The problems with The Virtual Choir

What’s known as The Virtual Choir doesn’t work for voices. Voices are supposed to blend beautifully together in a choral ensemble. A Choir or Chorus is supposed to sing with perfect intonation — the perfect blending of voices — and that is impossible to do in a Virtual Choir setting where individual voices are heard.

Hola a todos. I played several Virtual Choir videos I had watched for mi amigo/my friend. He said after hearing them: Absolutely dreadful. It sounds horrid. It sounds like a large party and they’re all talking at once. I don’t hear much singing there. Each ensemble sounded the worst in their high register at a forte. It sounds like party sounds. It’s awful. Terrible. Terrible.

Then later the same day, we watched this performance of the Brahms below from Frankfurt, and mi amigo said: “This sounds nothing like those Virtual Choir performances. They sound like sing-alongs.” True. I said: And in the Brahms (below), the Chorus from Leipzig spent weeks preparing for that performance. Here’s their stellar performance. This is an example of choral excellence at its finest, which is not what one hears in those Virtual Choir things:

In the Virtual Choir videos, I heard some singing but it was very amateurish. They sounded nothing like this immaculately-trained Chorus performing in Frankfurt (this Chorus above is from Leipzig).

I agreed with his assessment. After we met, he trained his “choral ear” on Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus when I played CDs of Atlanta’s performances. After awhile, he would immediately say to me, “That’s Atlanta.” Yes, it was. He has said to me since, “When you consistently listen to the best, it’s hard to listen to less than the best.” That’s true, although occasionally we do listen to less than the best.

The problem with what’s known as The Virtual Choir is that it does not work with voices. Although people with no ear for choral excellence — or have never heard the term — and or have no ear for music for that matter think The Virtual Choir sounds excellent based on their comments under the videos. No one wrote in a comment what I’m writing in this article. Most of the comments told me they knew nothing about music or the definition of choral excellence and most were there just to hear “religious music” with some religious cultists writing out the sacred text of what had been heard in the video along with god this and god that. Religious cultists/nuts are attracted to religious videos (The Virtual Choir) because it gives them another place to proselytise their religious views.

I suppose some people will say “The Virtual Choir is better than nothing,” but I’m not one that would say that. Having listened to some briefly — which is all that I could take — to what’s known as The Virtual Choir (of those we listened to) or Virtual Chorus I have to say it’s a bad idea. Oh it gives people something to do, you could say that about it. But choral excellence is not part of it. The operatic crowd might like it because they don’t believe in perfect intonation in opera. I’ve never heard an Opera Chorus sing with perfect intonation, nor have I heard vocalist-soloist-screamers from the opera genre ever try to blend their voices with each other — with few exceptions to that — which is why the quartet section of Beethoven’s Ninth usually sounds like a train wreck, with one vocal soloist-screamer trying to out-scream the other three. Usually Ms Screaming Soprano wins-out every time followed by the screaming tenor. Her obnoxious voice can wipe out everyone on stage. Is this because blending one’s solo voice with another solo voice is not taught in private instruction in Conservatories and Schools of Music? They’re only taught to scream rather than sing beautifully like the soloists do in the performance by Collegium 1704 on this page? When I studied voice, I never sang with another person in a solo setting so blending one’s solo voice with another solo voice or voices did not come up as a topic, but I did know from my choral training that I should blend my voice with any other person I was singing with. It’s soloists-screamers from the opera genre, it’s usually a case of one trying to out-scream the other, with the obnoxious soprano winning out every time. You can bet on that! Yes, her obnoxious voice (doesn’t matter who it is) overpowers, cuts through everyone on the stage, including the full resources of the pipe organ if that’s being used. Her voice can blow that off the stage!

As a symphonic choral person having sung in three major US Orchestra Choruses (Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington, Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus and Margaret Hillis/Vance George’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus) what’s known as The Virtual Choir does nothing for me. Of the Virtual Choir videos I watched/listened to, two church choirs of parishes of the Anglican Communion sang the same anthem. A few measures was all I could take of either one because choral excellence it was not. They both reminded me of your average amateurish podunk church choir.

