Making Real Connections Through Virtual Choir

They sang as individuals but became part of something bigger in Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir. Seven members share their journey and their connections.

Virtual Choir 3.0 members gathered in NYC for the world premiere of "Water Night" by Eric Whitacre. Photo from Julie Souin.

In December 2011, composer Eric Whitacre made an announcement on his website about his third Virtual Choir project: "Water Night". Singers from around the world were invited to prepare and submit a video for one or more of the 14 voice parts in this choral work from Whitacre's Grammy-winning album, Light & Gold. A record number of 3,746 videos were submitted by singers representing 73 countries.

Singers uploaded their video(s) either to Eric Whitacre's website or Youtube. The video and audio were scrubbed for every submission. The videos were then synchronized to become one massive multi-track. VC3's "Water Night" was launched on April 2, 2012, via live stream at the Lincoln Arts Center in New York, NY. VC3 has recently received over 200,000 views on Youtube.

Yours truly had the opportunity to speak with seven members of Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 3.0: Melissa Ann Cody (Goshen, NY, USA), Bren Wrona Norris (Sonoma, CA, USA), Maria Petrova (New York, NY, USA), Jack Rowland (Tampa Bay, FL, USA), Scott Simmons (San Antonio, TX, USA), Kristen Soo (Burnaby, BC, CAN) and Chrissie Vincent (Petersfield, Hampshire, UK). Their individual stories intersect and connect to create the Virtual Choir story.

Discovering the Music of Eric Whitacre

“I happened to be at the concert where they premiered “Water Night”," says Maria Petrova. "I was not ready for this at all. I wasn't even that much of a fan of choral music. I just went because I'm a graphic designer and I was designing the concert programme for the arts centre at BYU.

“I was absolutely – just – entranced by “Water Night”. I remember very clearly the moment when it came on,” she says. “I felt like it literally washed every cell of my body.”

Kristen Soo (centre) with the SFU Choir. Photo from Kristen Soo.

Kristen Soo was on campus at Simon Fraser University when she watched Virtual Choir 2 - “Sleep”: “I was crying in my lab. It was so beautiful.”

In her studio, Bren Wrona Norris, a voting member of the Recording Academy, was listening to the nominees in choral music for the 54th Annual Grammys. When she came to Eric Whitacre's Light and Gold album, Bren said, “Oh my gosh, this is phenomenal!”

Music teacher and Virtual Choir member Bren Norris. Photo from Bren Wrona Norris.

“I immediately voted for him and then I went online to find out what he does, where he's from and how he came to be,” Bren gushes. “It was the week or two before we had to have our videos in for VC3. It was that fast. I said, 'All right! I'll do it!' ”

Virtual Choir Members Make Connections

“I was trying to record a couple of weeks before the deadline,” recalls Kristen. “I was having a clipping problem with my mic. When I sang too loudly, it would just make these really weird noises. I made a post on the Facebook page. It turned out that Jack [Rowland] as well as David Johnson responded and they were able to help me out.”

Virtual Choir member and barbershop quartet singer Scott Simmons. Photo from Scott Simmons.

As the initial deadline and later, the extended deadline approached, more people were experiencing challenges. They flocked to the Virtual Choir Facebook page for help.“I put in two videos and I asked a question to the Facebook page,” says Scott Simmons. “One of them's better than the other one. Which one should I put in?” With a smile, he adds, “Of course, Jack [Rowland] pipes up and says, “Take the best one and put it in.”

As Scott scrolled down the FB page, he read more comments by Jack. “Wow! He's helping a lot of people.” A thought popped into Scott's mind, “I love technology. I love music. This is a sweet spot for me, so I went in and started helping everyone else out.”

The helpers were commenting so often, that some people were banned from commenting. Jack Rowland was one who landed in “Facebook Jail”, not once, but twice. “What really caused it was we were answering so many questions,” recounts Jack. “I had a cheat sheet so that I could copy/paste. I could rapid-fire responses to common questions.”

One person Jack helped was Christy-Lyn Marais. “We take for granted that we have wi-fi everywhere,” says Jack. “So she's talking to me about how she's trying to send using a 3G cell phone. At one point, I say, “ 'Can you find a McDonald's?' because they all have free wi-fi now.”

