Tips for Producing a Virtual Concert

Producing virtual and digital content continues to be the new normal for orchestras and performing arts organizations alike as we head into 2021. American Youth Symphony is no exception to this transition in sharing and making music, and we wanted to share our behind-the-scenes process with our audience and colleagues.  Here’s a look into how we planned and produced our virtual Fall Concert on November 1, 2020. 

Producing a full-length digital concert was no easy feat, and everyone on our five-person staff contributed to the production and making the concert a success. For this blog article, we wanted to share insights from many perspectives on the production team, including Music Director Carlos Izcaray, Executive Director Tara Aesquivel, Director of Orchestra Operations Isabel Thiroux, and three AYS musicians from each ensemble in the concert. We hope you find our reflections useful as you continue to enjoy or create virtual content and concerts this year. You can watch pieces from our Fall Concert on our YouTube channel.

Top 3 Takeaways from Music Director, Carlos Izcaray and Executive Director, Tara Aesquivel

Watch our full Zoom conversation with more insights and reflections on our YouTube Channel. 

  1. Plans and programming were inspired by what we could do, not what we couldn’t do.
  2. We wanted the Fall Concert to look and feel different from an archival video of a live concert. The filming had to show the intimacy of a live performance to people viewing at home. 
  3. The world is our stage, and the virtual element really helps us to share our music more widely.

Tips from Director of Orchestra Operations, Isabel Thiroux

Isabel Thiroux is not only the Director of Orchestra Operations for AYS, but also a dedicated AYS alumna and donor. Isabel’s role is highly important for day-to-day orchestra management and long-term planning. She does everything from running AYS auditions, leading musician professional development programs, and is the point person for all 100 AYS musicians. During concert weeks, she ensures that rehearsals run smoothly and that all musicians are accounted for and have everything they need to play their best at AYS concerts. 

Like so many other people and professions, when the pandemic hit in March 2020 Isabel had to transition her entire job from managing production for in-person events to a digital landscape. She also received certification in proper COVID-19 safety protocols and is AYS’ COVID-19 Compliance Officer. When producing the Fall Concert, she had a huge role in maintaining communications with the 45 AYS musicians, building a safety plan with our venue, Royce Hall, and ensuring that the audio and visual quality of the finished pieces were up to AYS’ high artistic standards. We interviewed Isabel about this transition, how it changed the nature of her job, and what tips she has for other orchestras planning a virtual concert. 

1. What about your job changed immediately following the start of the pandemic?

It’s hard to say that my job changed immediately following the start of the pandemic. So much of my day-to-day job can be done remotely in terms of communicating with musicians, event coordination, and planning logistics. With the pandemic however, I have had to be creative with how to safely produce concerts at different venues, and with our ensembles, ensuring they have what they need to be successful.

2. What roadblocks came up with production for the Fall Concert, and how did you overcome them? 

We experienced a few roadblocks when planning for the Fall Concert. We did learn a few things from producing the Virtual Gala in May 2020, which we took into account when planning the Fall Concert. For example, with the Stravinsky piece, we learned that it was helpful to have the musicians record in groups instead of having everyone submit their recordings individually to be edited together. It helped make the piece feel more cohesive and succinct. 

One roadblock that we experienced with the Fall Concert was that though it was one concert, the pieces were filmed at three different venues. We ran into issues with venue availability and if the spaces were large enough to accommodate the COVID-19 safety standards of maintaining between 6-8ft apart on and off the stage. We also had to consider which venues were already practicing COVID compliance and how they could work with us to ensure the health and safety of all musicians and staff. Because the pieces were being filmed for an online concert, I also had to learn more about how to obtain film permits for the venue and go through that process. 

Another roadblock was thinking about our musicians and if they were residing in Los Angeles and available to film the in-person pieces. Many of our musicians went home after the start of the pandemic and are not local to the area. We wanted to work with as many AYS musicians as possible, so we did have to creatively problem solve how to involve as many musicians as we could. 

3. Did you find any systems or things to be particularly effective when planning for the Fall Concert? 

Yes! I was able to recycle my multi-tab excel document that I usually use to organize the musician roster for each concert. This helped me to stay organized and keep track of which musicians submitted their audio recordings or sent in their COVID compliance waiver. I definitely recommend using excel as a way to stay organized with all of the different production needs, especially when you are collecting digital content. 

Another thing I would recommend is planning a Zoom meeting with the ensembles ahead of time. I did a Zoom meeting with the strings, as well as the winds & brass ensemble prior to filming, which helped to set expectations and clear up any questions. For the Stravinsky piece, we had our audio engineer Francesco Perlangeli join us to give advice on how to best set up for recording at home and what we needed for high audio quality. We also shared with musicians what resources they could expect from AYS including a click track, conducting video with Maestro Izcaray, and our plan to record in groups. 

For the strings ensemble Zoom meeting, we wanted them to have access to Carlos ahead of time to ask questions that they would normally be able to ask in person at rehearsal. We only had one in-person rehearsal all together prior to filming at Royce Hall, so everything was a time crunch. The musicians were able to ask Carlos specific questions about the pieces including tempo, bowings, or questions for their section. This allowed us to really focus on playing together at our rehearsal at Hollywood Scoring. 

4. As AYS’ Covid Compliance Officer, how did you work with our venues, Royce Hall, Hollywood Scoring, and CalPerc LA in assuring that all musicians and staff would be safe for the in-person rehearsals and recordings? What planning was involved? 

