A Four-Part Journey through Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir

Guest post by Curran Mahowald, a choral singer who participated in Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 6 in May 2020

Eric Whitacre

In the spring of 2020, Eric Whitacre assembled his sixth global virtual choir to premiere his new piece, “Sing Gently.” Following a series of virtual rehearsals led by Whitacre himself, 17,572 singers from 129 countries submitted videos of themselves singing their individual lines.

From there, a team of film editors and audio engineers from 59 Productions and Floating Earth assembled the individual submissions into one final virtual performance:

Here is what it was like to contribute my voice to that video.

Virtual choir: A contradiction in terms?

If you’re anything like me, you love choral singing for the metaphysical as much as for the musical. Your heartbeat synchronizes with the heartbeats of your fellow choristers. You get chills when you lock eyes on a sweet cadence. You enjoy the challenge of adjusting your volume and tone in real time to blend with other voices. You relish the strange beating sensation you experience when you’re standing next to someone whose part is a half-step away from yours, the overtones you hear when the whole bass section is droning a note. In short, if you’re like me, you feel that there’s something about singing together (in person) that is more than the sum of its parts.

And if you’re not like me, but are rather a solo vocalist or an instrumentalist, you’re now caught up on why the idea of a virtual choir might fall a bit flat on the ears of a choral purist.


How Virtual Choir Works
 
1. Each singer gets a score that Eric Whitacre composed especially for this project and learns it on their own or with help from rehearsal videos that Whitacre created for the occasion.

 
  2. The singer sets up a recording space in their own home with minimal background noise, good lighting, headphones, and two devices: one to follow the conductor video and guide track, and another to record the submission video.

 
  3. The singer splits the screen of one device between the score and the video of Eric Whitacre conducting the piece. On a different device with headphones, the singer listens to the guide track as a reference for staying in tune.

**For this iteration of the virtual choir, Whitacre’s team decided to use a (thunderously loud) clap in the otherwise silent beginning of the conductor track to sync the voices (and get your heart rate going). It startled me every single time I practiced, even when I braced myself for it.**

 
  4. The singer compresses the recording and submits it via the Virtual Choir 6 website.

 

The Ridge of Apathy

I had been aware of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs in the past (with what has turned out to be a great stroke of foresight, Whitacre has been producing virtual choirs since 2009), but never felt motivated to participate. Stripped of its metaphysical charms, a choir in the virtual world would be only about the music. My contribution would be symbolic rather than substantial, I figured, due to the high number of participants (more than 8,000 singers from 120 countries participated in Whitacre’s fifth virtual choir). Realistically, no one except my roommates would hear my voice.

His signature has sixteenth notes. How could I say no?

But with the pandemic pushing us all to new levels of desperation, especially for entertainment, my attitude shifted to a resolute “Better than nothing.” I also felt like I had no license to complain about not being able to sing in choir unless I at least gave this whole virtual choir thing a try.

So when choir friends started emailing around the news that Eric was at it again, it was this any-singing-is-better-than-no-singing attitude that got me over the apathy ridge and onto Mr. Whitacre’s pleasantly designed Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently landing page.

The Trough of Mediocrity

Although this was my first time participating in one of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs, I was not going in blind. I had been warned about the temptation for perfection that arises when a live choral purist ventures into recording for the first time.

When you’re able to see and hear yourself and only yourself, you become suddenly self-conscious of your visual and aural image. I had heard tales of singers who re-recorded ad nauseum only to end up feeling exhausted and frustrated at best, and in an existential crisis of their musical ability at worst.

I was determined to avoid this, and to a large extent, I managed to do so. My secret? Sheer willpower and knowledge of the trough of mediocrity, the idea that increasing effort doesn’t always lead proportionally to increasing quality of output.

Source: University of Virginia Dept of Computer Science (https://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/paradise/time/)

However, I couldn’t avoid noticing three rather unpleasant things about my singing that came to light:

A screenshot from my submission video
(10 points to anyone who can identify the vowel I’m singing!)
  • My mouth opens sideways! That’s right (see photo). I realized for the first time by watching a close-up video of myself singing that my jaw is asymmetrical. Not much to be done about that, at least not in a time without orthodontic visits.
  • My “s” sounds are strangely high-frequency in a way that I feel doesn’t match the rest of my voice.
  • The way I raise my eyebrows makes me look more distressed than happy when I sing.

As with many great artistic feats, operational logistics are a significant portion of the time and effort spent.

My jury-rigged home studio setup. Finding a blank wall and placing two devices at eye level is no small feat.

In fact, of the roughly 90 minutes I spent creating my submission to Virtual Choir 6, I’d say only 20 minutes were spent on learning and performing the music, per se.

The New Bipartisan Divide
Traditional Choral Experience Virtual Choral Experience

Hear and contribute to a synchronous tapestry of voices


Hear only your own voice on your own part, exposed


See a conductor and a reactive audience, and sense the movements of other choristers


See only a pre-recorded conductor and a mirror image of yourself singing


Receive immediate feedback from a conductor if something is off


Record the entire song and only have the opportunity to adjust musical or visual inaccuracies (or oddities!) in another take


Final performance is a spontaneous creation at a specific point in time. Take 1 is automatically made public


Final performance is whichever version you choose, whether it’s take 1 or take 100


Collaborate in real time with other choristers


Work alone until your voice is combined electronically with the voices of thousands of others

The Result

A few months later, after the post-production, Virtual Choir 6 premiered on YouTube. The full video above is composed of more than 17,000 submissions just like this one:

The music was sweet and simple and, as always with Whitacre’s virtual choirs, took on a young and ethereal quality from all the different high partials coming from the thousands of female voices anchored by (what I assume were) far fewer male voices. Synchronizing “s” sounds was understandably a challenge.

But it wasn’t the gentle hymnic harmonies that moved me about “Sing Gently.” It wasn’t until the song was over and I realized there were still 7 minutes left in the video dedicated to flashing the names of every participant that I became overwhelmed with feeling.

According to Whitacre, 17,572 singers participated in Virtual Choir 6: more than double the most recent, pre-pandemic choir. Each individual voice may not have been audible, but the collective effect was that we each learned how very not alone we are in needing to sing choral music.

Curran Mahowald is on the Board of Directors of Resound Ensemble, a San Francisco-based community choir in which she sings alto. In college at the University of Southern California, she sang under former ACDA president Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe from 2012-2014. During this time, the USC Thornton Chamber Singers participated in the World Choral Symposium in South Korea, sang backup for The Rolling Stones in three concerts, and sang backup for Elton John at the 65th Primetime Emmy’s. After the USC Chamber Singers, she has sung in the Paris Choral Society and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. She currently works at an education technology start-up and is planning a small socially-distanced neighborhood concert in honor of her elderly neighbor.

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