Musical Improv and Singing - online?
It might have seemed as if our whole world of improvised singing unravelled when we could no longer meet up in person and make up songs together. However, the pandemic came at a time when technology was ready to step in and provide us with not only an alternative way to do things, but in some ways a better way. If the idea of singing improvised songs online seems ridiculous to you, you are not alone. We were equally skeptical at first. But with 3 years of experience behind us now, we have figured out what works (and what doesn't) and we have a growing community of people from all over the world who love to come and sing together and with us. With a live musical accompaniment and the now familiar faces in boxes, online singing has become the place to be to connect and sing with people you would otherwise not ever meet. Here's a few things we have learnt.
What about the lag?
Ah yes, the dreaded lag. For a long time we tried different technologies to try to minimise the lag. It turns out that there is a limit to how much lag can be eliminated simply due to how fast light can travel down wires. So lag is here to stay. HOWEVER...there is absolutely no lag involved with your experience of singing along to the musician. You hear the music slightly later than I am playing it, and I (on the keyboard) hear your voice slightly later than you are singing it, but you get to sing along in perfect time with yourself. That means if you are singing a solo there is no difference at all to singing in real life. Sure, it is harder work for me as I have to anticipate a little more and compensate for not being able to hear you in rhythm, but after 3 years of practising this I have got it down. So don't worry, just get stuck in and sing your heart out.
Surely we cannot sing together at the same time online?
The same problem of lag does come in to play when trying to sing together - for example when singing a chorus together. This does not stop people trying but the result can be a little chaotic at times. We have found however that you can sing counter melodies, descants and long held harmony notes very effectively together. If the rhythmic elements are not to important in the song then most things can be sung at the same time. Also we have found that improvisers will just 'Yes and' everything and join in regardless of what the result sounds like. We have never got too hung up on the quality of people's voices so when the time comes to join in and belt out a chorus, you can!
Do I need expensive equipment?
Absolutely not. What you will need is a pair of headphones. The reason is that if the sound is coming out of your computer or device, and then you are singing, the software (Zoom for example) will cut out the music coming back in through your microphone so it does not feedback. Often this will also cut out your voice and so we will not be able to hear the wonderful things you are improvising. Of course you can upgrade to a headset that has a microphone built in, or a stand alone microphone and headphones to really capture your voice. Sometimes, even with all the right equipment, your voice may cut out from time to time, but we just encourage people to keep the spirit of improvisation going and support each other regardless.
How will I be able to improvise without seeing real people?
There is no doubt that improvising and singing online is a different experience to doing it in real life. There will be times that are frustrating when you cannot hear people properly, or they are muted, or have a slow connection. However the power of the brain to compensate for all these things is quite remarkable. We have found that after 20 minutes or so, the online space can start to feel like a real room with real people in it. And the power of music also helps to transform what we are seeing into a more vivid and engaging experience. We have run many online sessions (well over 1000 hours now) and have heard feedback from our participants saying that they totally forgot they were at home in front of a computer. The magic can still be created and improvised singing is still a skill that can be practised online and then taken into a real life situation.
Who am I likely to meet doing musical improv online?
This is the great joy that the online space has given us. We regularly have people joining us from North and South America, all over Europe, Asia and Australasia. We have not had anyone join us from Antarctica yet so if you are there please come and join us! We are able to form connections online that we simply would not be able to do physically, and many of those connections have turned into real life friendships and meetings. If you would like to come and join our community please visit our Online workshops page to see what offerings we have coming up.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.