James Hawkins Jim HawkinsSince we set up isoChoir using Zoom every Friday in the lock-down we have been asked multiple times: how do you get the virtual choir to work? Since there seems to be such a problem with delay or lag in voices being heard, it seems impossible!

The main message is that it’s very different and you just have to adapt. We all look forward to getting back the interaction, but until then this seems to be working…

The problem of latency

An online choir singing aloud together in Zoom cannot work in real-time!

Each choir member will have a different connectivity speed via the Internet. Therefore, synchronising the choir’s singing is a losing battle. Although everyone in your choir will hear your output clearly, if they all sang with their microphones on, all you would hear is a cacophony of singers out of time.

The answer? Mute them all!

Therefore, when teaching a choir via Zoom you must mute all your singers. You can do this as the Host easily by clicking “Participants” on the menu bar and then “mute all”. (There are always one or two who accidentally unmute themselves, which can give everyone a giggle, but people get there in the end!)

Set up your Zoom to enable music

We’d strongly recommend that you adjust your own Zoom settings to cater for transmitting music, since usually Zoom will treat music as background noise. If you can, connect your audio via computer so that you can play backing or vocal tracks separate to your microphone. There’s a good video explanation here.

So what do you do when you can’t hear them sing?!

It’s obvious that teachers and choir directors will not be able to get the best sound from choirs when they cannot hear them, right? The way James has overcome this is manifold. He says:

Firstly, this is still full capacity teaching. You don’t have to dumb down your messaging. You just have to think about it differently, accepting that you won’t get an immediate response from your learners. It’s transmit teaching – and you’re trusting that people will be giving it a go – giving every opportunity for them to show you that they are. E.g. physical movement, smiles, thumbs up/down.

“Use clear communication as to the sound that you’re trying to achieve. You can’t judge their success, but there’s still enormous value in the teaching, in that you can demonstrate yourself what you want and replay it back. The structure of your teaching may need to be modified because you won’t get report back from your learners, so for example, I work in rotations of three repetitions for each message, exercise or the line that we’re singing.

“I also run sectional rehearsals with smaller groups, so I can make it a little more bespoke and I use check-ins with the group to confirm that everybody’s understood. No matter what size of group I take the time to look at everyone’s faces and ask lots of questions. If people have questions I unmute their mic individually and this helps everyone benefit from the questions. It’s less fluid than in real life, but it adds a certain layer of structure that doesn’t exist in real life! (As a choir director it’s great to be able to pause for questions when there’s a natural break in the teaching, which doesn’t usually happen when I don’t have the tech controls!!!)”

Interestingly, singers still get a huge buzz from the live sessions.

Our members have embraced the weirdness of it and absolutely love the virtual choir sessions. James encourages them to stand up and engage wholeheartedly! He makes them use their bodies, move their feet, express with their hands. They can see each other doing this and it makes it more fun.

Teaching and learning online is more intense

When you are together in person, your brain receives more information that helps you read the group and helps the group to feel relaxed and engaged. With video calls or Zoom meetings, even though it’s “rich media” there are lots of gaps which our brains naturally work harder to fill, such as gauging atmosphere, body language etc. Plus everybody has to process multiple individual sources of information from the gallery of faces before us. There are fewer natural pauses in the flow of the sessions to take breath, so you have to put MORE of these in to prevent the session from being too intense.

Don’t forget to allow 10 or 15 minutes arrival time for people to chat, and at the end of the session as well. People love to wave their hellos, shout out the names of people they see and say their goodbyes. It’s a bit of fun and really important to keep the group connected.

Use the digital tools available

The good thing about online teaching is that there are excellent tools to help you. James says:

“Prepare your teaching tracks in advance. I create an instrumental backing track, and then layer up the different harmony parts, so I can teach a single line, e.g. soprano, and then pair it with another part, e.g. tenor, which can aid the teaching hugely.

 

“Use the Record tool in Zoom. For example, if there’s a part people are stuck on I make a recording there and then of my teaching, and post it for the choir at the end of the session for them to practise with.

 

“Have a look at Soundslice. This is an outstanding app that creates a visual notation playback of the music on the score. Choir members can follow their line playing through, they can slow down the playback and replay any part, and if they prefer, look only at the lyrics.  It’s extremely easy to use (our choir members explored it and found things I had missed at first) and it can be embedded on your website – well worth a look.”

How to create your virtual choir audio

After the live session: rehearse and record

The virtual choir sound is only really a simulation of a real choir. It’s achieved by asking choir members to record themselves singing along to a backing track, which is played through headphones.

  1. We send a special backing track to choir members. This has a sine wave of a bar at the start, basically a loud beep, followed by a 30 second pause before music starts playing. This acts as a time code stamp when mixing the tracks later on.

  2. The singer needs two devices and a pair of headphones to record themselves. Usually this would be a smartphone and a laptop or similar. The singer positions the mic of one device facing their top lip. This will record them singing. We advise our singers to record using either Zoom or a video camera app because these produce a standard m4a file, which we can use to the strip out the audio later. (Voice memo files tend to be much less standard and more of a pain to import into your mix).

  3. The singer presses ‘record’ on the video and then presses’ play’ on the music backing track on their 2nd device. This plays through the loudspeaker until the sine wave beep has finished sounding.

  4. At that point, during the 30 second pause, they must plugin in their headphones to stop the rest of the track from being recorded and put the headphones on so they can hear the track.

  5. They sing in time to the music and stay quiet until a second beep to signal the end of the recording. Then they stop recording.

  6. Singers send in their files and James mixes them into a track using ProTools. There’s an app called Snapper, which will quickly strip out the audio files from the video so he can easily import them into ProTools. If you don’t have ProTools, check out the brilliant GarageBand resource below.

You then have your virtual choir audio.

Next create your virtual choir video

It looks like they’re singing live, but they’re not.

In your next Zoom session, you can then playback the virtual choir audio to the group. It’s easy to ask them to sing along with the track, and “perform it”. Simply use the Record feature on Zoom. If you’ve got multiple screens of singers, we recommend flicking across the gallery and capturing everyone. It adds more interest and movement to your video too! Do a few takes and then you’ll have plenty of footage to work with. Lastly, you can edit your video and share it online.

Here are our first two efforts!

Other resources

You may be interested to read this well researched blog: Dear Music Teachers Please Stop Asking How To Create A Virtual Choir Video.

And also check out Pinkzebra’s free virtual choir template for GarageBand, which is a great option.