How to make a Virtual Worship Band Video (updated)

Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.

Before reading, watch our Cornerstone video and our other productions 🙂

One of the greatest positive experiences of being in lockdown has been the excitement of finding solutions to solve the challenges of not being able to be together. Especially finding opportunities in situations we thought would be impossible. One hugely inspiring outcome is how this period has encouraged people of all ages to share their creative gifts. In my teaching, I’ve been really inspired to hear from students who would normally be very quiet in lessons, now feeling a genuine opportunity to be heard from the quietness of home-working. It’s made me think about how I might take away the ‘loudness’ in situations to help more creativity happen and indeed whether there should be a ‘from home’ part of the school week in future school timetabling models. 

Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.

This process is accessible to all singers of all ages and all abilities around the world. The leading of it is complex, both musically and technologically, but the impact is so significant, it’s a worthy investment for your skillset in your role as a music leader and it creates a great sense of encouragement in your community.

This is a list of the equipment I’ve used to create the projects from start to finish. I’m just working from home in my office and have no acoustic treatment. 

  • Apple MacBook Pro 13” 2019, 4 thunderbolt ports, 8Gb RAM
  • Apple Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X software
  • Additional Sample Libraries: Ivory II Pianos, ProjectSAM SwingMore
  • Additional Plug-ins: FabFilter Total Bundle, Waves Greg Wells Signature Series, SSL EQ
  • Lacie 2TB external SSD Hard Drive
  • Canon 6D Mkii camera, tripod
  • Roland DP90SE Piano
  • Roland GO Piano
  • Focusrite 18i8 USB Audio Interface
  • Genelec 8040 Monitoring
  • Neumann U87 microphone
  • Sennheiser Headphones 

This working example is based on my recent virtual production of “Cornerstone” with the Manor CE Academy Worship Band and Community Choir. It was recorded in our homes during Covid-19 social distancing. This video was created to lead many people in musical worship during the digital service to introduce Bishop Stephen Cottrell as the 98th Archbishop of York. Initially planned to be held in York Minster, the ceremony was held at 11am on Thursday 9th July 2020 online, due to the Coronavirus restrictions.

Step 1: Pre-Production

Guide track production in Logic Pro X
  • Decide which piece(s) to create and who will play/sing. [Tip: to begin with, choose music that has a very clear and constant pulse. Repeating sections are also helpful]
  • Invite participants. Remember you’ll need written permission from parents to include under 18s before they can take part in online rehearsals and have their video posted on YouTube. For “Cornerstone” I invited anyone connected to my school and community choirs.
  • Create a guide track. Decide the tempo and stick to it. This will be the track your players/singers listen to when they practise and record, and ultimately it will become the start for your final mix. [Tip: think about what they need to hear to sing/play confidently, in-time and in-tune. Make it a comfortable, enjoyable experience. Include a cue track of your voice to count into verse/chorus/bridge entries] – I used Logic Pro X, a mic and the USB GO Piano to record these parts: metronome click, my guide singing voice (not my strength at all), simple drum kit played on GO Piano, held string chords, piano, my cue voice. If you’d like an mp3 copy of this guide track drop me a message – MrLowePVO@gmail.com
  • By this point you’ll have received replies from those you’ve in invited. The timescale was short for Cornerstone, so participants had just 3 days to confirm their involvement and 30 people came forward in that time. 
  • Email all participants including: full instructions for recording, lyrics, arrangement parts, guide tracks and the link for the Zoom meeting. The Zoom is compulsory as that single meeting will be the one rehearsal to teach the songs, going over any musical details such as agreed rhythms or lengths of notes. The Zoom is also the opportunity for questions to be asked so we can collectively move in the same direction towards production.

Step 2: Rehearsal & Production

Manor Virtual Community Choir Zoom Rehearsal. Most participants are from around York, but our community reaches even wider as we welcomed a guest from Garland, Texas
  • For safeguarding reasons, there were separate meetings for the students and the adults, but covering the same material
  • Begin the meeting by going through the process of ‘how to record’. then sing through the three songs and allow participants to ask questions to check understanding. Participants must be muted, so they can only hear you and themselves when singing, unmuting to ask questions or to comment. 
  • Demonstrate how to prepare to record and how to use the guide track. 
  • Talk about how to transfer large files.
  • Following that meeting there were additional email conversations to give technical support as needed. These were further joyful times as many people in the choir weren’t initially confident with the technology, but everyone ‘found a way’. 
  • Again due to the timescale, everyone had just 5 days to learn and record the 3 songs we were working on, including Cornerstone. I’ve included the instructions email I sent at the bottom of this article for details of ‘how to record’.

