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All you need to know about Virtual Ensemble Recording, featuring Kevin Fitzgerald

One of the most beautiful things about my job at the Alabama Symphony Orchestra is that I have the privilege of being in the midst of world class musicians who strive for artistic integrity every day. These professionals are the living and breathing framework for our mission. Their work proves that by incorporating music education in our schools, Changing Lives Through Music is possible in our community. Another inspirational part of working in our Education Department is being a part of the formation of budding musicians and their journey to the same artistic integrity. 

In June 2020 it became clear that the pandemic was not going anywhere, so the team put our heads together on what a virtual season could look like for the Alabama Symphony Youth Orchestra. I addressed the framework of this in my last post, but this time I want to concentrate on the most visible aspect of the season that has received so much attention: video projects.  

After the first Youth Orchestra video project, “The Bamboula” by Samuel Coleridge Taylor was released, I sat down with Kevin Fitzgerald and asked him to give me the 411--the real insight on these projects. I was incredulous, because these are the projects that we have all been seeing on social media, from professional ensembles and orchestras to popular choral groups during this pandemic. Educators have been experimenting with audio and video software during the last couple months of the 2020 school year, but many found it frustrating and a little daunting. After I spoke to Kevin, I found that he had some wonderful advice to help break down the process, simplify and modify many aspects of it so that it becomes approachable and ultimately successful!  

Kevin’s passion for the Youth Orchestra and his students is so evident in our interview. I’m going to do my best to deliver his words and musings and convey that message. 

When it became clear the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, I asked Kevin how he came to terms with artistic decisions, and how he decided on the direction that the Youth Orchestra Season would take this year. 

KEVIN: Our Youth Orchestra is built around experience and getting kids in a room to play at a high level--it’s the culmination of students and their different talents and skills. My thought was, how can I give them as much of this experience at home? We weren’t willing to take any chances with having an in-person season, because we couldn’t guarantee their safety (from the virus) at this time. Virtual was our only option and so I came up with 3 major virtual projects that would be part of their season.  

I wanted to strike a good balance between these projects and other vital parts of the program we identified. The first project is by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a Black British composer who has written amazing pieces in the public domain that are almost never played! Diversity in programming is so important for these kids to learn about as part of the musical journey and experience. So, “The Bamboula” became our first project.  

Secondly, we were going to play a live concert with the Birmingham Boys Choir in our 20-21 Season, so I spoke with their Director, Ken Berg and we were able to virtually put together a project that includes his arrangement of “America the Beautiful” as a tribute to our Veterans and Veterans Day. It’s so special, because it gives our musicians an opportunity to play with other musicians and brings a wonderful message to our community. Finally, I’ve arranged a movement from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (the Finale) that is technically challenging and requires the students to practice more. I wanted to really find the sweet spot between challenging them and not overwhelming them.  

Kevin went on to describe these projects as different from Youth Orchestra rehearsals, in that most of the learning in the music is happening independently. He strove to choose music that they could teach themselves with a little guidance from their private teachers. At their virtual Youth Orchestra meetings, they receive an intro to the piece, but then the students have to find out how it’s supposed to sound and figure out how they are supposed to play it on their own.  

KEVIN: Until they sit with their instrument, by themselves, without being directly guided, trying to figure out a piece with all the tools they have in the musical tool box, they will never learn quickly (in an ensemble setting). This semester will help the students more speedily learn orchestral repertoire. Something that will benefit everyone once in person meetings can happen safely. (pictured: Nathaniel, ASYO Violinist) 

Because of the nature of middle and high school band programs, a lot of students develop skills that are directly tied to leaning on other people who are playing their part correctly. They learn to listen to other people, but don’t learn how to confidently play their part independently. By taking part in these virtual performances, these students will learn to become more self-sufficient musicians.  They have to count themselves, know when to breathe and stay on track. Kevin saysIt’s a great exercise- even if you plan a project on something short- like your Fight Song, something all the kids can already play, you can put together a 2 minute fun video that the athletic department can use or put it in a newsletter for parents- you can even use it post covid to promote band/school spirit!”  

Although these videos can be very time consuming, Kevin suggests it would be a great project for an assistant band director or even a student teacher project, especially now that marching band season is wrapping up. It would just require a little patience with the learning curve for the technology needed for the audio and video portions of the project.  

KEVIN: I think what we’re going to learn from this Covid-19 period is that technology, of course, is not a replacement for live concerts, but it could be a great way for all of us as an industry to get caught up on the technology that has been around for a while (video/audio editing) and figuring out how we can use it to make our students and programs better. 

 

KEVIN’S HOW-TO’S OF VIDEO/AUDIO PROJECT EDITING

  • Choose what piece you want to do--Kevin recommends no longer than 2.5-3 minutes. The longer the students have to record, the more likely they will get off by a beat or half a beat and the editing process will be a lot longer 
  • Use Sibelius or Finale (music notation software).Input the music into the program, possibly simplifying and tailoring to each individual student's ability/skill level. This will help make the final product more successful.
  • Add a click track after inputting notes. Kevin used 2 woodblocks for “The Bamboula” (2 different pitches)- You actually have to add a percussion line to the whole piece. 
  • Export the written parts and export the midi file. Convert midi to mp3 for students
  • Once audio editing is finished, see if your videos line up (you can use iMovie for this). Align all of the videos with a test note, then take out individual audio lines from each video and put the audio into Pro Tools or GarageBand. This way you just have one line of audio.
  • Post or email the parts to the kids individually 
  • BONUS TIP: When you make the midi version, add 2-4 bars (depending on the tempo) of just click. For example, let’s say it's a 2/4 piece and you're going to have 4 bars- you need to have "Click, Click, Click, Click”  and then everyone has to have a quarter note on the next beat known as the “test note”- Kevin says he actually put arrows on Sibelius and then made the test note very visually obvious for the kids. The reason?  If not all the kids start at the same time or come in later on during the piece (not all together on the first beat)- it's a lot easier to edit and align the kids in a grid with that test note.



  • At this point, you may want to do a rehearsal with the kids- take them a section at a time and put everyone on mute and you (the teacher) can play the part, sing it, conduct it, and you can kind of get an idea of where they are at with it. Kevin recommends to possibly do a mini lesson or a small pass off portion where you ask the students to send a video of the first 8 bars, for example or you can take each phrase and make it a weekly/daily assignment. 

Kevin says, “The project is super labor intensive for the teacher- cannot sugarcoat that. You have to listen to each one and make comments- use voice memo if you have access to that. You’ll definitely want to have check-in points throughout the project for feedback.”

  • Once the recordings are complete, listen to every video, and see if it is correct enough to use. If the student didn’t count any rests or performs the wrong notes, you may have to ask them to redo it. Once you’ve got great footage, add the usable videos one by one to the audio editing software of your choosing (we recommend Pro Tools or GarageBand), and align them with the cursor to see how they all sound. 

Any teachers who have questions or are interested in learning more about this process are welcome to contact Kevin at kfitzgerald@alabamasymphony.org.  

We’d love to see any projects you create with your students, so please be sure to share them with us by tagging us on social media, or emailing me at mwilson@alabamasymphony.org! 

by Maria Wilson, ASO Education Initiatives Manager
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