Virtual Learning: Taking Your Choir Rehearsals Online

Tori Cook Mar 17, 2020

Learn more: choir management, member management, artistic development, emergency preparedness and response

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Community choruses are in for a rather long dry spell.

Over the weekend, the CDC announced their newest recommendation to U.S. event organizers: cancel all mass gatherings with more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. And many other countries, if not already at that point, are undoubtedly headed in that direction.

The whole world could soon be on a long choral hiatus. For choruses canceling their spring season, this means they could potentially be on break until the fall — that's 5-6 months from now!

Luckily, we live in the age of technology. So, the good news is that it's relatively easy for us to stay connected virtually.

How can choruses move from a physical rehearsal model to an online one? We'll discuss how to do just that in this article.

 

It's Okay to Take a Breath

The first thing I want to address is that it's okay to take a break.

This is an incredibly stressful and scary situation in which we find ourselves. It's one that almost no one alive has ever experienced.

It's okay to not have all of the right answers or solutions right away. It's okay to need some time to think. It's also okay to give you and your singers a break. People need time to organize their lives into this new structure and they might need you to encourage them to do just that.

Ultimately, whether you choose to move to a virtual chorus model is up to you. And you should do what feels right for you and your chorus.

For those of you interested in what a virtual environment could look like, read on.

 

Why Might You Host Virtual Choir Rehearsals?

Fact: virtual rehearsals will never be the same as in-person rehearsals.

But, they can provide a way for you to sing together and build your choral community in lieu of physical connection.

Here are a few reasons you may want to do virtual rehearsals with your chorus:

Keep the sense of community. We've talked a lot about why building your choral community is important. In a time where we're being asked to isolate, the sense of community feels even more vital. Social interactions are good for your soul and can help your singers feel like they're not in this alone. Staying connected virtually is one way you can achieve this feeling.

Keep making music. Music is a language. A language that requires constant practice to stay fluent. You can use the time in virtual rehearsals to continue building vocal skills and musicianship with your singers.

Keep things feeling as normal as possible. With all of the information in the news and media, it can be difficult to stay calm. But, we have to try. Keeping a regular routine can help normalize things and take our minds off of worrying and panicking.

Prepare for a future concert. At this point, it seems pretty unlikely that any concerts in the U.S. will be taking place over the next few months. While it might seem a little silly to prepare music for something not immediately coming up, remember that there is still a future ahead! Perhaps you're preparing for something in the summer or beyond. Or perhaps you want to try to get a virtual choir going. There's always music to learn and something to work towards. Plus, having a musical goal in place can keep your singers motivated and feel like they have a clear sense of purpose during this time.

 

How to Host Virtual Rehearsals

Okay, so on to the good stuff — the technical components of planning a virtual rehearsal.

It's nearly impossible to run an online choir rehearsal in which you are able to hear all singers. This is largely due to issues with internet connectivity, lag time, etc.

However, video conferencing tools allow you the option to host all of your singers in one place while still being able to see them and chat with them.

This gives you the opportunity to hold group discussions, see everyone face-to-face, provide vocal instruction to your singers, and simply stay connected as a community.

Here's how it works:

 

1. Identify Your Host(s)

First, you'll want to decide who is leading your virtual rehearsals. Your host will be the person who is responsible for instructing the participants in the call, collecting and answering any questions via the chat box, and muting/unmuting your participants.

You'll likely want the host to be your primary musical leader — whoever typically runs your choir rehearsals — or other musical leaders such as section leaders. This is simply because you want your virtual rehearsal to reflect your in-person rehearsals as much as possible.

You'll also likely want your host to be tech-savvy — someone who can get the virtual rehearsal up-and-running without much effort.

Work within your organization to determine who your host(s) need to be and whether your video conferencing tool will work for their needs.

 

2. Find the Right Video Conferencing Tool

A video conferencing tool is required for operating virtual rehearsals. These tools allow participants to call in on any device with the option to turn on/off video. They also give hosts tools to effectively manage their participants — such as the essential ability to mute participants.

