During lockdown, TPC's Music Director Harry Bradford and Accompanist James Orford have had to add new skills as sound engineers and DJs to their already long list of musical achievements. It has been challenging experience and they have particularly missed the engagement and enthusiasm they expect to achieve with live music making.
"The biggest joy from a live rehearsal is seeing how engaged people are and feeding off the enthusiasm from Harry and individual Choir members: it's why live music-making is so wonderful" says James. For Harry, the weird thing was being at home and unable to take part in a communal music-making process. "For me, music is such a social thing and I really miss that instant feedback. You make tracks but you don't know if they're helpful. Then James and I would isolate sections that we thought might present particular challenges and work through them during our virtual rehearsals. Without feedback, it's really hard to know if you're doing the right thing." James agrees: "Because, on Zoom, everyone is muted, we have no idea how people are reacting, or whether we're concentrating on the right bits. We just have to plough on and hope that people are finding it helpful."
A huge amount of work went into creating learning tracks for each of the pieces the Choir sang. First James put down the piano accompaniment, closely following the tempo markings on the score, or occasionally incorporating specific tempi agreed with Harry. Harry put the whole thing into music editing software (Logic) and sent it to three professional singers who each recorded their own SATB parts (Harry sang the Tenor). Harry then had the job of stitching the whole thing together and ensuring that rhythm was uniform, given everyone was singing on their own. He then exported the whole thing to iMovie where he combined the result with screen shots of pdf scores and video of himself conducting. Each video set took about 5-6 hours in total, not taking into account the hours James had already taken to perfect the piano part and waiting for recordings to be returned.
The culmination of eight weeks of Zoom rehearsals was our virtual concert, which took place on the evening we would otherwise have been performing at All Saints' Church, Kingston. For the most part we sang along with the rehearsal tracks but there was a wonderful surprise for Choir members: James had recently opened up the organ loft at Westminster Cathedral, where he is organist in residence, and recorded the accompaniments to Parry's I was glad, Howells Collegium Regale Te Deum and Handel's Zadok the Priest.
For the Parry and the Howells, James simply recorded new accompaniments, filming from his
phone on a stand next to the console, and setting up a microphone some 30 metres from the organ. He then synchronised the audio and video on his computer before asking the soloists to re-record their parts with the organ. For the Handel, there was a little more of a challenge: "We didn't feel we could ask the soloists again so I listened to the learning track on headphones and played the organ in time with the existing tracks", says James. "It took a while!"
In making the recordings, both Harry and James were very aware of wanting to avoid mistakes. "With live music you make mistakes and you forget them", says Harry. "But in a recording, you want it to be as perfect as you can make it because people are going to listen to it over and over. There's a self-imposed pressure about trying to make it perfect."
Harry and James agree that, in the end, it was a rewarding experience. The response from Choir members overall was one of great enjoyment, especially after the virtual concert. Says Harry, "I had a real sense that, even if I didn't feel the euphoria you get with a live concert, it had been the culmination of a term's work and all the work I'd put it. There was no doubt it had all been worth it."