Her reply: “The nearest McDonald's is like, 400 miles away from here.” That's when Jack discovered that Christy-Lyn lives in a remote part of South Africa.

“On the last day when there were a lot of problems,” says Kristen. “Everyone was trying to submit at the same time.” She thought, “Maybe I'll just join one of these [Google] Hangouts, say 'Hi' and just see how it goes.” She's glad she did. “It happened to be that I met over 10 people that night. I actually got to meet Jack face-to-face, which was really great as I got to thank him for helping me with my microphone. Chrissie [Vincent] was in that Hangout as well.”

Virtual Choir – A Global Choir

“I was very struck and amazed by how much of a connection I had,” recalls Jack. “Even though when I watched Virtual Choir 1, I was thinking, 'This isn't choral singing.' But when I sang my part and Eric conducted, the connection that I had with him – looking into his eyes and watching him conduct was every bit as real to me as if I were standing on a stage, and that surprised me.”

“To think there is someone in Syria who sang with us, despite this incredible turmoil that they're in,” comments Maria. “And this girl in Japan named Hitomi, who leads a totally different life than I do and is 22 hours ahead of me. She was able to sing at the same time as me, although she actually sang at a totally different time than me. That we all somehow ended up singing at the same synchronized performance – and that to me is an absolute miracle,” she adds.

Maria attended the launch of "Water Night" and Water Night CD Release along with fellow VC members Julie Souin, Kevin Callahan, Lynna Schaefer and Jack Rowland. “In many ways, I saw that it was technically not as superior as a professional performance of a hand-picked 24 singers. The beauty, on the other hand, was just how many voices [there were] and the different times of the consonants. They're kind of the things that one would consider imperfections from a technical point of view were in a beautiful way of reinforcing the multiplicity of people's backgrounds, of people's places, of people's times, of people's identities.”

Virtual Choir – An Online Community Without Borders

Typist Melissa Cody and husband Cameron Tidd. Photo from Melissa Cody Tidd.

The Virtual Choir connection didn't end after any of these singers submitted their videos. Melissa Ann Cody has kept in touch with Jack Rowland since Virtual Choir 2. “Jack was working on another virtual choir project,” she explained. “There's a group on Facebook called Let's Sing for Japan. I did post a video for that.”

Chrissie Vincent watched the premiere of “Water Night” online with several of her Virtual Choir friends. “That was very exciting,” she recalls. “The fact that we were online and we actually watched the premiere. That's pretty special.”

Maria noticed Scott's support of others in the group and dropped him a line: “I'm lucky enough to live in New York and I'm going to be at the CD signing. Would you like a CD?” Scott replied, “Yeah, of course I would love one.”

“So I got him one and sent it to him,” says Maria. “He just wrote me this morning that he put the cheque in the mail and I said, 'Oh my gosh! It will be so weird to get a physical object from you.' ”

The online groups continue to thrive. “What I find fascinating is that people are so friendly, so great on VC Friends. Everyday I check it just to see what's going on,” says Bren.

“It's really different,” says Scott. “It's really nice to have a group of friends like that, who have the same passion for music that you do and that I do. That helps keep those connections alive.”

“I met so many people,” says Kristen. “We all just got talking and then having fun – as though we were sitting in the same room together, making jokes, supporting each other; just learning about each other's lives.”

Writer Chrissie Vincent from Virtual Choir. Photo from Chrissie Vincent.

“It's very enriching. It has enlarged my circle, which is tremendous,” says Chrissie. “It just goes to show what these online communities can actually do.”Sources:

Skype/Facebook video interviews with Melissa Ann Cody (April 15, 2012), Bren Wrona Norris (April 13, 2012), Maria Petrova (April 16, 2012), Jack Rowland (April 26, 2012), Scott Simmons (April 15, 2012), Kristen Soo (April 21, 2012) and Chrissie Vincent (April 13, 2012).

Originally published May 26, 2012 on Suite101.com. All rights reserved by Rhona-Mae Arca.