Zoom seems to be the platform of choice for most choruses looking to host virtual rehearsals.

People choose Zoom for a variety of reasons:

  • It is free for up to 100 participants. So, it's affordable and perfect for most chorus sizes. 
  • It's easy to use and reliable.
  • It does allow two-way conversations, so you communicate together as a group. However, it also gives the host the ability to mute all participants so you won't get overwhelmed from everyone talking at the same time.
  • Their chat box also allows people to "raise hands" and type out questions to the host. The host can then answer these questions during the virtual rehearsal without needing to unmute participants.
  • There are several view options which will allow participants to see each other and/or the host. You really feel the sense of community with this platform!

It is important to note that in Zoom's free version there is a 40-minute time limit on meetings. However, the company is eliminating their time limits in light of COVID-19 for educational institutions. While this seems to apply primarily to schools, you can reach out to them directly to request that the time limit be removed. More information here.

Apart from Zoom, there are other video conferencing tools you can consider. These tools include, but are not limited to, Facebook Live, YouTube Live, Google Hangouts or Google Meet, Facebook Messenger, Webex, GoToMeeting, FreeConference, or Join.me. Most of these have restrictions on the number of participants. So, while they could work for smaller choruses, they may not work for larger ones. You may also have to pay for these tools if you need more participants.

 

3. Establish Your Process

We've all been in that awkward conference call — people talking over each other, people coming in late and introducing themselves, or loud noises in the background that make it impossible to hear.

Establishing your virtual rehearsal process can help avoid these issues.

Kathryn E. Schneider from the New York City Bar Chorus recently held successful virtual sectionals. She shares her process with us now:

  • Each virtual sectional was scheduled for 30 minutes, one after the other.
  • Singers received Zoom meeting links (placed in their section-specific calendar events on their Chorus Connection account) and clicked on them to log in. They were able to use either the Zoom website or the Zoom mobile app to video conference.
  • Kathy started the rehearsal with all participants unmuted. Everyone was able to say hello and chat for a bit. Then, Kathy laid out the ground rules before muting everyone to begin work on the first piece.
  • Kathy worked through the music by playing piano, singing, or both. Her iPad was standing left of the piano bench for the video.
  • While Kathy rehearsed each piece, she would periodically watch the chat box and answer any questions while they came in.
  • At the end of each piece or at a good stopping moment, Kathy would unmute all participants and answer any incoming questions before moving on. She would then mute them all again before working on the next piece.
  • At the end, Kathy unmuted everyone to wrap up and say goodbye.

This process worked well for Kathy with minimal issues so it's a good starting place if you're new to virtual rehearsals!

 

4. Set up and do a Trial Run

You can use almost any device to host a video conference — laptop, tablet, or mobile. You'll primarily want to ensure that your singers can both see and hear your host clearly. So, choosing a device with a good microphone and good camera is key.

Set up the device so that it is relatively close to your host and captures them from the waist up. You'll also want the camera primarily pointed towards their face so your singers can hear and see them clearly. You may need to get a stand for the device in order to position it in this way.

Gather a couple of people to do a trial run with you before your first scheduled virtual rehearsal.

 

5. Communicate to Your Singers

Once you have everything planned out, you'll want to notify your singers. In your communications, include the following:

  • Information about the date and time of event.
  • Recommended login time (plan for approximately 5-10 minutes to get the application launched and working properly).
  • Clear instructions on how to access and launch the Zoom (or other video conferencing) application. Send the specific meeting URL links in a calendar invite to make it easy for participants to click and join. Note: Mobile users should download the Zoom app ahead of time. 
  • Who to contact if your singers are experiencing technical difficulties or are unable to join.
  • Explain the process as you determined above. Remind people they will likely be muted most of the time and to email any initial questions ahead of time.

 

6. Run Your Virtual Rehearsal

Now, it's time to run your virtual rehearsal!