Step 3: Post-production 1 – Receive, Save and Library

  • While waiting the 5 days for video recordings to arrive, it’s possible to begin to build any additional instrumental parts for the recording. I recorded the piano, which is visible on screen on the Roland DP90SE. I played the bass guitar, drum kit and other orchestral parts from my arrangement (for players we didn’t have) – all created in Logic Pro X using the USB GO Piano.
  • As they arrive, edit the filenames to state the person and the song. I received 96 videos for the 3 songs – hence the 2TB SSD.
  • Once the deadline passes, check with any participants who haven’t sent videos. Check they are ok and offer support. 

Step 4: Post-production 2 – Import, Edit and Sync Videos

Organising the separate video files in Final Cut Pro X
  • Beginning in Final Cut Pro X, import all the videos. Right click to select ‘Lift from Storyline’. You can then drag the videos to play at the same time as each other (drag them to appear like a list, one above the next).
  • Next edit each clip to make them all visible at once on the video screen. Shift+T selects the transform function, allowing you to move the video around on the screen and make it bigger or smaller. Shift+C selects the crop tool, allowing you to trim unneeded space from around each participant. If you’re preparing for a worship service as I was, leave space at the bottom of the screen to add the lyrics later on.
  • The absolute key to success in this project is “The Clap”. Like a human film clapperboard, this is the secret that brings us all together. You’ll have decided on a definite point in your guide track for everyone to clap. That clap creates a very obvious audio peak to see on the editor. The next job is to line the videos up so everyone claps together. [Tip: At this point do this within a couple of frames accuracy as you’ll find there will be some variation to address later]
  • If you’ve not studied post-production or film sound, you might not be aware of how it works. Films are not actually ‘moving-pictures’. They are collections of lots of still pictures played very quickly, one at a time. If we see enough similar still images every second, we perceive them as moving. This is very helpful to know as you edit as there are only 30 frames (still images) per second, so 30 moments the we could be out of sync every second. Helpfully, by using the right and left arrow buttons we can step through each individual frame of our videos. 
  • Add the guide track and turn up the volume (by dragging the horizontal line up) to show the clap peak very obviously. Then simply zoom in and align each video clap to match the peak on the guide track. [Tip: use the , and . keys to nudge videos 1 frame left or right to have more control that clicking and dragging]

Step 5: Post-production 3 – Detaching, Exporting and Importing XML

  • Once they’re roughly in time, have a listen. Don’t panic if it still doesn’t sound perfect at this point! 
  • Select all the videos, right click and select ‘Detach Audio’. Each audio file will now appear at the bottom of the screen. Leave them there for now, however you’ll delete these later on. 
  • Go to FILE>EXPORT XML… and export one of these files to your hard drive. It’s a clever very small file that tells another program where to look for the audio and as what time it plays in the session, so once reopened, everything is still in-sync. 
  • Close Final Cut Pro X to save processor power.
  • Open the Guide track Logic Pro X session and import the XML file you’ve just made. Helpfully, these tracks are automatically grouped. To see the individual tracks click on the small white arrow next to the track number. 

Step 6: Post-production 4 – Listening and Editing Audio

Editing and processing voice recordings
  • From now on you’ll think about audio and video separately, until you’ve completed the final mix.
  • To keep the sync appearing to be realistic, the one thing you must avoid is splicing the audio tracks and moving parts of them left or right. This would be almost impossible to realign when you return to the videos. 
  • The focus of this step is to make each voice or part sound as natural and clear as possible. We want to remove unwanted noise (trimming none singing moments at the start and end), take out any over-resonant frequencies (using EQ), compress the dynamic range of voices who sing very softly and very loudly (Compressor) and help them out with a touch of pitch-correction to hit every note as intended. The editing on Cornerstone for 30 voices, took me about 2 hours in total. I could’ve gone into more detail, analysing individually pitched notes, but as well as having a limited amount of time, I wanted the overall product to sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘studio produced’ so this step can very much be over-done. It’s also important to remember than none of the singers/players used microphones, other than the built-in one on their smartphone, so this limits how ‘crystal-clear’ the signal can be. The important focus at every edit should be ‘Does this make the voice sound more natural?’. 
  • In a couple of situations I used the Greg Wells plugin to add warmth to a voice or give it a touch more presence in the sound, but use this with care, as the overall mix can become very loud, very quickly with too much of this type of processing. 