What’s the problem?

The problem with The Virtual Choir is that you hear individual voices. One should not hear individual voices with a well-trained Choir or Chorus that is singing with perfect intonation (the perfect blending of voices), one of the foundations of choral excellence. And with the choral ensembles I listened to briefly (Virtual Choir), each had the — what I’ve unfortunately come to expect with many choral ensembles these days — the typical wobbling sopranos (middle-aged women) which ruined it. It reminded me of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the late John Oliver. They had the same problem, but their new Chorus Director, superb James Burton, has corrected that.

With a Chorus on a stage, the ensemble is sometimes mic’d but at a distance, but each chorister is not mic’d, and that’s the problem with The Virtual Choir because each chorister is in his or her home singing at their computer device into a microphone with a different echo and or acoustics. There is no consistency in the acoustics or sound, which is the opposite way that choral ensembles are recorded. Also, these were not your finest choral ensembles to begin with even on their best day, so that’s something to consider. They were rather, well, podunk. Did they ever try to blend their voices together when they were singing together in-person? The organist was good in one of them though.

I’m reminded of Dr Ann Howard Jones while writing this article and her opposition to perfect intonation. She worked with Robert Shaw and his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (ASOC) which always sang with perfect intonation. Did she and Robert butt heads at times? The ASOC had a gorgeous, rich, warm, perfectly blended choral sound under Shaw. Ann was invited to do a workshop at — I believe it was — Eastman School of Music. During a question and answer session she stood up there before the students and lied by saying, “Bob (meaning Robert Shaw) liked to hear individual voices.” That’s an outright lie. I didn’t watch all of the video because I thought: Well, since the woman is lying about what Shaw liked, what else is she going to lie about? What she said about Shaw wanting to hear individual voices is absolutely a lie and she knows it’s a lie but Robert Shaw was/is not here to defend himself. The thing is Ann likes hearing individual voices in a Chorus as one heard during the Boston University’s Symphony Chorus performance — she trained the Chorus — of Mendelssohns’s Elias, particularly in the Sanctus chorus (“Holy, Holy, Holy is God the Lord) in the oratorio. The women of the BU Symphony Chorus were heavily wobbling and fluttering in that chorus. It sounded awful — and I’d never heard it performed with heavy vibrato, wobbling and fluttering — because they were not singing with perfection intonation and one could hear individual voices. But Ann was trying to defend her personal preference for using noticeable heavy-vibrato by riding on the coattails of Robert Shaw. Anyone who has listened closely to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus knows that each section of his ASO Chorus sounded like one voice. That’s called perfect intonation; the perfect blending of voices or instruments in an orchestral sense. The only time Robert liked to hear individual voices was for a chorister’s audition or for vocal soloists in a performance. And during his Carnegie Hall Choral Workshops, he spoke of perfect intonation as one of the aspects of choral excellence to be mastered. Ann was sitting right there in the Chorus on the front row in one of those workshops. I guess she ignored that part of his instruction since she doesn’t believe in it. I don’t like it when people lie and exploit other people — who are not here to defend themselves and who would disagree with her — to justify their own choral preferences. Tacky. But The Virtual Choir would work nicely for Ann since she likes to hear each individual voices rather than the desired perfect intonation of choral excellence. I should also point out that perfect intonation takes a lot more work to achieve than “hearing individual voices.” That’s the lame, easy-way out. Allowing individual voices to be heard and sing however they want doesn’t require any work at all. And these days I am hearing more and more choral directors and choirmasters not doing their job and allowing choristers to sing with annoying and obnoxious noticeable vibrato.

Some readers may say “your standards are too high because you sang with some of the best and are used to the best.”

My standards are too high? Really? I wouldn’t say that my “standards are too high.” My standards are per my training and no one at the Conservatory ever said “I think we should lower our standards because they are too high here, after all this is a Conservatory where the finest training is not expect [sarcasm intended].”

