Joshua Countryman does not take the easy route.
The Henry Sibley High School choir director was assigned by his principal to make a faculty video to cheer up sheltered-at-home students this spring. After asking fellow staffers to record themselves singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Countryman blended the voices and videos into a virtual choir posted on YouTube.
He didn’t stop there. He figured his school choirs could go virtual, too: not with just one song but with all 13 selections they had been rehearsing for their spring performance. In the end, he created an entire virtual choir concert.
“I don’t like to lose,” said Countryman, a teacher for 19 years, including three at the Mendota Heights school. “To give up on a concert experience, to me, that felt like a loss. It was important that we could salvage a win.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, virtual choirs have been popping up all over Minnesota. Singers vocalize at home, their voices and faces all edited together with hours and hours of postproduction in videos that look like “Hollywood Squares” on steroids.
Colleges have made virtual choir clips. Children’s Theatre made one of “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie,” its postponed spring show. A St. Paul lawyer put out a Facebook call and created his own virtual choir of dislocated singers, dubbed Schola Diffusa (Latin for “dispersed choir”).
What was once a novelty invented by the rock star of choral music has now become a worldwide pandemic trend, an ideal workaround for an activity that is now verboten because of the coronavirus.
“I’m thunderstruck,” said Eric Whitacre, the Grammy-winning California composer/conductor who pioneered virtual choirs in 2009. “When I made my first one, I didn’t think anybody but my fellow choir geeks would be interested. That first video went viral. Now that it’s become this trend, it’s astonishing.”
Fan girl provides spark
Like Countryman, Whitacre had a light-bulb moment. A 17-year-old singer named Britlin Losee posted a YouTube video of herself interpreting Whitacre’s song “Sleep.” He was moved by not only the pristine clarity of her voice, but also by seeing her face up close in her own environment.
“It was so intimate. I was struck by the whole purity of the moment,” Whitacre recalled. “And then I wondered if you just had people do what Britlin is doing and had them all start their videos at the same time, would it work? It was like a 6-year-old with a Tinkertoy set. It was that simple and that innocent.”
So he tried it with 185 singers from 12 countries doing his “Lux Aurumque” and posted the video. It didn’t hurt that he’s tech-savvy, having played synthesizer and electronic drums as a teenager before he discovered choir in college.
Whitacre thought his Virtual Choir 5 would be his last — 2018’s “Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe,” an extravagant 29-minute video featuring more than 8,000 singers (ages 4 to 87) from 120 countries, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and stunning space videography from the Hubble telescope.
After all, these projects occupy a staff of three or four for audio, six or seven for video and a handful of interns. “At the end of the day, it’s a ton of meticulous work to put these together,” said Whitacre.
However, feeling a need to bring people together during the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitacre undertook a sixth project, “Sing Gently.” He spent two weeks composing the piece, conducted 10 online rehearsals, made the virtual recording with 17,572 singers and then turned things over to his editing teams. “Sing Gently” will premiere at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on YouTube.
Surprising a professor
This year, virtual choirs have served different purposes — substituting for concerts, providing choral fixes for stuck-at-home singers and, in the case of choir-obsessed St. Olaf College, surprising a professor for his 30th anniversary at the Northfield institution.
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, assistant professor of music, had surreptitiously commissioned a new arrangement of “If I Can Help Somebody,” the Mahalia Jackson classic, to surprise longtime choir director Anton Armstrong. At the end of a Zoom meeting with music department personnel in late May, Wondemagegnehu premiered the unannounced virtual choir video.
“Anton was completely shocked,” Wondemagegnehu said.
How to create a virtual choir
There are how-to videos about virtual choirs (choramor.com is a free site recently created), but some Minnesotans went the DIY, trial-by-error method, which is massively time-consuming even with pro-level equipment, and requires the patience of Job. (Countryman spent 19 hours of postproduction on one piece alone.)
The first step is lining up singers.
For Children Theatre’s “Tomorrow,” music director Victor Zupanc put out a call on Facebook and ended up with 53 singers, ranging from a kid holding a plastic microphone to a professional actor hamming it up with stuffed animals.
“We didn’t reject anybody,” Zupanc said. “We decided the more the merrier.”
