No. 33 • 2021-04-23

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Above: From the New York Times, number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the US. Note how it is trending downwards in recent weeks.

STEAM and the Vaccination Race

The COVID-19 vaccines are a triumph of science and technology. This is, by far, the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed and deployed on a mass scale. Vaccines are now available to all over 16, and I recently received my second shot. I hope you’re getting yours, too, and I’m looking forward to greater activity in the coming months. It’s also looking like teenagers will be able to get the vaccine this summer, greatly increasing the probability of an in-person return to school in the Fall.

But make no mistake, we are in a race against the virus: we must vaccinate most of the country/world faster than the virus can spread and mutate into more resistant variants. So while there’s cause for optimism, time is critical. This makes the recent decision to pause (and likely, unpause) the Johnson & Johnson vaccine all the more frustrating.

There’s been vigorous debate on whether a full pause was the right approach. My fear is that this decision will reduce public confidence in this vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccines, in general.  We were already starting to plateau in doses administered, as the “early adopters” have received theirs. Approximately 40% of adults have received at least one dose. We’re now at the stage of trying to vaccinate those who are difficult to reach or are more cautious, reluctant, or suspicious of the vaccine. What’s particularly frustrating is that the J&J is the better vaccine at this stage. It requires only a single dose, and it can be stored using normal refrigeration, not super cold storage. It is the best weapon against the virus for hard to reach areas and populations. 

Of course, potentially catastrophic side effects must be taken seriously. And there were 6 reported cases of serious blood clots that may have been related to the J&J vaccine, with one death. Any of those incidents is tragic, and I feel for those affected, but that’s out of 7 million doses administered. That’s an extremely rare occurrence, and many times less than your chance of dying from COVID. But the CDC decided to pause the J&J out of “an abundance of caution”. 

I understand the reasoning behind the pause. Ignoring potential side effects would have been catastrophic, also providing future fuel to vaccine deniers. It’s a difficult and terrible choice and complicated one. But this is where a perspective beyond the expertise of the members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (physicians, scientists, and public health specialists) may have been beneficial. The core question goes beyond the scientific: it is literally how do we weigh the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few? It involves emotion and group psychology, not just the raw data or any one individual’s response.

In STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields, we are trained to avoid emotion. The traditional belief is that emotions hinder logical and unbiased decision making (e.g., Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek). But that ignores the other perspective: emotions are fundamentally human, and to ignore emotion is to deny our humanity (see again, Star Trek). In the case of vaccine side effects, there’s a great deal of complexity to weigh. But what seemed missing from the decision and announcement surrounding the pause was a narrative that could acknowledge the side effects while still maintaining confidence and support for the vaccine.

It’s challenging to distill a complicated decision into an emotional core, and STEM trainees (I’m including medicine here) are not particularly good at developing such narratives. But you know who are?  Artists, writers, and performers. There should have been a storyteller in the room. Or even better, the training of scientists and policymakers involved should not only have been traditional STEM, but STEAM (STEM + Arts), integrating artistic experiences. There are also writers and fluent in science and medicine who could have been brought into the decision making process.

How many books, plays, and movies are tales of “the greater good”? Protecting humanity from the virus is the greater good and that sometimes entails heroic sacrifices. Those who suffered ill-effects from the J&J vaccine are heroes and should be celebrated as such. Taking this narrative approach may have been better for both advising the public of the situation, maintaining confidence in the vaccine, and most critically, staying ahead in the race against the virus.

Unfortunately, according to some polls, the pause has undermined confidence in the J&J vaccine, and may be a significant setback in achieving herd immunity. Of course, we’ll see how this will ultimately impact the vaccination race over the next several months, but this incident strengthens my belief that STEM professionals would benefit from broader STEAM training.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • No Tears Left to Cry [TONEWALL] A divine virtual performance of this Ariana Grande song by “the super-charismatic queer a cappella band” of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
  • Phantom of the Opera Medley [Jared Halley] Another a cappella masterpiece (more than 9 minutes!) by the premier solo a cappella YouTuber. This time, it’s a medley of classic songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit musical.
  • One Day More [Stuart & Heather] More musical theater! I’m one of those people who has fantasized about singing all the parts to this Act One finale of Les Misérables (just ask the staff at ExCITe). These two (fantastic singers) actually did it… really well!
  • Gloria & Et in terra pax [VOCES8 & Academy of Ancient Music ] This joyous Easter performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass, part of the Live From London series, really brightened my day. It truly is “peace on Earth and goodwill to all” expressed in music.
  • The Rite of Spring Toy Orchestra [Chris Ott] I’m sure you’ve always wanted to hear the beginning of the 2nd movement from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed with toys. Perfection… or something.

What I’m creating…

Sorry, I’m working on several projects, but nothing that’s ready for public consumption. Watch this space!

No. 32 • 2021-04-09

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Above: one moment from Drexel a cappella group 8 To The Bar’s video submission to the ICCA 2021 competition. 