Step 7: Post-production 5 – Sync-ing and Mixing the Voices

Matching waveforms for sync and blending the voices using ‘solo’
  • One of the benefits of using an audio editor like Logic Pro X is you can instantly see the waveform. In particularly, you can see where parts are out of time. You’ll do the final sync-ing to the video tracks later, so for now it’s fine to nudge whole tracks left or right to make them play as perfectly in time as possible. Whatever you do, don’t move your guide track – that is a constant, but other parts can be moved to create the best fit.
  • I use the solo function to build my voices mix. I begin at the top of the list and work downwards, solo-ing it by press the ’S’ button. No voice in the choir is more important than others – they are all equally valuable. I begin very cautiously with volume, as 30 voices can become loud very quickly. As I add each new voice (by clicking another ’S’), I’m particularly listening for a nice balance between them. I can separate similar voices using pan to move them towards the left or right sides of the mix. Be careful not to have them too widely spread or to have an imbalance of sides as they must collectively work as a choir. This is an exciting step as you’ll begin to hear the richness of the choir sound. 
  • Another helpful function of the automatic grouping, is the ability to add the same reverb to all parts. This creates an illusion that they’re all singing in the same room. Be careful not to use too much reverb as it can make the voices less-clear with a suggestion they’re all in a large tunnel, but using some will have a positive effect. 
  • Once you have a nice balance in your ensemble, their level compared to the instruments can be adjusted with the group fader mostly. 

Step 8: Post-production 6 – Final Mix and Mastering the Audio

Editing automation during the mixing of the 46 instrument and voice parts
  • Your place to listen is very important for this final part. I’m very restricted here as I have no acoustic treatment at home. When I mix, I’m constantly listening to the music on different systems (and in different rooms) to try and find a ‘happy medium’. I come away from using my audio interface to mix as the sound it creates is much richer and warmer that most domestic systems. I often mix using the laptop speakers, then a few different pairs of headphones, then a value range 1990s hifi, then the Genelecs. For me this is the most challenging part to do well from home in lockdown.
  • The mix is about the energy of the music throughout the song, which will change. Use automation (by pressing ‘A’) to adjust volume over time. It’s about making choices like ‘where the climactic point will be’ and how you’ll reach that, which instruments are important in driving that energy, making sure we can hear just enough of every part, so every one feels a sense of contribution and value in the mix. The approach to mixing these worship songs is different to a commercial release or performance, as they are intended to support church sung worship. Therefore they have to be easy to sing to, without the on-screen voices dominating the mix as might be the case in a performance or pop video. When mixing live in a church, I often have the volume of the lead vocal as ‘just enough to hear, but without feeling I have to just listen to them’. This project is about creating a starting point for other people in their houses around the world to feel encouraged to sing together. 
  • Once you’ve mixed your instruments and voices together, export your ‘finished sound’ as an aiff file at 24-bit 48kHz

Step 9: Post-production 7 – Final Video Sync and Adding Lyrics

Lyrics now added for our song “I am Free” at the bottom of the screen
  • Import the aiff final mix into Final Cut Pro X and line it up with the original guide track
  • Delete the original audio files from the bottom of the screen, apart from the original guide track, just turn the volume down on that clip.
  • Watch each individual video to check that lip-sync is perfect, just as when they recorded. Use the , and . keys again to nudge each video clip a frame left or right as needed. [Tip: choose a chorus towards the end of the song to do this as the timing will be slightly tighter and easier to spot, then watch all the way through to check for glaring sync errors]
  • Once the video and final audio are in-sync, if it’s a worship video, now add the lyrics
  • Use one of the ‘lower third’ presets and drag the template to the start of your film. 
  • Use Ctril+T to ‘transform’ the bar to make it fit with your videos and set the font, size and colour in the info window (top right). 
  • Enter your first lyric line. Then copy and paste the title clip along your project to ensure the settings stay the same for each line of lyrics. Drag the start and end points of each title clip to musically set when the new line appears in a helpful way to sing, but not be distracting.  

Step 10: Post-production 8 – Export and Delivery

My ‘Mr Lowe’ YouTube Channel. Musical challenges, demonstrations and virtual orchestras for all.
  • Once everything has been checked and you’re happy it’s complete, export the project by going to FILE>SHARE>Master file… [Tip: It’s faster to export like this, rather than going straight to YouTube and it creates a local backup of the finished video]. 
  • I use wetransfer.com as a free option to deliver the final file. Or I could upload to YouTube directly.

I’ve explained the process in this much detail to hopefully encourage you to have a go in your community. The total time I spent on Cornerstone was about 20 hours, including the creating of the initial guide track and materials, the invitations, zoom meeting, file storing, recording, editing, mixing, mastering and completing the video with lyrics.  

Betty’s Artwork

This special picture was painted by Betty Law, a member of our community choir. She painted the work during online worship on Easter Sunday this year. A photo of the painting appears in our Cornerstone video. 

