They have been around for quite a while now, a lot of choirs used them from the outset of the pandemic, but it is something we came to quite late. Virtual rehearsals don’t sound too exciting. Remote video has all sorts of lag because of internet technicalities and, to compound the problem, Zoom in particular, but all the other providers as well, try to adjust the sound quality for voices. This is good for meetings but for playing music is completely unhelpful.
However, I have been on both sides of these events and there is a marked difference in the experience depending on whether you are playing or organising the rehearsal. If you are playing along with the track at home on your own then you can be playing along with one of the big bands, Cory, Black Dyke etc. and no-one can hear you. There is though the knowledge that there are others who are doing the same thing, which does give a sense of playing together in a group, and in a time when this type of togetherness is not possible it may be the nearest thing you can get to it. As an organiser and MD though it is a less satisfactory experience. Everybody has to be muted for the reasons outlined above which means that you can only hear the backing track. Not an unpleasant experience if it is one of the good bands but not much good for what you are there to do, that is to get a better performance. However, as a group leader you do get the satisfaction of knowing that you are providing some opportunities to play for those who want it.
So how to go about it. Well, the first thing is pretty mundane and normal for an MD, sort out what music for them to play. This appears obvious but you will need to create digital parts for distribution to players beforehand and a recording of the arrangement you have chosen. This is not always easy, although Youtube will normally help with something, but a CD or streamed recording will also work. YouTube has the very handy ability to change the speed of the recording whilst keeping it in the same key. There are some apps that will do this for mp3’s as well so that is also worth investigating. As an MD make sure a score is available as you may have to answer questions. One other thing that YouTube has, and I have yet to use it, is the ability to copy the URL of a specific place in the piece, so with a bit of work beforehand a list of rehearsal letters in a piece can be put into a list with a link that will go directly to that point in the piece.
Now we have the music and recordings which can then be sent out to participants so that they are able to prepare.
Prior to the rehearsal it is also wise to make sure that audio and video are working as they should, there have been some issues where shared sound needs to be configured for the device you are using so make sure that everyone will be able to hear the backing track beforehand. It is a good idea to run a sound test before you start the rehearsal and make sure that everyone can hear the recordings. It is also worth pointing out that the experience is normally better with headphones rather than relying on a devices inbuilt speakers, as the sound is sometimes quite quiet. When players are asked to play they must all be muted, otherwise there is such a cacophony that it will be difficult to appreciate what is happening. Incidentally, if using Zoom it is useful when sharing to go to the advanced tab and use “Music or computer sound only” setting. This will only share the sound and allow you to see more screens, and after all, the video isn’t necessary for this activity.
It is probably wise to give a brief outline of the piece beforehand and note some of the pitfalls, and when it has been run through then unmute all and check how they got on with the piece. It would also be possible at this stage to leave one or two unmuted if you wanted to help with a particular passage. If you are able to see all the videos it is easy to check to make sure that players are playing and not lost, or if so then they can be assisted after the piece ends. Counting in may be possible but is tricky as it is difficult to know where to start so the beginning of pieces may be difficult to pick up.
Thats all there is to it really but with a bit of careful preparation then it can be a fulfilling and worthwhile event for those taking part. If you want to see how it works there are plenty of Youtube videos showing how it works, some of the best ones actually involve choirs rather than instrumentalists but by and large the issues are very similar.
Good luck if you are going to try it out.