The opening of school this past September presented a host of challenges to overcome, but Director of Choral Music and Arts Department Chair Currie Joya Huntington and Director of Instrumental Music Barbara Friend P'16 had a particularly complicated problem to solve: how to put on a Winter Concert with musicians spread out around the world, many in different time zones. From every day rehearsals to how to prepare for a full concert, Currie and Barbara had to rethink everything they typically do, including deciding if they could even pull this off.
“The Fall is a time when singers and instrumentalists are ordinarily spending time working together. They are learning new music as a group. They are getting to know each other’s styles. You walk through Wilkie during a PA block and you hear the Jazz Band learning a lick or the orchestra learning a tricky piece. The choir might be making silly sounds to loosen up their voices. And later in the semester, you hear final performances coming out of all of that. This year has been hard — they have had to find new ways to make things work,” said Currie.
“If we aren’t going to have a true ensemble,” said Currie, “let's embrace the distance between us, and the challenges, and leverage the Zoom experience.”
“While students were disappointed not to be able to rehearse in person,” said Barbara, “they really rose to the challenge of having to learn their music based on feedback in Google Classroom. I am incredibly proud of them for putting the practice time in to ensure that the group would be able to present a strong final performance.”
Currie and Barbara were in constant touch with their students, engaging in conversations about the music over Zoom twice a week and sharing feedback about the weekly recorded submissions to help students learn their parts. The students practiced in small groups via Zoom, recorded their parts at home, and relied on software to compile their voice, instrumental, and video recordings that would later come together for the virtual concert. Music selections were ambitious, even for a fully in-person concert. Selections included the Radetzky March, Op. 228, composed by Johann Strauss Sr., Sonatine for Woodwind Quartet by Toshi Nagata, Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, Opus 11, and songs from Frozen 2 and Hamilton, the Musical, among others performed by the Academy Orchestra, Jazz Band, Academy Singers, and The First.
In addition to the use of online communication tools to continue the semblance of daily practices, Currie leveraged his technical background and used audio editing software to sync the voices and sounds of almost 90 students to make them sound as if they were in one room instead of scattered across the world.
“We thought going into it that the biggest challenge was going to be the mechanics of recording, in other words, how they sound,” said Currie. “But we learned how to make really good recordings. We found that, more importantly, spending practice time with a focus on rhythm so all students’ video and audio recordings sound alike, so it is as equal as possible, helped us put the humanity back into rehearsals.”
Typical of this past year, Currie and Barbara discovered some unexpected benefits and opportunities amid the challenges. With many students necessarily learning from home, families were able to hear the daily progress that their children were making. “It has allowed us to think about how to engage with parents, friends, and families around the world,” reflects Currie. “Even pre-pandemic, we’ve wanted to create more videos and with this experience, we see new possibilities for sharing our work.”
Leading up to the Winter Concert, Currie, Barbara, and the students took on additional challenges: they performed at smaller events, such as Govs Fall Family Weekend and the Candlelight Service in December, all while working with a videographer to produce the Winter Concert video.
“From all of this I have learned how smart, independent, and resilient our students are,” said Currie. “Normally I am in front of them conducting, but the [Winter] Concert presented a new way of realizing, of seeing how powerful students are as independent musicians. We focused on meeting the students where they are and encouraging independent student voice and agency. The students worked so hard and it made us reevaluate what it means to do a live performance.”
A huge thanks to the families of the remote students who while recording at home, had to be quiet for 30 minutes twice a week for a semester. A special thanks to the administration and Communications Department for seeing the value and dedicating the resources and software to this work. Finally, this year Barbara Friend is retiring. We have been fortunate to have her expertise and friendship during her time at Govs, and we wish her the best of luck as she engages in future adventures.
Click here to experience Govs Virtual Winter Concert 2021