The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched what people can do from home. There are classes, conferences and now — concerts. The Santa Barbara City College Lunch Break Big Band brought 20 musicians together, all performing from 20 separate homes.
It’s not a common feat, performing live synchronously as a large ensemble. In fact, the Lunch Break Big Band was the first school band in the world to do it when it performed Oct. 23.
SBCC Music began planning for such a concert back in March, when the pandemic suspended large gatherings. It experimented with technology that enables the ensembles to rehearse and play together online.
The real challenge is the delays the world wide web provides, causing audio and video to be out-of-sync. Imagine trying to play on beat when your headphones are playing music a second behind.
And Zoom makes it impossible for groups to play together.
“Unfortunately, Zoom doesn’t know the difference between a flute playing a long note and a dishwasher,” director Jim Mooy said.
To overcome this, he and SBCC’s James Watson found Jamulus, a new software developed in Germany by Volker Fischer to help musicians collaborate remotely in real time. The developer checks in frequently through Facebook and email with the users.
“When we started this, people were really only using Jamulus for two to three people at a time. We caught their attention as an institution,” Mr. Mooy said. “I set up a server in my house and we had 30 to 40 students connect to it at a time.”
Each band member can control the audio they hear and will raise or lower the volume so they personally hear the musicians that they’d normally sit by.
“It really simulates what they’d hear sitting in the middle of the band,” he said.
But each member has to have specialized equipment, like audio interfaces, microphones and cables — and the internet capabilities to stop it from buffering.
SBCC Business Services helped SBCC Music obtain CARES Act funding to purchase the necessary equipment. For students living in apartments, they received Yamaha Silent Brass systems that keep the loud sounds recorded electronically but away from the neighbors’ eardrums.
This summer, 40 SBCC Concert Band and Symphony Orchestra members tested the technology. They reported the results to Jamulus’ developers.
Director Mooy enlisted SBCC’s IT department to help create a custom Jamulus server and six private rehearsal rooms where small groups could practice. Cox Cable offered a reduced rate for the server connection.
A week before fall semester began, band members tried out the new audio server while keeping Zoom up to see each other. They were timid at first but began to jam like they were all together.
They even played brand new pieces, digging into sight reading even in a disorienting format.
“One of the things that is missing during COVID is that the students aren’t together in the same room at the same time,” Mr. Mooy said.
So, they interact through Zoom while using Jamulus for the audio. They can see each other’s reactions and use the chat to communicate to say “nice solo” or other feedback.
“The best thing about it is the psychological aspect of it, of community and all the pieces coming together for the good of the music,” he said. “It’s necessary during these times when we’re shut inside.”
The current members of the Lunch Break Big Band have never played in the same room together, but they get that experience through technology.
No other academic institution has been able to pull this off with 20 or more musicians. UC Santa Barbara, Riverside City College, Azusa Pacific University and many high school directors have all reached out to learn more about SBCC’s online rehearsals.
The orchestra, a group of up to 70 members, hasn’t grasped the technology as well. So Mr. Mooy tried something new for them, too.
He commissioned composers to write seven-movement suites, and orchestra members record a new movement each week. He sends a track to guide the members, and they send him back a recording.
He compiles these dozens of recordings into a single track.
“It’s unbelievable how good it’s sounding. It has been completely uplifting,” Mr. Mooy said. “But it lacks the feeling of being in the same room together.
“I’m just trying to do something new and exciting in a time when there’s not much new literature.”
The Big Band is set to perform in a live concert with Jamulus Storband, a big band based in Sweden, at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 22. It’s another unprecedented experience for the band.
The music department is seeking additional funding for fiber optic connection to offer faster speeds, an improved musical experience and enable challenging pieces.
The Oct. 23 performance is available on Director Mooy’s YouTube channel, James Mooy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to help with the department’s mission.
And for more information, visit sbcc.edu/music.