Virtual Music Rehearsals: Hopkins Does Hybrid!
With Covid-19 restrictions, the sense of community formed in Hopkins’ musical groups has declined.
From incoming freshmen in Concert Choir to the returning members of the Orchestra, everyone has been unsure of what to expect with virtual Zoom rehearsals. With an altered curriculum, a new learning environment, and a modified sense of community, the Hopkins Arts Department has stepped out of its comfort zone to create music in a safe environment.
A normal pre-Covid Orchestra class for Art Department Chair and Director of Instrumental Music Robert Smith relied on “students being able to listen to each other, communicate with musical lines, trade off melodies, and make small adjustments based off of the sounds coming from the person next to them.” Working as an ensemble, the Orchestra is able to build a community of trust and mutual reliance. It’s usually a “very efficient process,” according to Smith. Being in person allows Smith to oversee and conduct the different pieces of music. “I’m able to listen to everyone in real time and help them blend, help them maintain a steady beat, and fix small issues as they occur,” Smith says.
In the Hybrid Learning Model, the relationship between the musicians and the conductor is one-way. Smith has to “imagine what they’re doing based on what they look like they’re doing, which is challenging.” Students at home play alongside the students in person but stay muted because of Zoom’s latency issues. If Hopkins decides to go fully virtual, Smith is worried about not “even hav[ing] the in-person rehearsals, so I have to make guide recordings of the pieces we’re doing in class. These are performances that I find online which have a nice tempo and which, overall, I think are appropriate for our students.”
Director of Choral Music Erika Schroth’s Concert Choir course usually starts with “a series of warmups that focus on rhythm, sight reading, and solfege.” After students have learned the fundamentals of music she would typically help them “apply this knowledge to the different pieces as we break them down.” With virtual Choir rehearsals, Schroth “can’t hear the students’ sound coming back, [so] I have to trust the singer a little bit more to let me know when they have questions or need to go over a specific area in the piece.” For singer Orly Baum ’22, it’s been “hard to match the powerful sound we’d have in a normal year. Over quarantine, we’ve learned different techniques on how to mimic a normal choir feel, which helps us sound great and still be proud of the work we produce.”
Schroth sees this as a positive, though, with singers gaining a sense of confidence. “In some ways there’s a nice sense of independence that can grow out of that where people are sort of forced to be honest about where they’re at with their mastery of a piece of music or specific skill set. When you’re in the room with a lot of people, it can be easy to lean on the people around you.” Schroth continued, “It’s both a wonderful thing to have a sense of community and bonding but can also make you a little bit lazy if you take it for granted that somebody next to you is going to know your part. If you’re singing alone, it can be much clearer to see where the problem areas might be.”
Smith and Schroth are both utilizing a digital, cloud-based audio workstation called Soundtrap in which students can record music from their homes directly into the website. The students’ work will be accessible to all of their peers also working on the project. Schroth said, “It’s a good skill for students to learn. Along the way, we’ll add to that sense of independence because you can go back and listen to a recording you’ve made and tweak it to your liking. As opposed to a concert, which is a one-shot deal, you can go in and refine, which can be really wonderful but also stressful for students. It’s a valuable learning and growing experience regardless.” The recordings are then pieced together to make a final product.
Because of Covid restrictions, the Arts Department has come up with a Winter Festival video in place of the typical Winter Concert. Usually held in Yale’s Battell Chapel, the concert is a culmination of everything that the Choir and Orchestra have worked on. Because of time limitations, Smith can’t include all of his repertoire, so he chose a couple of pieces that he really wanted his students to focus on and make as if they were performance-ready.
Both Smith and Schroth are having their students make separate audio and video recordings. Smith says that after he mixes the audio tracks from Soundtrap, “students will record a video of them playing their instruments to the audio that they just recorded. This way I’m able to use a better audio. Usually when you film the audio and video together there’s a compromise; one of them is bound to be worse than the other. If we can really focus on the audio and get that right, and then focus on the video and get that right, it’s authentic.” He continued, “It’s a little trickery, but this is what virtual orchestras are doing all across the country. We’re trying to make the best of it but it’s mostly online recording and track so you lose a lot of that teamwork which usually happens in an ensemble.”
Winter Festival viewers are able to hear a wide range of music from both the Orchestra and Concert Choir. The Orchestra recently finished a Dvorak Slavonic Dance. Smith elaborated, “Dvorak wrote a group of dances and we’re doing the eighth dance which is a Furiant. It’s very fast and really cool. We’re also doing the opening music to Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. It’s a beautiful melody but also haunting. It ends in a major key so it’s very transformative and uplifting at the end. We’re also going to be practicing Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons,” said Smith. Schroth also plans on doing pieces that she finds appropriate for this year. “The first piece is a really beautiful one called ‘The Road Home’ by Stephen Paulus which I’ve loved for years. It was actually the piece I brought to Hopkins when I interviewed about six and a half years ago. It’s very dear to me and has a message of trust and hope and joy and comfort. I thought that was appropriate for this year.”
In a time of uncertainty, trust is essential. Working together, the singers and teachers are redefining what it means to be a community. Not only do they lean on each other for support and encouragement, but they are also willing to show their personal connection to the music. As Schroth puts it, “They pause, they reflect, they breathe, they sing.”