Quarter-Notes from the Apocalypse, Part 2
Necessity, the Mother of Invention
by David Sabella
In my last installment of Notes from the Apocalypse, I bemoaned the fact that there is presently no way for a singer (in one remote location) and a pianist (in another remote location) to collaborate together in real time, thereby eliminating the intimate and collaborative experience of cabaret and small venue performance.
However, due to emergent need, as a result of COVID-19, there are several website and app developers working to help singers, pianists, and other musicians communicate and perform their art online, in real time. Some developers report that this technology is only months, or even weeks, from being deployed. Until then, I’d like to put forth two different models of collaboration: Synchronous Collaboration and Asynchronous Collaboration.
Synchronous Collaboration is when two musical artists meet and collaborate simultaneously, in real time (otherwise known as rehearsal). With some limitations, this model can be reasonably simulated using programs/apps like: FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, ooVoo, GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, etc. These VoIP technologies allow for the normal give-and-take communication of speech patterns. But, when continuous sound (piano playing and singing) occurs from both directions, one or the other sound stream will “win out” and dominate the signal transmission, and the speaker output. This synchronous collaboration may be a workable option for rehearsals and lessons, where teacher and student, or two performing artists can communicate together, one after the other, and exchange musical and dramatic ideas, but it is not recommended for collaborative performance. This is, however, the training model adopted by most Universities, and both private institutions and independent studio teachers. In this training model the teacher examples or plays the exercise first, and the singer sings the exercise pattern in response. Working on song repertoire requires accompaniment tracks (either standard tracks or unique arrangements) to be played from the singer’s location. This ultimately illustrates the second model, asynchronous collaboration.
Asynchronous Collaboration is when two or more artists collaborate individually, at divergent times, in order to deliver a final performance. This model is a relatively new phenomenon. Apps like “Acapella” make it possible for groups of singers, and or instrumentalists, to be heard together in a final performance. Recently there have been many “Virtual Choir” performances seen on Facebook and YouTube, (assembled using Acapella). Cabaret’s own Leanne Borghesi and Marissa Mulder (with Jon Weber at the piano) each recently participated in asynchronistic performances (on YouTube and Facebook, respectively). I applaud these creative uses of technology to deliver impactful performances.
Leanne Borghesi (with the San Fransisco -LGBT Freedom Band)
Marissa Mulder (with Jon Weber at the piano)
To be clear, each part is layered in, one at a time, combining to make a very effective performance. However, the artists do not experience the live collaboration of the performance itself. Synchronous collaboration (rehearsal) would therefore have to occur on one of the other platforms mentioned above, before asynchronous collaboration could deliver a final performance. This may not be as engaging or fun for the collaborators, except maybe for the techno-millennial, who is thrilled to do anything on an app. But, as witnessed in the video links above, the audience receives the entertainment as a “whole” experience. Not the same experience, mind you. But, a workable “stop-gap” until newer, real-time technologies are perfected.
Under the COVID-19 paradigm of physical distancing, this model of a synchronous rehearsal and asynchronous performance could offer some interesting results in the world of Cabaret, where both pianist and singer (and/or trio) could be clearly heard and spotlighted in a collage type frame. All the same type of work would need to take place for this method of delivery to be successful. Directors would still need to direct, arrangers would still need to arrange, and singers would still need to perfect their technique of voice and performance. The artist’s work remains intact. It is only the delivery method that changes. And, as for this method of performance not being as engaging or fun for the performer(s), I am reminded of the words of esteemed Cabaret Critic, Roy Sander, “It’s not about you!”
Another “low-tech” form of asynchronistic performance is for the singer to simply sing to a track of the accompaniment. Who hasn’t done that? Once again, this is also the standard practice during synchronous online training at universities and private studios around the world. Currently, Appcompanist and PianoTrax hold the market for pre-recorded piano accompaniments in both music theater and classical genres. KaraokeVersion offers pop rock accompaniment tracks, and iRealPro offers trio arrangements of the Great American Songbook, and many other playlists in their community-driven library. All of these can be manipulated by key and tempo, which is very appealing. And of course, YouTube can be relied upon for just about any type of accompaniment track one needs. However, these cannot be manipulated, (unless the track is downloaded and processed through another application, such as YouTube-to-Mp3.)
Let’s be clear here about what “accompaniment” means in this context. There is no active collaboration in this model. The singer must simply follow the arrangement set forth on the track. There may be some limited give-and-take, (Appcompanist does have a fermata button). But basically, these are straight forward renditions of known songs and arias, and not at all appropriate for a unique cabaret performance.
