The SUNY Oswego Virtual Choir’s performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” hit a positive chord in earning thousands of plays online when it was released last week. But how did it come together? 

Through plenty of planning, preparation and participation from students and faculty members alike.

Mihoko Tsutsumi, an associate professor of music and director of choral activities, saw that famous composer Eric Whitacre has successfully done virtual choir performances and knew it would be a great way to engage students in the Men’s Choir and Women’s Choir.

“Due to COVID, choir directors have switched to create their own virtual choirs,” Tsutsumi said. For the technical help, she turned to Josh Russell, concert/recording event and sound support specialist for the music department. 

They worked together for a recording of the college’s alma mater in May, which showed that it was possible. “Josh and I believed that we could make it with more students in the fall semester,” Tsutsumi said. “Because of the amount of time Josh needs to edit, we decided to do three pieces this semester although we usually perform eight to nine pieces.”

“The students were instructed on how to record themselves and submit their captured performance to Mihoko for review,” Russell said. “The reviewed submissions are then shared with me. They each used two devices, mostly cellphones, tablets and laptops. One device plays the piano accompaniment through headphones or earbuds, while the second device is used to capture the student’s performance as acapella.”

The students were excited to participate, although it came with its share of challenges, senior theatre major Jared Mills explained.

I had to find the right environment to sing,” Mills said. “One that would have any distracting noises for myself or that could be heard in the recording. On the rehearsal of this piece, the song was already familiar to me but the key that I sang it in wasn’t. I had to sing a bit lower to reach the correct key, with recording this without Mihoko warming me up and having to do that myself, I also found it easier to practice in the morning which helps the voice sing lower.”

Putting it together

After reviewing the submissions, Russell separated them into sections based on bass, tenor, alto and soprano parts, like a traditional choir, aligned with piano accompaniment. This involved a lot of file management before getting to the final edit.

“Once I have achieved a rough mix of the audio, I begin putting together the video in a separate software program based on the timeline of the audio,” Russell said. “Throughout the video editing I share ideas and sample images with Mihoko for feedback and input. When finished with the video, I go back and listen to the audio with a fresher perspective to finish it off and then re-sync the finished audio to the video. The video is then reviewed by Mihoko for feedback/input before being finalized.”

“When I shared the recording with my students, they were so happy and delighted because they had no idea how their individual recordings would be edited,” Tsutsumi said. Their enthusiasm made her decide to release it earlier than planned.

The end result was “lovely,” Mills said. “I thought that on top of the song, the editing of the virtual choir was done very well. As for the positive reaction, I wanted to show people the end result, I couldn’t wait! I wanted to show everyone how proud I was to be in a project like this!”

“I think it is safe to say that Mihoko and I are simply thrilled to be able to share the hard work of her students and ours, especially during these particularly challenging times,” Russell said. 

“It takes courage to sing and perform in this very nontraditional way of making music and I am very proud of everyone’s efforts in achieving our goals,” he added. “I am happy that people are enjoying it, and just as happy to let them know we have more projects that we look forward to sharing soon.”