Plan to have your host start getting ready at least 15 minutes prior to the start time so there is ample time to get everything set up. You may wish to send a reminder to your singers approximately 15 minutes before the virtual rehearsal starts as well.

After your rehearsal, write up any challenges you had and work to address them before the next one!

 

Unexpected Benefits of Virtual Rehearsals

While you might look at virtual rehearsals as second-best to physical rehearsals. There are, perhaps surprisingly, some benefits that come from them.

Kathy Schneider shares with us some of the unexpected benefits that she experienced.

1. Singers can focus on individual progress and self-evaluation. While the host can't hear everyone singing and offer feedback, each singer can do that on their own. Singers found that they were able to focus individually on their own sound and self-reflect on how they can improve. Kathy says, "They had to trust themselves. It really challenged singers to take responsibility for their own performance."

2. Everyone can see the musical leader. Because the camera is close to the host's face, singers were able to see things more closely than they likely would have in rehearsals. For example, things like vowel shapes can be modeled clearly up close.

3. Musical leaders can focus on vocal modeling. Usually musical leaders conduct a chorus, but they don't often sing with them. The virtual rehearsals allowed for the host to sing the part with the choristers, helping to demonstrate vocal quality and technique throughout the rehearsal.

4. The rehearsals felt highly efficient. Without the constant chitchat that we often get in rehearsals, the rehearsal can run more efficiently. Participants are muted so the host can really take the rehearsal at their own pace.

5. It provided everyone the opportunity to participate. Even if someone was sick and couldn't come to rehearsal, they could participate by listening and watching. There is also the opportunity to record these and share the recordings at a later date.

6. People got to show their personalities a bit. Kathy says it was fun to see everyone working on their own vocal parts. Some people's pets even made an appearance! And who doesn't need an adorable dog to look at right now?!

Kathy's singers also had positive feedback about the experience:

  • "It's a great temporary solution."
  • "I love the opportunity to connect. It's great to see people and chat."
  • "It's like having a personal voice lesson."
  • "It's so good to be back with the family."
  • "I felt so connected just seeing everyone's faces."

So, while you may feel like virtual rehearsals are a "backup" plan only, they may be worth experimenting with to see if you experience different positive outcomes.

 

Another Option to Virtual Rehearsals

If virtual rehearsals aren't in your wheelhouse, you might want to try something a bit easier.

Martha Leonhardt, Executive Director of the Tacoma Youth Chorus, and her staff are keeping everything relatively simple to start.

Tacoma Youth Chorus has several ensembles, each with their own music director. Every week, the music director will create a weekly lesson plan accompanied by musical tracks or an audio recording for their singers. The assignments are uploaded to Chorus Connection. An email is then sent to the parents requesting that they login to access these assignments.

COVID-19 is continuing to spread and things are changing at a rapid pace. Martha says, "We don't know how it's going to progress. So we don't know if this will be a 3-week solution, a 6-week solution, or a long-term one. I think this process will continue to evolve."

In the meantime, Tacoma Youth Chorus is planning ahead. They've already added four Saturday rehearsals to their existing rehearsal schedule for their late-spring performances. They're also monitoring the situation as it changes and will adjust course as needed.

So, if you don't plan to have virtual rehearsals, you can still do weekly assignments and communications with your singers if you wish. There are plenty of tools to share resources and stay connected with your singers as you navigate this tricky situation.

 

Resources:

 

A big thank you to Kathy Schneider and Martha Leonhardt for sharing their stories with us. And a reminder to please complete this chorus impact survey if your chorus has been impacted by COVID-19. 

 

The Chorus Management Network

Tori Cook

Tori Cook is the Director of Sales & Marketing at Chorus Connection. She sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and is a board member of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium. In a past life, she was the Music Director of the Harborlight Show Chorus and President of Chorus pro Musica in Boston. When not making music, she daydreams about adopting a golden retriever puppy and scuba diving to exotic locations around the world.

Tori Cook