Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Living With and Through Virtual Concerts

October 30, 2020

Set aside for a moment the claims and fears that pandemic-induced social-distancing is making it impossible for us to engage in some of life’s greatest pleasures. Forget the unfounded claims that live, “face-to-face” performance and other activities (e.g., learning together or collaborating for social change) are hibernating until we can once again safely gather in physical spaces.

Think, instead, of the best experiences we have had when drawn together for live performance.  A curtain rises. A performer or ensemble of performers remains quietly poised, in that tension-filled silence before the music or play or evening of improvisational comedy begins. It is a moment full of possibilities. A harbinger of unexpected, unpredictable surprises—sometimes as much for the performers as for those of us gathered as an audience present at the moment of creation. An invitation—and a mandate—to set everything else aside. For an hour or two. In exchange for an opportunity to be part of an audience carried into a transcendent experience. Through art and artistry.

It is a reminder that when members of communities overcome challenges and creatively seek/find ways to gather for performances (or learning or fostering social change), their communities thrive, regardless of the challenges they face outside of the performance (or learning or collaboration) space.

Three virtual concerts—two by Roy Zimmerman, the other by Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir—over the past week again bring home for me, at the most visceral of all possible levels, the power of shared experiences within virtual communities. The online, ticketed events also highlight the inspirational levels of creativity, passion, and adaptability which are helping us reshape—at least temporarily—a world much different than the one in which many of us were living a year ago. And they show how a commitment to being responsive to audience needs and unexpected technical glitches enhance rather than diminish these efforts to create new opportunities in a time of tremendous challenges.

A point to be emphasized here: Zimmerman and members of the Phoenix Chamber Choir are not trying solely to find a substitute for the live face-to-face performances they have been presenting for more than two decades. They are, at significant levels, asking what we can do to keep art, artistry, and community vibrant in a time of social distancing. The results, frankly, are opportunities that I hope will continue to exist long after social-distancing stops governing and limiting what we are able to do within our communities. In the meantime, the creative “face to face” online approach they are taking is providing unique opportunities that are socially, emotionally, and artistically rewarding at many levels.  

Zimmerman’s first online ticketed event, set for October 21, 2020 and then rescheduled for October 23, showed resilience in action—and the results of more than two decades of preparation through recordings and live, onsite performances; the preparation also clearly included the series of shorter, free, online sessions he had been doing regularly on YouTube and Facebook since summer 2020 to further hone his online presence and learn how to deal with, overcome, and, with his signature sense of humor, embrace part of the online performance experience. The October 21 event began as scheduled at 6 pm Pacific Time…and then came to a halt minutes later when messages from several of us let him know that we were unable to access that live performance. His co-writer/wife, Melanie Harby, was monitoring and quickly responding to incoming comments, so the show-that-wasn’t-a-show was halted while the two of them tried—unsuccessfully—to resolve the problems. To their credit (and our benefit), they made the decision to postpone that performance and offer members of their community a few options: receive a refund; join, at no additional charge, a rescheduled show two days later at the same time of day; and/or receive a link to an archived recording of whatever live show emerged if the time for the rescheduled show wasn’t convenient.

Joining the performance that Friday evening, I was able to set aside the temporary disappointment of the postponed performance; enjoy the live, virtual concert as much as I have enjoyed any live, onsite performance I have ever seen; and, thanks to his consummate ability to engage audiences live onsite as well as online, was drawn into those wonderfully playful moments when he encouraged all of us to sing—from our own homes, as if we were all in the same room—the refrains from a couple of his more popular songs that have received tens of thousands of views (and in one case—the original version of “The Liar Tweets Tonight (Vote Him Away)”— nearly 10 million views) online.

