By Heather Cass,
Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend
There are few things that singers look forward to more than a chance to get on stage and share their talent with an audience. When the COVID-19 crisis put an end to in-person gathering and, in turn, the culminating event for Behrend choral students this spring, Dr. Gabrielle Dietrich, director of Choral Ensembles and associate teaching professor of music, decided the show much go on. She came up with a plan to allow each student to step in the spotlight – a virtual cabaret performance.
We talked with Dietrich to learn more and get links to some of the students’ performances:
Behrend Blog: What were students tasked with doing?
Gabrielle Dietrich: In a typical semester, the big project we work towards in Music 103 Concert Choir) and 104 Chamber Singers is a full-length concert. We were busily working toward that goal right up to spring break. When it was announced that we would be learning remotely for the rest of the semester, I knew we needed a new project. I knew the students enjoyed a variety of musical styles and might like the chance to work on individual vocal development and a piece of music that spoke to them personally. So, we decided to do a video cabaret, featuring music, song, dance, or drama. Each student chose their own song, which I then purchased for them to use, and they had several individual coaching sessions with me to prepare for the performance.
You discovered early on that live performances on Zoom would not work well, so you asked students to record their performances?
Yes, any music-making on Zoom is impacted both by delay, which is impossible to compensate for in real time (Try singing “Happy Birthday” to someone with a group of friends on Zoom and quickly see what I mean), and sound quality because you’re dealing with both Zoom’s noise filter, which can be turned off on computers, but not on tablets or phones, and also the noise filter of the devices themselves, plus wide variations in equipment quality and sensitivity, not to mention connection speed. Making videos gave students more control over the quality of their performance and the ability to do multiple takes, experiment with microphone placement, the volume of the recorded accompaniment, etc. Once they were happy with their work, they uploaded a video to YouTube and sent me an unlisted link.
Then you gathered at a certain time to watch all the performances at once?
Yes. We kept the date and time of the original ceremony and gave friends and family members the chance to attend virtually, too, as many of them would’ve come to a typical concert. We used a different video sharing system called watch2gether. It turned out to not be ideal, but it was a learning experience. If I were to do it over, I would have requested the videos be done sooner so that I could have had time to assemble a slick playlist in YouTube or even a single video in iMovie.
How many attended/participated the cabaret?
There were twenty performers, and probably fifty or more audience members in attendance, though that number may be higher as there were likely multiple viewers at some screens.
What was your overall impression of the event?
I was very impressed with the creativity, and I think the students had a lot of fun hearing one other. One of the things I love about Behrend choristers is how quick they are to appreciate and cheer each other on. Singers can be a competitive bunch, but our students are very supportive of one another, and I am really proud of that.
How was the transition to remote learning challenged you?
The hardest thing for all of us seems to be the visceral absence of singing together. If you haven’t had that experience, it’s hard to describe. The full-brain, full-body experience of singing in a choir pulls you out of yourself and connects you with others in an immediate and strangely intimate way, and there’s just no substitute for it. I know we are all incredibly eager for the days when we can get together and sing again.
Have there been any silver linings? Any techniques you plan to keep when you return to in-person classes?
I like that my students had the challenging experience of being confronted by the honesty of a recording. When we’re in rehearsal, they rely on me for feedback. I work hard to focus on the positives and play to our strengths. Recording devices have no tact. I know that has been really hard for some of them. Hearing a recording of one’s own voice is challenging for most human beings. A big part of my job in the last few weeks has been to help students hear the good rather than focusing on what could have been better. I think I might do more videotaping in the future, simply because it’s a valuable check on our perceptions.
I truly enjoyed the light-heartedness some of my students brought to the table in their interpretations and their staging, and also the deep feeling and musical sensitivity and instinct they demonstrated.
Here are links to some of the students’ cabaret performances. Turn up your speakers and enjoy!
Stephen Humphries – Everything by Michael Bublé
Maribeth Miller – I’ve Got Somebody Waiting by Cole Porter
Jack Golec – Be Prepared (from The Lion King) by Alan Menken
Claire Nicholson – Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me by Irving Berlin
Emily Green – With Every Breath I Take by Cy Coleman