And when I was performing in the Kennedy Center and Davies Symphony Hall, our goal was the highest standards of choral excellence and no one ever complained that we were “too good.” Our level of choral excellence was supposed to absolutely match the level of excellence of the National Symphony Orchestra or other (inter)national Orchestras we were invited to perform with in the Kennedy Center and at Wolf Trap. In the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, our level of excellence was to match the level of excellence of the San Francisco Symphony. Per my training and symphonic choral experience, my ear automatically knows the best immediately. (Similar to when some concert pianists immediately know a Hamburg Steinway Model D piano used in the EU after playing a few notes). However, I can still listen to some choral ensembles who are not quite the best and I do so from time-to-time. For me, there is a range of choral excellence, and I listen to Choruses within that range. But this does remind me of this: I read that some choristers in the Chicago Symphony Chorus felt that Margaret Hillis, Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus was “too nit picky.” Ha! I doubt they said that about her when they were raking in one Grammy Award after the other for Best Choral Performance. As memory serves, the Chicago Symphony Chorus won 11 Grammy’s under Ms Hillis — pretty much in a row — in the Best Choral Performance category. When Chicago wasn’t the winner, Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus took the award. No one ever said “the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus is too good. What’s wrong with Robert Shaw?”

I did watch one Virtual Choir video from 2011 of over 2,000 voices but that had obviously been modified. It sounded like it had been previously recorded in-person with certain “new age” acoustical effects and the choristers were lip-syncing at their PCs. It did not at all sound like the other videos I watched to write this, nor did it sound like a legitimate Virtual Choir. It sounded heavily “tech’d.” But the sheeple were gushing over it. Then I watched another Anglican Choir (Virtual Choir) perform the rarely performed [sarcasm intended] Hallelujah Chorus. Yeah the one from Messiah. As expected, the musical instruments worked well in the “virtual” setting, but the choristers sounded like a “sing-along” Chorus, although they did have good diction (I heard the “K” of “Kings” multiples times; it didn’t sound like “ings.”) And their wobbling soprano section was very weak especially in their upper register. The orchestral instruments overpowered the soprano section. That should not be the case. If you can’t do justice to the Hallelujah Chorus — and they didn’t do justice to it — don’t sing it. And that goes for any other piece of music. If you’re not up to it, don’t bother! Of course, as usual, the comments under the Hallelujah Chorus video turned into a Liturgy in themselves with the religious cultists writing out the text from the Hallelujah Chorus — as if we all don’t know the text — and other syrupy religious drivel. Of the few comments, everyone loved it. One nut called it “awesome.” Clearly they know nothing about choral excellence or know what to listen for or have an ear for music for that matter. The musically-ignorant sheeple are so easily pleased. One can sing “off key” (flat or sharp) and wobble and flutter and commenters will gush, “excellent, loved it.” (roll eyes)

The Virtual Orchestra

The Virtual Orchestra was excellent. But with an Orchestra it’s different. Individual instruments are often mic’d in performances (such as the winds and or brass) and an orchestral musical instrument is different than the human voice instrument, particularly when it comes to recording. I watched/listened to a fine Virtual Orchestra performance from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s Beethoven’s Ninth (although they added the Chorus Finale from a previously-recorded performance).

Orchestra Choruses and Choirs in the Age of COVID-19

By the way, in the age of COVID-19, a Chorus — of the caliber of Collegium Vocale 1704 — can perform with face masks as seen below in this performance by the Collegium 1704 & Collegium Vocale 1704 (Prague Baroque Orchestra & Vocal Ensemble):

