On a recent cloudy Friday afternoon, Kim Thackray, a member of the Corvallis Repertory Singers, walked into an upstairs bedroom in her house, closed the door, slipped on a pair of earbuds, set her cellphone to record — and started singing.
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Specifically, she started to sing, by herself, the alto part in a John Rutter arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The Rutter arrangement of the well-known tune has its challenges — for one, the tempo speeds up dramatically near the end, and the switch can be tricky to navigate.
“That was wrong, right there,” Thackray said after one take of the song. A second take turned out better, but the work was just half-done: Now it was time to record a video, and so she trooped downstairs (a red wall in a living room provided a suitably festive backdrop) and shot the visual portion.
All throughout the mid-valley for the last couple of weeks, members of the Repertory Singers have been recording themselves singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”to create a virtual choral performance of the song. A video of the performance, with the audio and video components blended by Oregon State University’s Daniel Cespedes, is now online at the Repertory Singers’ YouTube channel.
The video is intended as a holiday gift — a singing Christmas card — to the community, said Steven Zielke, the artistic director of the Repertory Singers and the director of choral studies at OSU.
But, like so many other things in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,the virtual performance wasn’t the Repertory Singers’ original plan to mark the holidays.
The ensemble’s “Candlelight and Carols”concert typically draws big crowds each December— but the pandemic precludes live indoor concerts. So the singers made plans for smaller-scale outdoor concerts in downtown Corvallis and Albany, but the latest surge in coronavirus cases made that plan unfeasible.
“When it became clear that an in-person experience might not be the safest and wisest choice, I pivoted to a virtual project,” Zielke said — and the Rutter arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” was an obvious selection: “It was upbeat, fun, and completely opposite of much of the sadness and depression that the constant bad news of the pandemic has caused so many. I wanted something simple and fun. Most of our regulars also knew this piece before and we have sung it most years at our ‘Candlelight and Carols’ concert.”
At a Zoom rehearsal in early December, about 30 members of the ensemble went over the Rutter arrangement, and studied a performance of it by The Cambridge Singers. (As the Corvallis singers recorded their parts, they would listen to the Cambridge recording as sort of a “click track;” for the final Repertory Singers recording, however, Nicola Nine provided piano accompaniment.)
During that rehearsal, Zielke warned the singers not to be too critical when they listened to their recordings: “When you record yourself and then listen back to yourself without any harmonic support, you will suck. You won’t sound good.”
Cespedes ended the rehearsal by offering tips to the singers and underlined a point Zielke had made earlier: Record the audio and video parts separately. That allowed the singers to concentrate on the music while recording the audio — and then, in the video recording,they could focus on showing off their holiday spirit to the camera.
Cespedes had another point to make about the audio recordings: He urged the singers to focus first on nailing the tempo — he could fix occasional pitchiness, he said, but it’s harder to resolve tempo issues.
In the days following that Monday rehearsal, the members of the Repertory Singers worked to create their individual recordings.
For one of the singers, Gail Wells, it took a few passes at the piece for her audio recording until she finally had a take that satisfied her. The video performance turned out to be a little easier, although not without considerable adjustments to find lighting that was properly festive.
Another singer, Gale Hazel, found it challenging just to find a quiet time to record during the midst of a house remodeling project. “I opted for recording in our basement late at night, not the best time to try and sing when your body is fatigued from the activities of the day.”
Zielke’s warning about listening to the audio playback came in handy for Hazel: “Since all you hear is yourself on the recording, questionable notes are pretty glaring,” she said.
The audio and the video files were sent to Cespedes, a multimedia producer at OSU Productions. It wasn’t a completely new assignment for Cespedes — earlier in the year, he produced a similar virtual choralproduction for OSU’s Chamber Choir.
Still, piecing together some 60 different media files — mixing the audio, editing the video, synchronizing the sound — required more than 30 hours of work for the completed 110-second video.
“The variations are endless,” he said. “It’s a difficult challenge to get everyone sounding like a choir.” And there are unexpected hurdles to work through, he noted — for example, not all the singers remembered to shoot their videos in a horizontal format as requested.
But despite the hard work of stitching together so many different pieces into a coherent whole, Cespedes said it was fun to see — and hear — the joy in each performance.
“Everyone is very excited to be able to contribute in this way,” he said. “Getting to see the excitement in everyone’s faces and voices,it kind of makes me feel like you’re freezing time for a moment.”
And that, Zielke said, was one of the goals of the entire project. But, he added, the virtual choir also is meant to provide two minutes of light in the midst of these dark days.
“This musical greeting from the Repertory Singers is intended to remind folks that these times will pass and our lives will continue,” he said. “Our tables will be full of friends and family next year. One of the things I have learned during this pandemic is that the arts are absolutely central to the survival of who we are, and that the arts are most powerful when done in community and done for community.”