Creative tech brings musicians together

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Matthew Keating had a very real problem. Like so many other musicians, he missed live performances now that the pandemic has forced us to be apart. In his job as executive director of the Claremont Community School of Music, he tried a few ideas to keep his students and the community creating music, but it was just not the same as performing together.

The first solution Mr. Keating dreamed up for keeping performance alive was the Claremont Community School of Music’s virtual orchestra. Back in June he sent out an invitation to any musicians, regardless of skill level, to download a part of the Scottish folk song “O, Waly Waly,” aka “The Water is Wide.” Each musician then recorded just their part at home and the pieces were combined into a synchronized video recording which was shared during an online concert.

“It’s lonely to play an instrument by yourself that is meant to be played together,” Mr. Keating said at the time. “So we tried to find a way to do something as acommunity. It’s not the same as performing live, but it’s pretty good.”

One might assume that with a fast internet connection and a good computer one could use a video conferencing app to play music online. But a time lag that is present in these virtual connections makes this nearly impossible. As a result, all local choirs, band programs and orchestras just screeched to a halt in March because no one has been able to perform music together online.

Inherent to all the platforms people are using to interact like Skype, Facetime or Zoom, is a pretty significant audio and video delay. The apps function more like a two-way radio, which is not a platform for creative collaboration,” Mr. Keating explained.

“If you have ever tried to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ over Zoom you can tell that the audio doesn’t line up and the whole thing falls apart,” he said. “It works pretty good for call and response but if you try to do something with music it is impossible.”

He persisted in trying to find a way around that inherent lag. “When the pandemic hit, right away we were [thinking] there has got to be a way to do it, everyone has lightning fast internet these days,” Mr. Keating said.

And then he stumbled across an free open source program from Germany called Jamulus which gets around the lag by separating the visual and audio feeds. The Zoom app lets users select a microphone, so instead of choosing the computer’s built-in one, the musician selects Jamulus as the microphone. A viewer will see video through Zoom but hear audio through Jamulus and the musicians can all play together.

“In the last couple of months programmers from all over the world have put some time into it and made it even better,” Mr. Keating said. “But there are still not that many people worldwide who are using it.”

On Wednesday the COURIER was invited to a rehearsal of a CCSM affiliated recorder group to demonstrate how the Jamulus program works. Win Aldrich, Susan Hitch, Gloria Martin, Barbara MacKenzie, Mark MacKenzie, Lee Waggener and Bill Waggener performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s interpretation of “Bist du bei mir” from the comfort of their separate living rooms and studies. It all seemed to go very smoothly, although at least one member of the group had only been using the program for two days. To demonstrate Jamulus’ effectiveness, Mr. Keating asked three guests watching the performance via Zoom only—and not using Jamulus—to sing “Happy Birthday” which did not go well.

“Music is an important part of our lives,” Mr. Aldrich said. And with Jamulus it’s not limited to people in the local geographical area, he noted.

“We have a wide range of tech experience,” Ms. Waggener said. “For someone with patience, it’s very accessible. But that is what’s exciting about it.”

Mr. Keating and his team at the school have been testing the program for five months but really started rolling it out in the last two weeks. He built an audio server at the music school so no one has to buy equipment or pay for a subscription as long as they have an old computer at home with an Ethernet cable and a pair of headphones.

“We worked very hard to get it to the point where somebody who is not vey technical could just download the program and set it up and we get them going,” Mr. Keating said. “One of our teachers has never owned a computer in her life, I got her up and running in ten minutes on an old laptop and now she is using it all the time.”

The first test run took place on December 23 when 28 performers, a mixture of students teachers and community members, performed Christmas carols together.

“It was a little bit like it used to be when we have everybody live,” Mr. Keating said. “It was really heart warming.”

Mr. Keating emphasized that it only takes the most basic computer equipment to get the program running, and a musician online and playing with friends. He said they recently got a 19-year-old laptop cleaned up and running Jamulus as the only program. “We plugged it in and it worked beautifully,” he said.

As the nation approaches the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, and with most experts saying that it could be late in 2021 before life begins to return to some form of normalcy, many musical groups will essentially have been on hiatus for two years. This includes our local schools, where a sophomore at CHS in March of 2020 could potentially lose two seasons of playing with the marching band.

So, with the success he has had at the music school, Mr. Keating’s goal is to spread the word and get other musical groups, including Claremont Unified schools, using the program.

“It’s been really inspiring to see that [success of Jamulus] and I am hoping we can help the Claremont Chorale, the Claremont Symphony and church choirs, and get them set up so they can start collaborating again, because it really is sad to see all the music kind of dying away.”

Part of his push to spread the word involves many of CCSM’s students, many of whom are on scholarships and cannot necessarily afford a computer and headphones. He is looking into making Jamulus run on mini-computers called Raspberry Pie, with the goal of providing them to his students.

Once they get enough of these computers, called “jam boxes” distributed, the plan is for regular concerts featuring the whole CCSM orchestra.

Meanwhile, Mr. Keating’s phone keeps ringing with band directors and the heads of other schools of music inquiring about how they can get started on Jamulus.

“Matt has really pushed the envelope on this,” Mr. Aldrich said.

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