This week, we published a video that was about a month in the making, all with a view to raising money for our chosen charity this year – Derian House Children’s Hospice. Unable to fundraise in our usual way, we had to adapt. We are very proud of what we produced, and are thrilled with the response from the public. What follows is a breakdown of the process, written by the audio and video editors.
A couple of weeks into lockdown, I was starting to feel frustrated with not being able to rehearse properly with my chorus. Not only was I missing the fabulous ladies who have become like family, I was struggling to motivate myself to keep rehearsing when there wasn’t the incentive of our normal Wednesday night rehearsal. We had started to (and continue to) use Zoom, but the lag meant it was impossible to get any synchronicity. The lack of rehearsal was starting to show. I hadn’t really pushed myself vocally, and I was straining to hit the higher notes – a problem when you’re a tenor.
I’m a primary school teacher, and for a number of years I’ve used a program called Audacity (open source software) to edit music tracks for the children’s choirs I lead, and I began to play about with layering vocals to see if I’d be capable of making something with multiple voices. I started by approaching (over messenger – socially distanced) another chorus member – Bari section leader Leanne Blaney – who I knew would be up for trying out a project, and who, importantly, sang a different part to me. We quickly roped in the lead section leader Kim, and we started. The first go wasn’t brilliant, but taught me a few things about timing. On the day that Cottontown Chorus released their own virtual chorus recording of God Only Knows, I reached out to them and asked a few questions about how they’d gone about it. Then I approached Emma, our MD, to explain what I’d been playing around with…and said I thought we should have a go at recording ourselves, and I reckoned I’d be able to put them together. Probably. Maybe.
Emma came back with a song suggestion – We Need A Hero, which was a previous repertoire song and familiar to the majority of the Rosettes. It also exactly encompassed the message we wanted to convey. We posted it online in our chorus Facebook group, and I made a video guide of how to record – two devices, play the teach track in one ear on headphones from one device, record into the other. I only wanted clean vocal, no backing track or background noise.
I had the first recordings within a couple of days and started to compile them. I’d decided I would have four Audacity projects – Tenors, Leads, Baritone and Bass, and work each section individually for timing and blend before putting them together at the end. Each track had to be listened to throughout for notes/quality/background noise against another recording for that section to make sure they fit together well. The ‘doos’ at the start were a particular challenge, because if the singer was slightly different to someone else in the section, there was a stuttered effect.
The Rosettes were amazing. At this point I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to pull it off, but they had every confidence and flooded my inbox with recordings. Most of the emails were prefaced with ‘I haven’t been singing much, so I’m glad we’re doing this, it really has given me a reason to sing” which echoed exactly how I felt. In order to do my own recording, I sang about 25 recordings before I was happy with what I’d done. We’d changed the lyrics slightly to echo the sentiment behind the song and encompass all keyworkers, so singing ‘they’ve got to be strong’ rather than ‘he’s got to be strong’ meant a number of mistakes! By the time I’d finished recording my part, I felt brilliant. I’d worked hard at my singing, concentrated on craft, focussed on breathing and keeping a good level sound. It was almost as good as rehearsal and I couldn’t wait to get my voice recording in with the other tenors.
As the tracks began to build it became more and more exciting. I’d export the projects as MP3s and send them to Emma and section leaders to listen to, for them to listen for any incorrect notes or timing issues, and then I’d play with the projects based on the feedback to improve the overall sound of each section. You know it’s good when the vocals swell and it brings tears, and on many evenings I’d send Emma a barrage of recordings so she could hear how it was coming together and share in my excitement!
I won’t lie – the project took over a little and I spent a great many hours ensuring our recorded track was an excellent and accurate reflection of the sound we make together, so when Emma suggested asking for support with the video element, I leapt at it. The baton was handed to Leanne with support from Helen, and I concentrated on completing our audio. Once the last few recordings were in, I was able to complete the sectional projects, and then work began on putting the 4 sections together. These recordings went back and forth between Emma and I until we were both happy with balance (“Can we have a little more Bari?”) and we were ready for the next section of the project! It felt odd handing it over as it’d become something all involving…but it was definitely time to start learning new music for some of the virtual quartets I’d become involved in through Leanne!
Adding Video to Audio
Like Stacy, I was missing proper rehearsals and the camaraderie of getting together to harmonise, so any sliver of light that could lead being able to achieve the same rush of excitement you get singing with others was leapt on by me. I’d joined the music team of the Collective – an international project that brought together singers of all experience from all over the world and enjoyed teaching total strangers over Zoom how to accurately begin learning the assigned song and then add the artistry, but I was pining for more projects with the Rosettes. I’d set the ball rolling for informally setting up some virtual quartets (and a quintet) and was getting stuck into that when Stacy told me that she wouldn’t be making the video for Hero.
I was glad for her sake, because I know after hours of mixing dozens of voices together, as well as teaching and homeschooling, she deserved a bit of a break! The obvious choice of video-making now was Helen, our Tenor section leader, who has iMovie and is well-versed in movie making. But she was already working full-time, and homeschooling Josh so I asked if she would trust me with learning how to do it myself with the proviso of ‘If/when I find I can’t do a good enough job, would you (Helen) be able to rescue it? I’ve got all the time and enthusiasm but none of the skills yet.’ Luckily, she had more faith in me than I did!
