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Virtual choirs - a difficult balancing act


Singing In… joined Classical Sheffield at the beginning of the year. As an organisation that brings music makers together they usually put on an amazing festival of music across the city every other year. Obviously in the current climate, 2021’s festival couldn’t take place, so instead they organised a virtual performance of a medley of Sheffield songs. Pete and I decided that we’d take part in the Steel City Celebrations which premiered on 5th March. We’ve done quite a few videos for various virtual choirs now so we didn’t think it would take too long to sing through and get a reasonable video to send in. How wrong we were…


Pete was first up, so he did most of the setting up and getting everything in the right place. He used a music stand extended as high as it would go to put the camera on. That still wasn’t high enough but he did a good job of searching all over the place for things that could be used to balance his phone on. He wore a nice shirt that he’d ironed specially but since it was only going to be a video of his head and shoulders he kept his scruffy shorts on the bottom half. If this doesn’t epitomise our current online, half presentable life, I don’t know what does!


When he started there was still plenty of natural light left but as it was a bit later in the afternoon by the time I started on mine, the light had begun to fade. Cue lots of messing around with lighting in the room. It was a difficult balance getting a well lit shot but without lots of huge black shadows under the nose and chin. When we’d eventually got this sorted, I was fairly confident of being able to do mine in one take. I had the music in front of me and knew it enough that I could look at the camera occasionally.


Because I don’t like having massive headphones on for these things, I use the earbud style headphones that I can hide with my hair. Just before starting the first take, I took one of the earphone buds out to readjust the wire. This is when things started going really wrong… The little rubber part of the bud came off and disappeared. I knew the bud wouldn’t stay in my ear without it so I spent ages looking under the fridge and cupboards, in my pockets, through my hair and double checked it hadn’t stayed in my ear. I even took my clothes off and shook them out! When I say it disappeared, it really did. We still haven’t found it three weeks later!


After giving up the search, I decided to just go for it with one earbud in. I got back into position and set off on take number one. There followed a ridiculous number of takes as each one went wrong in some way. There were wrong words, swearing, the camera falling off the stand, anything that could have gone wrong seemed to. Finally, I was almost there, just six bars away from the end! I’d performed to the camera and smiled, I’d got all the notes and words right, not missed any entries etc. when a stupidly loud group of motorbikes drove past with all the revving that goes with it. This was the point I lost it, grabbed one of the sheets of music, screwed it up and got more inventive with the swearing!


I was also laughing though, by this point it was farcical the number of things that had gone wrong. I decided to give it one more go. The next take worked, it wasn’t perfect by any means but I’d got to the end and had managed to smile into the camera. I didn’t even watch it back because by this time there was NO WAY I was going to do another one.


My first virtual choir performance was singing Smile with three friends, two of whom I’ve never met in real life! Julie Gaulke is an extremely talented arranger, singer, multitrack artist and so much more and she put this beautiful video together for us.


When working on some virtual choir performances, I find the joy doesn’t really come until you get to see the final result. This was certainly the case when Pete and I sang in the Eric Whitacre Sing Gently video. We had left it until the last minute to get a video done which added to the pressure. I’m not sure either of us were entirely happy with our completed videos but we knew there was so little chance of us being seen that we sent them in anyway. This one had 17,572 performers so there was a long wait after the submission deadline before the finished video premiered. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, but it was a stunningly beautiful moment to watch and hear knowing that we had been part of something so special. It premiered on 19 July 2020, four months after choirs had stopped rehearsing and performing, and I know this added to the heightened emotions when watching it for the first time. It was so special to us that Pete and I played it at our wedding six weeks later (an event that was due to have lots of choirs singing at it, instead there were 10 special guests and no live music). It was wonderful.


So if you are ever doubting whether to send in a video, know that often the pleasure doesn’t come from singing on your own to the tracks you’ve been given and trying to get a near perfect take, it comes from watching and hearing the final performance cleverly edited together. Having edited and produced a few of these videos (our December performance of Sans Day Carol is a great example), I can tell you that I often don’t even notice who has made a mistake, I just amend and move on. So be brave and take the challenge!


And do have a watch of the final version of the Classical Sheffield Steel City Celebrations - you’d never guess Pete was wearing his shorts would you?!



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