The Other March Madness

The world of a cappella (singing ensembles without any instruments) is a showcase for the human voice and group collaboration. It’s a unique musical subculture requiring a wide range of skills: vocal arranging, live performance and stage direction, choreography and dance, humor, imagination, and of course, great singing. The genre has a particularly strong presence in higher education, where there are over 1000 collegiate a cappella singing groups. 

I’ve been fortunate to sing with several groups. In college, I was particularly drawn in by the ability to present rich musical performances, without having to carry instruments or set up any gear. This makes it easy to perform anywhere and to tour, visiting other schools and venues. In fact, much of what I know about music directing, graphic design, marketing, and studio recording comes from my collegiate a cappella experiences.

There’s a well-established annual multi-stage competition called the International Championship of Collegiate A Capella (ICCA), as featured in the book and movie Pitch Perfect. (There are also annual high school and pro competitions, too, all organized by Varsity Vocals.) Participating in the event can be an incredible experience, and the live performances are truly astounding and have some of the most enthusiastic audiences ever.

But the 2021 ICCA competition is different: it’s all virtual, with groups submitting a 4-minute video performance. I’ve linked to a few examples in recent weeks, but wanted to highlight the creativity that I see emerging to take the genre to new places. Remember, this isn’t what singing groups normally do… most have just learned to make videos this year.

While some are in the standard “Zoom squares” format, you’ll also find a variety of remote and socially distant collaboration, video effects, and high quality musical production. Things I could’ve only dreamed of in college are now within reach for ambitious college groups (and even high school ensembles). From the competition rules: “all audio and video recording, mixing, and editing must be done by group members”, so it’s all the creative work of students. Similar to how a cappella entered popular culture through movies and TV, I believe some of these ICCA submissions will redefine the virtual ensemble video. I’m certain some of these methods will be incorporated into popular music videos.

The regional quarterfinals took place a few weeks ago in March, and you can watch all 250 of the competitors videos and see the results of those advancing. The semifinals are tomorrow (April 10), and those will be live streamed via the Varsity Vocals YouTube channel. I look forward to seeing what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Native Hill [The Crossing] The trailer for a new album by the Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia ensemble in collaboration with composer Gavin Bryars, featuring a beautiful water color animation by artist Will Kim.
  • Singing will be a vital, national therapy for this miserable year [ClassicalFM] An interview with composer Gareth Malone about his new piece Locus Iste, his latest project in collaboration with the Stay At Home Choir.
  • SonoBus sound test [Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg] For the super nerdy… here is video of a test session with remote participants using SonoBus (which I’ve heard good things about) for real-time music collaboration. It shows that some degree of synchronization is possible… within limits. 
  • How the Skagit Valley Chorale Learned to Sing Again Amid Covid [NY Times Magazine] A long, media-rich feature on how a chorus linked to an early superspreader event has put together a virtual video concert. Loads of great info and insight!
  • Live From London Spring Highlights [VOCES 8, English Chamber Orchestra] I still really miss live ensemble music! Here are some lovely excerpts from an exceptional concert. You can still purchase this and other performances from the Live from London Spring series, through April 30

What I’m creating…

Heading deep into the Wayback Machine for this one… I had the incredible fortune of competing in the very first ICCA finals at Lincoln Center (in 1996) as a member (and music director) of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. I don’t think there’s any video of our performance, but here’s a track (another ’80s throwback!) from our album, which won several Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards in 1995, including Best Male Collegiate Album.

No. 29 • 2021-02-19

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Virtual Music Education

Like everyone who participate in music ensembles regularly, I miss it terribly. There really is something magical about getting people together to make music. While some instrumental groups have managed to safely assemble in person, singing remains one of the most dangerous ways of spreading COVID (I don’t know of any groups that are singing together in person, only virtually).

Many experienced musicians are finding ways to cope and adapt, but for those still in the early stages of learning an instrument, singing, or playing in ensemble, the pandemic disruption could severely inhibit musical development. Given the challenges in reopening public schools, it’s not surprising that music lessons, orchestras, and choruses have been put on hold in many places. Others have shifted to virtual lessons, and while it’s not quite the same as being together, the back and forth interaction of lessons is a better fit for Zoom (it’s actually possible, as opposed to singing/playing together as a group, which is not). The most innovative educators are developing new forms of collaboration and performance, using technology to connect ensembles across schools and organizations.

The a cappella group I sing with, The Tonics, thought we might use the current limitations of our ensemble singing to raise awareness of the challenges in music education. Since we can’t sing together in person this season, we’re creating a series of virtual videos as fundraisers for local organizations. With the release of our latest video this month, we’re calling upon others to support the fantastic team at Play On Philly (POP), who provide musical instruction to K-12 students in our city. Throughout the pandemic, POP students have continued to participate in virtual instrument lessons and ensemble practice completely tuition-free. We hope you’ll join us in supporting this amazing organization!

And here’s to all music educators, especially those who are still providing lessons and rehearsals, safely, through the pandemic. Thank you for all you’re doing!