It reminds me that we have been greatly restricted during this period of lockdown and not able to be together. However, it’s also been a great time of opportunity for creativity to explode with vibrant richness across our whole community. 

Thanks for reading. Get in touch if I can help.

DL

——————————————————-

My email instructions:

Hi everybody,

Thanks for joining our Virtual Worship Team. I’m really looking forward to meeting you online on Thursday to go through our project. 

After Thursday’s 45-minute zoom meeting, you should have everything you need to record yourself. After our zoom, to make the recordings, you will need:

– Headphones or earphones

– 2 devices – one to play the guides tracks on, and one to make a video of yourself

I’ve attd. the 3 guide tracks, made specially for this group. Please only use them for the purpose of this project and don’t share them with anyone outside our team. I’ve also attd. lyrcis and some orchestral parts, although I’ve not quite finished writing parts out so there are a few more to come.

I’ll need to receive your videos by bedtime on Wednesday 13th May. As they are quite big files (too big to email), you can send them securely for free using wetransfer.com If you need help doing that let me know. 

We have three golden rules: Play/Sing in time, Play/Sing in tune, Play/Sing with passion.

It might be sounding like a lot, but it really is straightforward. Please find the Zoom meeting link and recording instructions below. Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday. 

Best wishes

Dave Lowe

——

Mr Lowe is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Mr Lowe Virtual Community Choir

Time: May 7, 2020 05:30 PM London

Join Zoom Meeting

Link was here**

Meeting ID: 

Password: Password was here***

Instructions

USE THE QUIETEST ROOM IN YOUR HOUSE (NOT BEDROOM)

ANYONE ELSE IN THE ROOM MUST BE SILENT

When you’re ready to record…

1. TUNE your instrument – make it perfect

2. Put your headphones on

3. Check the camera image can see your head, instrument and hands

4. Press record on the camera/phone or whatever you’re using

5. Press play on the backing track (only heard in headphones)

6. CLAP on the 5th Click – if the clap is not perfectly in time, start again

7. Relax and listen

8. Play/Sing with passion and communicate the music, knowing that what you do will inspire A LOT of people. Singers – tell the story, everyone must be involved in the music. Play perfectly in time and in tune.

9. Wetransfer your video

Part 2: Teaching Music in Isolation: A deeper, real-world reflection into lockdown: Finding a new ‘Extra Curricular’

Despite this deeply negative time, from that 2nd rehearsal did come an idea, like a small shoot of a spring flower appearing as a symbol of hope after a harsh winter. We decided together that rhythm and pulse could not be followed in real-time. So rather than focusing on things that were not possible, we began to think of what was possible.

You may have already read my deeper, real-world blog post about teaching during lockdown. Always, my job as a music teacher has two main focuses: delivering the music curriculum and managing an extra curricular programme.

The second area, extra curricular, takes just as much thought as the curriculum and dominates my head-space as I constantly have themes going round in my head from rehearsals, problems to solve and I’m often thinking of ways to improve. However, extra curricular in any context is a profoundly positive experience for all who partake. It helps us to grow, both in our community relationships and in our music.

Other than the (significant) face-to-face issue described in the previous blog, I’m not feeling much difference in my working life and I’m perhaps even busier than ever. There are more problems to solve at the moment and more barriers to break down, but it’s very much worth the effort. I’ve heard of so many times when people have spoken of ‘unprecedented times’ and therefore cancelling groups and events and that ‘things can’t happen at the moment’. Surely, in this time, more than ever, we should be finding ways to bring people ‘together’.

The Lowest Point

At the point of lockdown, it was already widely being reported about the possibility of choirs singing together through internet video software such as google hangouts, houseparty and zoom. However this was a myth, and that deep feeling of loss when our Voices choir realised we could not continue together, was momentarily given a sense of encouragement, and then in the first rehearsal was taken away in the most discouraging way. The truth is, that choir of students aged 11-15, had reached a standard I’d never experienced before from a school-based choir. They rehearsed on two mornings a week, every week, for 45 minutes (a lot in the current educational climate) and they had really become like a family. They inspired many people with their singing and both the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the new Dean of York Minster, Jonathan Frost were amongst the many visitors who came to observe their rehearsals. Significant developments had taken place in rehearsals in preparation for many bookings they had for summer 2020, including a new arrangement of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Somewhere Only We Know we’d written together. There were performances booked at local choir festivals, National Music for Youth Festival and a special performance at the UN Security Council in New York. They’d been booked to make recordings and to lead at some special summer events at York Minster. All of these events and recordings were cancelled. Despite the incredible sadness felt, nothing compared to the helplessness we felt with the online video platforms not allowing real-time singing together. The voices group is very much built on the determined creation of one collective true sound, with many live contributors. This, sadly is just not possible at a distance. About 16 of the (21) choir came to the first attempt online. Only 8 to the second as the first had been so discouraging and after that a few of us met to talk about it, but it’s never restarted since.

