SD Virtual Voices Join As One

Jun 6, 2013

Middle school music teachers wanted to give their students a unique opportunity to learn and perform music.  They decided to create a virtual choir.  The final product is a mixture of 36 young voices all singing a song designed specifically for this project. The project is just the first of what could be many virtual musical experiences for South Dakota students.

Thirty-six South Dakota students sing as a unified choir. You can hear their voices blend together, and you can occasionally hear an individual voice stand out from the rest. You can also hear the imperfections in their middle school voices. But what you can't hear from just listening is the poor quality of some of the singers' microphones. You can't hear the hours that each student spent practicing, and you certainly can't hear the hours of technical work that were put into this choir.

That's because this is a virtual choir. Each student sings their part on their own computer, in the privacy of their own home or school. The videos and voices are then combined and balanced to form one cohesive choir.

"What could we do to generate some interest and do something that's not already offered? There are a couple honor choirs that are offered for Junior High students so we didn't want to go that route. We wanted something new and different," Sioux Falls Whittier Middle School music teacher Deb Rohrer says. "So then one of my colleagues, Barb Meyers, said, 'What about a virtual choir?' And we all kind of went, 'Ha, right.' And I went, 'No, we could do that!'"

Rohrer the Middle School Vocal Chairperson for the South Dakota Music Educator's Association.

"SDMEA is an organization for music educators that provides opportunities to become more trained in our profession as well as providing opportunities to students to participate in different music opportunities throughout the state," Rohrer says.

A handful of these music educators sparked the idea for the virtual choir, but that was only the beginning of a long project. First, they had to choose a composer.

"We talked about who we would contact as composer, and we decided Jim Papoulis would be fantastic," Rohrer says. "He's from New York City and he would be fantastic because he writes awesome music for middle school students and it has kind of a pop flavor to it so they are always interested in singing it."

Papoulis composes and conducts in New York City.

"So they sort of explained it to me, and I had fun conducting no one in my studio but sort of anticipating and listening to children sing," Papoulis says.

For the virtual choir, he gave the kids vocal tracks so they could listen to their part. He also recorded a video of himself directing, which is included in the final product.

"It's just a wonderful way to bring so many people together via music, and I think the internet is a cool way to do that so I was really really thrilled to be involved," Papoulis says.

A major part of making the virtual choir a reality is working with the technical side. That's where two students at the Sioux Falls Career and Technical Education Academy come in. Adam Russel and Lane Peterson are recent high school graduates. Peterson is the brains behind compiling the videos and creating a virtual world for the choir.

Russell's job was to match and adjust the audio. He wears a backwards hat covering his shaggy red-blonde hair and plans to soon move to Minneapolis and jump into the world of recording. Taking on this task of matching nearly 40 audio tracks took him a total of about 30 hours. He did not do this for school credit or payment. A testament to his passion for working with sound.  

"When I think about the different frequencies whether it's in my car with my subs and the bass or if it's like the wind just thinking, hearing, there's just something about sound that inspires me so making something that sounds awesome - there's just nothing like it really," Russell says.

Most of the singers used laptops to record their voices, which resulted in varied audio quality. One of the challenges Russell faced was making it all  sound good, without compromising the natural sounds of the singers' voices.

"To make it sound better, I added the reverb to make it sound like it was in a concert hall instead of being just a dry voice," Russell says. "I mixed it all together and made it sound like an actual choir but at the same time I didn't overdo it where I auto-tuned everything and made it sound perfect, because it's middle schoolers singing; it's not going to be perfect."

The majority of the 36 member virtual choir is Sioux Falls students. Selby Area students also jumped at this opportunity, with eight students auditioning. Kyle Hughes is a Selby seventh grader who made it into the choir. His hobbies are playing games, watching James Bond, and of course, music. Hughes was encouraged by his music teacher to audition, and he says that his favorite part is some of the attention that the choir has received.

"It's just that singing is awesome and I think that other people should do it," Hughes says. "My favorite part was singing into Mr. Bakken's computer, and then being on TV."

Organizers say they are already making plans for another virtual choir next year. Composer Jim Papoulis says he is impressed with the final virtual choir product and says music can play a powerful role in the life of a child and the people who listen to it.