My publishing schedule has shifted to every other Friday. The next issue of Creating at a Distance will be posted in two weeks on March 5th.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Original iPhone Ringtones – A Cappella [MayTree] This may be the most a cappella-tech throwback mashup ever… Korean vocal group MayTree recreating the original iPhone ringtones. Also check out their renditions of Windows XP sounds and many other songs.
  • Trepak (Russian Dance) from The Nutcracker [Pennsylvania Ballet] This is a few weeks old, but here’s a lovely virtual holiday greeting from the PA Ballet dancers and orchestra (hard to imagine doing this with all the snow on the ground right now)!
  • Playing Music Together Online Is Not As Simple As It Seems [NPR’s Jazz Night in America] This video is from last summer, but it’s a nice explainer on the difficulties of live (real-time) music collaboration on the internet, with some jazz musicians who are making it work (within some constraints).
  • Creative Conversations for a Changing World, No. 1 [B.PHL Innovation Festival On-Demand] Last Fall, Jessica Zweig (Program Director at Play On Philly) and I co-hosted a 3-part series of discussions with innovators in the arts and non-profit sectors. The first of those events with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation) is now available for streaming.
  • Live From London Spring [VOCES8 & friends] The next installment of VOCES8’s online streaming festival of amazing vocal and chamber music has started, with premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest ensembles (February 13 – April 22).

What I’m creating…

Made this for my wife on Valentine’s Day, and she granted permission to share it with everyone. One of my favorite ’80s early synth pop tunes that’s also become an a cappella classic. None of the groups I’ve sung with had this in the repertoire, so here’s my arrangement performed at my desk… with a few extra twists!

No. 28 • 2021-02-05

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STEAMshop 2021

Followers of this newsletter know that I frame my work not in terms of STEM, but rather STEAM: Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, and Math. But STEAM is much more than simply exposure to the different disciplines; it’s the potential of better research, learning, creative work, and even products through the integration of disciplines. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a strong advocate for learning about STEM concepts through creative work. This framework forms the core of the ExCITe Center’s activities, and since 2015 we’ve hosted an annual workshop on Presidents’ Day for educators in the region to highlight exemplary transdisciplinary work in education.

Our upcoming 7th Annual STEAM Education Workshop on February 15 (9am-12pm) will be a little different. First off, it will be all-virtual. Second, this year’s event will focus on specific integrations spanning learning science, pedagogical practice, racial equity, and social justice. I am thrilled that the program will feature a keynote by renowned author and researcher, Dr. Bettina Love (University of Georgia), co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, who will address an audience of those in Pre-K-12 as well as higher education:

We Gon’ Be Alright, But That Ain’t Alright: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
Dr. Love’s talk will discuss the struggles and the possibilities of committing ourselves to an abolitionist goal of educational freedom, as opposed to reform, and moving beyond what she calls the educational survival complex. Abolitionist Teaching is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an educational system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving.

The program also includes brief presentations and a panel discussion with Drexel faculty. Participation is free and ACT 48 credits are available for Pennsylvania teachers. All are welcome to register here (the event is free, although space is limited).

Dr. Love’s talk is brought to you through the generous support of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Center for Black Culture, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Office of Research & Innovation, the Office of University & Community Partnerships, the School of Education, West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning, and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Caledonia [Stay at Home Choir with VOCES8] I’ve been really looking forward to this latest collaboration between our friends VOCES8 and the many thousand-member Stay at Home Choir! Premieres Feb. 6 at 1:30pm (for the US Eastern Time Zone). 
  • Save the Boys [Opera Philadelphia Channel] Wow, Opera Philadelphia is really nailing this streaming thing…. This is the first of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021. Newark-born Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey, premieres a new work inspired by an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (premieres Feb. 12).
  • Virtual Choirs & Orchestras [Alternative Classical] A nice summary of virtual singing and instrumental ensemble opportunities. It’s focused on the UK, but when you’re collaborating virtually, national borders have little meaning.
  • Eye of the Tiger [Jared Halley] Another great one-man a cappella performance from this prolific YouTuber. A classic 80s tune associated with Philly’s most famous fictional athlete (it’s from Rocky III).
  • NFL 2020 [Bad Lip Reading] In honor of this weekend’s Super Bowl… there’s always something for everyone in Bad Lip Reading’s videos. They also sometimes make music videos, like this classic.

What I’m creating…

I mentioned the videos I’m creating for my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a senior-level undergraduate engineering course. Ultimately these will form a “video textbook” for this class, but those of you really interested in DSP can check out the first 5 episodes here.

No. 26 • 2021-01-06

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A Year of Distanced Creativity

2021 brings hope for many things… vaccines, a functioning federal government(!), and perhaps a return to something close to life without a raging pandemic. But in this first newsletter of the New Year, I take a look back at some of the most noteworthy creative collaborations of 2020 and how the medium of virtual performance evolved incredibly quickly over the course of 9 months.

For any series, it’s important to recap the events of the previous season. So, as I embark on Season 2 of this newsletter, think of this as my recap of things highlighted in Season 1.

Happy New Year!

2020 was also the year drone light shows became widespread. The image above is from a particularly impressive performance created for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay (Scottish celebration of the New Year).

