Virtual Choir 101
In these not-so-unprecedented-anymore times (let's face it, we've been at this nearly nine months), musicians of all stripes have had to get creative, think resourcefully, and re-frame what performance means. It's been a hard time, to be sure, but I also marvel at the ways in which we've harnessed technology to create a new kind of collaborative musical experience.
If you're a singer, you've probably seen, or maybe even participated in, a "virtual choir" project of some sort. I certainly have! And, as a professional choral singer, I found it to be eye-opening, and an opportunity for me to learn more about myself as a singer. In fact, as much as I miss singing in a room with other people, I've found I actually enjoy the process.
But maybe this isn't you. Maybe you ride the #strugglebus with these projects. I get it. There are a lot of differences from an in-person choral situation that can make things difficult for singers.
So, this post is for you! I'll offer my experiences and observations about this kind of singing, and some tips to set you up for better success next time.
First Things First: The Vision
Before you even begin the recording process, you need to know a couple of things:
What's the final product going to look like? Get as clear an idea as you can, as this will determine your set-up and what you wear, if applicable. Will it be the Brady-Bunch-style heads-in-boxes? Will it be audio-only? What are the envisioned visual elements?
What does the conductor/director expect of the singers? Musical/ensemble things like breathing, phrasing, and cutoffs should be decided in advance. Artistic decisions like tone color, dynamics, and the "feel" of the piece also need to be made early on.
Learning the Music
Now, if you are a good choral singer who always marks her music, practices at home, and has great attention to detail, this process will not be much different from a normal-
times situation. You must still learn notes, rhythms, entrances, cutoffs, and diction with as much accuracy as you can.
Here is what believe to be the virtual choir musical priority list:
Rhythm. It should be as clean as you can get it. Things that depend on rhythm, like breaths and cutoffs, also fall into this category. I would much rather listen to a choir with utmost rhythmic precision and a few weird notes, than something pitch-perfect that is a rhythmic mess. Think about how cringeworthy it is to hear a resounding chorus of "t-t-t-t" at the end of a word, instead of a clean, single "t." All of this stuff, while certainly obvious in an in-person situation, is absolutely MAGNIFIED in a recording.
Articulation is key. Whether it's legato, staccato, accented, marcato, or what have you - be as overt with these expressions as you can. They will help to create a sound that is much more exciting, dynamic, and musical.
Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics! I get it - dynamics can be really hard for singers. There are all kinds of technical and proprioceptive reasons why dynamic shading could be off. So exaggerate as much as you can without vocally compromising yourself. This will again, create a much more exciting experience for your virtual listeners.
Now, here is what you must keep in mind while you learn your music:
You will not have fellow choristers to lean on. While your conductor has probably given you some kind of guide or practice track, be aware that learning your part from a sound file is NOT the same as doing it amongst a live group of fellow singers.
When I first started doing virtual choir recordings at home, I immediately realized how much adjusting and calibrating I do in the moment, when singing with other people. I'm constantly listening for how I'm balancing, how my fellow singers are shaping their vowels, where they're breathing, how much vibrato I should be using, and a myriad of other things that I do on instinct and thus just took for granted. When, all of a sudden, that group dynamic was no longer available to me, I had to think differently about all of that stuff. I was singing by myself, but I could not sing like a soloist. I didn't have others' voices to help moderate my singing, so I had to imagine, very intentionally, how'd I'd sing this piece as a member of a group.
This, by the way, is why the conductor's instructions and vision are so important. Since they're not conducting us in person and working with us to create a feel and a sound we can intuit from their body language, they have to be VERY specific about what they want from their singers, if they have any hope of a unified, artistic sound in the final product. Without specific instruction, each singer is left to make their own interpretive choices. Which is the opposite of the point when it comes to choral singing.
Doing The Recording
Okay, so you've learned the music and can do all the artistic things the conductor's asked of you. You're ready to record. What should you do?
Allow yourself PLENTY of time. Trust me, this stuff always takes way longer than you think.
Create your recording set-up according to your conductor's specifications.
Do a test recording, play it back, and see how it sounds. Are you too loud or quiet? Is there distortion or feedback? Is there a lot of ambient background noise? Are you centered in the camera frame? Make adjustments accordingly.
Plan to do more than one take. Chances are your first one will not be good enough.
Do not, however, do more than 3-5 takes, depending on the length and difficulty
of the piece. If you do, you'll start to see diminishing returns. You will get too mentally and vocally tired, so quit while you're ahead. Especially if you've got more than one piece to record that day.
Do not expect perfection. This is not a studio recording made for posterity. This is meant to be a "live" performance. Would you sing perfectly in an in-person live concert? Probably not. So don't get too wrapped up in perfectionist tendencies with this, either. Use the musical priority list above as your guide and just do the best you can.
Listen ALL THE WAY THROUGH ALL OF YOUR TAKES. Do not just assume that, because the first few bars sound good, the rest does. Technology is weird and glitchy sometimes. How else will you know the recorder quit on you in bar 96?
Choose the recording that you think best follows the conductor's instructions, exemplifies the vision, and has the cleanest sound. It may not be the one where you think your voice "sounds the best." While you *do* want to make sure your tone is lovely, remember: musical accuracy is the bigger priority.
If you want help prepping your next virtual choir project, I'm your gal! I can help you learn your notes, make sure your musicality is solid, and help you through the set-up and recording process. To book a package of online sessions, book your free Discovery Call here!
P.S. If you want to see one of my most recent virtual choir projects, check it out here!