Friday, October 02, 2020

Northampton Symphony Orchestra online rehearsals

2 October 2020

All our lives have been turned upside down this year by the Coronavirus pandemic. And while it doesn’t compare with the trauma suffered by those who have lost loved ones or those who have lost their livelihoods, living in lockdown has been deeply unsettling and stressful in itself. The restrictions to our social lives, our ability to travel and our opportunities to take part in the activities we enjoy have made us think more carefully than ever about our quality of life. What have you missed most? What do you most yearn to be able to do again? I have been an amateur musician almost all my life. In the early days of lockdown playing music provided great comfort, distraction, challenge and emotional release amongst the worry and uncertainty. I have been playing my French horn almost every day since March: I may even have improved slightly! But playing music on your own, or with recordings, is just not the same as playing music with other people. Like many other amateur arts groups, the Northampton Symphony Orchestra (with whom I have been playing now for 20 years) quickly replaced its regular weekly rehearsals with online social chats on Zoom. It has been great to keep in touch with other members of the orchestra but you can’t play music together via Zoom or any of the other video-conferencing platforms: the audio delay (latency) is just too big. (Try singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with each other the next time you are on a Zoom call – maybe while also washing your hands! – and you will quickly see how impossible it is.) I have collaborated with some NSO members on 2020’s emerging new artform – the multi-part lockdown recording. Recording a video of yourself playing along with a click-track so your contribution can be merged with others to form a virtual performance is surprisingly difficult but it felt good to have a creative project to work on with friends, albeit remotely. It’s definitely not the same, however, as actually playing music together live. So when I read an article about a choir in the USA that had been experimenting with low-latency audio software that enabled them to sing together online, I got very excited. I have spent the last two months exploring software originally designed for rock bands who wanted to jam together online, and looking at whether any of these programs might work for an orchestral rehearsal. The best option seemed to be a free, open source program called Jamulus. It’s a little fiddly to set up, and it only works if you have the right hardware (you need to be able to plug your computer directly into your router with an ethernet cable – wifi is just too slow) and a fast internet connection, plus a lot of patience! On 19 August we held our first online orchestra rehearsal: it was technically challenging, frustrating, at times hilariously bad, but exciting and ultimately actually quite inspiring. Eight of us managed to connect through Jamulus, and with NSO conductor John Gibbons holding us together on piano we eventually managed to play through the entire first movement of Beethoven's 'Symphony No 3 (Eroica)'. It was a far from perfect experience but after a break of more than five months this first opportunity to actually play live music with a group of other people again was incredibly enjoyable. And the best evidence of this is that everyone involved was keen to do it again soon. This Wednesday, our fifth NSO online rehearsal, was the best yet. We had ten people taking part, including violins, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, horns and piano, and worked on the ‘Symphonie in D minor’ by César Franck and Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’. Each week we have managed to tweak the software settings, address hardware issues and improve the small remaining audio delays. The sound quality is not wonderful and there are always a few technical problems but it’s getting better every week. This Wednesday actually felt like a proper rehearsal as we went back over certain passages of the music and managed to improve them. It’s still no substitute for making music together in the same room but, given the prospect of ongoing restrictions for many months to come, our online rehearsals have been really enjoyable. And working through the technical challenges and solving them together as a group has been a rewarding experience in itself.



At 2:56 pm, Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent post, I think it sums things up nicely. Looking forward to some more jamming! 😊


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