How music teachers can create a virtual choir video

Right now, I’m a member of a number of music teacher Facebook groups and everyone is scrambling to move their teaching to an online format.

At least 5 times per day – and often within the same Facebook group – I see the following question:

“Does anyone know how to create one of those Eric Whitacre-style virtual choir videos? I’d like to create one with my own choir/band/orchestra/flute ensemble”

Creating one of these videos is no easy task.

I say this to you all with love.  A LOT of love.

I want to save you the heartache of planning such a project, researching the method, announcing it to your students and then discovering it’s an exhausting project and it’s taking MANY hours of work.  

There is no magic app.

Your students will need to adhere to strict guidelines when they record and submit their videos to you.

You need some decent video editing skills to pull it off (or an experienced video editor friend).

And you need MANY HOURS of time.  Many.

It can’t be that difficult can it?

So here’s the deal…

There are a few ways you can go about this task, but the pro videos you see on Youtube (like Eric Whitacre’s beautiful Virtual Choir videos) follow a process along these lines:

  1. Create guide audio tracks and/or a silent conductor for every single instrumental part in your ensemble
  2. Send the guide tracks to performers 
  3. The performers rehearse with your guide track until they are ready to record
  4. Performers press record on their video recording device, press play on your guide audio track (and/or conductor video), ensure they have headphones on in order to hear said guide track and to prevent the sound of the guide track being re-recorded in with their own performance of their part and then play the entire piece through from start to finish in one take (fingers crossed there are no errors and it only requires them to do one take)
  5. Performers save their video, export it and send it to you
  6. A skilled video/audio editor trims the beginning and end off the video and cleans up the audio of every single performers’ video
  7. The same skilled video editor then imports all the videos into their professional-level video editing software and synchronises every single student video, so that it sound like a unified ensemble
  8. They also resize each separate video so that they all appear at the same time – Brady-Bunch style – on the screen
  9. Then they make it all look beautiful: add fade ins and outs, vary the videos showing on the screen at any one time, adjust the lighting effects and more
  10. Lastly, they export the final version and upload it to a video-sharing website

If you’d like a more detailed step-by-step list, Christopher Bill (well-known trombone-playing Youtuber) has shared an excellent document here.

Now – I’m not saying that this project is totally unachievable by a school.  I’m also not saying you shouldn’t ever consider it.  I think it could be a worthwhile project to pursue….in around 12-24 months’ time when we are (hopefully) not in the midst of a pandemic.

I just think there are more important things to focus on at this time.

Firstly, there are many alternative ways you can foster music-making in your students while they are learning from home:  

  • Keep them playing by asking them to continue their regular individual practice and have them submit an audio recording – or a simple video – of them playing alone.
  • Get them to take part in a silent Zoom rehearsal so that they have a chance to connect with one another and with you (they miss you!).
  • Give them some creative tasks – composition, listening, responding, rhythm practice, engaging ear-training games.  Or have them take part in a fun activity like a Music Olympics.

Secondly, I suspect that many of the music teachers who would like to tackle this project have never tried their hand at video editing before.

This means that they will be embarking on a VERY steep learning curve in order to learn the software, to figure out the workflow and then to put it all together.  

Did I mention that it takes MANY hours of work?

But what about the Acapella app? Doesn’t that do it all for you?

The Acapella app is fantastic and yes, it does help you create multitrack videos without the need for fancy or expensive video editing software.

You can use your phone, select a layout (the number of videos you see on the screen) and sing each part one by one.

You can even collaborate with others:

  • The first performer records a part in one of the video boxes and then sends it to another person
  • The second performer records their part and sends it on to another person
  • And so on. You can have up to 9 collaborators on a single project

BUT there are a few things to consider:

  • The terms and conditions state that it’s for students 13+ only and at least one teacher has reported that he is unable to sign up his daughter because the app is requiring a 16+ birthdate
  • It requires an email sign-in which is a barrier for some students
  • The app focuses on social sharing and links with multiple social media services
  • The free version has a time limit which can only be extended by signing up for their paid monthly or annual subscription
  • You can have a maximum of 9 videos in your project which won’t suit a larger ensemble

The Acapella app would be a great option for a personal project by a student, or even a collaborative project with a couple of students – provided their age fits within the terms and conditions of the app.

If you or your students do decide to have a go at using the Acapella App, here are a couple of tips:

  • Tip #1: you can upload a guide track – a pre-recorded video – into your grid which you can use to help you synchronise all the other videos you record.  You can then delete the original guide video (and replace it with another video part, or with an image).
  • Tip #2: when you set up a new project, select a grid with more video squares than you think you will need.  It is not possible to add additional video frames once you’ve started your project. You will need to start over.  If you have extra video frames left at the end because you didn’t need them, you can fill the empty boxes with images or a background.