And Collegium 1704 consistently use the finest vocal soloists and they are from the Chorus, as it should be. They are true highly-trained artist and know how to perform as a soloist, unlike most others who have been trained in the operatic genre. All they seem to know how to do is scream “at the top of their lungs,” with most not trying in the least to blend their voices together. It often turns into a solo recital for the soprano. With COVID-19, the size of the Chorus has to pretty much be cut in half due to social-distancing guidelines. In the performance above, they have 10 choristers. With the 10 voices and the acoustics of the room, they sounded larger in size than they really were. Usually they have about 18-20 choristers. Singing can spread coronavirus, so that the major concern with singing. The renowned St Thomas Choir School (Anglican Communion) in Manhattan and the Choir of Men and Boys is not performing these days, in part, due to New York City currently being in Phase I of reopening as of this writing and the trebles/boys at least for a while are training in Connecticut rather than in Manhattan. But St Thomas is aware of the problems with singing and spreading the virus. So, since COVID-19 will be with us for some time due to stupid and insane people refusing to strictly adhere to the guidelines and the morons who consider it all a “hoax” such as the current white house occupant, Orchestra Choruses — if they perform at all — will likely have their size reduced to more of a Chamber Chorus than a Symphony Chorus. This will restrict the repertoire they can perform in some cases. You can’t easily do a Berlioz Grande Messe des morts with a Chamber Chorus. That piece usually is performed with a Chorus of 200-300+ voices. Although these days, since it’s rare for major Orchestras in the non-United States to programme symphonic choral works at all, other than the Big Three, this shouldn’t be a pressing concern. A Chamber Chorus for Beethoven’s Ninth? Yeah, you could do that with a reduced Orchestra so that the Orchestra doesn’t overpower the Chorus). What about Orff’s Carmina Burana? That usually has a fairly large Chorus. Although I guess it could be done with a Chamber Chorus. Use reduced musical forces, including a smaller Orchestra. The third: Messiah. That rarely-performed oratorio. [sarcasm intended] You know the one. Yeah, a Chamber Chorus is often used for that these days anyway. So that’s three. And they are about the only three symphonic choral works performed these days, so that’s that.

I suppose some people are all hot for The Virtual Choir as it’s called — clearly people with no ear for music or the “sing-along” crowd, and who know nothing about choral excellence and who don’t know an immaculately-trained Chorus when they hear one — they will likely enjoy it. I’m just not one of them.

One Exception

I did find one exception to the typically poor examples of The Virtual Choir while completing this article. It was one of the renowned Choirs of the Anglican Communion, consisting of five choristers singing a Renaissance piece. That almost worked, but only because they were well-trained musicians and among the best choristers you’ll find anywhere. The Virtual Choir worked pretty well for them, but not completely, even for them. I still heard individual voices but they were more blended with the others. The soprano and bass used occasionally noticeable vibrato which their Choirmaster — if he were directing them — would have told them to turn off, since that’s consistently how his Choir sings. And noticeable vibrato is not to be used in Renaissance music. There were times where some voices stuck out slightly more than others which wouldn’t be the case if they were singing in-person. And of course there was the consistent problem of different acoustics in each person’s home, it still was not as good as an in-person performance. But it was the best of them that we listened to. It was listenable and enjoyable, whereas the other Virtual Choir videos that we watched were not.

On another topic, but related to choral ensembles:

What will happen to Orchestra Choruses in the age of the COVID pandemic, since singing is one of the main ways that COVID is spread?

Well, I recently watched a performance from Amsterdam. The Nederlands Radio Choir (NRC) was reduced to Chamber Chorus size (I counted 34 voices, all choristers distanced). No face masks on anyone though. None of the orchestral musicians were wearing masks either, nor the conductor. The orchestral musicians were distanced some. The NRC sang superbly. They sounded very much like the Full Chorus with their 34 voices, in part, because of the mic placements. Production knew — or the Chorus Director told them — to not place a mic directly at a chorister because individual voices are not to be heard in order to achieve perfect intonation, one of the foundations of choral excellence. There was one place in the piece where the soprano section briefly came out of perfect intonation and one soprano — it seems it’s always one soprano! — was heard wobbling with annoying vibrato, but fortunately she corrected the problem.

Since they performed without face masks, I wonder how many people got sick and or died after this performance? Was this performance worth risking one’s life over? The performance was in September 2020.

But a Chamber Chorus (40 or less voices) of the Full Chorus (150-200 voices) may be the plan that Orchestra Choruses will have to take in the Era of COVID in order for them to perform in the future. Chau.—el barrio rosa