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Florida university's remote chorus uses talent and technology to create miracle song from home

Harriet Howard
Heithaus Naples Daily News
Walton Sun

"I Sing Myself" is a simple name for a song that has had the most labored birth imaginable.

It had to jump the hurdles of supermarket jobs, child care responsibilities and frayed nerves, as quarantined singers recorded its chorus as solos into cellphones. The premiere was performed over barking dogs, lawnmowers, background chatter and the pinnng! of text message alerts.

In its miracle online debut April 29, "I Sing Myself" taught the FGCU faculty who created it and the students who sang it two important musical truths:

You cannot create a choral avatar.

You can still, however, build a thing of beauty with hard-working musicians and the tools of technology.

We have to build a chorus without one

The choral ensemble piece is a three-line slice from poet Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." It came from the realization of Trent Brown, director of choral ensembles at FGCU, that he would have to teach at least three ensemble classes remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the university.

"The music that we had in our folders, that we left in the School of Music, was not written to be performed in the way that you saw 'I Sing Myself' performed," he recalled in a video about the making of the song. "It was meant to be rehearsed together and performed in a concert space or a place of worship, and was never designed to be recorded by individuals."

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What he needed, he said, was a piece of music that as many as 120 students could sing solo, to be blended into a choral whole.

Bower School of Music & the Arts Director Krzysztof Biernacki gave him the first tool: authorization to commission a work written for the remote medium. Abbey Allison, who accompanies and helps coach the choral ensembles, suggested her husband, Shawn Allison, a composer who knows his way around soundscape demands.

A Charles Ives Scholarship winner, Shawn Allison had worked with organizations from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to Cantus, and had even composed wind ensemble pieces incorporating American work songs and train whistles.

Allison had recently surveyed Walt Whitman's poetry for another potential project, and it yielded the perfect balance of concepts: individual, community, American. In retrospect, he said, the text and the composition of the choral parts, which were complete in two weeks, were the easiest part of the process.

No one wanted to create what's known as a "click track," with beats for the students to sing to. "I didn't want it to be a karaoke," Brown said. And Abbey Allison felt it would defeat one of the purposes of the online class: learning to work with a conductor.

So the two put the music on the school's Canvas system, a learning materials portal, for students to download. Then Allison and Brown created "the conductor track, the video that had me conducting the piece of music," Brown recalled. "Although there was no one there. I was conducting thin air."

It would be the only time two unrelated participants were in the same room for the performance. The students individually rehearsed with the record piano parts for their voices and Brown's video.

As they worked, Shawn Allison was writing the accompaniment.

"We were laying the track as fast as the train was coming," Brown declared.

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Abbey Allison, he added, made the extra effort to coach students, who were finding themselves suddenly back at home, perhaps charged with child care so their parents could work. Other students found their part-time jobs had become full-time to take up slack for compromised employees who could not come in to work because of the coronavirus.

"And they still had to fit all their classes into their week," Allison said.

"There was a remarkable amount of accountability. Students had to assess whether they were ready for their part," Brown recalled. He said he began to truly appreciate the hidden dynamics of choral singing.

"In an ensemble setting, there's a lot of attention to how your timbre lines up with others," he said. "You modulate your singing to work within the group. There's a lot of groupthink and it finds solutions to issues. That couldn't be done here."

Zoom looks better than it sounds

There would never be a group performance online, as Shawn Allison knew when he began writing the song.

"Right now, there's no technology that exists to enable musicians to perform together in sync," he said. But the remote performances that come to TV or videos create that impression. "It's 'Why don't you just do one of these Zoom performances?'"

Those, he said, are actually multi-track recordings, or in a rare case, performers using dedicated, hard-wired microphones.

"The main issue is latency," Allison explained. "It means that basically every device is delayed by a certain amount, depending on whether it's wi-fi, depending on your connection, depending on the speed of your processor — all that stuff determines these things."

There also are vast differences in the microphones each student was using, Shawn Allison added. Some recorded into a cellphone, others into laptops and tablets. The microphone qualities also varied among cellphone brands and models. Values were all over the map.

"Some of them were better than others in terms of background noise, or mistakes that were made, that I had to edit out," Abbey Allison said of the students' final recordings.

She used a digital sound station to fade in and fade out parts of a few tracks: "There were some dogs barking and people having conversations in the background." Occasionally a text message would ding as the student recorded.

Setting each voice track took about 10 minutes. There were nearly 50 of those voices. And then there was the chore of aggregating them into sections — sopranos, tenors, altos, bass — for the final blend.

"You had to be exact about the consonants. You didn't want to hear them singing 'celebrate-t-t-t-t," Allison explained. In all, she estimated that devoted around 40 hours, a full work week, to threading the voices into their sections, and the sections into a whole. That is for a 4 minute, 35 second song.

We can do this; what's next?

The results were a happy moment for everyone. Abbey Allison had had little moments of them all along, when the first recording of a vocal part would come in — "I thought, 'How cool,'" she said of working with her husband's music. Another moment came after each section was completed.

"When I first heard the entire soprano section, it sounded like — a soprano section. I was surprised and delighted."

"I didn't let Shawn in on any of this process," she added. "I didn't want him to hear any of the things that didn't sound good — whether somebody was too loud or I started somebody at the wrong time. I didn't want him to hear it and say 'What have they done?'"

"When I did hear it, it sounded more like a choir than I thought it would," her husband recalled. He was pleased with the result.

"Since it sounded as decent as it did in this format, I'm not worried about how it's going to sound with live rehearsals. It can only get better, and more nuanced."

Students were invited to send in photos of themselves for the video and many of them added messages or even professional-style photographs. The combined three ensembles who worked on the song tentatively scheduled to perform "I Sing Myself" Oct. 11 at FGCU. Depending on the direction of coronavirus precautions, however, that could change.

Brown was excited about the result. But the experience, he conceded, made him more aware than ever of the community dynamics that turn the printed page into a soul-stirring concert.

"Every day that passes makes me more anxious to be in a traditional music setting with groups," he said. Still, the circumstances that forced this music into a remote performance made him more aware of how creative he needs to be.

"We will continue to look at ideas. I've even looked at the idea of something we can do outdoors, with a drive-in choir. We're looking into any way we can make music and create an ensemble."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

This story originally published to naplesnews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.