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Photo: New Music Box
The First Congregational Church of Los Angeles virtual choir.

Online group singing has become a fixture of the coronavirus era, and many of the choruses have given great pleasure to listeners. But how do the singers fare emotionally, considering that part of what they love has always been the proximity of other participants?

Fahad Siadat has a few answers at New Music Box.”While the entire music sector has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the choral community has been hit especially hard.

“Singers have been deemed ‘super spreaders’ of the virus, by a study commissioned by a coalition of performing arts organizations. The study has let the national community know they don’t believe there will be a safe way for choirs to safely rehearse until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine, potentially an entire year or more in the future. Like other musicians, this bleak forecast has prompted panic for professional choristers who rely on group singing for their income, but it has also affected some 40 million people in the United States who rely on choirs for the social community, mental health, and emotional well-being.

“My spouse Cynthia Siadat, a licensed psycho-therapist, recently wrote an article about how choir helps alleviate mental health distress. She writes, ‘73% of singers report that choral singing helps them to feel less lonely. … A 2015 study, found that loneliness has been proven to be just as detrimental to one’s longevity as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day’. …

“The question becomes not only, ‘how do we make a quality musical product?’ But, ‘how can we continue to have meaningful musical and social experiences?’  …

“I have the good fortune of making my living as a chorister in a particular subset of the community deeply interested and invested in innovating and experimenting with choral music, and because of this involvement have had the opportunity to participate first hand in how different groups are handling the crisis and trying to move forward.

“No one group has ‘solved’ the issue of not being able to sing and rehearse together, but all of them have found unique ways forward and are experimenting wildly. …

“Building a virtual choir, once considered a technological marvel, has become astonishingly commonplace in the last few months. The professional choir at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (led by my long time colleague David Harris), for instance, has recorded 3-4 virtual choir pieces every week since March.

There are many resources for those interested in getting involved with virtual choirs. I’ve even put my own document of step by step instructions for composers, conductors, and singers.

“(Virtual Choir ProTip: Recording the audio and video separately allows a great deal of editing and ‘punching’ in while recording. It goes much faster than trying to get a single perfect take.)

“(Additional ProTip: Conductor tracks aren’t all that helpful for the singers, use a click instead. Also consider using a ‘section leader’ to create a guide track for each part so the rest of the choir has a voice to follow along with for style and phrasing.) …

“There are some unexpected perks to virtual choirs, namely in terms of how it makes certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before. … The ability to learn and record a piece phrase by phrase allows for the ‘performance’ of music that might have otherwise been out of reach of an ensemble.

“In May, for instance, the FCCLA professional ensemble performed Stravinsky’s 12-tone anthem The Dove Descending, an emotional and mystical work rarely performed by choirs today, especially church choirs, perhaps in-part due to the amount of rehearsal time required. In the virtual choir setting, however, we were able to effectively record the piece in a matter of a few hours. …

“While the end product of virtual choirs can be satisfying, the means by which that product is made can be sorely lacking. The great communal spirit of singing together is completely lost. …

“Luckily, there are some low-latency audio options specifically designed for musicians to re-create some semblance of in-person music making. (Soundjack and Jamulus are two that my community uses, but there are others.)

“It didn’t take long working with this medium to realize that remote choirs are entirely new kinds of ensembles. … Typical choral values like blend, balance, and uniformity are made that much trickier by every singer’s individual mic set up. Rehearsals started with about an hour of tech adjustments, setting levels, and troubleshooting. …

“And yet, once we finally waded through the tech set up and arrived at our first moment of singing together, just a simple C Major chord, I felt a flood of emotion. After long weeks of isolation, I was finally singing with my friends. It wasn’t the choral experience I was used to, but it was unmistakably live music making, and that taste was enough to keep me coming back every week.”

The author provides a lot of technical detail showing how to approximate the group-singing experience, here, at the New Music Box.

I wonder if the rest of us can find ways to feel more present with friends and family via new internet applications. FaceTime and What’s App and Zoom are way better than a mere phone call, but nothing beats meeting someone in a yard for a chat that feels normal. And how will we manage that in winter?

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Photo: Warner Bros. via Wikipedia
In 1957, Warner Bros. released a Bugs Bunny version of the Wagner opera
The Ring of the Nibelung. Creative folks are still thinking up engaging ways to involve children in the beauty and hilarity of opera.