At all venues we had someone doing temperature checks, mask distribution (all musicians received a clean, unused mask upon arrival), and reviewing the musician and staff COVID compliance forms. Royce Hall also had a COVID Compliance Officer that worked closely with me during the planning process. We had multiple calls, exchanged pictures of the setup and social distancing spacing, and in general, a lot of communicating. 

5. Can you talk about how you developed the stage plot with Royce Hall, keeping in mind the 6ft distance needed for musicians?

When we started working with Royce Hall, we discovered that their compliance was actually 8ft distance apart. This socially-distanced staging really informed how many strings players we could have for the concert, which then affected Maestro Izcaray’s selection of pieces that could be played with a smaller strings ensemble. When planning for the 8ft distance, we also had to factor in the space that the chair and music stand would take up.  

I also worked on trying to figure out how to place musicians in a way that they could still feel part of their section and hear each other. Normally, they sit very closely and share music stands. This was a huge shift in how they play. We knew musicians were going to feel completely alone, so we tried our best with making the stage plot and having them still feel a part of their section. I actually played a concert the week before the Royce Hall filming, and brought that experience of feeling alone on stage into the stage plot and communicating that with musicians ahead of time. We also had a large camera crew with a lot of equipment which had to be factored in as well.

Development of our Stage Plot for Royce Hall

6. How was producing Maestro Izcaray’s Bloom and how did you work together to decide which percussion instruments would be played? 

As Maestro Izcaray was composing his percussion piece, we gave him a basic list of instruments he could have access to, based on our partnerships and musician accessibility. We also surveyed our percussion players, Jeremy Davis and Jonathan Wisner, for what instruments they had at home or could gain access to. Since this was a brand new piece, we were able to be a little more flexible in terms of instruments. 

CalPercLA was not only our venue, but also provided the instrument rentals. Our Principal Timpanist, Jonathan, had to schedule his own practice time with CalPercLA because, like many percussion players, he doesn’t have these large instruments at home. We also chose CalPercLA as our filming location because it allowed us to have the most access to instruments without having to pay cartage fees for delivering instruments to a different location. 

7. What final advice do you have for orchestras and people in similar roles as yours as they plan for a virtual concert? 

My biggest piece of advice would be to lean on the relationships that you have. This concert would not have been possible without our long time supporters, partners, and AYS alumni. CalPercLA owner Lauren Kosty and Joey Muskat are both AYS alumni and have worked with us for many seasons on percussion rentals. Our score reader for the strings pieces, Michael Armstrong, is also an AYS alum and was super helpful for the day-of filming and the editing of the pieces. Our rehearsal space, Hollywood Scoring is run by AYS alum, Noah Gladstone, and the production company for Stravinsky and Bloom, Paxeros, are long-time family friends of mine. There are so many others that helped make the Fall Concert happen, but I would advise orchestras to really utilize the talent and resources within their circles. 

My second piece of advice would be to get musicians together ahead of time to communicate any and all concerns on health and safety prior to meeting in person. I constantly checked in with musicians to ensure we were meeting their health and safety standards, and for them to know what our expectations were. This was important in ensuring that the organization was doing everything it could to keep musicians, staff, and production crew safe.

Score Reader and AYS Alumni, Michael Armstrong

Symphonies of Wind Instruments by Igor Stravinsky. Edited by Paxeros.

Musician Perspectives

We asked three musicians from each ensemble to share their perspectives on preparing for the Fall Concert. Each had a unique experience that is important to telling the full story of how we produced the Fall Concert. 

Angela Marvin, Cello

String Ensemble

What advice do you have for musicians who have not played with an ensemble after 6 months? 

“If you’re preparing to jump into ensemble work after such a long hiatus, I would suggest using many different methods to practice your parts. What helped me the most for our November 1st concert was playing through sections with recordings. This provided me with the most authentic feeling of what I was missing for many months. Chances are there isn’t much time to rehearse together, so any ideas you have, try them! Besides preparation, really nice things to bring to a rehearsal are optimism and compassion. Everyone is adjusting and maybe feeling uncomfortable, so to be human with each other is very important.”

Jeremy Davis, Principal Percussion

Percussion Trio

What advice do you have for musicians learning a new piece alone at home? 

“For new music which is to be recorded with a click track at home, composers normally provide musicians with a score of the piece and an audio file that is computer-generated. In my opinion, it is essential to study both of these to the fullest in order to learn the piece correctly and to be able to perform your part to the composer’s liking. It will also make learning the piece a lot easier for the musician because, when at home, all of the benefits of performing live are taken away, such as figuring out cues and hearing which instruments you play with in certain sections of the piece. Score study and listening to the audio file is an alternative way to really understand the music and play your role correctly while isolating at home.”

Alexander Tu, Clarinet

Winds & Brass Ensemble

The Stravinsky Symphonies of Winds Instruments was completely rehearsed, filmed, and produced at home. What advice do you have for musicians rehearsing and filming an ensemble piece at home? 

“Putting together online collaborations is a very interesting experience, especially the first time. By not having colleagues to hear in person, you really have to listen to recordings and look at the score if possible. It’s more important than ever to listen especially when you don’t have an audible sound to work with. You have to hear the other parts, know how yours fits in, and play accordingly. Of course make sure you play the right notes and in tune as you would with any performance, but consider some other odd instances when you’re working from home… For instance, my apartment is near a road so I had to record later at night when there was less traffic. Additionally, I have a kitten who does not like to be ignored so there were only a few golden hours that I could record with less car noise and no excessive meowing!”

American Youth Symphony

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