When life gives you lemons…

Never has the somewhat cliché expression felt more apt than now. Since end of March, we have been grappling with a pandemic of, in our lifetime, unseen proportions. The measures put in place by governments over the world have of course also impacted culture, art and music. Concert halls are closed. Operas cancelled. Art exhibitions postponed. Festivals pushed forward indefinitely. You get the picture.

Nevertheless – more than ever – social media in various forms is flooded with snippets of song, artsy pictures of cooking, brave attempts on painting, DIY-projects finally launched and so on. More than ever we turn to the creative arts to find comfort, solace and hope in a world characterized by turmoil and uncertainty.

For us in The Bangalore Men and Cappella Bangalore, this has meant cancellation of rehearsals and postponing of concerts and festival participation. 30th April to May 2nd, we were to participate as resident choirs in the first edition of the India World Choral Festival, organized at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai in collaboration with the Symphony Orchestra of India and internationally-recognized composers, conductors, and soloists. A ground-breaking event, now indefinitely put on hold. April should also have held the first major performance for Cappella Bangalore, a sacred programme performed at St Peter’s Church, Bangalore, with music by Fauré, Franck and Söderman, among others.

So what now? Hibernate? Despair? Give up?

Not an option – never was, never will be.

As soon as we understood that we would not be able to meet each other for regular rehearsals, we sat down and brainstormed around what options we had to keep the lights on – to sustain the bond and to keep the learning going. Quite soon, three tracks took shape.

Back to Basics!

After only one trial rehearsal on the most popular app for videoconferencing, we drew the conclusion that rehearsal in it’s ordinary form wasn’t an option. Network lag and latency lead to quite funny results – but a good laugh won’t help us learn our parts in Poulenc unfortunately. Another focus was needed! One solution we are now working with – is prepared PDF files of music, together with rehearsal tracks and pronunciation guides that all singers will receive. Everyone will practice and learn on their own – and progress is assessed by recording your part and sending – alternatively through virtual 1-1 coaching between singers or singer-conductor.

Below is an example of how a “live” virtual recording with The Bangalore Men would sound – with 20 vocal guys uniting in a Twinkle Twinkle!

Things that we choir leaders often wish we had more time for, and really helps you propel the learning of the singers, is music theory and music history. These two building blocks of knowledge will help any singer improve their understanding and ability to learn quicker, but is often neglected or brushed aside – and focus is on learning music or interpretation, solely. Said and done – the first pillar in our online rehearsal approach consists of classes in music theory and music history. Lucky as we are, we do have singers in the choirs that are very well-versed with their theory, and were willing and generous enough to share with the others. Rhythm exercises, musical language and score study have been on the agenda – with more to come. Internet and YouTube are immense sources of material – be creative and think out of the box – and ensure that the element of learning also has an element of fun to it.

Meeting the Masters!

The second pillar of our virtual approach, we named as Meeting the Masters. In this series, we invite a number of musicians from all over the world to share and discuss on a topic of their choice. So far we have had a virtual vocal coaching class with Ms Maria Forsström with both The Men and Cappella, and next in line we have an interesting lecture on female composers through the eras with Ms Maria Löfberg (Swedish composer and conductor/organist) as well as Mr Zane Dalal, Associate Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra of India. We are very grateful that all of them have taken out time to meet with us virtually, and share their passion and knowledge. These sessions are an excellent example of global collaboration that we perhaps never thought of before – but suddenly felt like a very natural thing to do. Something we definitely will continue, once we are able to meet for physical rehearsals once again!

Keep the Audience Connect!

The third track, is about outreach and connect. Not only for show-off, but as a mean of inspiration and to make sure that we never let the music go quiet. Forming a virtual choir, may seem like a simple thing – everyone gets together on a video call, sings and its recorded and posted online. As we hinted above – not really how it works in reality, given network latency and also SINGER latency (stick to the tempo! mind the intonation! pronunciation!). However, right use of technology can for sure take you a long way!

We chose an approach, which I do believe is the most common one out there right now – to have each singer record their part individually, and then have them edited and “stitched” together and published in YouTube or equivalent. Still, the work needs quite a lot of preparation – sending part recordings which has a metronome to ensure everyone sticks to the tempo throughout the piece, sending pronunciation guides and also for the singer to make sure he or she is in a room quiet enough for a recording! The result is often above expectation – with a fun way of sharing a song to a wider audience – but can of course not replace the concert thrill and connect between singer and conductor.

So to conclude – what can we as choir leaders do to ensure we sustain the bond with our singers and with our audience?

  • Don’t rely upon only traditional ways of disseminating knowledge – find new avenues and use technology to the fullest extent. Take help – learn – explore!
  • Don’t neglect the importance of social connect – even if it is virtual. For many of us, myself included, the weekly rehearsals are the highlight of the week – a moment when we actually forget the turmoil around us – and just immerse ourselves in various aspects of music.
  • Keep standards high. Even if we cannot meet face-to-face – that’s not a reason to let standards slip. Make sure that all singers are engaged and participate in the virtual classes, Use learning formats that are apt for virtual classes, create online material that can be reused, use existing material on YouTube and so on. Don’t let hiccups deter you – trial and error is really the way forward!
  • Learn from each other and help others – collaborate and share openly. Never has this been so important than now. Only by sticking together as a community of musicians can we prevail. This is not the time for territorial thinking or for empire building!

Can I find anything good that has come out of the crisis we now all experience together? Probably the fact that we unite more than ever – we find new ways to meet and to keep each other motivated and enthusiastic – and this will make us well-equipped to meet “the new normal” whatever that may be.

Stay curious, stay agile, stay positive – and never let the music stop!