Despite this deeply negative time, from that 2nd rehearsal did come an idea, like a small shoot of a spring flower appearing as a symbol of hope after a harsh winter. We decided together that rhythm and pulse could not be followed in real-time. So rather than focusing on things that were not possible, we began to think of what was possible. I remember studying a piece for string quartet in the past in which each player was given music to play, but there was no given rhythm. It was left for them to choose when to change to the next given pitch. This created a new performance every time. As musicians, we respond to the circumstances around us, listening carefully to other parts and making our part fit with the others. We attempted our own performance of this on the zoom call. One year 10 boy chose a note to begin with and sang that as a sustained note. Other voices joined at a time they heard as appropriate. Fascinatingly, they were all contributing to the same performance, but all heard the music differently, mostly depending on their broadband connections. The first take was a disaster as we all made each other laugh. But remarkably the determination to make this work, caused everyone to instantly find a way they could listen with great focus. The second take was beautiful. It was a ‘new sound’, with so much to represent the ‘new’ lockdown, as was the case then.

Despite the glimmer of light, our choir hasn’t continued to meet, but that was an important turning point in planning for other activities and groups.

It is possible to have a shared collective purpose

It is possible to create music together (without live shared pulse)

It is important to see each other and interact, even if it’s not what we expect

It is important to have a goal or focus, but to keep this relatively short or simple

It is possible to each record a performance and combine them together to appear as if together

It is encouraging to be part of some extra curricular music during lockdown

It is something that creates outcomes that are exciting, inspiring and surprising at the same time

It is possible for people of all ages, abilities and nations to come together to make music (provided safeguarding considerations are in place)

Therefore many people can learn a musical part from a single leader and practise it, live, at the same time. For this to be successful in a large group on Zoom, all individuals must be muted, so they can only hear themselves and the leader. They can hear and play in time with the leader. With smaller groups (5 or 6), individuals can remain unmuted to hear others practising at the same time as them. In this, they cannot all play in-time together (live), but often it’s helpful to hear someone else in the section mastering a particular rhythm, that they can then play themselves. The leader can listen to each part being developed at the same time and, importantly, can verbally encourage by name when an idea is played correctly. I wonder when we return, whether I’ll be less-requiring of silent moments in rehearsals.

5 of The Highest Points

These are my 5 weekly lockdown extra-curricular ensembles and activities with details of what’s happening at the moment.

1. Make Music On Mondays

Live from York, every Monday 1220pm #MakeMusicOnMondays

A live, public, worldwide YouTube stream, open and free to all. I use this weekly programme to demonstrate aspects of music creation. The 30-60 minute programme is at 1220 every Monday to coincide with the beginning of ‘the lunch break’ (as our students are being encouraged to stick to their timetables). We’ve heard from working adults who watch the show that it’s a helpful something to help them to stop their ‘working at home’ to have lunch and have a break as they watch. In response to student requests I have created a series of Quick-fire Music Challenges to help develop instrumental technique and control as well as discovering a greater understanding of music theory. Already many people of different ages have taken part in this, some posting their efforts online with #QuickfireMusicChallenge . In addition to the challenges, I’m also encouraging everyone to be creative during this lockdown time and explore ideas to write new original music using whatever resources are available at home.

2. The Manor Concert Orchestra

The families of these 7 young people gave permission for their performances to be used online, to encourage others to get involved.
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cqz2NlPiLM

This group is restricted to the usual members of MCO. They meet every Thursday 3.30-4.15 on Zoom. They are currently warming-up together using the QuickfireMusicChallenges, being sociable and rehearsing pieces to be eventually built together to represent this time we had apart. To ensure everyone in the group can partake without safeguarding fears, there is no plan to release their collective work online. However it will be something for them to keep and possibly use within live performances when we return.

