In the choral world, the year 2020 will be remembered as the year that virtual choirs quickly shifted from novel to routine. You’ve probably seen many of these videos by now: the Brady Bunch style choir video where each singer records themselves individually, and the pieces get assembled into something big (and often quite impressive!). Conductors and singers quickly went from “Wow, how did they do that?” To “Uh… How do I do this?”. The hurdles to pull off virtual choir videos are many, ranging from technological, to musical, to logistical, and beyond. The level of complication purely from a project management standpoint begs the question “Is this really worth all the hassle?”
Conductors and teachers everywhere are wrestling with this question. But despite the seeming challenges, I’ve landed firmly in the camp of virtual choir evangelists, and I now point any prospective virtual choir conductors toward a few resources I’ve developed that will make the process a whole lot easier and certainly worthwhile. (See later in this post for links to Time-Saving Tools for Conductors.)
But first: Why take on a project like this in the first place? People of all ages and abilities are desperate to be on a path of progress, and believe it or not, these virtual performance projects are satisfying some of that hunger. I believe that all people, especially those drawn into the arts, are happiest when they are working toward something. It is the journey, not the arrival, that binds a group together, and it is problem-solving and creativity that give us purpose as a community. Singers and conductors alike are not fed if they are not on their way to something bigger, and spending a rehearsal together without that sense of momentum feels like treading-water. Before this pandemic, there was always a sense that ensembles were marching toward their next performance, and while live concerts are on hold, we need to find something else to march toward, whether it’s a virtual performance or not.
That said, it requires thoughtful planning to make sure that a virtual performance project feels meaningful along the way. It can’t simply be a set of directions, a guide track, and a deadline. Having made many virtual choir projects now, I’m happy to share a list of ways that I use to create a more meaningful experience for everyone involved, followed by resources that can streamline the technical process. There is of course a technical component to this process, but there can be an equally artistic one as well.
Creating a More Meaningful, Inspiring, and Artistic Experience
- Virtual ensemble meetings and rehearsals should go beyond “rehearsing into the void.” Use this time productively and creatively to cover musical nuance and interpretation, setup tips for recording, inspiring recordings that the group can listen to collectively, discussions about wardrobe, and general tech support as needed.
- If your choir members are feeling unsure about such a new experience, consider a discussion of confidence and vulnerability challenges that may arise. The entire virtual choir process is very different from a traditional choral environment. Talk about what comes up from those differences, as there’s a lot to learn from.
- Discuss video as an art form, with all of its many considerations, and plan a performance that embraces the differences involved in performing virtually. Compelling videos don’t happen by accident. They are created with the same craft and care as any piece of art.
- Create meaning in the togetherness, and yes, even in the technical challenges. Consider a buddy system that pairs tech-savvy singers with those that feel overwhelmed by the technology component. Use your community to gather the necessary resources or recording devices for those that may not already have the tools.
- Don’t program your most ambitious repertoire, but be creative with what you can accomplish during the process. There is much to gain by doing something simple, making it beautiful, and sharing it with others.
Time-Saving Tools for Conductors
- Step-by-Step Virtual Choir Guide for Singers. While the document has “for singers” in the name, it’s really a tool to save conductors time by giving them a document they can distribute directly to their singers that clearly lays out how to participate in a virtual choir, and all the little tips and tricks to remember along the way. There’s no reason conductors need to reinvent the wheel on what and how to communicate all the details. This Virtual Choir Guide was designed to help everyone feel confident in their ability to participate, and make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
- Do-It-Yourself Virtual Choir Video Editing Tutorial. If you have the means to get a video expert to edit your project, then you won’t need this. But if you have nowhere to turn for help with putting your video together, this will offer you a simple solution, with no experience needed to start editing your own video. Is it a little technical? Yes. But it’s totally doable, by anyone!
- Podd Brothers Virtual Caroling Kits. This is the biggest time-saving tool of all. While not free, these kits are priced at the cost of buying new sheet music, while offering a lot more than just the music. They were designed to provide any choir with a hassle-free option for making and sharing virtually the joy of holiday music this season, and they make it so easy that you can still pull off a holiday performance this season if you start soon. All of the preproduction guide tracks, accompaniment, and directions are taken care of so that making music can be the focus of everyone’s time. (If your holiday music is already planned, check back after the holiday season for kits that are not holiday specific.)
The number one reason to take on a virtual choir project is to start marching again. It’s not really about how spectacular it might be or how many views it will get. However, I would be remiss not to also mention what I think is also an amazing experience and benefit for the conductors and editors that assemble these projects. In my opinion the best “view” of a virtual performance project is actually as an editor, not an audience member.
In the process of piecing together your virtual choir, you get to see and hear every individual, in order to synchronize and balance each member with the ensemble. Hearing and seeing everyone in isolation, there is such vulnerability, fragility, and individuality: some voices at a whisper, others confident. Some bodies sway nervously, and some are frozen still. Some faces full of joy, while some hold pain. Some voices quiver with a nervous flutter, and others are laser focused, without a trace of vibrato. Some sing flat, some sing sharp, and some sing “just right.” I wish everyone could experience each voice’s soft landing into a growing choir; a choir waiting to catch them, wrap them up, and sing even more beautifully with them. The magic of these projects is to witness vulnerability transform into something with such strength, far greater than the sum of its parts. After all, isn’t that the purpose of a choir, no matter the medium?
Matt Podd is a pianist, composer, arranger, and music director specializing in jazz, musical theatre, and choral music. He has worked as a pianist, arranger, and orchestrator for Barbra Streisand, Reneé Fleming, Jason Robert Brown, and many others. He holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Ithaca College.