Most Notable (Socially) Distant Creations of 2020

  • March 30: From us, for you: Beethoven Symphony No. 9 [Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra] This was one of the first collaborative performance videos to go viral. The accompanying caption perfectly captures the feeling of the moment: “We’re adjusting to a new reality and we’ll have to find solutions in order to support each other. Creative forces help us, let’s think outside of the box and use innovation to keep our connection and make it work, together. Because if we do it together, we’ll succeed.”
  • March 30: And now, MOZART at a social distance: A Virtual Symphony [Cunningham Piano Online Ensemble] This performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, organized by Cunningham Piano, was the first large-scale (111 performers) virtual music video from Philadelphia I’m aware of, which inspired me to start this newsletter.
  • June 6: I Still Can’t Breathe [Chester Children’s Chorus] This piece originally premiered in 2016 in response to the killing of Eric Garner, written and directed by CCC’s founder and artistic director, John Alston. This revised version for 2020, released in response to the murder of George Floyd with additional video and a new opening message, was also featured on PBS Newshour.
  • Juneteenth (June 19): To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice. From the caption: “Listen as Black actors across the nation explore the truth in the painful reality of being Black in America with Shakespearean text. Timeless words that were never intended for us, yet the notion ‘To Be or Not To Be’ carries infinite weight throughout Black American history.”
  • June 27: Helpless [Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton with The Roots & Jimmy Fallon] An exuberant all-acoustic performance of one of the show’s hit songs that pushes beyond the standard Zoom grid that we’ve become accustomed to (with some instruments improvised from household supplies). Of course, this was also part of the lead-up to the release of the filmed stage performance of Hamilton (now available on Disney+). And the Hamilton team continues to release virtual performances of other songs from the show, to encourage electoral participation.
  • July 19: Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently [Eric Whitacre] The composer’s groundbreaking Virtual Choir in 2010 first established the collaborative music video format, which became mainstream in 2020 due to the pandemic. VC6, Sing Gently was written and conceived for this moment of separation and social isolation. Whitacre started writing only in March, collected video submissions over a few weeks in May, and then released the final piece in July with 17,572 singers. Some background and details of its production were covered in a feature segment on CBS This Morning. I celebrate this work as an example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times.
  • August 3-October 31: Live From London [VOCES8 & friends] An online streaming festival of amazing vocal music, with concert premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles: VOCES8, The Swingles, The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, and Chanticleer. Although those performances are no longer streamable, the holiday sequel Live From London – Christmas, remains available through January 15, 2021, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, with even more groups like the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6.
  • September 23: Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring virtual performance by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities of the song that’s become known as the “Black National Anthem” (written by James Weldon Johnson and Music by Rosamond Johnson, arranged by Roland M. Carter).
  • October 23: Opera Philadelphia Channel premieres. Long before COVID-19, but amidst a challenging arts landscape, Opera Philadelphia demonstrated a willingness to embrace non-traditional, innovative approaches. Digital Festival O was a rapid and timely response to the necessities of the pandemic. In lieu of a live 20-21 season, the company rapidly pivoted to launch a streaming service featuring premieres and reimagined works filmed specifically for this format. The content has been original and phenomenal, with more premieres and performances yet to come in 2021! It’s a bold step to develop new content and audiences for this evolving, digitally-native medium.
  • December 15: Global Ode to Joy [Stay at Home Choir] This list concludes as it began: with Beethoven. This production was part of a global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. It features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. The performance features the Stay at Home Choir, an organization that only came into being in 2020 and has produced stunning performances throughout the year with thousands of participants. It’s a hopeful message for the New Year of what’s possible through creative collaboration.

What I’m creating…

Happy New Year! I recently put together this video with fellow 1980s and 90s alumni of my high school Madrigals group, to celebrate the holidays and the 100 Year anniversary of
University Laboratory High School. I’m so glad that creating at a distance has enabled me to reconnect with old friends and bring us some joy at the start of the year.

No. 25 • 2020-12-16

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Making some space for joy

I’m a sucker for holiday performances. In my years with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I sang too many Boston Pops Holiday concerts to count (imagine forcing that holiday cheer, again and again… for 12 performances in 10 days), and I get the cynicism of the season, especially in this annus horribilis. But ever since moving to Philly I’ve missed participating in holiday concerts, and this year, without the opportunity to gather socially, the loss of in-person performances feels particularly poignant.

Despite our current restrictions, many arts organizations are producing new content for this holiday season and delivering it a variety of novel ways. This issue highlights my picks for viewing and listening (some free and some paid), coming from Philly and from afar, that I’m particularly interested in checking out over this holiday break.

I’ll leave you with the immortal words of Francis Xavier Cross (Bill Murray from the 1998 classic, Scrooged):

“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s… it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a… miracle. It’s really a sort of a miracle. Because it happens every Christmas Eve…

If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these bastards who says “Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud”, it’s NOT! It can happen every day, you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it! You’ll want it every day of your life and it can happen to you! I believe in it now! I believe it’s going to happen to me now! I’m ready for it!

Frank Cross

Happy Holidays!

