It’s not unusual for those in the performing arts to tackle more than one role in the same production. Rarely are those roles teacher and student, and rarely are they played simultaneously.
However, that’s exactly what Michael Sundblad did in order for the Thomas Nelson choir to continue with performances, which now are virtual experiences because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When the shutdown happened in March, I had to figure out how to keep choir going,” said Sundblad, chair of the College’s music department.
He had noticed, in the past few years, other virtual choir performances, so he decided that would be a great option. But despite having some video editing experience, he wasn’t ready to put together a big production. The first thing he did was teach himself how to do that. Luckily, the shutdown coincided with spring break, which for Thomas Nelson was stretched from one week to two.
“That second week, that whole week, all I did was teach myself how to do video and audio editing,” he said. “I think I spent 50 or 60 hours trying to figure it out.”
He admits he was no master, but when classes resumed, he was able to record a piece of music, assembling the numerous videos and soundtracks submitted to him by the performers. The department soon will release its latest virtual performance, the overture of the “Pirates of Penzance.” He still is working out copyright details on two of the performances, but three others are on the department’s Facebook page as well as YouTube.
“I’m also going to do choir this way in the fall,” he said. “So they’re going to be a lot of these by the time we open back up.”
Sundblad said as soon as he learned the summer operetta would be canceled, he wanted a way to keep people involved and encouraged to audition in the future. He invited those who had performed in any of the College’s previous Gilbert and Sullivan shows to join his efforts. Convincing those performers didn’t take long.
“I said yes immediately,” said Todd Worsham, a musician from Newport News who has participated in Thomas Nelson’s summer performances of Gilbert and Sullivan since they started in 2013.
Judy Gilmer, a singer who moved to Germany near the end of 2019 but has been stuck in Colorado since the spring, had the same response.
“Sign me up,” was her reaction after Sundblad mentioned his idea.
Sundblad said the hardest thing was getting things set up, which is why he was glad he had time to teach himself the editing skills required to put together these performances.
“There’s a lot of heavy lifting at the beginning to create accompaniment tracks,” he said, noting that for each video, he had to create at least four instructional videos: one for the sopranos, one for the altos, one for the tenors, and one for the basses. “Unless there are more parts. If there are two soprano parts, that’s another video.”
He said the video editing also was a lot of work, and he’s still someone of a student in that regard.
“Every time I make one, I learn something new,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to learn with the technology.”
One of the biggest technological challenges was that conferencing software doesn’t link up in real time, so it’s hard to rehearse.
“It’s not like rehearsing together,” Sundblad said.
Worsham said not being able to hear the other performers while recording is tough.
“We’re singing along with a track, or playing along with a track,” he said. “It’s still kind of a solitary experience even though the end product is still a group of musicians.”
For Gilmer, the biggest challenges are getting a recording she’s satisfied with, and finding a quite place to do the recording.
“Musicians in general are going to be very self-critical,” she said. “We can be not critical about somebody else, but when it’s ourself … we can be so super critical. Then you finally get the right recording, and a motorcycle drives by.”
But at the same time, Gilmer likes being able to record on her schedule, which is especially important in the current climate.
Worsham really likes being able to edit his performance.
“One of the things about live performance is that once something has passed, it’s passed,” he said. “If you flub something, or sing or play the wrong note or say the wrong word, you can’t go back and grab it.”
But when recording at home, you’re allowed as many takes as you want. Gilmer noted that also, and mentioned it usually takes her about five takes to find one she enjoys.
That has led to another great aspect, said Sundblad.
“I’m surprised at how diligent and concerned the singers are with their own performance. I didn’t expect that,” he said, adding some people send him the out-takes, and some take upward of a dozen tries to get it right.
He thought the performers would set up their phone and just hit the record button. Instead, he has noticed they are being more accountable to themselves and each other. Unlike in an ensemble, they can’t hide when submitting an individual performance.
“They’re being really careful, which pleases me,” he said, noting the performers are being challenged in different ways. “I like that they’re enjoying it and want it to be good. I wasn’t sure to expect that. I’m pleasantly surprised.”
He tries to keep the videos short, usually 3-4 minutes. Although, the overture of “The Mikado” was 7½ minutes. And he has to compile anywhere from one dozen to two dozen clips for each video.
“I want them to be sort of bite-size so people will be more likely to watch them from beginning to end,” he said. “And I want it to be something manageable for the people recording them so that they know they only have to get through three or four minutes.”
Sundblad also has noticed the videos he has produced so far seem to have a greater reach than in-person performances.
“What’s great is the distribution of the performance. Hundreds and hundreds of people have seen these from all over the world,” he said. “That’s not a reach we would get in person.”
When a performance is on campus in the Mary T. Christian Auditorium, there normally are anywhere from 100-200 in attendance. One of the online choir videos had close to 600 views by the middle of July.
Worsham noticed that benefit too, saying family and friends often ask for the links to the videos.
“They can just watch it at their own convenience vs. having to plan to come to a performance venue to see a show,” he said.
However, all agree the biggest benefit is giving performers an outlet for their talents. It’s tough being isolated, especially for groups that have become almost family over the years.
“All these musicians … (get) some semblance of being able to perform together even though they’re on their own in their homes,” Sundblad said. “The final product is still a group endeavor.”
It’s possible singing spreads the virus more readily, so choir gatherings are discouraged, which is tough because performers in general enjoy being around one another and creating something together. Virtual performances don’t offer that same feeling.
“It’s a way for us to still be able to connect with each other, and make music together, which is great,” Worsham said of the virtual performances. “Once we realized we weren’t going to be able to do a production this summer, it was really a sad moment for a lot of us because it’s something we look forward to all year. Just the opportunity to get to contribute to something as a group is helpful.”
Said Gilmer: “On a personal level, we’ve all been so separated and quarantined, and people that do the arts in general and music in general, they need an outlet. But to be able to do this still allowed you to create, to be involved in an art form, just to go someplace privately and sing anyway.”
When in-person performances return, Sundblad said he might continue with virtual choirs on occasion, maybe once a semester. If so, Gilmer will be there.
“We don’t want to do virtual choirs forever because the singing together, physically matching voices and harmonizing and listening to each other and singing with each other, it’s wonderful. It’s part of making music,” she said. “But in the meantime, this is a nice way to carry on.”