Philomath High School singers and musicians will perform in a holiday program at 7 p.m. Wednesday. But as you might guess, they won’t be dressed up and on stage in an auditorium full of people. In fact, they actually won’t be performing live that night at all, and they’ll be able to watch along with everyone else.
Welcome to the 2020 version of a PHS concert. It’s a virtual event that can be watched through Zoom and will feature the choir, wind ensemble and jazz band.
“The kids would rather be together making beautiful music in the same room but this is the best that we could give them at this point,” PHS Performing Arts Director Erica Hall said. “For me, I was very proud of what they were able to accomplish and the fact that they were proud made me say ‘yes, this is exactly why I do this.’”
The PHS performing arts students performed once already earlier this academic year in a virtual fall concert. That one lasted around 30 minutes with each of the three groups doing three songs. Hall decided to cut it down to two songs per group this time, so the program will be a little shorter.
“We will send out a Zoom link who can share it with whoever they want,” Hall said. “We’ll do a short intro into the concert and what the kids have been doing and then press the play button.”
Hall said performing arts numbers are down a bit this year — not really a surprise with lower enrollment numbers throughout the district. Off the top of her head, she estimated 15 or 16 in wind ensemble, maybe 10 in choir and eight in jazz band.
So how does all of this work?
“In preparing for distance learning this year, I was looking at different blogs and different YouTube channels and different Instagram accounts of different teachers and what they were going to be doing and I found this teacher, I believe she is over on the East Coast, and she invented this virtual rehearsal model,” Hall said.
Hall and the students meet on Zoom twice a week for a “rehearsal” — that word in quotes because it’s not really a traditional rehearsal. Instead, students go into a program called “Smart Music” and record chunks of music. As Hall listens, she said she’s basically planning the rehearsal based on them.
“I go in and I listen to their recordings — and their recordings are not polished,” she said. “I don’t want them to be polished. I want to hear the struggles that they’re having so I can give feedback during the rehearsal.”
The classes have been operating in that fashion since the end of September, Hall said. Students record on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the “rehearsal” sessions occur on Wednesdays and Fridays, and Mondays are reserved as office hours to answer questions.
All of those chunks end up in a software program and Hall puts them together to create a virtual ensemble. When finished, she exports the data into an mp3 file, which is a common audio format, and it goes into an iTunes playlist that she has set up. She can then arrange the songs into the preferred performance order.
While viewers are watching the performances in Zoom, they also have access to a link that takes them to the concert program.
“The kids literally are sitting and listening to their tracks during the concert — they’re not dressed up, there’s no live playing, there’s nothing,” Hall said. “I joke with them and say it’s the easiest concert you guys will ever be doing.”
Hall said she’s had mixed reactions from her music colleagues and typically gets one of two responses.
“One, they were very intrigued as to how I was doing it and how it was going to work,” she said. “Or, two, they thought I was out-of-my-mind crazy doing something like this.”
The fall concert seemed to go well and even though Hall didn’t count the number of those watching, she estimated it at 50 to 70 viewers. Colleagues and school personnel listened, even relatives of students who live far away could take in the concert.
“I had family members of kids from the East Coast or from the Southern states that were able to jump on … they had never heard their students in concert because they’re out of town,” Hall said. “But doing it over Zoom, these kids felt proud that grandparents or aunts and uncles were able to actually come in ‘live’ and listen to them play.”
Hall said she also received positive feedback both during and after the fall concert.
“Kids were asking for tracks days after because they wanted to share it with family,” she said. “I had staff members and community members asking for either the recordings or the actual recording of the Zoom meeting so they could watch it, so yeah, the buzz around it was very, very positive, which is exactly what I wanted, and the kids were proud of what they put out for that fall concert.”