversified’! Da Vinci didn’t have a ‘side hustle’! Artistic geniuses always devote themselves 100% to their passions, ignoring the constraints of the ‘market’ or the ‘real world’!

Even if that were true, and even if I got away with that straw man – and I’m pretty sure it isn’t and I didn’t – most of the ‘genius artists’ we might include in this category were not only talented and hard-working, but lucky – and we might not be. So if we’re OK with embracing a bit more risk to become a bit more successful, all good. But if our risk tolerance means balancing the risk with something else, there’s no shame in that.

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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

Categories
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