3. People’s Virtual Orchestra

Get involved here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfCRUpHXCAA

This exciting new group has been born from MCO members showing me what’s possible. The PVO is for everybody in the world – all ages, all abilities, all instruments, all nations, all cultures. It is by the people, for the people. Already it’s a fantastically inspirational group of people including everybody from beginners to professionals. I can’t wait to show you what they’ve made together. This is such a unique group, bringing together people from all over the world who’ve never heard of each other, never mind played together before. This group breaks down all boundaries and the people create a great, rich sound together, at a time when ‘together’ has had to take on a new meaning. They are performing a piece I wrote in 2011 called “Latin…”, written at that time as I began to form MCO for the first cohort. It’s a rhythmically complex piece, but by the way it’s structured, is very simple to learn. It also features opportunities for players to develop their own parts as they play and build confidence to explore variations. We’ve had one of the four rehearsals so far. The next is this Monday, live on YouTube. I’ve already received 20 video recordings from 3 continents of the material learned in session 1. This week we’ll be focusing on the ending of the piece. It’s still possible to join until the final deadline for me to receive recordings, which is Monday 22nd June. Any participants under 18 can take part, but I must receive permission in writing before I can include your videos online. Many people are beginning to follow the progress of this group. I’m grateful to BBC Radio York for interviewing me about the project and helping to share the invitation more widely.

4. Manor Virtual Student Worship Band

Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bONewsoVKds

As a Church of England Academy, there are no restrictions in our school to talk about faith, God, the Bible etc. and we create opportunities for our young people to worship. Also in 2011 I started a student worship band. The ‘worship’ aspect was meaningful to some, but for most, they just enjoyed the type of sung repertoire this involved. In essence, simple songs that young people could sing and play together. As that first group (W1 Worship Band) grew, we learned of churches locally who either struggled for musicians or didn’t know how to develop their music. W1 began to tour local churches to lead services and encourage other young people to get involved in the music in their church. The group developed to lead at some national events with the Archbishop of York and at York Minster. In 2014 11 members of that band toured Georgia and Alabama in the USA to lead events in churches and schools and to make friendships with young people in different cultures. That group has long-since moved on, but a new generation has emerged in this lockdown, with these young people seeing the opportunity to be an encouragement to others through their singing and playing. They led their first service at St Michael-le-Belfrey church in York last weekend. Their 3 songs were very well received and they’re already recording for another service at the church. I know it meant a great deal to them too to be able to do this together.

5. Hope & Belfrey Virtual Community Choir

Our amazing wider community begin to prepare together on Zoom

Following the success of the Manor Virtual Worship Band, this week I’ve launched a Virtual Community Choir. On this first attempt I’ve restricted the invitation to the Hope & Belfrey community choirs I directed in York Minster at Christmas. This new group will join the student virtual band to lead worship at the Belfrey on 24th May. It was a brilliant first Zoom rehearsal together on Thursday.

It’s been quite a journey so far in the last 7 weeks.

I’m learning so much in directing these ensembles and activities. It takes a lot of planning and preparation, but it’s so very worth it.

More to follow.

Part 1. Teaching Music in Isolation: A deeper, real-world reflection into lockdown

In this lockdown, I’ve experienced students of all levels of ability developing skills of independence in their learning. So I know the materials I’ve provided are helpful for all abilities, but maybe this is a great time to return to more study-skill type activities. There’s still nothing I can do if a student chooses to not ‘have a go’, but could some learners be better equipped for the restart?. At this point, are skills and resilience in how to learn within different situations more important that the subject learning itself?

Friday 20th March 2020 was my last day teaching music to classes at Manor CE Academy, York. It feels a long time ago, when in context it was 2 weeks before the Easter break, and we’re just at the end of the 3rd week back after the holidays. So in curriculum time it’s not really that long, although I expect not to be able to teach all my students in-person for a while yet.

It has been a time of of great re-adjustment, much new curriculum development, significant emailing, ‘zooming’ and creation of new types of online content, to try to ensure learning (and appropriate support) can continue for all students.

One thing is for certain. My teaching has changed during this time, as well as my appreciation of how key face-to-face education is. When I’m in front of the students, I can plan everything. I can make changes in real-time to find an optimal environment for each student as they progress. I can solve problems, share resources and encourage them, as I disseminate information and demonstrate music. This planning usually includes deciding where everyone sits. Students often complain about ‘seating plans’, but there are so many advantages that they benefit from, but are not aware of in advance. In ‘lockdown’, there isn’t the opportunity, for example, to seat them near other students with a mixture of abilities where I know they’ll feel encouraged as they work.

My most recent classroom experience was that about 80% of students engaged in the tasks I set without prompting. In general, year 8 were the most challenging year group to inspire to be ‘on task’ when we stopped. Whether there’s an age-related reason or a connection to students who haven’t selected the GCSE option, as they do as my school in year 8, less attention to detail was certainly evident in practical work. Whilst in school, there is a behaviour policy, including sanctions for students who don’t try in their learning, or for students who disrupt others. At home, it’s a physical impossibility to provide the same support to encourage learning. We have to think differently. As we plan lessons, so much information is available about each student, about their prior attainment in various subjects or about any barriers to learning they might have. However, the greatest, most insightful information I can know about a student, is seeing how they react when each new aspect is completed, or seeing how they struggle when they can’t see connections in knowledge to reach a confident level of understanding. It is a fundamental problem, to not have the opportunity to see our students during this time.