If you love the field you are in and if you have some imagination, there’s always a way to inspire even the youngest children with your enthusiasm.

Michael Andor Brodeur writes about one recent example at the Washington Post.

“Like many a music lover of an age we needn’t get into here, my formative education in classical music and opera came straight from the masters: Bugs, Elmer, Porky. Bugs Bunny was my first Brünnhilde. (So I guess he introduced me to drag as well. Different story.)

“Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies taught my wee ears how to listen, how to synthesize the music in my imagination with color, movement, emotion and irony. It was like a crash-bang-boom course in how to read sound: The vastness of Wagner became suddenly legible in the context of wabbit-killing.
Kids today are a bit more hands-on, as I discovered during a recent session of ‘Opera Starts With Oh!,’ an opera education program for ages 3 to 7, run by the D.C. and NYC-based company Opera Lafayette. …

“Each installment I watched of ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ — helmed by director, choreographer and teaching artist Emma Jaster and Opera Lafayette community engagement manager Ersian François — kept its grid of budding opera buffs rapt with an action-packed half-hour of activities, performances and assorted operatic antics.

“ ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ originated in 2018 as an in-person program to accompany productions in progress, but in its Zoom-based incarnation, each themed installment [centers] on a visit from a guest artist and a simple lesson. …

“At a recent workshop, the Zoom grid filled up fast with small faces smooshed into the frame. It was easily the most entertaining Zoom meeting I’ve had since this whole thing started.

“Lucy and Phoebe were sporting matching unicorn horns and dancing in circles whenever music played. Theodor was paying attention but kept changing his background — first it was outer space, then it was a hedgehog. Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy all crammed attentively into one square.

“Jaster led a round of warm-up exercises (her 6-year-old Ellis popping in and out of view), Nero performed the Passacaille from Lully’s ‘Armide’ (a performance of which Opera Lafayette recorded in 2007) and François skillfully moderated a quick Q&A session (turns out kids are way better at the muting/unmuting thing than adults).

“By the end of it, Helen, who had been pretty quiet up to that point, politely raised her hand, unmuted, and let the group know: ‘I think I want to play the violin.’ …

“ ‘I didn’t get to attend my first opera until I was about 26 years old, particularly because it’s a pretty expensive endeavor to attend an opera,’ says Natalia Lopez-Hurst, mother of Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy. ‘So I wanted to start my kids early with the exposure. I feel like opera encompasses so many different forms of art … We use it as a steppingstone to teach them about art, as well as history, as well as geography.’

“For Jaster, the kinetic goals of the workshop are as important as the aesthetic ones.

“ ‘I’m a movement director and choreographer, that’s how I came to opera,’ says Jaster, ‘But I have a 5-year-old and I live and witness every day how much children need to move their bodies.’ …

“Thus, much of the unbound energy that animates an average ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ is channeled into twirling, interpretive dance, vocal exercises and functional training (like ‘finger ripples’) for aspiring virtuosos. ..

“ ‘What’s a fun way to take what we’ve learned and make it something that these children will do and be engaged with beyond and outside of this 30 minutes?’ says Jaster. ‘As a parent, 30 minutes is not a lot of the time that I actually need to occupy from my child’s day. So the more the children can be inspired to take this along and then go and make their own performance for all of their stuffed animals — that’s where I want to be.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Taobao / JD.com.
Livestreaming has brought some Chinese farmers badly needed customers during the pandemic.

I originally heard this reassuring tale at the radio show called The World, which is great about covering news from around the world, not just the US. If you’d like to listen to the broadcast, click here.

As Karen Hao reported at MIT Technology Review, some Chinese farmers hurting from the Covid-19 lockdown have been saved by technology.

“A few years after Li Jinxing graduated from college, he returned to his rural hometown to become a flower farmer. The days were long but the routine familiar: rise early and tend to the blossoms in the morning; trim and package those in bloom during the afternoon; deliver the parcels, delicately stacked in trucks, to customers by late evening.

“Where the flowers ended up, Li was never quite sure. From his fields in Yunnan province, China, he sold them to national distributors who sold them to flower shops who sold them to end consumers. … It all threatened to come to an end with covid-19.