Holiday (Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season [The Philly Pops, pictured above] The organization undertook great efforts to recordthis year’s holiday concert at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington. Music Director David Charles Abell welcomes back Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez (Hamilton reference!) for her third Christmas with the POPS. Performances are streamed daily for free (Dec. 18 – Jan. 1), as a gift from the Philly Pops to all!
  • The Hip Hop Nutcracker, recorded live at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This holiday mash-up is a contemporary dance spectacle set to Tchaikovskyʼs timeless music. A unique and joyful event, this production set in New York City is performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, a DJ, a violinist, and MC Kurtis Blow (!), who opens the show with a short set ($25, streaming performances every evening at 7pm, Dec. 15 – Jan. 3).
  • Love in the Park [Opera Philadelphia Channel] This 5-episode “musical loveletter to Philly” features 16 members of the Opera Philadelphia chorus, conducted by Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden and accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig, performing beloved opera arias and choruses alongside musical theater selections. While not explicitly holiday-themed (it was filmed in Dilworth Park in September, hence the scenes with beautiful weather), I think it still fits perfectly with the season. Available now via the Opera Philadelphia Channel (available now: $15 for 7 days of access, or get a season pass to watch all channel content for the year).
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, from the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January, $100-150 to stream concerts through Jan. 15).
  • World Cafe Live – House Concerts [World Cafe Live] This series features 8 streams over 2 weeks (one each night Wedesday-Saturday, beginning Dec. 9 and ending Dec. 19). The lineup is all WCL regulars – artists who have played our stages many times over the years, some of whom would be doing holiday shows at the venue around this time. These are pre-recorded sets from the artists’ home setups (free to watch, but donations which will be split between the artist & WCL)
  • A Christmas Celebration with John Rutter [The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] World-renowned English composer and conductor John Rutter, celebrated vocal group VOCES8 and a stellar line-up of special guests, and the many thousand voices of the Stay At Home Choir, all join the RPO for this unique online performance (£10, available through Dec. 22).
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] A global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy (including a unique collaboration between our Philadelphia Orchestra and digital artist Refik Anadol). Also features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (free to stream).
  • A Soulful Christmas [Kimmel Center] The annual Soulful Christmas choral concert, featuring hundreds of choir singers from area churches, will be an online program this year with hosted by music director Dr. J. Donald Dumpson and WDAS radio DJ Patty Jackson, with special guest Bishop Norman Hutchins. Honoring the tradition, on Dec. 20 they will share recordings of previous performances as a live broadcast on WDAS(105.3 FM) at noon and via an on-demand stream.
  • The Prom [Netflix] I love an unapologetic song and dance show (this is a movie version of the Broadway hit musical). While it’s not super-deep (nor holiday-themed), the feel-good spirit certainly fits with the season. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, so if you can imagine an episode of that show with Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, and Nicole Kidman, it’s pretty much this.

What I’m creating…

I’ll return to my holiday lights project later… In the meantime, here’s one of my musical projects for the holiday season. I performed this many many times as a member of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers, though usually with a group… not by myself!

Hope it brings you some joy!

No. 24 • 2020-12-02

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Ready Player… Meh

Happy December!  Over the long Thanksgiving weekend I was eager to start (and then managed to slog through) reading Ready Player Two. My one word review:

Meh.

This is Ernest Cline’s sequel to his best seller, Ready Player One. For me, the original was a highly entertaining nostalgia trip, combining callbacks to ’80s pop culture (my formative years) with an all-consuming virtual reality world (called the Oasis). I thoroughly enjoyed that book (let’s not talk about the movie), and like another popular VR media touchstone, The Matrix (one of my all-time favorite movies), it probes the questions: If a virtual simulation becomes indistinguishable from the physical world, is there a difference? What does that mean for us as individuals? As a society? As a planet?

(And yes, there are horrible parallels between our current online world and The Matrix / The Oasis, but that’s a topic for another day.)

While not quite the dumpster fire of The Matrix sequels, Ready Player Two similarly retreats from these somewhat interesting philosophical questions and instead falls back to basically the following: Virtual reality is awesome (and might save the planet!).

We’re still very far from a virtual world indistinguishable from our physical reality. Unfortunately, the popular notion of “VR is awesome” has done a disservice to education, particularly in our current state of mostly remote, online learning. It has reinforced the notion that the best (only?) virtual learning experience is to simulate the physical classroom and the conventions and interactions of that setting (one person speaking to many, forcing eye contact with students, dispensing Socratic questions, etc.). I get why most instructors go there… it’s familiar and what we’re used to. But ultimately, it doesn’t make sense.

We’ve learned that the best way to travel through water is by swimming, not by trying to run through it. If our physical medium changes, we don’t expect to do the same things. Carrying over the conventions of in-person teaching into an online setting is like trying to run in a swimming pool: you can kind of do it, but it’s slower and distorted (and there’s a lot of extraneous flailing about).

But what if instructors learned how to properly “swim” in this online medium? And what does “swimming” look like in the medium of remote learning? We are still in the process of figuring that out, and it takes practice and effort and time (I’ll bet you didn’t learn to swim in one day). But rather than starting with “How can we adapt our existing class / curriculum to be offered online” (running in a swimming pool), I believe we must start with “What are alternative pathways to learning the course material?” and then develop content, tools, and practices that are authentic to this online environment.