Teaching part-time left me with plenty of free time once emails were answered, work was marked and returned and resources were planned and created, so I was excited to get started. First, I needed to work out what I could actually make the video on – so far I’d only uploaded teaching resources of myself to youtube, and made rubbish Tik Toks about wild garlic pesto pasta…. This video was going to need something a bit more professional. So after a bit of research into what works with a Chromebook, I settled on WeVideo. I played around with a four-part harmony track that Lindsay Avery had made and shared with me, and layered video and words over the top of it to show the team what was possible while we waited for Stacy to finalise the track. We agreed it would be a viable piece of software and started to plan what we wanted the video to contain.
We’d had in mind from the beginning that we wanted to present this song as a celebration of all of the key workers around the country working to keep us safe and happy. It was clear from there that we needed to pay tribute to our own key workers – eleven in all – and thank them for all they do. As well as this, we wanted the video to show what everyone had been keeping busy with in lockdown. We’re a family chorus, and our children and grandchildren bring so much joy to us as a group – whether it’s sharing photos or attending performances, it feels like one big extended family, so a selection of all their smiling faces was essential.
Our key workers are not known for blowing their own trumpets, so I had to make sure I had all of their correct job-role titles, and asked for a picture of them at work, if possible – not that they had better things to do or anything! They were happy to oblige, and it was lovely to include two of our ladies volunteering to put themselves on the front line too.
We had a couple of ideas about how to present ourselves in the video – dressed as superheroes? Dressed as key workers? But in the end we decided that the real message of the song – that we need heroes to guide us through this crisis – didn’t need costumes to elevate it, so a simple rainbow effect of wearing different colourful tops would be all we needed. And red lips. Our trademark.
Rather than just recording a Zoomoom meeting from start to finish, we wanted to try and ‘feature’ members of the chorus. We agreed on featuring our youngest member, our longest-serving member and a range of ladies of different ages in between. With so many incredible ladies to choose from, the hardest part was trying to narrow it down. Once I made my choices, I contacted the first few and asked to set up a zoom meeting with them to record them miming the song. Then I watched the recording back, chose the section where they particularly shone, and cropped the longer video to only a few seconds’-worth and then began the painstaking operation of matching it up exactly with the audio track. Trial and error worked best, and while some sections I managed to fluke in a matter of seconds, others literally seemed to take an hour each just to get right. It was frustrating, but all worth it in the end.
When I realised there was no way we could include a section on everything we’d been doing, a section on all our key workers and a section on our wonderful charity (Derian House Children’s Hospital), all within the two minutes and thirty-second run-time, I changed tactics and decided to use our Hero track purely for showcasing us as singers in a chorus. This meant I could now feature even more faces, and I could pin-point the sections I needed singers for, so just asked those ladies to record their sections at home and send them to me. A few performers had to be asked to re-do their videos due to performing outside in a gale with their hair wafting around (‘it was the only place I could get any peace!’) and inexplicably deciding to wear a high-necked fluffy pale jumper instead of a colourful t-shirt… But once I got what I needed, it all started to come together.
The first filming day of the whole chorus came, and our ladies all looked amazing – they always rise to the challenge. They didn’t need any encouragement to perform for the camera and had been practising the moves Helen had tweaked earlier in the week to include some makaton. The makaton language programme has been used with individuals who have cognitive impairments, autism, down syndrome, specific language impairment, multi-sensory impairment and acquired neurological disorders that have negatively affected the ability to communicate, including stroke patients.
By the end of the evening, I had managed to record every person at one point or another, and Helen and Kate White sent me the footage they’d taken too. Watching everything back, I realised that although I’d recorded everyone at some point, the format and quality of Kate’s video was much better, and Helen’s was even better. The only problem was that between all the footage they’d taken between them, twenty five of our ladies were missing from it! Even some extra footage Helen had recorded from a singthrough of Songbird couldn’t be used due to one lady taking her laptop for a walk around her house, and me ducking out in the last few integral seconds for a cry (We just sing it so beautifully and I missed them all so much!). So, I could either complete the video quickly with my inferior footage, or we could set up another recording session with our ‘missing’ ladies and have everyone looking fantastic. We went with the latter. Luckily, there was no moaning when I demanded they all get dolled up again in a few days time. They’re the best.
Once I’d got all the footage I needed, it was simply a case of perfecting the transitions, checking for mistakes on any writing, changing the colour of fonts to make it clear and ensuring the featured ladies’ mouths matched up with the sounds (two ladies’ videos continued to cause massive issues that I’ve since had nightmares about). Stacy and the music team had to put up with my constant requests for checks and comments. Without their help, there would have been some ridiculous proof-reading errors (from an English teacher, no less!) and some inconsistencies. I’m grateful for all their input in ironing things out.
Once the video was complete, I published it privately and shared with the chorus to check everything was acceptable. Stacy had already set up a Just Giving page to make it easy to donate to Derian House straight from the video, so as soon as we were ready, it went live. It was a funny feeling, finally publishing something I’d been tethered to for the previous ten days. It had been a pleasure and a privilege to look at the beautiful faces of our members so often, and it’s been lovely to be able to give my all to a chorus that has got me through the hardest time in my life.