There was, for those of us captivated by the spirit of the event, humor on top of humor on top of humor…and engagement: laughing at/with him and at/with ourselves over the idea that we were singing “together” even though none of us could see or hear anyone other than Zimmerman; laughing when he jokingly teased us because he couldn’t hear us, just as he and so many others have teased audiences face to face when sing-alongs initially produced less than rousing responses from reluctant audience members; and even laughing at ourselves for singing “alone together” within physical spaces that were not quite virtually connected in any real sense of the world “connection,” but were offering the sense of connection fostered through comments we made to him and to each other through the live chat window. No, it wasn’t the same as being part of a live, onsite performance. But then again, it wasn’t meant to be. What it actually had become was a best-under-the-circumstances response to a world that seemed hell-bent on keeping us apart while we remained hell-bent on finding ways to be “together” in any way we could be. And by the end of the evening and the follow-up one-hour live virtual performance I attended earlier this evening, I was as happy and as inspired as I have ever been through the experience of being drawn together onsite with others through art and artistry.

The Phoenix “live” event carried similar unexpected tech challenges and, ultimately, the same positive sense of having been drawn together with rather than (socially) distanced from others through art and artistry as the result of the creative, audience-centered, highly-responsive approach taken by members of that Phoenix Chamber Choir family—including seeking solutions for those of us who had difficulties accessing the program. Just as Zimmerman seems to be building upon his experimental short “Live from the Left Coast” sessions on YouTube and Facebook, Phoenix members seem to be building upon—and growing creatively/artistically as a result of experimenting with—the pandemic, shelter-in-place-inspired parodies they have created and posted online this year. These are not stop-gap, let’s kill time until we can perform together again productions; they are invitations to engagement every bit as inspiring, far-reaching, and moving as anything I have ever seen/heard in physical settings for performances.

Their “Gathering Together” concert, the first in their 2020-2021 (virtual) season, featured “music from around the world, sung by singers from around the city [Vancouver]…to reflect this new chapter of choral singing,” they note on their website. It was an engaging example of how to create a virtual live performance that combined, through masterful editing, live performances from choir members; brief introductions to the music and to the performers themselves; and photography that was seamlessly interwoven into parts of the performance. We were drawn further into their/our Phoenix community through those moments when we were reminded that choir members include doctors, paramedics, teachers/music educators, a speech-language pathologist, an arts administrator, a librarian, a student, and a sous chef—all drawn together by their love of singing music from around the world, from a wide range of time periods.

The same playfulness that is evident in their parody videos was evident up front (through the song “Seven Days of the Week (On Mondays I Never Go to Work)” and at the end (through a pandemic,shelter-in-place-inspired parody of “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid). Between those opening and closing segments, there were numerous other moments of tremendous engagement and artistry. Admitting straight up that each of us approaches music and other art forms with our own preferences and expectations firmly in place, I have to say that the inclusion of two songs I have always adored—Maurice Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas,” with an opening line translated—from Latin to English—by a choir member as “Where charity and love are, there God is,” and the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé went a long way in further dispelling the notion that online experiences can somehow never match onsite experiences.  Both pieces were performed so lovingly, so tenderly, and so exquisitely that I have to admit I’ve never been more moved by them.

Attending a live performances or other live event, for many of us, produces one of those extended, timeless “moments” and experiences that would seem to be lost to us during the current pandemic, with its shelter-in-place guidelines. But, as those three performances suggest, that experience is far from gone or even dormant. It, too, is simply evolving into another pandemic-inspired opportunity for us to work toward creating a new and better normal. And we can be thankful to our artists for their willingness to invite us along as joyful co-conspirators in that process.

A post-script: in the process of completing and posting this piece on my blog a few hours after attending Zimmerman’s latest Friday evening “Live From the Left Coast” performance, I realized I was unintentionally creating the virtual version of a common post-performance activity—reliving the experience with friends, including some who weren’t present for the initial event. If any of us who attended the performances or manage to experience them through archived recordings engage in follow-up conversations, we will have carried this evolving experiment in pandemic-collaboration-through-virtual-performance a step further…and built upon what our artists are helping to create.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fourth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-first in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


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