A frustration I’d felt for a few years (before lockdown) was a seeming perception that some students knew the best way to learn and could very much dictate this to teachers. I’ve even had a few conversations in the last couple of years where students have disagreed with the content of the curriculum. I’m very much in favour of student-voice activities and I’ve shared much in previous blogs of situations when students have inspired me. However, it seems to be more overlooked these days that I’m a specialist in my subject, and perhaps even more so in the context of education. I think historically, certainly in my own school education, there was a ‘taught respect’ to learn as much as possible from teachers. These days, that sense of respect requires a ‘trust’ to be earned by the teacher, before any sort of respect can come. Sometimes there are barriers or pre-conceptions that prevent this from happening easily.

So with all these challenges, it’s perhaps not a surprise if some students, who would need significant encouragement to work whilst in school, struggle to get started on their work at home.

For me, this is the most demoralising part of teaching in lockdown. It’s something that I can’t control. I can produce the most inspirational, practical, ‘accessible to all’ tasks possible, considering a very wide-range of factors, with clear instructions, but if students choose ‘not to engage’, I cannot help them. Even with a little attempt, ‘just having a go’ can be a starting point for an online dialogue to begin and for some students who had struggled in the past, this new style of learning has been hugely encouraging for them.

In this lockdown I continue to use Showbie as a secure online platform for file-sharing and feedback. The majority of my 762 students have an iPad, but for those who don’t, they can still access their Showbie account through any computer (Mac or PC), or smartphone, and from what I can see, all but a few can therefore access everything I’m sharing. (The few are sent a paper pack). Specialist music students who are learning to play an instrument, have their instrument at home. Many have found an instrument in their garage or loft and others with iPads are using the GarageBand app as an instrument. So lots of live music-making can still take place. The notification system in Showbie sends me an email every time a student: makes a comment, asks a questions, adds a answer, annotates a worksheet or uploads a performance. This creates many thousands of additional emails every week, but is a great way to ensure I don’t miss any student interactions. I endeavour to respond during the same day and in most cases can mark work or give feedback within minutes.

I am completely in the dark when students receive work or feedback from me and this is the greatest challenge. If they’re in front of me as I give feedback, (so much of which is usually verbal feedback in music), I can instantly see if my contribution is encouraging or helpful. In lockdown, I cannot see this. In the last week or so, I’ve begun to receive some encouraging signs that I’m helping, as a few parents have written to say how much the work or a “well done” 😀 has meant to their son or daughter when they’ve received it. I’ve also begun to receive messages to say “thank you” directly from students.

Showbie also time-stamps every interaction, so it’s possible to see when each interaction happens. It’s therefore also very easy to see if a student has had no interaction with the online work. As a team, our faculty have just completed a review of students’ interactions since Easter, including students producing outstanding work and those who haven’t engaged with their work during the 3 weeks at all. We’ve shared this information with other faculties and there seems to be 3 groups emerging (from my early analysis). Some students are attempting work in all subjects, some are choosing to prioritise some subjects over others (although it’s impossible to see whether it’s due to a perceived hierarchy of academic importance, or a choice of subject preference) and some are not accessing work in any subject, although I’m approaching all of this with some caution, as I cannot see the circumstances in which every student has to work in during lockdown. To begin to form assumptions as to why students might have made a choice to ‘not work’, is unhelpful. We cannot understand an individual’s circumstances unless there is communication.

We can continue to create inspiring and helpful content to encourage our young people. We can also make sure we’re ready to help and support when it’s needed. Above all we can celebrate every achievement. Remarkable is even more remarkable in the current circumstances.

Another platform I’m using more and more is YouTube. The analytical data is similarly helpful to the time-stamping in Showbie in that it highlights the number of viewers to each video. For those choosing to login into YouTube with their school google account, it’s also possible to see a breakdown of which age groups are accessing the materials and whether they are boys or girls. According to the data of users who’ve logged-in, more boys are watching the videos.

It’s possible to present live on Facebook or YouTube (as well as a few others), but some time ago I was recommended to keep Facebook for personal use only and that continues to be my choice. I communicate developments publicly with Twitter (@DaveLoweMusic) and the occasional Instagram, and share video content on Vimeo and YouTube. Vimeo I’ve found is an expensive personal outlay and doesn’t have the same features as YouTube. Since the lockdown began, my YouTube content has expanded to over 100 videos, including some live streams.

