Blog: Playing music together, virtually

Making Music Chair and viola player, Dorothy Wilson, shares research into ways to play together online during coronavirus lockdown

In one of the orchestras in which I play some members expressed a wish to collaborate in practising and playing together. We had already issued music and existing performances of repertoire for the autumn for people to play along with, so we decided to trial small groups actually playing together - perhaps starting with some smaller scale chamber music. 
Always up for a challenge I set off to find out how we might approach this and found lots of reasons and explanations as to why this simply doesn't work – ‘lag’ apparently being the most significant. Those of us who are teaching ‘virtually’ have come across this and found it necessary to adjust our teaching approaches as there's always a small time-lag between playing on your computer and hearing the student. So you might play at the same time while on a meeting video call but very quickly it becomes apparent that actually synchronising is really hard. 
Because of the time lag it needs some careful consideration as to how this might best be managed and there are quite a few ideas and experiences out there on the web - as you might expect. The best I have found so far was on the Put Together Orchestra website.

Another really nice project which inspired us and gave us some confidence (and an accessible guide) is available here at the big band folk session.

Folk musicians from around the world were invited to collaborate to make one massive folk big band. The fiddle was recorded on his own first and that was sent to the guitarist to add some guitar. They then sent the combined recording around and asked people to play something they thought would fit, either using external microphones or just any recording device like their phones. Logic Pro X was used for the audio mix and Final Cut Pro for the video.

The cut was rough and ready and I’ve yet to put together the final combined video, but we’ve learned from the experience and we’re about to try our second piece.

This is all fairly technical but our orchestra tried using much more basic technology. We recorded the pieces on our phones and iPads using apps already on them. We then saved the files as MP4s and stripped the music off using Apowersoft free software. We edited sound using Audacity, then edited the MP4 (video only) with Windows Movie Maker – it’s an old piece of software but works very easily and intuitively and it’s dead easy to put together edited video file and edited MP3 sound file and then publish in any number of ways.

So the steps we took were:

  1. Our cellist video-recorded herself playing the piece on which we were collaborating. 
  2. She sent the file to me and I played her video while video-recording my part on my viola – so I ‘sound captured’ both of us playing
  3. I saved that recording of the cellist and me and sent it on to the 2nd fiddle, he to the 1st fiddle.
  4. The 1st fiddle sent his video of the four of us playing and I edited it to a final version. 

The cut was rough and ready and I’ve yet to put together the final combined video, but we’ve learned from the experience and we’re about to try our second piece. It’s been great fun getting as far as we have. Lessons learned so far include: 

1.  Someone has to take overall responsibility for bringing everything together musically, and 
2.  One or two people ideally will take on the technical aspects of bringing the project together. 
3.  Have a go yourselves – it’s a really enjoyable group enterprise! 

Find more ways to connect and play music with others online in our resources section