Now – there is an Acapella App user – @jecissalynn – who has managed to create big multitrack a cappella videos using the Acapella app. Her method is to combine multitrack videos made with the Acapella app in the PicPlayPost video editing app (which is made by the same developer).  Her results are fantastic, but once again, it’s a fiddly process involving a lot of time.  

If you’d like to learn more about @jecissalynn’s method, open the Acapella app, tap Discover and type in the hashtag #howtomakeabigacapellavideo. You’ll see two how-to videos that she has created to describe the process she uses.

But I really want to do this. There MUST be an easier way!

If you really want to recreate a full ensemble sound with your students, I think there is one slightly more simple approach to this project.  It won’t be quite as impressive as the “pro” virtual choir option, but it could still work.

The basic steps would be:

  • Send your students guide tracks to play along with
  • Ask each student to record their part – audio only – while listening to the guide track (making sure headphones are on when they record)
  • Have the students send you the audio file they’ve recorded
  • You combine all of their audio recordings into a single project file in a digital audio workstation (the name given to multitrack recording software like GarageBand, Soundtrap, Bandlab, Mixcraft, Logic Pro and so on)
  • You then clean up the audio tracks, add some effects, adjust the levels and so on in the DAW

You could even consider having students contribute their recording directly into a collaborative project by using Soundtrap – an online, web-based DAW.

If you want to include the video aspect with this approach, you could have all of your students join you on a Zoom video conference call in gallery view and silently lip-sync their parts (or mime if they are instrumentalists) while they watch you conduct the piece and/or while they all listen simultaneously to the same guide track.  

You will record the Zoom call and you’ll end up with a single video of your students all singing or playing simultaneously, Brady Bunch-style on the screen.  Note that Zoom’s gallery view is limited to a maximum of 49 people at one time.

Now this is something I COULD recommend that you consider, especially if you have had experience with a digital audio workstation (DAW) before. It will still take a number of hours to put together, but at least the fiddly video-editing aspect will be removed from the process!

No virtual choir? Here are some other engaging ideas

There are a number of alternative musical activities you can do with your students.  Here are a few options.

Students can:

  • Continue to practice their parts and send you recordings via Flipgrid, Smartmusic, Practicefirst or Soundtrap
  • Record a creative cover version of a song they know
  • Compose simple warm-up exercises in notation software and then share them with their classmates
  • Work out how to play a melody of a favourite TV or movie theme. Bonus points for notating it!
  • Open a digital audio workstation like Soundtrap or GarageBand and record a section of one of the pieces they are learning. They could then choose another part (one they don’t usually play) and record that one a second track
  • Create a funky backing using GarageBand, Soundtrap, Groove Pizza or similar and practice scales and drills over the backing
  • Research a composer and create a radio show episode about them.  Students could create an audio recording of the show, make a video or create a presentation file 
  • Record a composition using found sounds from around the house
  • Learn a clapping game like Boom Snap Clap and recreate the rhythm in Groove Pizza (a free online drum sequencer)
  • Ask students to watch and respond to a video that features an Unusual Musical Instrument. There’s a free lesson plan here for this activity plus some example videos you can use (or use one of your own choices!)
  • Use the free online spinner Wheel Decide to spice up scales and drills. Share a wheel with preset playing styles with students.  They can spin the wheel and play their scale/drill in the suggested style that comes up on the wheel. Here’s an example 
  • Go on a virtual tour to the birth place of a composer or performer
  • Musical Me project: students can tell you (and each other) about their musical “selves”. Using the list of prompts in this blog post, students can share interesting musical facts about themselves in a digital format (Wakelet, Padlet and Google Slides all work well) or in a written format
  • Create a rhythmic backing track and then write a rap to go over the top of the backing.  Rap My Name is a free lesson plan that shows you how 

You are all doing an amazing job under these circumstances. It’s been a difficult time and it has been heartwarming to see the support that teachers are offering one another.  

One of the easiest things you can do for your ensemble is to organise a video conference call to simply allow them chat to one another. They miss you and each other!

Above all, keep things simple, ask for help when you need it and look after yourselves, your loved ones and your students.

Looking for More Resources for Music Teachers?

Hello! I’m Katie Wardrobe – an Australian music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music teachers through my business Midnight Music.

I’m a qualified teacher but no, I don’t currently teach in a school. I help teachers through my online professional development space – the Midnight Music Community – where there are tutorial videos, courses, links and downloadable resources.

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I like to focus on easy ways to incorporate technology into what you are already doing in your music curriculum through a range of creative projects. I also run live workshops and have presented at countless conferences and other music education events.

If you want simple, effective ideas for using technology in music education, I would LOVE to help you inside the Midnight Music Community.

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