Zoom: online rehearsals (instrumental)

This resource covers how to use the online meeting platform Zoom for online instrumental rehearsals. To find out more about Zoom and how to set it up, read our Zoom: how it works resource. 

 

Basic set-up

Zoom works best for online rehearsals by muting everyone except the MD. This means:

  • Everyone hears the MD
  • People can’t hear each other
  • The MD can’t hear people 
  • So when everyone plays, they are playing to themselves

This obviously has musical limitations and does not recreate the ‘in person’ rehearsal experience. This is a limit of the technology at the moment and we think the above approach is the best in a virtual world. Whilst it might not be ideal, it does offer a lot of positives:

  • You are at least meeting as a group, and people are making music!
  • It still offers vital social connection, if not the perfect musical one
  • It can also be a useful development opportunity, to help players identify areas they need to focus their practice on.

You might have to consider the music you play to make sure you are getting the most out of the platform.

Equipment

If your MD has a decent quality external microphone to plug into their device they should use it. If not then their device microphone will work, but it might be worth buying an external one: they are not too expensive and can help sound quality (this is only relevant if the MD is also playing an instrument, if they are only speaking and conducting the device mic will be fine). For a good overview of the things to consider and some low budget options read this microphones review.

Sound options

Live sound: MDs using the ‘Enable Original Sound’ feature (also known as Music Mode) seems to be the most popular approach for playing an instrument live. This allows them to preserve the sound from their microphone without using Zoom's echo cancellation and audio-enhancing features which are optimised for speech. It means when they are playing to everyone Zoom will not compress and adjust the sound – so gives the best sound quality for music.

To set this in the Zoom app:  

1. Click on the Settings wheel in the top right hand corner

2. Click Audio

3. Click "advanced", bottom right

4. Check the box that says "Show in-meeting option to 'Enable Original Sound' from microphone"

5. Set "Suppress Persistent Background Noise" to "Disable"

6. Set "Suppress Intermittent Background Noise" to "Disable

There is a useful YouTube video tutorial about this from Royal Academy of Music, Denmark. If you’re both speaking and playing during your session, you can toggle the on/off switch for original sound located in the upper left of the Zoom meeting. 

Backing tracks: The MD can also play backing tracks through their microphone for people to play to.

In terms of sound quality the best approach is to share the computer audio. To do this in the meeting, click on Share Screen, and then ‘share computer sound’ in the bottom left. It means participants hear the backing track but will be seeing the MD and can hear the MDs comments over the backing track..

The downside to this is that the MD is out of sync with the backing track – and so can only also play along if they mute themselves. It also means that if they want to give direction they have to adjust for being out of sync – which means they have to give the instruction a second or two before they normally would.

Note: if the MD does plan to give direction they will obviously have to unmute themselves– and make sure they have headphones plugged in (otherwise the computer microphone will pick up the sound the computer is playing).

The other option is to not ‘share the computer sound’ via screenshare and just let the computer microphone pick up the sound – this is better in terms of syncing but worse in terms of sound quality. Most groups have reported better sound quality through ‘share computer audio’.

So the best two options sound options are:

  • Play tracks through sharing computer sound if the MD doesn’t need to be heard playing or speaking
  • Play using original sound feature if the MD wants to be heard

How to structure a session

Introduce the session

A brief induction on how to use Zoom at the start for everyone is a good idea. Include:

  • How to mute and unmute
  • Why everyone needs to be muted
  • How to use chat
  • How to use thumbs up and clap
  • How to toggle between grid and speaker views AND
  • How participants can ‘pin’ you, the leader, so you appear large and don’t move, even if others speak or if there are too many people to be seen together on one screen
  • Making sure your name is spelt right in your name box - and also getting people to add their instrument

People might not want to do this every week so as weeks go by you can invite new people to join the session 10 mins early if they want a mini zoom induction.