“Li, 27, remembers the exact moment he heard about the viral outbreak: it was past midnight on January 20, 2020. The Chinese New Year was only five days away, and he had spent the day harvesting flowers in preparation for the expected holiday bump in sales. As he swiped through Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, he saw a fleeting mention of the disease. Li wasn’t sure what to think. Wuhan was nearly 1,200 miles away — the problem felt distant and intangible. …

“But as lockdown protocols swept through the country, panic began to set in. The logistics company that Li relied on had shut down for the holidays, and now the drivers were stuck at home. Without any way to carry out deliveries, Li watched as his flowers plummeted in price and still couldn’t be sold. In the end, tens of thousands of blossoms waiting in storage spoiled. …

“Then, on February 11, he received a message from an old friend, Ao Fenzhen, the COO of a flower distribution company. JD.com, one of China’s largest online retailers, was offering to help farmers use live-streaming to reach consumers, she said. It would involve broadcasting a few hours of content each day on its app, JD Live, to show off different products and answer questions from potential buyers. The company would provide access to its delivery networks — one of the few that had survived the lockdown — and take a small percentage of sales. Did Li want to join in? …

“Both JD.com and Alibaba-owned Taobao … helped farmers and merchants set up online stores with expedited approvals and showed them how to design the content of their broadcasts. They made their apps more intuitive and used their logistics networks to ship the products directly from farm to home. …

‘Most farmers didn’t know how to live-stream; even fewer understood e-commerce,’ says Zhang Guowei, the head of JD Live.

“But the pressure of the crisis — and the unique scale of China’s consumer base — provided the necessary catalyst. … Growers who had once sold 90% of their products offline have now flipped to selling 90% online. Live-streaming has not only helped the industry weather the crisis — it’s forged an entirely new way of business that is likely to continue long after the pandemic is over.

“Li’s friend Ao had been with her family for the holiday when news of covid arrived. … It was through an ad that she learned of JD.com’s live-streaming initiative. She didn’t have any experience with the medium, but she also didn’t know what else to do. She contacted the company and messaged Li. He was onboard.

“The first week of live-streaming was largely a blur. Ao set up an online store for consumers to make their purchases, and prepared scripts for one to two hours of content per day. Li then used JD Live to broadcast from his fields. He gave a tour of where the flowers grew, showcased their characteristics, and explained how to care for them. Li worked even longer hours than before … but when he sold 100 orders on the first day, he knew they were on to something.

“Through JD’s initiative, Ao and Li also connected with live-stream influencers who offered to help them promote the flowers for free. The pair provided the expertise, teaching the influencers the properties of the flowers and how to arrange them. Once, an influencer’s broadcast surpassed 1 million viewers.

“More orders came flooding in, and Li began to gain his own following. At one point, he remembers, he barely had enough farmhands to fulfill the sales. … By the end of the harvesting season, he had sold several hundred thousand flowers. His and Ao’s businesses had survived.”

More at MIT Technology Review, here.

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2019-BI-School-graduation-by-Malcolm-GreenawayPhoto: Malcolm Greenaway
Gone are the graduation ceremonies of yesteryear.

Spurred on by a suggestion from Nancy Greenaway and by actor John Krasinski’s Some Good News (below), I poked around on the web to see what people were doing about class reunions and graduations this year — besides canceling them.

A group of women missing out on their 50th class reunion got together on a video call, dressed mostly as they would have been in person. Max Chesnes wrote about their reunion at Treasure Coast Palm in Florida.

“At 67, Mimi Kuriger prepped for her first ever Zoom video call the only way she knew how: ‘I wore my Barbara Bush pearls to hide my wrinkles,’ laughed the now-retired nurse living in Vero Beach.

“Kuriger is among the 92 graduates of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, an all-women school in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, who had been planning their 50th class reunion weekend for over a year. … But as is the case for most people around the world who have altered or cancelled travel in the midst of a global pandemic, the novel coronavirus shuttered their plans. …

“Instead of an in-person meetup, 25 women from Saint Joseph sipped from their glasses of wine and martinis (or several) and gathered virtually. …

‘We were all probably sitting in our pajama pants, but we were dressed to the nines up top,’ Kuriger said. …

“The online conversation ran for two hours and went on without a hitch, Kuriger said. Some ladies pulled out their 1970 yearbooks and pointed to pictures from five decades ago, while others brought up the academy’s nuns.