But, imagine if cabaret singers had a similar app? The cabaret industry is filled with professional music directors who create unique arrangements for specific singers. This is one of the hallmarks cabaret, which set it apart from other performance genres. This kind of collaboration has always required close proximity between singer and pianist/arranger, and has become an artistic casualty of COVID-19. But, what if pianist and singer in different areas of the country could find each other through a website or an app, a musical “Tinder,” if you will? Once the connection is made, rehearsals can begin either synchronously or asynchronously, until the musical arrangement is produced. That arrangement could then be delivered, either through a streaming service, or directly to the client/singer has per individual arrangement. Wouldn’t that open up a world of possibility and connection among singers across the country and collaborative pianists who specialize in unique arrangements? Luckily that musical “Tinder” already exists! (Segue into a shameless, although hopefully helpful, plug. Think of it like a literary commercial)
www.CabaretHotspot.com features a “Find-a-Pro” directory, a match making service for singers and the support professionals that they need to realize their performance goals. Here you will find listings for music directors/arrangers, stage director‘s, web & graphic designers, instrumentalists, songwriters, photographers, make-up artists, and any type of support professional a singer may need on their journey to produce a cabaret show. It is my sincere belief that “distance collaboration,” whether across town or across the country, will soon become the norm. And, as Editor-in-Chief, I would like to populate this directory with as many qualified professionals as possible.
So, to all those reading this article, I would like to offer a free one year listing on Cabaret Hotspot’s “Find-a-Pro” directory. Simply click on our Find-a-Pro link, and fill out your profile. The special discount code for a free one year listing is – FindAPro21.
This is the first step to developing a specific website or app on which all of this information and collaboration can be shared. It’s important to determine the level of interest for this type of service. With this information Cabaret Hotspot can attract both app developers and investors into the process. So, please do take a minute to fill out your Find-a-Pro listing.
Now back to your regularly scheduled article….
A promising answer to the synchronous collaboration model may be offered by a start-up company called Voicelessons.com. This company is working towards live-streaming midi information from a digital keyboard to remote speakers. Midi information (not sound) travels across the network differently and without as much latency/lag. The accompaniment is heard by the singer instantly on their speakers, allowing them to sing live, in real time, accompanied by a music director from a remote location. I have personally been in beta testing for this type of collaborative model, with this company. I believe they are soon releasing a version of their software which will make it easier for pianist and singer to communicate collaboratively. If this application is fully realized it can become the gold standard for remote synchronous collaboration and performance.
In the meantime, a possible workaround exists using a combination of programs/apps, all of which require the pianist to have an actual digital keyboard, or an acoustic piano with midi functionality and compatibility, and both singer and pianist would need to have a program called “Internet Midi” by Timewarp Technologies. Using Internet midi, the pianist can either control the output of the singer’s digital keyboard, at the singer’s location (ghost playing), or transmit the midi information (sound) of their own digital keyboard directly to the singer’s remote speakers. I also recently participated in a test of this technology, which was both terrifying and fascinating. A pianist in California was able to remotely control my digital keyboard. What he played, in California, instantly sounded on my keyboard, in New York! I could then sing in real time to a live (but remote) accompanist playing the piano. This same test was replicated with the sound of his digital keyboard coming out of my computer speakers. It is possible!
Now here’s the catch. This is a midi-to-audio program only, not an audio/visual program. Both pianist and singer would also need to use an audio/video technology, like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc., to see and hear each other for true collaboration. However, once again, these VoIP technologies have latency and lag issues. So, while the singer can sing to the piano accompaniment in real time at their location, the remote pianist must use a VoIP technology and wear headphones in order to hear the singer. These two technologies are not in synch, and as a result the pianist always perceives that they are ahead of the singer by a fraction of a second. This is maddening in terms of phrasing and true collaboration. Synchronizing these two technologies (both midi and audio/visual component) is the next step to fully realizing interactive remote collaboration. Until then the collaborative team will need to figure out ways to visually communicate phrasing while playing together, and muting the VoIP technology, or allowing for latency as best as possible. Of course, a lot of the collaborative work on phrasing will be ironed out during the synchronistic rehearsal process. So, a coherent and collaborative final performance is possible even within these limitations.
I am also aware of a website called JazzKazam.com that purports to offer collaborative streaming, (“play music live and in synch with others at different locations”) but I have not yet researched this fully nor experienced the product. I would suggest to (at least) check it out.
Take heart, dear singers and teachers. Possibilities do exist, and teams of people in the technology world are trying to make this a reality for you. In my next installment (Optimizing U) I will detail what YOU can do to be ready to sing and teach online.