Warm-ups

Warm ups are just as important online as they are ‘in real life’. Indeed, in the virtual world they take on an extra importance; given that no one can hear anyone else when the playing starts, it’s good that everyone can see each other and know that everyone is doing the same thing. It can also look quite amusing, which can help put people at ease. For that reason, including some physical warm ups is a good idea. Some good warm ups are:

  • Rolling shoulders to relax tension
  • General stretches
  • Facial warm ups, stretching and scrunching the face up. This looks quite funny and makes people laugh
  • Tongue warm ups: write the name of the person to your left on Zoom inside your left cheek. And the name of the person on the screen below you in your right cheek
  • Breathing exercises are all good (and calming and relaxing)
  • Scales in canon. The leader plays a scale, the other players play the same scale but 2 or 4 notes behind what they are hearing. Care must be taken over making sure transposing instruments are playing the correct key (write them out beforehand or be clear that the key is given in ‘concert pitch’).
  • A freestyle exercise which is based in one key, where an outline of rhythm is loosely given but players can play at their own pace and don’t all have to start or end together. You could unmute everyone for this as the aim is for the harmonies to come through – the sound experience will be distorted but it’s nice to be able to hear everyone instead of having to keep everyone muted all the time!
  • Some rhythm warm ups – playing back (on one note and in time) a rhythm, which could be a tricky rhythm that’s coming up later in the rehearsal.

Rehearsal techniques

  • The leader playing the melody on their instrument throughout, other instruments mute themselves then play along with the melody that they hear.
  • Using pre-recorded parts with a metronome. The MD or section leaders could record these then play them through the computer audio (see above). Players can play along with their part, and on other parts they can hear the harmony and how their part fits in with one of the other parts.
  • Use a recording of the piece played through the computer audio (see above) for people to play along with – this can be quite exciting if it’s a recording of a professional group.
  • Breakout rooms: these can be really useful for parts/sections. They can discuss particular points such as divisis, breathing, fingering and techniques and they can rehearse in their parts/sections too – with the leader playing unmuted and the others playing along muted.

As per the sound setting section above the best two sound options for rehearsals are:

  • Play tracks through sharing computer sound if the MD doesn’t need to be heard/playing
  • Play using original sound feature if the MD wants to be heard/playing

It is quite easy to switch between the two methods above within a rehearsal, so the MD might use Original Sound feature to teach parts, then switch to playing a sound track through ‘share computer sound’ to go through a piece.

Take a break

Between pieces: you could build time to talk between pieces. This has to be managed well – you probably don’t have time for everyone to comment between every piece.

The MD can say “how did people find that?” and either ask people to raise their hand and select people to comment. You could let people unmute themselves and comment, but be prepared to step in and manage this if needed.

This can bring useful feedback for the MD (as they can’t hear what people are playing) but also makes it more social and interactive for people. 

At half time: most in person rehearsals have a half time break and there is no reason an online one shouldn’t do the same. Putting people into breakout rooms so they can chat in a manageable sized group is a good idea, 6 or 7 per room seems about right, and 10 minutes or so is probably all they need.

You can manually manage who is in which room – or just let Zoom do it randomly. This might be a good way for people in your group to meet new / different people. You can help facilitate this by giving them some questions to ask each other, for instance:

  • Introduce themselves - how long they’ve been in the group, what they do
  • Share (if they like) any challenges they’re facing
  • Offer, or ask for, support with things like shopping or post for anyone who may be in isolation
  • What music are they listening to during social distancing?
  • What boxsets are they watching?

Get feedback

Online rehearsing will probably be new to everyone involved – so getting some feedback is a good idea. You could ask people to stay on at the end in a breakout room to get their feedback on how they find it and what might improve it – both the musical and social side.

Social

Leave room for some social time after the rehearsal – if you have a paid for Zoom account you can leave the meeting running after the rehearsal for people to chat – you might want to use breakout rooms for this again or just see how it goes. You could also consider more organised social activities like a pub quiz (breakout rooms can work well for teams) or giving people a chance to talk about and share the music they have been listening to.

Safeguarding

Safeguarding is just as relevant for online events as it is for in person events. Many of the principles are the same and some common sense procedures can make a big difference - you can read our Safeguarding guidance for an overview of the key principles and our Online safeguarding resource for specific guidance. Orchestras for All has produced safeguarding policies, guidance and practice, and Music Mark has collected a list of useful advice from sources including the ISM and Musicians' Union.

 


We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.