• Ben Lewis-Smith

Yet another virtual choir - FOMO for musicians in Zoomkulture

"Can you hear me?", "Yes, Margaret, you're coming through loud and clear." At its purest, you can plug into Zoom conferencing simply with a smartphone and WiFi connection.......and many of us certainly have. I've been witness to many Zoom rehearsals over the past few weeks - choirs at city firms, to choral societies, to overseas piano students. Can we use Zoom to make good music? depends.

I am a tech geek, but my studio beginnings were fairly modest. I started with Richard Taruskin's super scholarly Oxford History of Western Music, a cheap upright piano and a mobile connected to wifi. I think you need fairly decent tech (and common sense) to make Zoom rehearsals worthwhile. If you're a serious digital connoisseur spend time and invest in the hardware - it improves the experience. The studio here now operates on an iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2019) with Blue Yeti USB Microphone, a couple of Neewer LED Light panels for decent visuals and a Logitech HD Webcam C615 for overhead keyboard shots. More recently I've experimented with some acoustic panels glued on the walls to try and deaden the echo.

How about the visuals? I've seen the inner working of various organisations offering Zoom etiquette guidance: "shooting from below probably isn't the most flattering angle" and "move your washing-up out the way" etc etc. In The Times this weekend it was enlightening to hear about Nigella's quick exit strategy: 'I slam the lid of my laptop down so I'm not the last one left in the meeting.' The techxperts talk about having a neutral uncluttered background so as not to pull focus from the speaker. It's your shot - frame it how you want: virtual backdrops, innovative lighting arrangements, a painting of yourself!

Is the corporate conferencing world relevant to musicians? Yes I say, I think it probably is. If your audience can't see your face or expressions it ain't gonna work. Get the camera just above eye level. Be in the middle of the shot. Be well lit. I did not need to purchase LED light panels, but have found them very useful for getting the exact and right quality of light on the scene at the twist of a dial. How do you overcome the anxiety of potentially being a MASSIVE video on another person's computer - I find this thought monstrous. Well, the answer is they probably feel anxious too. I sometimes pretend I'm just talking to myself when I deliver to a big group, I suppose your image is the one with the least lag and so you feel that real-time sense of connection. Remember: look straight into the camera lense as much as you possibly can. As one of my favourite BBC Correspondents once said: it's just a conversation.

In terms of the audio: iPhone/iPad are ok, computer is getting there, but external microphone plumbed into desktop/laptop is the very best. A lot of rookie Zoomers enunciate ever so '' - the problem being that it makes no difference. The audio signal is ruined before it's even left your computer. I use a Blue Yeti USB and it does the trick, picks up piano and voice just fine. There are further tweaks you can apply to Zoom: turn on original sound and off intermittent background noise suppression etc etc: more details on that here:

A couple of weeks back myself and L (friend and fellow tech explorer) had 85 singers from Highgate Choral Society singing through Mozart and Vivaldi. Some of them are displayed below, blurred a bit for anonymity:

Can we sing together on Zoom? No not really. Such varied broadband speeds introduce latency which makes the idea of musical togetherness impossible to emulate here. What can we do? We can keep our choir communities together, which is especially key for those in vulnerable groups. As MDs we can deliver warmups, take the music apart and focus on tricky sections, play recordings down the line for singers to join in with, share resources etc. The rehearsal becomes 'live' with singer involvement, ie "Ben, could we just hear Bar 15 for the altos again". If anything singers become more self sufficient in the process of learning their parts.

Can we sing the Messiah with a full orchestra? Well: no we can't. Is our musical enthusiasm dampened and should we get emotional about it? No and no.

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