(This is primarily directed towards higher education, where I have the greatest experience, and perhaps high school. I believe online learning is much different, and in many cases inappropriate for younger students.)

“Swimming” requires an understanding of the conventions of online interaction: text over voice. Video over lecture. And projects over problem sets. Those who’ve already incorporated project-based learning in their instruction have a head start. Let’s face it, our students have to do much of this on their own, so there’s never been a better time for interest-driven projects.

(And I mean actual project-based learning, where students are given agency to develop their own problem/project and create a solution, not where students are given materials and a set of IKEA-style instructions to construct a pre-determined artifact.)

“Swimming” also requires creativity and a willingness to experiment, which is why I’ve been so fascinated with artistic collaborations since the start of the pandemic. I think there are better examples of such creativity and experimentation happening in the arts, at all levels (so many high schools produced virtual musicals this Fall). But that willingness to try something new (and learn from failure) needs to be present for all subjects.  

Sadly, some are talking about this as a “lost” academic year, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an authentic opportunity for learning and growth, both for instructors and students. While it’s incredibly difficult to get people to see possibilities beyond their own experiences of in-person instruction, that’s exactly what we’re asking of our students; that’s education. In this year of disruption, let’s embrace the fact that we’re on a shared journey. Let’s lean into the distinctions between IRL (“in real life”) and online. If we learn to “swim”, and figure out ways to learn better together online, it won’t be a lost year.

I publish the Creating at a Distance newsletter every two weeks. The next issue will land on December 16.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • WPA 2.0: Envisioning a New Era of Public Arts Funding [Mural Arts & Carpenters’ Hall] A virtual panel discussion on how FDR’s Works Progress Administration could serve as a model for sustained public investment in our nation’s cultural infrastructure, moderated by Jane Golden (Today, 12/2 at 5:30pm). 
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] Originally conceived as performances across six continents, this global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday has gone online, inviting artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. Featuring a performance with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (Thursday, 12/3 at 7:30pm).
  • Teaching music over Zoom is hard, but Drexel app makes it easier for Philly high school students [Philadelphia Inquirer] In-depth article about the virtual choir collaboration between local schools and Grammy Award-winners, The Crossing, using my Virtual Chorister app.
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January).
  • LightsOn [Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance & Philly Culture United] Express your support for the arts by joining this letter writing campaign to Philadelphia City Council advocating for arts and culture to be included in any comprehensive relief package for the city.
  • A Jazzy Holiday Overture [Drexel Jazz Orchestra and ACE-Lab] This virtual concert features Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” in an immersive 3D environment using visual animation by Drexel colleague Nick Jushchyshyn and his students in the Animation, Capture & Effects Lab (Thursday, 12/3 at 7pm).
  • ABBA A Cappella Medley [Jared Halley] Pure ’70s fun. I only recently stumbled upon singer-producer Jared Halley’s many creative works (always 16 tracks of him, a cappella), but I’ll be following now, for sure.

What I’m creating

Messing around with Arduino and 600 individually addressable LEDs for a new home project for the holidays. I’ll be back with an update in two weeks…

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date

No. 22 • 2020-11-04

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We can do this better

Another sleepless election night and incredibly close race. You’d think that 230+ years into our democracy, the fundamental process of voting would be reliable, robust, and routine. But as recent elections have demonstrated, for many the process of voting is not routine, nor is it easy. Elections are perhaps the single greatest collaborative act, and anything involving 130M+ people is going to have a great deal of complexity. Given the increasingly high stakes and close margins, how can we ensure that future elections are not as susceptible to misinformation, confusion, and disenfranchisement?

I made the decision to cast a vote in person on Election Day. Actually, I requested and received a mail-in ballot for both the Pennsylvania primary and general elections. I believe in mail-in balloting… as states like Oregon and Washington have demonstrated it is normally reliable, secure, and robust to interference. But over the past few months we’ve seen outrageous efforts to disrupt a straightforward process: crippling the US Postal Service to increase uncertainty of delivery, monitoring of drop boxes to intimidate those trying to avoid those delivery uncertainties, and legal efforts to block any pre-processing of mail-in ballots to delay the count (to delegitimize those votes). This is what ultimately persuaded me to cast an in-person ballot using an electronic voting machine (with printed verification), after voiding my mail-in ballot. I wanted to make certain that my vote would be counted as quickly as possible on Election Day. (Voting early in Pennsylvania was equivalent to mail-in voting, meaning those votes would be counted more slowly.) And as we’re seeing now, the morning after, the in-person tabulated vote is showing a vastly different picture of our state (with Trump far ahead) than the close outcome likely after a full count of all mail-in/early votes. Unfortunately, this has already opened the door to ridiculous claims of impropriety, playing upon people’s impatience and fear. (And yes, it is very concerning how close this election is, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So why is this so difficult?  Well it’s a complicated problem, with countless variations and nuances on an enormous scale.  One would think that technology could help in this situation, and it does (mostly behind the scenes in the tabulation of results and the rapid aggregation of counts across districts, counties, and states). But if our bank accounts, credit cards, and Amazon purchases can live on our devices and “in the cloud”, shouldn’t we be able to vote that way? There are very good reasons we don’t (current technology would make elections even more susceptible to hacking overall), but the widespread perception is that voting should be easier. And within some people these difficulties kindle misplaced suspicions, misguided assertions of fraud, and ridiculous vote-stealing conspiracy theories.

