The Reality of a Virtual Choir

I am writing this on the tenth Sunday that we have had to rely on recorded ‘webcast’ services in place of public worship.  For each of these ten weeks, a group of singers from the church choir have recorded themselves singing their part of that week’s chosen piece of choral music; they then send their recordings to me to combine into a ‘virtual’ ensemble performance.  Sometimes I provide a computer-generated backing/click track (though usually with the pulse slightly manipulated so it doesn’t sound entirely robotic!), sometimes I provide an organ part that I have recorded at home using the astonishing Hauptwerk organ simulator software (worthy of another article in itself), sometimes I video myself conducting and/or playing the piano.

Those singers who have participated in the Virtual Choir seem to agree on several aspects of the process.  Firstly, most seem firmly united in their dislike of the sound of their own voice!  I do not share their view, of course – I am used to hearing these fine people sing on a regular basis; the issue is one of perception – as one chorister said “it’s nothing like what I hear in my head.”  This has a very rational explanation, however: when we hear people speak or sing, the sound waves they create set our ear drum vibrating.  But when we hear ourselves speak or sing, the waves travel up through our own skulls before setting the ear drum vibrating, and their passage through bone has a noticeably distorting effect.  It’s certainly not unpleasant, I reassure the singers, it’s just different to what you think you sound like!

Furthermore, hearing their voice alone, with no others and no accompaniment (for that is what the track choristers send to me comprises) means it is all too easy to obsess over imperfections – as one chorister said “why can’t I get enough breath, keep the pitch at the end of the long notes, vary the dynamics better and so on.”  Though this can be dispiriting (and a certain confidence is required to participate in these projects, I think), it is important to take the positive from this experience, so imagine my delight on hearing that “the virtual choir project has made me more critical of my own singing and determined to keep practising!”  Another chorister reflects that the process is “incredibly good discipline.  When you listen to the playback, you hear all the imperfections, whether of pitch, timing, tone or vowel sounds and you have to try to correct them. I may not be able to correct them all but I can correct some and it’s good fun trying to improve.”  I think this period of lockdown is teaching us all a lot about ourselves (musically and otherwise).  Most striking of all was this observation (from the same chorister): “since I am sure that everyone else is doing the same, the choir may well be even better once we are able to sing together again.”  Well!  I had envisaged the virtual choir project as being a way to keep choral music alive in our weekly worship and, anxious about what significant time away from singing might do to members of the choir, to keep our singers engaged during this period of lockdown; but never had I imagined that the self-appraisal inherent in the process might actually mean that the choir is even better on that glorious day when we do return to the stalls!

The singers also seem agreed that the virtual choir project gives a much needed outlet for their singing at a time when little else is available.  It has provided a way of staying connected (musically), with one another, with one chorister going as far as to say that it has been “an emotional mainstay during the lockdown.”  For some, it has enabled them to take part in the choir when they would not ordinarily have been able to do so, given the recordings can be made at any convenient time during the week.  I am delighted that singers also seem agreed that the results of our weekly projects are of a high quality.  Many of them seem to attribute this to some sort of miraculous technically wizardry; the truth, of course, is that the success of these projects is really down to the skill and conscientiousness of the choristers themselves.

Putting these projects together has certainly been a fascinating experience for me as a choir trainer and conductor, as so many of the technical steps involved have a clear parallel in ‘real life’ choral work.  Once all the singers have sent me their recordings, the first step is to align the tracks such all the singers are singing at the same time.  Interestingly, this is often most successfully achieved visually, aligning the waveforms of a hard consonant (i.e., one with a clear start like a D, G or T), as shown here.

That I use visual cues to ensure the singers are together might come as a surprise, but in fact the very same thing applies in ‘real life’, where making sure every member of the choir sings together is, of course, a much more communal, interactive experience:  Though watching the conductor’s beat ensures the choir follows a single musical intention, the conductor clearly does not actually make any sound: the most effective way of ensuring the choir is singing together is for the singers themselves to watch each other, making sure they see their counterparts on the other side of the chancel put that ‘G’ of God on at the same time they themselves are.  This has been a key part of our mutual development over recent years, and it is a wonderful thing to see in action; indeed some of my very favourite moments of choral direction are those when I can step back, and watch the singers watch each other,  keeping the music together without any ‘interference’ from me.

