Reflections on a virtual residency
Yesterday, after recording our fifth virtual concert, I asked each of my colleagues at Ears Engaged to share their thoughts on our residency.
The other night, I reached the end of a live performance. As the music faded away, these were my thoughts: "Mute microphone. Turn off speaker."
Often, a performer will revel in the seconds after music, using silence to highlight the experience as something striking and unique.
Extending a performance with silence comes naturally when there's an audience in front of you. With a laptop inches from your face, not so much.
Performing virtually is what my music group Ears Engaged has been doing each month since September.
As part of the Iris Music Project, our residency revolves around creating interactive musical experiences for a senior home.
During the pandemic, this has evolved into presenting virtual concerts once a month, recording Music Moments (a short, solo video), and most recently, one-on-ones — where two of my colleagues hop on a video call with a resident, getting to know them & what music they love.
As a chamber ensemble, our mission is to bring classical music into community spaces. We began arranging this residency a year ago, unaware that the possibility of creating music in-person would disappear.
After plenty of experimenting, our concerts have become a blend of live performance, mixes of pre-recorded tracks, music videos, & sing-alongs of popular tunes.
In one music video, we teach the residents three clapping patterns & invite them to "play along" while we perform.
For each concert, we come up with a theme & develop a script. Using the script, we introduce each piece in a way the residents can connect to — whether it evokes their culture & identity as a Jewish community, brings back a time from their youth, or simply expresses what the music means to us.
What brings each concert to life is intentionality. Unable to perform in-person, we've built our own dimension of how to engage a community through music: a convergence of storytelling, teaching artistry, recording, & editing.
However, our dependence on recording & editing has been a steep learning curve. Recently, I asked Casey Stamm, bassoonist & founder of Ears Engaged, to share her thoughts on our virtual residency:
"The classical music world has taught me editing your sound is unauthentic. It is a lie to your audience, you are cheating yourself by not practicing harder to get the sound you want... When the world shifted and we had to use technology to perform, I brought this bias with me.
"While a few of those points are valid when teaching a student how to create their best sound, I don’t think, at this stage in my musical career, I need to limit the quality of my final product to uphold this unedited virtue.
"Instead, I have started to lean into the editing process as a way to create sounds that could never be heard through playing live. The building blocks used to produce a successful virtual concert look different than those of a successful live concert.
"One of those building blocks is the editing & mastering process. Since the four of us do not have access to completely ideal recording spaces or equipment, we need to edit the way we sound, so it can all blend together.
"This desire to sound better is something I find frustrating with virtual performing. But overall, virtual performances leave more room for creativity. The final product is more engaging (visually, there is more you can do with a video than live) and has the ability to resonate with people wherever they’re at.
"You can watch our concert while folding laundry and still have an artful experience. I really enjoy figuring out how to create artful experiences, and the virtual platform gives me endless possibilities.
"I miss the instant affirmations we would receive when we would perform live. I miss the connection with the audience, and hearing what struck them most about the performance. I miss knowing that what I am doing is impacting someone; right now, I am just assuming it is. I miss the energy that live performances brought. The one-on-ones have brought back the instant affirmations, which are a big deal, but they have not brought back the 'live performance' passion.
"The one-on-ones feel like the first time we have been allowed to do the work we originally signed up for. The work of getting to know an audience, then presenting them with art that is engaging, educational, & entertaining. They start the foundation of a bridge, but I still think it will take a long time to build it. Good thing we are not in a hurry!"
I also asked our clarinetist, CJ Corbett, for his thoughts on our residency:
"As much as I miss performing for a live audience, I have a gained a deep appreciation for the learning that's taken place in this virtual setting.
"Our online residence gave us no choice but to evolve by shifting our focus more towards visual arts, in addition to developing our musicianship as performers.
"Traditionally, performing live concerts is straightforward: we set the stage & play for our audience. Virtually, we plan a variety of content from music videos to live recordings, often giving our audience a unique perspective into our lives.
"It is my hope that when we return to live concerts, Ears Engaged can take elements learned from this virtual setting and continue to innovate what it means to be performing musicians."
Lastly, I asked our oboist Alaina Chester to share her thoughts:
"I think there was a turn in our creative process when we embraced recording with BandLab. We were able to make more engaging videos and still line up our audio to get our full ensemble’s sound, even if we are still finagling with the technology of it all.
"I do think that virtual performances are more viable than everyone originally thought. People can enjoy them from the comforts of their own home, where it is safest. Where it has always been safest, and where those who are unable to attend concerts have been ignored as a potential audience until now.
"For me, I try to get in one live recorded solo performance in every concert. It’s important for me to continue to be vulnerable with our audience in that way, and it also continues to push me as a musician, through lining up with formerly recording tracks or working on my improv.
"As someone who struggles with performance anxiety, I didn’t want to lose that sense of 'live' even if it’s just for the team in the moment. The adrenaline feeling you get live is why musicians practice, and why we continue to come back and perform!
"For the audience, especially our audience of seniors, virtual recordings are not enough and will never be enough.
"The one-on-one’s demonstrate so perfectly what our group has known for awhile; people crave more personal & genuine interactions and connections.
"In general during normal times, but again especially now. Being able to speak to the residents in between pieces is huge! Not only for the residents who do not get to interact in this way, but for me as a human.
"What can be more special than a private concert that’s completely chill? Play a little, talk a little, laugh a little.
"Even though my resident repeats herself, I can tell what is important to her while I share what’s important to me, and we come together in a very unique way. Virtual performing could never replace that."
To compare our perspective now with when we were just starting the residency, you can visit this post from October.