For GCSE learning, YouTube Live (via Wirecast) is great as I can combine ‘talking-to-camera’ with visual demonstrations on instruments, software and theoretical drawings on iPad. If students watch the live stream, they can have real-time discussions with other students within the safety of Showbie as they watch. They can then revisit modelling demonstrations as often as they need, to see how an idea was created and developed and they can go through descriptions of theory as often as needed. It’s like having an interactive textbook, specifically for them. The response from my year 9 and 10 GCSE students has been mixed. Just as with the younger students, there again seems to be the 3 groups and not all are choosing to engage. That said, a number of colleagues in other schools have contacted me to say how much my materials are helping their students.

However, the greatest challenge is an assumption I’ve felt when creating the content. From the timely analysis of the YouTube data, not all students are watching the videos, and those who are watching, are not watching and listening all the way through. Perhaps this is a deeper understanding into how 13-16s approach online video content. My assumption had been that I’d explained everything that’s needed to complete a task at the simplest level. Whereas, that might be true, some students have emailed questions that prove they’ve not listened to the videos all the way through. Subsequent conversations have confirmed this. A further helpful analytical figure from YouTube is the average % of viewing time. In one recent case, an 8-minute demonstration of how to recognise intervals by listening, the average viewing duration is 6 minutes (75%). In comparison,that’s quite high, but only 16 times has that video been viewed ever and it’s possible that it’s not been viewed by 16 different people. Of the 67 cohort, I’m unsure as to why so many chose not to view the resource. However, the video I’ve found most astonishingly-ignored is one I made for year 8 students to demonstrate how to play drum-fills on an iPad. The average viewing time is 33 seconds of the 10 minute video and unsurprisingly that was an aspect that most of the 250 students struggled with when it came to the recent assessment.

This is deeply challenging. It’s probably no more frustrating than being in a classroom giving instructions, for the student who wasn’t listening to then question what they should do. But I wonder whether if I should be sharing information differently. In this lockdown, I’ve experienced students of all levels of ability developing skills of independence in their learning. So I know the materials I’ve provided are helpful for all abilities, but maybe this is a great time to return to more study-skill type activities. There’s still nothing I can do if a student chooses to not ‘have a go’, but could some learners be better equipped for the restart?. At this point, are skills and resilience in how to learn within different situations more important that the subject learning itself?

I’ve found I’ve become more-reactive within lockdown and this is something I’m wrestling with at the moment. Feeling a duty of care to these young people, the moment they struggle with something I’ve made, I try to help them. This comes back to that impossible situation of not being able to see how they’re struggling and trying to make my provision the best it can be. This realisation (of immediacy in reaction) hit home this week. Straight after Easter I launched a new approach for GCSE students to address two aspects they’d shared they wanted more help with. These were: confidence in music theory and technical ability in performance. Perhaps having not fully read the first week’s instructions, two or three students got in touch to ask for more explanation in the work I was setting. My reaction to this was to panic that everyone would have difficulty understanding, so I recorded a podcast-like video and began to write more and more explanation for the tasks they had to do. I’ve now had a couple of students email to say they don’t understand the work as there’s too much to read! This is not a battle I’m going to win.

The 67 GCSE music students are all fantastic young people. They’re all great to work with, but are all vastly different (which is challenging and wonderful at the same time!). They represent a vast range of musical abilities from those who don’t play an instrument, to students who are already working towards grade 7/8. From the honest feedback I’ve received, people have shared of how grateful they are for me keeping things going and remaining positive in the content I produce. So many times we’ve decided that ‘things aren’t perfect’, but perhaps they can’t be just at the moment. An agreement shared by all I’ve spoken to though, it’s far better to try to do something, than to not do anything at all!

At risk of being further reactionary, next week, I’ll try another different approach to setting work. There will be one statement on Showbie for GCSE Music students. “Watch this to know what you need to do this week”. Next to that will be a Video link. I’ll keep the video short and will outline the 3 tasks for the week (to cover the 2 hours of lesson time and 1 hour of home work they are used to). Of the 3 tasks, one will be related to developing a study skill as opposed to a musical skill. I’ll write a blog to share findings of this later.

There’s far more to share about the real-world of music teaching in this lockdown, but at risk that you might not read all the way through (joke!), I’ll write a separate post about extra curricular, the second half of my job, which has created the very lowest point of this lockdown for me as well as the very highest. And the highest(s) far far outweigh any lows I’ve experienced in this period!

My passion to help young people to discover great wonderment of music and great confidence in performing and creating it, is as strong as ever. I can only do what I can do, but I’m learning many new things during this period. There are always things to improve.

All views my own.