At St. Paul College, music instructor Michael D. Olsen had three singers this spring who’d never been in a choir before. Virtual choir was totally different from singing together. “It puts a lot of impetus on the student to individually prepare,” he said. “I had a couple of students say, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for; I’m not a soloist.’ They’re used to leaning on a stronger singer.”
The next step is the choir director creating a guide track for the singers — similar to a click track used when recording instruments in a studio.
Schola Diffusa founder Damien Riehl, who studied in college to be a choir director but ended up as copyright lawyer and “technologist,” had all the instincts and skills. He recorded all the voice parts himself, put sheet music scrolling on the video sent to all singers and condensed instructions to one sheet.
“Damien made it super-simple,” said Samantha Culliton of Jamestown, N.D., a college music major who sang lead on one piece by Schola Diffusa.
Zupanc gave instructions to use a tablet or computer with headphones to follow the music and a smartphone to shoot the video in landscape.
For Countryman’s students, it was a lot of trial and error.
“It was stressing at first. I definitely underestimated myself and overthought a lot of things,” said Tamit Weldeyesus, a rising junior at Henry Sibley High.
“I probably had to record 20 or 25 times for the first song. The way I looked at it, this has to be perfect because if it’s not, everyone can hear my mistakes. When Mr. Countryman showed us a rough draft, you can barely hear me. It was all harmonized. It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.”
The novelty of virtual choir was challenging even for experienced singers. Andrew Wilkowske, a veteran of 20 years with the Minnesota Opera, did five takes before uploading one to Riehl.
Culliton made several attempts just to get used to the process, especially given her home situation.
“I had to record when my kids were in bed, so my voice was a little more tired,” said the mother of three. “I was down in my basement, and it was a lot more echoey.”
Of course, voices can be cleaned up in the editing process.
Countryman, working in an ad hoc studio in his garage, added some reverb and did some equalizing because “I’ve got one kid recording in their bathroom and another kid recording in a closet. Those are two acoustically very different environments.”
Because of editing, Riehl feels that virtual choir “democratizes the ability of people to sound good.”
That’s partly because of his technical expertise.
“Damien got the blend really tight,” Wilkowske said. “It sounds like an actual choir.”
Zupanc wasn’t necessarily going for “sounding good” in his “Tomorrow” video.
“People are all over the map. A lot of people are not singing in tune. Cutoff notes are all over the place. I wanted to keep it as natural and as raw as possible.
“There were some really dear little kids like this 3-year-old, and they couldn’t sing and hear where to come in. I put them in anyway. Even if it was just three notes. Relying on the cute factor was big.”
After sprucing up the audio track to his satisfaction, Zupanc mapped out story boards and handed over the project to a video editor.
Some of the long hours in postproduction are because it takes time to load files. Upgrading equipment is expensive and hiring professional editors is even more costly.
One thing Countryman didn’t clean up was the sound of singers turning pages of sheet music. He wanted to capture authentic experience, something even an experienced opera singer appreciates.
“When you do hear the pages turn or you see a person singing in their dining room, I do like that,” Wilkowske said. “It takes a little of the pretense away from ‘this is important classical performance.’ This is a bunch of people singing in their houses into their phones. There is something very real about that, that is appealing.”
Valuable teaching tool
After spending half the spring conducting classes via Zoom and orchestrating the virtual choir concert, Countryman has become fond of this new teaching tool.
“Social isolation has been great for creativity,” he said. “Virtual choir creates an excellent opportunity to really do fine-tuned individual assessments. Even if we go back to school every day, the virtual component is going to have to be important at least in my class because of that huge risk of increased [virus] transmission in choir.”
Choir student Weldeyesus found Countryman more accessible via Zoom than when students were at school. Still, she yearns to be in the classroom.
“I really miss the environment of being with other students and singing together,” she said. “I really love that community.”
Whitacre cautions that virtual choirs are no substitute for the real thing.
“It in no way replaces the magic of making music together,” said the choral guru, who has been giving pep talks via Zoom to choirs all over the world during the pandemic. “Still, it has somehow become a way of bonding people together. There is that genuine feeling of connectedness, which I could never imagine when I made that first virtual choir.”