The reason it’s so easy for us to interact, transact, and just act out much of our lives online is that there have been massive investments by tech companies in developing and refining that infrastructure. We see something we like, provide a quick authentication with our fingerprints or faces, and we make payment and receive our goods, sometimes even on the same day. Much effort has been made into making the User Experience (UX) as smooth and painless as possible that it also makes us feel that everything should be so easy. 

A substantial amount of industry resources go towards recruiting top technical talent graduating from Colleges and Universities. Yes, many of the world’s greatest young minds devote their talents towards making it easier for us to shop. Why aren’t we putting the same amount of investment into advancing the voting process, efficient tabulation, and election security?  It would seem to be the ultimate UX problem, one that the very future of our society depends upon solving.  Well, if you’re a good computer scientist or UX designer you’re not going to make Google or Facebook money by working on voting infrastructure. But that’s what’s needed… the very best UX designers, coders, and cybersecurity experts working to advance the most integral process of our democracy. 

We need a way, beyond individual altruism, to incentivize the country’s brightest minds to work on this. There are longstanding models like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the armed forces, and AmeriCorps, that subsidize education for a commitment to service. I propose a DemocracyCorps, dedicated to ensuring that everyone can vote and that every vote counts. Graduates would commit to 2 years of working towards improving the electoral process (making technical improvements, combined with voter engagement and expansion efforts). Given the exceedingly high (and rising) costs of higher education, it would create lucrative career pathways for a broader and more diverse representation of students (especially in fields like computing). Tech companies could (and should) also offer 1-year sabbaticals to current employees to work on election systems (it’s really the least they could do given the social media-fueled mess of the last few elections). An additional incentive would be the chance to work with (and recruit from) DemocracyCorps graduates.

So here we once again, sleep-deprived and anxious, awaiting the results of a far-too-close election. While there’s no perfect system for voting, at the least we should be trying harder to improve the process. Much effort is put into making our devices into essentially addictive slot machines. Let’s turn that energy towards something much more important: making our elections truly reliable, robust, and routine.

I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule,
a pace that I hope is sustainable for the long term.
My next newsletter will be posted on November 18.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Philadelphia Lullaby Project [World Cafe Live] Beautiful new lullabies written by Philadelphia-area parents and caregivers with songwriters/teaching artists from the area. Created in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
  • Decrypted By Us: A community by and for students from groups underrepresented in Computer Science. They make videos that represent and speak to underrepresented CS students to encourage them to pursue their interests and goals. 
  • Beyond the Sea [VOCES8 Scholars] A virtual collaboration of UK and US singers participating in VOCES8’s training program. Missed this a few months ago when it premiered, but it’s a great arrangement of Bobby Darin’s classic. 
  • 17 Players in Five States, Composing Over the Internet [NY Times] A peek behind the scenes of the modern music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s process of working with composer Tyshawn Sorey to record his Autoschediasms.
  • E.T. Theme [Samara Ginsburg] The latest of her virtual collaborative cello performances… I think we could all use a little nostalgia and inspiration today.
  • Dear Theodosia [Hamilton cast members] Another virtual performance from the musical, featuring those Burrs and Hamiltons from the different productions. They’ve covered much of the show in virtual performances… I look forward to the virtual rendition of Farmer Refuted 😉
  • Pachelbel’s Chicken [YouTube] This is a few years old, but it’s just that kind of day…

What I’m creating

I don’t intend to always focus this section on Virtual Chorister app announcements, but I do have a big update for iPad in the works… The next version will allow you to load and view a musical score alongside following and recording videos. The new version will be available in the App Store within a week. 

Virtual Chorister for iPad with score view… Coming soon!

No. 18 • 2020-09-23

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Fall Forward

The Philly weather leaves no doubt: Fall is here, and with it comes a non-stop stream of events, festivals, classes, and more. Next week we continue our online mini-series with Play On PhillyCreative Conversations for a Changing World, focusing on how arts and education are innovating through the pandemic. We’re joined by leaders of premier organizations who are actively exploring new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. At our kickoff event last week, we had a great conversation with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation). Each is pursuing and supporting new forms, venues, and media for producing creative work.

Our next Conversation focuses on Collaboration, with another amazing group. Each panelist is both an innovative musician and educator:

  • Jay Fluellen is Philly-born musician and composer and is Choir Co-Director & Music Technology Specialist at Northeast High School. Collaboration has been a hallmark of his work as composer, musician and educator, having worked on large scale projects with many Philadelphia area arts organizations, including LiveConnections, The Mann Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, The Bucks County Choral Society, Art Sanctuary, and the Philly Pops, among others.
  • Paul Smith is an innovative and creative performer, conductor, composer, and educator and co-founder of the award-winning vocal group, VOCES8. This August, he launched Live from London, an online streaming festival with some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles: VOCES8, The Swingles, The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, and Chanticleer (from San Francisco). Paul is also serves as CEO of the VOCES8 Foundation. Since its inception in 2007, the Foundation has worked with 400,000 young people.

