From Our Street to Yours: Taking the Band Online

It was participating in an online music session for pre-schoolers which turned around Brian ‘Strat’ Strating and Lyndal Chambers’ thinking about playing and delivering instrumental music online.

“We were invited, us and our grandchildren, to participate in a family session for Drummond Street by Amanda Testro, and it was really interesting. We learned a lot being participants in that group. The fun thing was seeing all the little screens of people doing the same thing or people doing the actions to a song in their own remote locations. We all started off together and then slowly the kids began rambling around the lounge room, you know it’s kind of really interesting and fun to see everyone doing the same thing in different places and we learnt from that experience that things with actions work much better than trying to play music.”

There’s no getting away from it, the communal aspect of instrumental music making online can be dissatisfying for a number of reasons: you don’t have your external speakers cranked up; you don’t own external speakers, your own instrument sounds way louder than what’s coming into your room so there’s no hope of playing along with the facilitator because you’re struggling to actually hear the music itself.  And then there’s the unavoidable reality that in real life sessions, everybody’s bits go together to create a tune and while one person on their own might fumble and stumble over their part or lose the beat, it is everybody playing together in real time that makes everything work and is beautiful.

So how can we make the most of collective instrumental music-making opportunities during these times of physical distancing?  After all, they’re a great vehicle for checking in and hearing how everyone’s doing.

As highly experienced community music facilitators and musicians, this quandary is something Lyndal and Strat have spent many hours contemplating and experimenting with since COVID put an end to most of their other commitments – and income – overnight.

“As a practitioner delivering music online, you need to think about ‘how do I make it work, what’s the reason for doing community music online, and then if you decide to do it, how do I make it successful? Because, you know, if somebody really wants to learn a tune, they can sit in front of a video on YouTube, they can learn the tune slowly and repeat it as many times as they like.” But this isn’t fun, nor is it what brings it to life. We get together in groups because we want to be with other people.

Playing with the pre-schoolers led Lyndal to realise how dancing and responding to action songs works well online because it doesn’t matter if you’re hearing the tunes with lag, you can still do the actions. “At one point, Amanda said ‘go on kids go into the kitchen find your pots and pans’ and they all ran off eagerly to go and get their pots and wooden spoons, and so I ran off and got this big pan and wooden spoon! And when I went to play along, my pans were soooo loud, I couldn’t hear a thing from the computer! We learnt that not only can you not play in real time, you can’t even hear what’s going on unless you have some decent external speakers set up on your computer.”

What both Lyndal and Strat enjoyed most was the social aspect of participating in something in this way. “Our grandkids, all three of them – and one is only 18 months old – are in Blackwood and we are in Inverloch, and we are all watching Amanda’s show and we can all see each other!”

So the main purpose of all being online together is to maintain that social connection which we all need and seek out, and music is still that common thread.

“In our physical groups, music-making is a vehicle for us getting together and we can all play together which is just not possible with the technology that we have. At least not without phenomenal expertise and state of the art equipment. The reality we’re stuck with is we’re not going to be able to play real time music together in virtually any online context anytime soon because there’s such huge variability in everyone’s situation. There are barriers such as internet speeds, internet cabling. And some people don’t have a good, functioning computer with a good camera and good audio, some people don’t have internet at all, and some people are too old to wrestle with technology.”

The takeaway from their experience of online participatory music making has shown Lyndal and Strat the importance of identifying a clear purpose at the start of the online session, articulating this as a group and agreeing on an expectation of what everyone is trying to achieve together. “It’s the same as those values we use when we are face to face.”

Lyndal and Strat were recently invited by Aaron Silver to do a Virtual Bush Dance for the Turramurra community. “When we started trying to work out how to do it, we figured that we needed to actually get up and moving ourselves to get other people off their bums, so we did a practise, and videoed ourselves calling the dance and playing the music simultaneously, and it was hilarious.

“The bush dance worked really well but it took a lot of preparation. We had a dry run with around ten people before the session and discussed which settings were needed on Zoom, what settings people should change, and all the technical stuff. Even this was an opportunity for fun and reconnection, we were all laughing and talking to each other, so the social thing was happening even then. This small group of testers were able to say whether or not they could hear if Lyndal danced away from the computer, or when they stood away from their own computer.”

“When it came down to the actual event we were dancing and moving around at the same time as everyone else, we could still see the concert view on our computer and there was everybody dancing in their living rooms. Mark Jackson took a video of himself and Jane with us in the background on the telly and it was so hilarious, so funny!”

As part of Grantville Online (CMVic Music Camp 2020), Strat and Lyndal will be re-visiting this approach and facilitating a Virtual Street Band Parade! The tune is available and can be downloaded ahead of camp so that anyone preparing to play in the virtual street band will be familiar with it. Lyndal and Strat would like more than anything for this workshop to be about letting go, healing and having fun.

“We want it to be a lively thing, a joyful experience! We want it to be ridiculous, a coming-together and dressing up; a fooling around opportunity, a joyful, love-filled safe place!”

“We’ve recorded a multi-track tune ourselves so that there are lots of parts. On the day, we’ll press ‘play’ and everyone will be able to hear the pre-recorded piece of street band music which they’ve also been learning and it will have the counting, and everybody can play along on mute, or sing, or dance or even just mime! And they won’t just be playing on their own, they will actually be playing and singing along to a full band sound in their lounge room, bedroom or study or wherever they might be, or even outside on the veranda! Our aim is to light up the screen with participation.”

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The Virtual Street Band Parade will be about dressing up, getting together and having fun!

In considering the transitioning of their leadership skills into the virtual space, Lyndal is reflective about the challenges of maintaining diversity and inclusion.

“Thinking about the values, this idea of ‘from one to many’ is not my ideal for community music making, I think that’s a real stumbling block for me. In a real-life situation, there may be a nominal leader or a leadership team, and you’re allowing everybody’s voice to contribute ideas to the circle and they feel invested. When you have an online platform there’s one person is sitting in front of the computer directing the actions and everyone’s speakers are on mute, its completely the antithesis of the kind of ideal for me of a democratic community music group…”

Strat agrees, “I think it’s impossible in the online setting, so yeah that’s a great challenge, and the other thing is the thinking that if your normal session goes for an hour, have an hour online. You absolutely cannot! With the bush dance, we would usually go through something like that twelve times, whereas online we went through it just three. The elements that are most important are dancing and movement and linking up and having a great time.”

“Enabling people to do their own dressing up and their own dancing allows them to participate as much or as little as they can, or want to or feel able to, while still contributing. And if we can record it, which I know is possible, there will be this amazing collage of everyone doing their own thing in their own way and interpreting it somehow in a way that’s personal to them.”

“And, because you’ll be muted if you have always wanted to play the trumpet in a street band but don’t actually play the trumpet – now’s the time! If you’ve got a trumpet, pick it up and be able to play without any bum notes, straight off the bat!  This one of the advantages of the virtual street band; anything goes. There are no limits!”

“Oh my gosh” says Lyndal, “The No Limits Street Band…

Grantville Online (CMVic Music Camp 2020) runs May 29-30. It’s a free event and registrations are now open!  To register for the Virtual Street Band Parade, click here.

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in conversation with Lyndal Chambers and Brian Strating.

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