The last 12 months have been a time of huge upheaval for all musicians, and while everyone has tried to adapt to new ways of working in the virtual world there is still no real solution to the latency issues of musicians collaborating in real time online.
When lockdown struck in March 2020 I decided immediately to try and maintain engagement with the CAVMS Youth Jazz Orchestra. Zoom very quickly gathered a reputation as the most reliable platform, with the ability to enable original sound for instruments, so I emailed parents and set up a group meeting for our regular time of 6.30 on a Tuesday evening.
Those first few weeks were very much about just staying in touch, maybe listening to some music or watching a video, but after a bit of research and lots of conversations, I came up with a plan and a structure for how to get the most out of the sessions. While what I have come up with certainly isn’t rocket science, my experience over the last 12 months might prove useful to others and I certainly have learned new skills which I will take forward when we return to the real world! At this point I must say a huge thanks to NYJO and their education and outreach co-ordinator Claire Furlong who kept me up to date with their newly developing Virtual Academy and organised a session with saxophonist Phil Meadows which was extremely useful.
My starting point was that I wanted the students to be able to engage in the sessions with the least degree of technical expertise or equipment. Whilst I was fortunate enough to have an office space at home with fast broadband, a HD webcam and a decent USB mic hooked up to Zoom which I had optimised for music mode, I fully appreciated that would not be possible for most students. I have tried to encourage the students to set things up so as they can easily play the backing tracks ‘live’ in their own room, thus solving any latency issues, but again this takes a degree of planning and parental support which isn’t always available.
Musically I made the decision to focus more on general improvisation skills and jazz theory, something I was conscious I tended to neglect in regular rehearsals. The medium of Zoom redirected our focus, as the purely practical doesn’t work, but I tried to view this as a positive opportunity to focus on skills that we tended to neglect when rehearsing in real life.
I then came up with a structure for the weekly sessions which looked something like:
- Jazz standard
- Big Band Chart – either from the NYJO academy or preparing for a remote recording.
- Jazz History
While playing ‘together’ is not possible with the latency issues of even the fastest broadband, it is possible for the students to play along with a track which I either play ‘live’ over my microphone, or via screen share. I went right back to basics by explaining the 3 basic chord types (Maj7, min7, Dom7) and how they were constructed and created a simple one chord vamp play-along on the irealb app.
We then play a game of call and response. I ask the students one at a time to unmute themselves and I play a simple 2 bar phrase against the backing track, which they copy in bars 3 and 4. Any latency issues are only apparent to me (and I have learned to live with them); as far as the student is concerned it all sounds fine. I can tailor the difficulty of the phrases to the student’s ability and encourage all the others to play along in what we have collectively called their ‘splendid isolation’, which no-one else can hear. Over the weeks we looked at chord tones and scale relationships for the 3 chord types and progressed onto simple ii-V-I chord patterns.
I chose a Jazz standard to look at each half term, sending the students pdfs of the lead sheet and a backing track to which they could practice. In the first session we analysed the tune, looking at the melody and harmonic structure; I play the backing track via screen share and they can all have a go at playing the tune and finding their way around the chords – first playing the root movement, then building the chords. Again, each student could simultaneously do this at their own level; something which would never be possible with 20 instrumentalists in the same room! I then ask individual students to unmute themselves so I can listen to how they are playing the tune, or navigating the chords, or improvising a chorus depending on their level of development.
Very interestingly, I quickly discovered that even the least confident of students were happy to play something in front of the whole group, in a way in which they would not have been if we were all in the same room. It is as though the ‘remote’ nature of the screen and the fact they are comfortable in their own home surroundings makes them feel slightly detached and therefore less self-conscious.
Big Band Chart
This is where I am particularly grateful to the help and guidance from 2 very valuable sources.
Firstly, the team at NYJO and their Virtual Academy have provided some excellent resources including their ‘minus one’ big band charts. As well as repertoire from the NYJO library, they have commissioned new pieces at an easier standard under the title ‘minus one junior’ which are more accessible. Each chart not only contains full big band score and parts but instrument specific play-alongs with each part individually missing (either as stems to import into a DAW or as simple tracks on Soundcloud) so the students can practice at home along to a full Big Band.
In our weekly rehearsal I play the whole track via screen share and they all play along individually whilst on mute. While not able to interact musically, they really appreciate the visual clues of seeing each other play via video and the sense of still doing something ‘together’ as a group.
We then look at individually sections, usually breaking it down by section. As an example, I may pick an 8-bar phrase for the trumpets and ask them to play along (muted) to me playing the lead part. I will then get each player in turn to unmute and ‘lead’ the phrase, counting it in for the rest of the section to follow.
The second huge source of help has been from Neil Martin and his students on the Music Engineering and Production course at the University of South Wales. Having very limited music production and editing skills myself, he helped us produce remote video recordings of charts from our library. I sent out charts and a recording with click track to the students and after some ‘rehearsal’ on a Tuesday evening and guidance on recording techniques from Neil, they submitted their individual videos for him to edit and piece together, the results of which can be seen here.
Again, the students gained a great deal from this collaborative effort and were really proud of the finished result, giving them a much needed sense of accomplishment.
Jazz History / Online Article
Once we have finished playing, we will often look at an article online and a number of resources have been very useful here including the Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, National Youth Jazz Collective and again NYJO. Using screen share we will look through the article and I will explain or elaborate on any points and we can watch any embedded video clips. Interesting articles over the last year have ranged from the very informative series by NYJO as part of Black History month to the JALC Essentially Ellington competition where we could see some amazing performances by young musicians from around the world.
To finish the session each week I ask one student to choose a piece of Jazz or Big Band music which they have enjoyed or discovered that week. This had led to some interesting discoveries, from Count Basie to Sun Ra, and proved a launching point of discovery into lots of new music and artists for both myself and the students.
Throughout the last year I have been very conscious of the effect the pandemic (and the associated physical isolation) has had on the mental health and general wellbeing of all young people. Parental feedback tells me that their continued involvement with CYJO has helped them through this difficult time and we all look forwards to the day when we can meet again in ‘real life’ and put these newly developed skills into practice as an ensemble.
“thank you for organising all this in this difficult time as it helps keeping a small sense of normality.”Ailsa Drysdale, Trombone
“Iestyn is really enjoying the sessions so we’d like to thank you for all the time and effort you put into organising and delivering them. You always find interesting and relevant repertoire for the band. Nikki Isles is a wonderful pianist, composer and arranger and I’m looking forward to checking out Woody n Joe myself.”Claire Ellis, Parent
“thank you for organising all this in this difficult time as it helps keeping a small sense of normality.”Samuel Bigot, Parent