I am really looking forward to this conversation, which touches upon “all the things” I love (well, many of the things): music, ensemble singing, collaboration, and technology. We’ll highlight some amazing virtual projects and some truly novel ways musicians at all levels are finding to keep making music together.

Register here for the next event on September 29 at 4pm and mark your calendars for our third Creative Conversation on October 13. We planned a mini-series of 3 events, but we could be convinced to change our minds if there’s demand! 😉

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating

This term, I am teaching ECE-101: Electrical & Computer Engineering in the Real World, a weekly seminar featuring distinguished guest speakers on applied topics related to our field, primarily for our 100+ first-year students. The first class is today (9/23 at 2pm… I’m the first speaker), and everyone is welcome to tune in.

Our next speaker (9/30 at 2pm) is Ophelia Wells (pictured), an engineer at Merck Research Laboratories in Device Development who’ll be speaking about Engineering Vaccines at Pandemic SpeedRegister here for next week’s class!

No. 15 • 2020-08-26

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Virtual Chorister

Followers of this newsletter know of my fondness for virtual choir projects. Since the start of the pandemic, choirs and vocal ensembles, in particular, haven’t been able to sing together. As a singer, I really miss it. Unfortunately, it’s likely we won’t be able to gather safely for some time, and some organizations and schools have cancelled the entire year/season of rehearsals and performances.

Virtual choirs aren’t a substitute for live singing in ensemble, but they offer a different way to collaborate and contribute to something musical. As I’ve written previously, the format opens up new possibilities that can’t be realized in person. Sing in ensemble with a famous professional group. Collaborate with musicians on the other side of the globe. A choir of more than 17000 singers. Or, in the case of schools and youth choirs, just continue to sing and learn.

To be clear: virtual choir projects are not accomplished via Zoom or videoconferencing. Those systems have too much delay to make musical collaboration possible, and there are many hilarious examples to prove that. Instead, each singer records their own part separately, and these videos are then mixed together (by someone with some video editing experience and a lot of patience) into the final “performance” shared via YouTube, Instagram, etc. Earlier this summer, I presented an online workshop introducing the full virtual chorus process for music educators, as part of the Apple Distinguished Educators Festival of Learning. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The technology makes it possible, but it doesn’t make it easy, even just to participate as a chorister. It takes a bit of technical know-how to contribute to a project (certainly more than just showing up to rehearsal).

The process generally requires 2 devices: one to view a reference/conductor video (so that you sing in sync with everyone else) and another (usually your phone) to record your own performance. The need for 2 devices (and skill to use both in tandem) poses a barrier to participation for some.

Today, I’m releasing a new iOS app, Virtual Chorister, which attempts to make it easier by combining everything on a single device (an iPhone or iPad). The app enables you to watch & follow a reference video while you record your own singing. You don’t need to juggle the tech across multiple devices. The video is saved to your Photo Library, which you then share/upload in whatever way is designated by the project.

In particular, I’m hopeful this will help schools and youth choirs continue to sing and create this Fall. So, it is a free app. If you do use it for a project, I’d appreciate a shout out and an email to let me know about your project (and maybe get highlighted in this newsletter!). If you wish to contribute something to help continue development, there is an option to do so within the app.

And if you’re looking for a way to participate, here are a few virtual choir projects:

It’s not a substitute for actually singing together… nothing is. But maybe, such projects can keep us going until we can gather together and sing to our hearts’ content. I hope this app enables others to begin (or continue) creating at a distance.

Happy singing!

Download Virtual Chorister (for iPhone and iPad) via the App Store.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Words [London Youth Chamber Choir] Collaborative music video of an a cappella classic (originally performed by The Real Group). Nice video production (not Zoom rectangles)!
  • How a hidden Center City block became a pop-up concert hall [WHYY News] You just can’t stop the music!
  • Ubi Caritas [Kings Return, composed by Ola Gjeilo] This went viral a few weeks ago, but definitely worth another listen even if you’ve seen it. Just four guys who sing in stairwells… beautifully.
  • An Artful Pivot [The Indicator from Planet Money, NPR] A radio profile of how the Wilma Theater transitioned Is God Is from the stage to a radio play in response to the pandemic (special appearance by friend of ExCITe, Sunil Iyengar of the NEA).
  • Digital Festival O [Opera Philadelphia] It’s your last chance to stream 3 groundbreaking Philadelphia operatic premieres (ends Aug. 31)

What I’m creating

What, a brand new app isn’t enough for you?

OK, here’s a website I made, all about battling with remote-controlled LEGO robots. In truth, I published the site a year ago, but my son and I are still having fun with our LEGO robot battles!

We were inspired by one of our favorite TV shows, BattleBots. Season 5 was postponed due to COVID, but it’s coming back this Fall!