Students Perform in Online Ensembles

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Modern technology is truly amazing!

It allows me to teach live 1-2-1 lessons with students who are anywhere at all in the world, from Skipton to Sterling, Shanghai to San Francisco! Lessons over Zoom are so similar to sitting in a room with a student that I sometimes forget that we’re actually hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.

Nearly everything about the online video-link music lesson experience is pretty much identical to having students visit my home studio:

  • We can see and hear one another clearly.
  • We can both see the same printed music, whether that’s piano sheet music, lead sheets or guitar TABs.
  • I start every session by going through any admin tasks to get them out of the way before the music begins.. things like booking a date for our next session, and taking card payments for lesson blocks.
  • I can demonstrate sections of pieces by playing / singing them, and the student not only hears this but can also see clearly what I’m doing.
  • We can even have a pseudo playing together experience where one of us puts the mic on mute and the other takes the lead in terms of counting in etc.

Live performances over the internet

But, there is one distinct downside to live video calls, and that is the lag over internet communications. Inevitably, online conversations are processed through a network of thousands of components, wires and radio signals and so, despite the signals travelling close to the speed of light, the electronic components themselves cause ‘congestion’, leading to a slightly less than instant link. I find in most cases that there’s a delay of around a second over Zoom and Skype calls. In normal conversation this is negligible to the extent that it’s barely noticed unless participants try to speak at exactly the same time as one another. But, in music it poses a very big impediment… half a bar of music might pass before the other performer(s) have even heard it, let alone responded. This means that performing live together over such a link is pretty much impossible.

How then, I hear you say, do people manage to do just that on television? The answer is that they don’t. It’s just made to look like they do.

Creating a musical video montage

The good news, though, is that we can do exactly the same thing. What happens is that each performer records their individual part, and then all of these clips are played together in a clever video montage that leaves the viewer believing that it all happened live. As long as the clips are recorded to a master guide track (so that everyone is playing at exactly the same tempo etc), and the videos are edited and mixed together carefully, there’s no limit to the size and scope of the performances that can be created, from simple duets to full scale choirs and orchestras. Here’s an example of one I created for Carleton Ladies Choir last month – my very first attempt at it:

You can even duplicate one or more of the performers so that they contribute more than one part. As an experiment, I had a go at one such video with me playing piano, playing guitar and singing all at the same time. It’s a song from the stage show, Matilda, called My House, and seemed appropriate at the time when we were in full Covid-19 lockdown:

How can students do one of these?

Ensemble playing is one of the most valuable experiences that a student musician can have. As well as developing musicianship skills such as timing, playing through mistakes and balancing dynamics, it also helps to foster empathy: an understanding of the performance experience from the perspective of the other musicians. It’s also most people’s favourite part of playing an instrument or singing because it is a critical part of the point: being able to share the skill with friends who share a passion for music.

All that said, ensemble work is more difficult now than it’s ever been, simply because of the practicalities of getting people together during this pandemic crisis. People are strongly advised to stay apart from one another, encouraged to remain in or near their homes, and singing or shouting in the company of others is definitely off the agenda for the foreseeable future. So, the only way to play together is by using the techniques I’ve described above.

And, some of my students are already working in just this way. I have one teenage guitarist learning all 4 guitar parts of a popular song – he’ll record all of these and I’ll get one of my vocal students to sing the lead over the top of it.

I also have two pianists learning a piano duet – one on the primo part and the other on the secondo. Once they’ve both learned their bits (with my support in online Zoom lessons), we’ll decide on a tempo and have each pianist video themselves playing their part (with headphones on so that only they can hear the ping and click of the metronome!) Then, I’ll do the video collage for them, collating the two clips and syncing them up so that they fit perfectly together, just as if they played the duet live. If they’re happy with it, I can even post to YouTube and Facebook so that they can share the results with their friends and families.

If you’d like to find out more about how I can help you to create your own ensemble video (either playing multiple parts yourself, or putting together a performance with friends), just drop me a text on 07746637472. I can even add an instrumental layer or two for you, if you feel it would help.. a bit of piano accompaniment or some background percussion perhaps.

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