Online: As choirs go digital, technology is a new virtuoso skill

You may have seen those videos of musicians singing or playing music together, virtually, with everyone in their own little square. It’s now one of the only ways that performing arts groups can connect with audiences. But those videos take a new kind of skill that most choirs never had to think about before.

Like one featuring members of Nashville Notes. Teenagers look right to the camera, singing, from memory, an arrangement by 91Classical student composer fellow Isaac Herrenbruck.

Or the one below featuring the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, which released its “Sing, sing, sing” concert on June 17.

These videos provide an opportunity for creativity in a time when live concerts are simply not possible. But behind the squares lies hours of technical work.

Joshua Pedde, artistic director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, said each song in its concert took eight hours to edit, which delayed the release of the video. And he acknowledged in the video’s introduction that not all of the video was usable, meaning some singers’ voices are heard but their faces aren’t seen.

“The best laid plans were made,” Pedde said. “This was supposed to be very easy for our singer and families to do and we ran into some bumps along the way. But everyone made it through.”

Tucker Biddlecombe, a Vanderbilt associate professor and chorus director for the Nashville Symphony , has experience with all facets of the virtual choir, including what comes before the concert: rehearsals. He’s been rehearsing the Symphony Chorus over Zoom for the last few months. He said that the first necessity is to put all the singers on mute because of the latency between guests on a video call.

That fraction of a second doesn’t make a huge difference when a group is talking. But with half a beat lost here and there, pretty soon the singing is way off.

Biddlecombe outlined his procedure for setting up a virtual video rehearsal, which he says is more of a guided practice. He records an accompaniment in advance, then plays the recording while conducting for the singers. Since the audio is coming from him, it’s all lined up on video.

He said that he was impressed with the singers’ engagement. Members of the choir asked questions in the comments, and even owned up to their mistakes and asked to hear a passage again.

“I think it’s indicative of the fact that we have an open, strong culture in the room,” he said.

Some things don’t change going into an electronic rehearsal. A choir that is engaged will be engaged no matter what. But one thing that Biddlecombe noticed was different? His own exhaustion level. It takes double the energy to be engaged in a situation where, as he says, “There’s nothing coming back to you,” since he couldn’t hear how the singers progressed.

But the rehearsals can succeed, leading to satisfying results. Earlier this month Biddlecombe collaborated with his wife, Blair Children’s Chorus director Mary Biddlecombe, to put together the BCC’s spring concert. (Full disclosure: This reporter’s child is a member of this chorus.) These are the kinds of videos you’ve seen on social media.

Virtual choirs are not actually a new concept. Eric Whitacre’s first group of this kind performed Lux Arumque in March of 2010, about a year before Zoom existed. So, how did they do it?

There’s one big trick to know, and it applies to virtual choirs, composite performances like the Disney sing-along, and the recent Sondheim celebration, as well as various orchestras’ group videos.

It’s not live.

The director creates an audio file that combines accompaniment and a click track in some form — something with which to sing. And then, especially for choir, this gets combined with a video of a conductor, still helping with entrances and expression. In Biddlecombe’s case, he sent it to the singers via an unlisted YouTube link.

Choir members get the video at home, and record themselves on video singing their own parts. They submit the files to in an online dropbox, and then the director or engineer has all of the materials to put together a performance. In the case of the children’s choirs, this took about a week and a half. The next step was to separate the audio and the video so that they could be edited and mixed separately.

Biddlecombe focused on syncing up the voices and matching the levels of volume appropriately, eschewing autotune in favor of the genuine sound of the kids’ voices.

Then, he edited the video separately with no sound, making sure the moving mouths were coordinated, and finally put it together in two big pieces.

There’s a learning curve, and Biddlecombe says he’s getting progressively faster. But nobody is saying this is easy. For every minute of content, he estimates he spends about two hours of editing. And the concert that the Biddlecombes put together for the Blair Children’s Chorus had 38 minutes of singing.

It’s a lot of work, he says. But for the audience, it’s an exciting result.

The concert video stayed public for only 24 hours, but it was watched 4,000 times.

Biddlecombe says the experience was worthwhile, especially to give the students to have a culminating experience for their year.

“It’s really powerful for the students. It’s really powerful for the parents,” he says. “And then it’s something I can go back and watch again, and they can send to their grandparents, and they can send to people who otherwise would never come to concerts like that.”

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