There are just as many ways to make music online as there are in person. When leading group music-making with choir and bands, audio quality and latency in video conferencing can lead music directors and teachers to rely on the mute button. This can set up a solitary experience of music making, a sad turn of events for people who join choirs and bands for the musical and social experience of singing and playing with others.
I find the key to making music online (and in-person, frankly) is to put the focus on listening. Then, rather than tell musicians exactly what to play or sing, as we tend to do in Western notation, I try to set up a situation in which participants have clear guidelines for how to interact, giving them the liberty to experiment and make moment-to-moment musical decisions.
To be concrete, Fair Jenny Alone is a work I composed based on a Robbie Burns tune for at-home ensemble (choir, band or orchestra). The work consists of a fixed audio track that acts as a guide for musicians to sing and play with, instructions for how to improvise with the track and an introductory guide to recording at home. The premise is the same as a play-along CD – I provide the musical framework via the audio track and the instructions, and musicians make music within that framework. In the case of Fair Jenny Alone, the instructions for choir are fairly simple: imitate the sounds you hear in the audio track using vowels and breath sounds.
The key to supporting a sense of community and connection between musicians is how we rehearse and share the piece. Rehearsals explore listening and sensing exercises to help put musicians at ease with the style of music-making, as well as discuss the title as drawn from the Robbie Burns’ lyrics, and its various meanings depending on our individual circumstances. Then, with everybody on mute (guilty as charged!), we sing the piece together. Those choristers who are able to, record themselves and submit the recording to me. I then compile the audio tracks into one audio file, and we have a Listen Party, giving us a chance to hear each other sing alone together from our homes.
Chorister Annie Randall of the Concordia Chamber Choir has this to say about her experience singing Fair Jenny Alone:
This term has obviously been a challenge to continue with choir. Most years, by now, we would have had a concert under our belts, and working towards our winter concert. There has always been an end game. This term, however, we don’t have that. But we are still learning music, and rehearsing, often only hearing ourselves sing without the harmonies of the rest of the choir. This project, this one single project, allowed concert choir to finally feel like a group again, for the first time since March, when we said goodbye. We listened to the Fair Jenny soundtrack that we were given, and found our own harmonies, and sounds to make, and Louise brought those sounds and harmonies together into a beautiful 15 minutes. When listening back, I can hear the voices of the members that I had been missing so much. This one single project brought back the spark that pushed me to be the best I can with concert choir. Usually, the music we learn and perform is a gift to our audiences, and this one is no different in that regard, but this one was also a gift to us.
Thank you for your poignant words, Annie, and to director Joy Berg and the Concordia Chamber Choir for sharing your voices and the opportunity to hear you sing together at home. At a time when ‘alone’ can mean many different things, Fair Jenny Alone is a reminder that we can connect with people both near and far.
Listen here to Concordia Chamber Choir: Fair Jenny Alone
For more info, contact me at mlouisecampbell(at)gmail.com
For funding to bring me and other artists into Quebec schools (psst, there is a High School version of this piece):