Musically speaking, Drew Sutherland ’21 had an outstanding summer. A tenor in the school’s Vocal Ensemble, performing at the Conservatory Level, and a vocalist in Advanced Rock Band, Sutherland was among 17,572 singers from 129 countries who performed in Grammy-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir #6. Featured on CBS “Sunday Morning,” with Jane Pauley, it was the largest virtual choir ever assembled and has more than 1.3 million views on YouTube.
“The coronavirus hasn’t been kind to choirs,” said former New York Times columnist and bestselling author David Pogue, who also performed in Virtual Choir #6 and reported on his experience for “Sunday Morning.” In addition to the risk of performing live due to COVID-19, choirs are unable to sing together simultaneously over digital platforms such as Zoom. “The internet introduces about a half-second delay, making it impossible to sync up,” Pogue noted on the program.
He went on to explain that in 2009, Whitacre came up with a solution to this problem. He gathered recordings of 185 individual singers and combined them into a virtual choir. “That video went viral,” Pogue said on CBS, noting that Whitacre continued to expand his choirs to 2000 singers, 3,700 singers, even 8,000 singers.
“It was only when the COVID crisis started that we thought actually if there was ever a time for one of these virtual choirs it would be now,” Whitacre told CBS. He began writing a new piece of music in March. “I was inspired by what I was seeing around me, people in isolation, and I wrote the music and words to this very delicate simple piece called ‘Sing Gently.’”
The stirring, three-minute piece debuted on YouTube on July 19. Sutherland is listed in the credits, which are over seven minutes long. He said it took a lot of pausing and rewinding, but he was eventually able to find his name. Asked what he thought about the finished piece, he said: “It was amazing to be part of something that special. Even though you couldn’t hear me or couldn’t hear anybody (individually), I felt like I had really been part of something so beautiful and so wonderful.”
Sutherland learned that he could sign up to join The Virtual Choir through Whitacre’s website. “You get the music for free and you learn the piece and record yourself in a video and send it in. I did it with my mom, who is also a big Eric Whitacre fan. It wasn’t an easy piece to learn,” he said, adding that he only had a day or two to learn the music, record his performance and send it in. “It was kind of stressful, but it was so much fun.”
In July, Sutherland, who plans to major in music in college, joined some of the world’s most talented vocal students and teachers at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan for a three-week, online vocal program. He applied to the highly selective summer program in January, and was disappointed that he could not attend the camp in person due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Since it was all virtual I had to do a lot of singing in front of microphones and send the videos in, and I did a lot of singing over Zoom, which did not go over super well,” he said. But the experience was still rewarding. “I was able to sing with people from all over the country and all over the world who were passionate about classical music,” he said.
During the spring term and this summer, Sutherland also performed in The Frederick Gunn School’s virtual ensembles, led by Ron Castonguay, Director of the Arts and Director of Music. Castonguay was familiar with and inspired by Whitacre’s pioneering work with virtual choirs, and when the school pivoted to distance learning in March, he studied, researched, read and listened to find a way that would allow students in the school’s music program to collaborate and perform together virtually. Since many had left their instruments behind at school over spring break, he sent them a click track (a series of audio cues) and asked them to record themselves playing improvised percussion “instruments” at home. His students also used a Tika-tee rhythm method he developed and advanced music reading skills to record a total of eight virtual performances.
To Castonguay, these performances were about more than making music during the pandemic: “We can still be a community. We can still be together,” he said at the time. He plans to continue conducting and producing virtual ensembles with his students throughout the academic year.