In the room where it happens: Musicians embrace technology to collaborate

Using an app called Acapella, local music teachers collaborated to perform the theme from Jesus Christ Superstar, an MDI pep band favorite. From top left, Michael Remy on melodica, Ed Michaud on a traditional Tuvan instrument called a doshpuluur, Mary de Koning on trumpet, Heather Graves on alto saxophone, Allison Putnam on xylophone, Dan Granholm on guitar and April McGuire on percussion.


MOUNT DESERT ISLAND Since no one’s going out to see live music for the time being, musicians and music teachers and their students are learning to use new tools to connect. 

It’s easy to think, while scrolling past on a social media feed, that those posts from professional orchestras are just video conference calls with each member playing their part from home. 

But as anyone who has tried to sing “Happy Birthday” during a virtual party in the last few weeks has learned, that doesn’t work. Even if each participant is wearing headphones so the computer’s microphone doesn’t pick up what’s coming from the speaker, reducing feedback, group music (or even group speaking, as in a religious service) comes out a garbled mess. 

“Between the sound distortion and the lag time and everybody being on the internet at the same time, it doesn’t work,” said Mary de Koning, the music teacher at Trenton Elementary School. 

She and the other Mount Desert Island school music teachers had the idea of recording the theme from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a favorite of the high school pep band.

The teachers wanted to demonstrate that each of them is still playing music, and others can too. 

“It’s just something that brings a little bit of normalcy back,” de Koning said. “And to have something familiar that pumps up the community. Music has a way of tying people together even over great distances.” 

They used an app called Acapella, which operates like a musical chain letter: one performer records a track, sends it on to the next collaborator, and on up to nine times. It’s a quicker way to create virtual ensemble performances, because it doesn’t require mixing or sound editing skills. 

The recorded “Superstar” features MDI High School teacher Michael Remy on melodica, Pemetic teacher Ed Michaud on a traditional Tuvan stringed instrument called a doshpuluur, de Koning on trumpet, Mount Desert Elementary teacher Heather Graves on alto saxophone, Tremont Elementary teacher Allison Putnam on xylophone and Conners Emerson teachers Dan Granholm on guitar and April McGuire on percussion. 

Some local church choirs are experimenting with the Acapella app, too, to create recordings they can share during streaming Easter services. 

Music class 

School music class is a bit different, as are all the other classes. The teachers have been recording video lessons and hosting group chats to check in with students. 

They’re also checking, especially with younger students, to make sure the instruments are working properly. “Have you washed your mouthpieces? What do you have for supplies?” de Koning asks. 

Trenton Elementary music teacher Mary de Koning says to her students, “You should all be very proud of me, because I’m practicing piano every day!” COURTESY OF MARY DE KONING

Supplies such as reeds for woodwinds and valve oil for brass instruments can be dropped off or delivered free so students can keep the music going. 

High school students will be delving a bit further into technology, teacher Michael Remy said. He’s created a list of potential projects and tools and “each kid is going to choose what (they want) to mess with, allowing this to be a time where different groups of kids can dive down different rabbit holes.” 

These include apps and programs like Soundtrap, an online recording platform. Students in his rock band class will use this one. “It operates like a Google Doc,” he said. “It’s not so much that you’re playing live in real time, but a big group of people can be collaborating on the same project.” 

There’s also BandLab, which has similar functionality to Apple’s GarageBand, but “times a billion,” Remy said. “It can operate just like a recording studio, has really good midi instruments and is highly detailed.” 

Many of his students are fans of Billie Eilish, a young musician who recorded many of her early hits in her bedroom. “So the kids are all pumped” about creating their own at-home jams, Remy said. 

Practice time 

Many private music lessons have been able to continue over video chat. MDI High School junior Jane Pope is continuing to work with her saxophone teacher, Bill Whitener of Ellsworth, over Skype. 

“We can’t play together because it’s too lag-gy,” she said. “But it’s great because he can hear me.”

Jane Pope, a junior at MDI High School, already had a recording studio set up in her house before quarantine life began. But without the block schedule of a normal school day, she says she’s found it a bit harder to schedule structured time to practice. COURTESY OF JANE POPE

Saxophone is her primary instrument and what she hopes to pursue as a career, but she’s also a singer, songwriter and pianist. She even has a recording studio set up at home. But paradoxically, it’s been a little harder to keep to a discipline of regular practice times.

“It’s harder because I had a block during school where I had that entire block just to practice, so it was really scheduled,” she said. Now she has to create her own discipline and structure. 

de Koning is encouraging her students to practice 5-10 minutes every other day. The hope is “not to have pressure that you have to do this, but to remember why they love playing their instrument, why they love singing.” 

She’s also encouraging them to try recording themselves, which can help the student pay attention to technique and can be sent to the teacher. 

Silver linings

Humans have turned to music to calm anxiety for millennia, de Koning noted. She hopes she can support her students to “make sure they have an outlet for music to keep them in a happy place,” she said. “It’s a comfort thing. 

And while no one is arguing that the situation with the pandemic is a good thing, some silver linings are emerging. 

Remy said he thinks his students are “becoming instantly more creative. 

“When I went to high school, I had free time,” he explained. Now, the vast majority of his students are “so unbelievably busy” that it’s hard for them to make time for experimentation or creative play. 

Art sort of grows out of the fertile soil of boredom,” he said. “You have to be in the room and it starts to happen. If you’re not in the room then it never really happens. 

“It’s refreshing to see some of that personal creativity start to blossom.” 


Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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