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Remote Rehearsing: Can We Sing Together?

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I will stop blogging about remote rehearsing all the time in due course. It’s just that when a lot of us are learning a lot in a short time is when it is useful to share ideas. You can wait a bit longer to hear how the 8-part arranging project is going (quite well, btw).

So, the question that everyone always wants to ask is: can we actually do any singing together in an online choral rehearsal? You, know, like the definition of ‘choral’ would regard as pretty much essential. And the answer is usually no: there’s too much lag, sorry.

Like everyone else doing this lark, I came away from my first remote rehearsal both incredibly buoyed up by having been able to do it at all, and craving harmony. So we did some experimenting in our Music Team meeting that was fortuitously already scheduled for that week, and found ourselves some improvements for our next chorus night.

It had occurred to me that slow-moving improvisational exercises might give us some scope for simultaneous singing. If the problem is lag, then you might be able to get harmony so long as you relinquished all hope for rhythm. (Hey, we’re barbershoppers, we got this ;-)

A static 7-part G major triad showed us that while you can genuinely hear chords sung together in zoom, there are significant sound quality issues. There is a sound-wash exercise (nicknamed ‘the séance’ by one of the first groups I did it with) that I’d like to try at some point, but I’ll wait until we’ve had the recommendations for USB mics that one of the team was going to research. If we’re doing this for months, he suggested, we might benefit from better kit at home. It's possible that there just isn't the bandwidth to handle that much simultaneity, but it's worth another punt with better quality input. We should also try turning off video to improve bandwidth - appropriate for an exercise that we do with our eyes closed when we do it in person!

Another improvisational game I like to use, the ‘bell-chord game’ worked better from a sound perspective, as it only ever has a maximum of four voices at once. There are organisational challenges to using it in Zoom, though – we need to figure out how to coordinate turn-taking non-verbally in this format. I feel this one has some potential once we’re more familiar with the environment and will come back to it in due course.

One route we didn’t go down the route of was everyone singing along with learning tracks at home, because, well, that’s what we ask people to do for homework, and they don’t need a conductor for that. But one of the stand-out successes was using a four-track video to teach a tag. The video demonstrated the whole thing, our bari section leader who had made the video then demonstrated each part in turn live, playing the video each time for people to sing along with to practice, and once more at the end for us all to sing it at the same time.

This was our last bit of singing for the evening, and it really lifted the spirits. Not least because it was one of our name-tags. I wrote these for everyone to put in their lanyard pouches at BABS Convention last year – it’s a pun, you see, actual physical name-tags made out of musical tags written with your name as the lyric… Anyway, we’ve been singing these together all year at rehearsal on people’s birthdays. And, given how much we all had to do between discussing the idea on Monday and Wednesday’s rehearsal, I fully expected Andy’s tag to have to be delayed by a week. So that Simon got this done in time was every colour of awesome, and made everyone happy.

The other stand-out success was a rehearsal protocol I’ve called duetting-coaching. A section leader sings a few phrases of a song with his mic on, with everyone else singing along at home with their mics off. I spent a couple of minutes coaching the section leader to refine his performance, then he sings again, with everyone else joining in. Repeat with the other section leaders in turn.

This doesn’t get us full harmony, but it does give everyone the opportunity to cooperate with all the other parts, so it is a significant upgrade in musicianship-engagement from just turn-taking. It works because once the sound is coming through your speakers, the lag doesn’t matter, you can sing along to what you’re hearing in real time.

The other huge win it offers is the chance for interaction and feedback in a shared learning experience. I reported last week how you can do valuable work with individual vocal coaching online, and this takes this experience and shares it. People get to hear what differences you can make with small changes, and then they get to try it out for themselves.

A couple of logistical points discovered in our trial run on Monday. First, you need to have each section leader providing their own pitch, and they need to give it for probably longer than they think necessary. In chorus, the pitch wouldn’t be sounded until the director is sure that everyone has their attention switched on and is ready to sing; online you can’t gather eye contact like that so you have to assume that some people will be processing another thought at the point you start blowing the pitch and you need to give it long enough to for them to catch up.

Second, people need to be primed to sing along with what they hear, as in a quartet scenario. It will be the same general shape as we have rehearsed, but the exact timings will vary in the moment – as indeed they do when I’m directing. But it has to be the singer with the mic on in control of the musical flow here, not the director, for the same reason that we can’t sing together – the lag destroys the temporal coordination between gesture and voice.

Duetting-coaching is going to become a staple of our methods henceforth. We’ll still be doing lots of smaller-group work, and I’ll still be doing lots of individual voice coaching. But having an activity that gives both genuine harmonic contact and the chance to grow together as a group is really satisfying.

The moment when we can do all four parts in real time again is going to be so joyous. In the meantime, I’m finding value and purpose in investing in skills that will make it even more beautiful when we can finally experience collective harmony again.

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