I suppose we must consider the topic of errors – we all make them!  In real life, they are easily addressed in rehearsal and then in performance, if the occasional error does appear (and by this I don’t mean just wrong notes, which are rare, but more subtle imperfections such as a terminal consonant or diphthong coming a bit early or late, or a slight rushing or dragging of the pulse, or a slightly out of tune note, etc.), it happens and in a moment it is gone and (usually!) forgotten about.  In a recorded setting there is no such luck, but the other side of the coin is that we have the ability to do some subtle editing.  If (and I stress this is a rare occurrence!) a mis-pitching or mis-timing appears, I can slice out the half-second (or whatever it is) of the track in question; or, as shown in the example here, tracks can be split and very slightly re-aligned, to ensure a consonant (positioned near the vertical red line) occurs together.  It is worth remembering, I think, that professional recordings may have been edited to be a combination of a large number of takes, and can give us a false sense of perfection to live up to when performing live!

Perhaps the most interesting part of the process, however, is ensuring that the constituent voices are balanced and blended within each part so the soprano section, for example, sings with as unified a tone as possible.  It is impossible to recreate the blend we are able to achieve in real life (where a carefully planned seating arrangement and the response of the building itself both play crucial roles), but by gentle manipulation of the volume levels of each singer, we can try and get as close as possible.  Naturally, some singers’ recordings will be louder than others (some voices are louder than others, some people record closer to their phones than others, etc.), but there is also a more subtle element to this process, and that is that some voices are simply more ‘distinctive’ in timbre than others (a choir is, after all, a collection of individuals).  In real life, this fascinating process can usually be reasonably successfully addressed through our seating plan in the choir stalls and/or through some subtle words of encouragement (or otherwise…) from the conductor; in the virtual world, this process is rather simpler and can be manipulated to a much greater degree, as shown by the varied positions of the volume faders below:

Once the constituent singers in each part have been balanced to one another, the final stage is to ensure the different parts are themselves also balanced (so, for example, the altos are the same volume as the tenors) and to add in some artificial reverberation (would that we had that facility in ‘real life’!).

Before concluding, it is important to note that there is one further point on which all the participants in the Virtual Choir are agreed: the process I have described above is not ensemble music making.  The joy of choral singing is the interaction between singers.  I mentioned above the importance of singers watching each other, but of course they are also assiduously listening to each other too, to ensure the tuning is unified, the vowel sounds are matched, to hear how the building responds to the sound and to adapt as appropriate, etc., etc.  When this is working well, we see the real power of choral singing: that people can bring out the best in each other, creating a result which is so much more than the sum of its parts (whereas, by its nature, a virtual project is precisely the sum of its parts).  For me as a conductor, witnessing this ultimate demonstration of collegial collaboration, having singers to work with who will respond (whether consciously or not) to the gestures I make whilst conducting, catching the glint in a singer’s eye as a particularly enjoyable part of their line is coming up, realising something new about a piece of music thanks to how someone sings it – all these things are a constant inspiration and a joy, and something I miss very greatly indeed.

Whether or not churches can re-open for private prayer in July we do not know, nor do we have any indication as to when public worship and/or choral singing can resume, but we are reassured to know that the Church of England and the Royal School of Church Music are working hard to plan for this uncertain future.  The scientific community (clearly annoyed by so much conjecture amongst the public and the media!) is not ready to say how singing may or may not be related to the transmission of the virus (the ‘droplets vs aerosols’ issue is still a big unknown) though it sounds like smaller choirs with distanced, possibly masked singers will probably be an initial step.  I was pleased to hear that the Church of England is conscious of the importance of including consideration of musicians in the advice it will give, not just about singing, but also organ playing and practice.  The Church further recognises that music plays an essential, indispensable part of worship, and that making that music can be crucial for the well-being of the musicians themselves.  The one thing I think we can say with any certainty is that we will see a gradual return to what will be a new normality.  Until then, the Virtual Choir will continue to do what it can to keep our singers singing and to ensure choral music remains an integral part of our weekly services.

Peter Siepmann