“The virtual meetup was nostalgic — and sometimes emotional — as everyone came together from the comfort of their own homes to reminisce.” More.

Meanwhile, there have been nontraditional graduation plans for many age groups, including drive-by celebrations for kindergartners.

Brown University will have a virtual graduation May 24 and a double in-person one next year for both the class of 2020 and the class of 2021.

UMass Amherst had wide range of speakers for this year’s virtual commencement, held May 8. They included sports stars, actors, politicians, and graduates like John Jacobs of Life Is Good.

Photo: UMass Amherst
UMass alumnus John Jacobs, cofounder of Life is Good, spoke from a social distance to UMass graduates during the online commencement.

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Jacobs told graduates, “I know it hasn’t been easy this year, but the resilience you’ve shown — that’s going to serve you well in the long haul. … If you’re feeling a little lost right now, we did too. The only way we learned was to try, and stumble, and adjust as we went along.” More.

Howard University in Washington also held an online ceremony, and although some would undoubtedly have preferred to hear their names read out in a crowd of people, graduate Anna Sumner reported pure joy to a local television station: “I feel like I’m on cloud nine right now. Even though I wasn’t there in body, I was definitely there in spirit. …

“I could imagine instead of being on the bleachers, for once actually being the one in the seats in my cap and gown. … It was bittersweet for sure though, and I try not to dwell on the negative aspect, but still just the recognition and the moment of victory. It was awesome.” More.

Pretty sure Anna has a bright future.

Meanwhile, students at Berkeley, preserving their reputation for being a bit “out there” are hosting a virtual Minecraft graduation on an exact replica of the campus, followed by a two-day virtual music festival that will be streamed on @twitch TV. (Follow at @blockeleyofficial on Instagram.) More here.

Now, Friends, set aside 25 minutes or so to watch this graduation ceremony from the John Krasinski YouTube show called Some Good News. It was amazing. And be sure to hang on after it appears to be over and the credits start to roll so you can hear National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recite her graduation poem.

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I’m looking forward to the farmers market season, and I’m not the only one. More and more consumers are demanding really fresh food. Fortunately, farmers are increasingly creative about getting that fresh food to consumers.

Now farmers markets are going online. I learned about this via the Christian Science Monitor, which points to an article by Katherine Gustafson for YES! magazine.

Gustafson writes that small producers are using the Internet more.

“Smart use of the Web,” she writes, “can shift the focus of food retail away from industrial suppliers and toward those in the position to offer on-demand delivery of the freshest food around. …

“One example I found particularly inspiring was the Farmers Fresh Market program run by the Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center in Rutherfordton, N.C.

“The organization created a proprietary online system to allow individuals and businesses in nearby cities to order fresh produce from growers local to Rutherfordton. In many cases, the growers pick the food the same day the buyers receive it.”

What’s not to love? Read more.

Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/file

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I would like to tell you about Woophy, the international photo-sharing site. One of many great things about Woophy is its home page, which features a map of the world with each photo’s location. Do click on it.

I have uploaded photos to Woophy off and on since first reading about it in the Wall Street Journal. (That was when I was still reading the WSJ, which used to be full of great articles. I was one of the 170 people who cancelled their subscriptions the day Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. I know this because the WSJ wrote the next day that 170 subscribers out of 1.7 milion had cancelled.)

Woophy has always been managed by unpaid volunteers, and in recent years they struggled to keep up with the work. Loyalists worldwide helped out. Now Woophy has crossed a threshold and has partnered with a travel company. I’m glad because I would like to see it survive. I particularly enjoyed getting comments from far-away places whenever I posted a picture.

Here’s Wikipedia’s description: “Woophy (World of photography) is a photo sharing website and an online community where members can put their photos on a world map. Founded in 2005 by Joris van Hoytema, Hoyte van Hoytema and Marcel Geenevasen, the site has over 39,300 members and contains around a million photos from over 43,000 cities and villages in the world. Most of the uploaded pictures are from surroundings, buildings, nature and problems in the world. Woophy also has an active forum where photographers discuss their photos in a critical way. Woophy now has a finance deal with Eurobookings.com which should enable it to survive through the use of advertising.”

Woophians are planning a meeting in Madrid next spring. See photos of a previous Woophy forum (with music):

 

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