Choral singers enjoying virtual technology
In March, when the pandemic hit, many members of a Washington state chorus fell ill after a rehearsal attended by a COVID patient, making it clear that singing in a group could be a dangerous, potentially fatal activity.
So, Encore Creativity for Older Adults, which operates 22 choruses in the Baltimore-Washington area, cancelled all its in-person rehearsals and shifted to Zoom, the online video chat program.
“What happened when the world went silent was, for about a week we were shellshocked. And then we started putting videos out — on vocal technique, music theory, anything we thought our singers would enjoy,” said Jeanne Kelly, who founded Encore in Annapolis in 2007. Its choirs, open to anyone 55 and over, don’t require an audition or any prior choral experience.
Dubbing the video classes Encore University, Kelly and her nine conductors were able to stay in touch with their 800 singers during a critical time. Even people without computers could participate by phone.
“Many of them live alone, and this isolation — I knew it was going to be devastating,” Kelly said. “So, we can keep them busy from 10:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, and they love it. They can keep learning.”
New tech for singing in unison
This month, Encore University’s spring semester will begin with courses such as Black Classical Composers from the Renaissance to the present, Gregorian Chant, Yoga for Singers and Songs of Hope and Change.
In addition, its 22 chorales will begin rehearsals at home with a new technology that allows them to sing together while being physically apart.
Zoom works well for virtual meetings, but it has a fatal flaw for musicians: a lag time, or latency, that makes it impossible for people in different locations to sing or perform in unison.
“If you tried to sing Happy Birthday, it would be a garbled mess,” said David Simmons, associate artistic director and one of Encore’s 10 conductors.
So, Encore has adopted a technology called JackTrip — an open-source software made easy to configure and use via a system that costs each household about $200 for a small black box, headphones and a few cables. (This expense is in addition to Encore’s tuition, which costs about $200 per semester.)
JackTrip was initially developed 15 years ago by the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. During the pandemic, one of its inventors heard his son complaining about missing his San Francisco-area choir practices. The father remembered the technology and made a few tweaks.
“Motivated by his son’s longing to sing with his Ragazzi Boys Chorus friends, Mike Dickey, a software entrepreneur, developed an inexpensive, plug-and-play solution that reduces latency to a point where singers can harmonize in real-time over common internet connections,” according to a company statement.
So far, about 175 of Encore’s singers have decided to purchase a JackTrip system, Simmons said. When those people sing together, others without the system can listen in and sing along, benefitting from the sound of a synchronized choir.
“We have a lot of older adults who are very tech-savvy. We have 90-year-olds who are doing this,” Simmons said. But, he admitted, “It’s not an easy thing to set this up, and we can’t come out and help you.”
All benefit from courses
A Columbia couple has decided to stick to the Zoom classes, so they can sing along without any new technology.
“I don’t want anybody to hear me anyway. I would just as soon be off-key all by myself,” joked Steven Von Hagen-Jamar, who has been singing in the Columbia Encore Chorale for several years.
His wife, Shelley Von Hagen-Jamar, a soprano in the chorale, has expanded her musical knowledge during the pandemic. She had always wanted to learn to read music, so she took a music theory class and a vocal technique class through Encore University last summer.
“For the same tuition I was able to take at least two classes. I popped around and sampled a lot of things,” she said.
She was impressed by the “expertise and talent” of the teachers, all Encore conductors. “It was very intense. We had homework every week,” she said. But she reached her goal and can now read music.
“There’s got to be all kinds of new neural pathways in my brain now,” she said. “I’m able to pick up a lot more in the rehearsals because I’m studying more outside the rehearsals.”
Singers in 26 states
The beauty of video classes is that anyone, anywhere, can attend. The Von Hagen-Jamars, for instance, were able to attend classes and rehearsals from their summer home on Lake Anna. Recently people from 26 different states have joined in, according to Kelly.
“Before COVID, we were geographically based, so we had a Towson chorale, a Columbia chorale, an Arlington chorale. Now it doesn’t matter” where you live, Simmons said.
Most importantly, he said, singers can stay connected. “We’ve had email after email saying, ‘This has been a lifeline; these classes have saved me; I don’t know how I mentally could have gotten through this period,’” he said. “We’ve had some people singing with us for 13 years, and we care about them.”
After each class or rehearsal, Simmons said, people seem reluctant to sign off.
“When everybody says goodbye, they wave to each other. They just keep waving. It’s heartbreaking because you can see they’re just longing to have some human connection even if it’s through this Zoom call.”
It’s not too late to register for this semester of Encore Creativity for Older Adults. Visit encorecreativity.org or call (301) 261-5747.