As the world has gone digital, choral singing has remained a stubbornly analog affair. Choirs read music printed on paper, mark it up with pencil, then raise their voices together in the same room. Until COVID-19.
The problem: An experience that can’t be Zoomed
Group singing — people crowded together, drawing deep breaths and exhaling sound — is a decidedly unwise quarantine-era activity. And as anyone who has attempted a round of “Happy Birthday” at an online party can attest, it doesn’t translate seamlessly to video platforms such as Zoom, where online delays and feedback can turn a song into cacophany. Under the current circumstances, Chris Ludwa, a music professor and choral director at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, can only hold livestreamed rehearsals for his college group by having singers mute their microphones and sing along with his conducting. “I check in every five minutes or so to ask where we went wrong, and what they need to hear again, but I have no idea if they’re getting it,” he says.
The solution: Choir, deconstructed
The “virtual choir” isn’t brand-new. Since 2010, Eric Whitacre, a celebrity choral composer and conductor based in Los Angeles and London, has led a team that takes sound files submitted individually by singers around the world and mixes them together digitally. Now, Whitacre’s creations, once ambitious novelties in the choir world, have become a go-to model for directors like Ludwa. (Whitacre’s website says it has been flooded in recent weeks with requests for tech support and music rights.)
As anyone who has attempted a round of “Happy Birthday” at an online party can attest, choral singing doesn’t translate seamlessly Zoom.
Putting a virtual choir together is a painstaking, deconstructed version of learning a song the conventional way. After independent practice, Ludwa has each of his 30 singers plug their headphones into their laptops, listen to a starting pitch and tempo track, then sing along into their phones and send him the result.
After the first round, he coaches each singer individually to identify trouble spots: “Are their vowels matching up? How are their cut-offs? Are they flat? Are they sharp?” After students resubmit their parts, he uses Logic Pro to layer the tracks on top of one another, lining up entrances and cut-offs and adjusting mixing levels to balance the sound. It takes him about 20 hours to produce a rough edit. So far, his choir has used this method to perform a Ysaye Barnwell arrangement of Sweet Honey and the Rock’s “Wanting Memories” and Artesima’s “What Happens When a Woman.” Next up is “Unclouded Day” and a small-group piece set to the words of “Goodnight Moon,” written by Whitacre.
Challenges: Technical difficulties
Mixing a choir is a slow, imperfect process. “This is not a Grammy-winning-level thing where you’re in a studio,” Ludwa says. People are recording in their houses, with outside traffic, roommates, pets, and the occasional crying baby in the background. Sound files take forever to load. Ludwa has to think carefully about the music he chooses: To make it simpler, his selections are all in English, and mostly a capella.
For some choristers, too, singing alone without the safety net of the larger group can feel naked and uncomfortable. In a large-group rehearsal, singers can show up unprepared and skate by unnoticed; in a virtual format, “everybody has to pull their weight,” Ludwa says.
The big picture
Ludwa didn’t expect sound engineering to become a key part of his job. “I certainly wouldn’t have learned all this technology, if not forced to do so,” he says. And he misses the warmth and often-quirky dynamics of his choral rehearsals — even the tiny interpersonal dramas, familiar to anyone who’s sung in a choir, over missed notes, jangly jewelry, and bad perfume.
But making music this way is better than not making it at all, Ludwa says. And he thinks that once in-person rehearsals come back, directors will still use the technology they became familiar with in social isolation to enhance their choirs: posting vocal parts online, offering more individual coaching, and perhaps finding ways to better involve singers who can’t make it in person. “The music-making could be elevated to a new level and be much more nuanced,” he says. “I like that part of it.”