Sep 21, 2020, 08:00 AM
Rhythm Scene Staff
The Spring 2020 semester was unlike any other. On March 18, the West Virginia University percussion faculty received an email from University president E. Gordon Gee, likely similar to the ones that many of you undoubtedly received, confirming the closure of the university for the remainder of the semester and the move to online instruction. While this transition was stretching for the studio, the school, and the university, the commitment of the WVU percussion faculty (George Willis, Mike Vercelli, Brian Wolfe, and Mark Reilly) to supporting our students and colleagues in every way possible was clearly evident as we all navigated this new normal.
As the semester concluded online, I remember talking with George about how much we would miss the annual WVU Percussion Camp, which would be going on its ninth consecutive year. On the one hand, both of us were pretty much Zoom-ed out, but I remember saying something to the effect of, “There’s no way that we could do something like that online—is there?”
Over the next six weeks, through the tireless effort of the WVU Percussion Faculty in collaboration with Joshua Swiger from the Music Industry department; Mike Dawson, WVU alumnus and managing editor of Modern Drummer magazine; and Darren Proctor, DMA graduate percussionist at WVU, we were able to deliver a mix of live and pre-recorded content directly to 37 attendees from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. for five days in late June.
It became evident in our earliest conversations about the WVU Summer Online Percussion Academy (or “SOPA,” as it would come to be referred to) that we were only interested in working towards this goal if were able to deliver a quality product. Soon after final exams wrapped up at the beginning of May it became evident that this ambitious plan was possible, but time was of the essence. Alongside Darren Proctor, we created advertisement images for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and email, using the WVU Brand Kit guidelines and assets provided by the University, and assembled on Canva, a free, online graphics-creation website. Simultaneously, we began posting information on the WVU Percussion Facebook page, within University Percussion groups that we were members of, reaching out to band directors, friends, and colleagues throughout West Virginia and beyond. Directing interest to the wvu.edu page that had been set up for the camp, we collected registration fees via the Eventbrite platform and attendee information via the Wufoo online form builder.
CREATING STATIC CONTENT
In collaboration with Joshua Swiger, Visiting Teaching Associate Professor for Music Industry at WVU, we were able to create a wide range of professional, pre-recorded video content, covering topics from two-mallet marimba and orchestral accessories, to samba techniques and note-for-note drum set transcriptions. Using the equipment available at Josh’s Blues Alley Studios, the WVU Percussion faculty recorded their pre-recorded content with professional video, audio, lighting, mixing, and mastering, all made possible because of the commitment to inter-departmental collaboration exhibited by members of the WVU music faculty.
This static content would be delivered in conjunction with the dynamic, live content offered during the week of the academy, creating a mixture that promoted a sense of flexibility for both the students and faculty, ensuring that they could take breaks should they need to during the static sessions while knowing the content would still be there when they got back. New static content was released each day, eventually totaling nearly 35 different videos for students to watch over the course of the week and beyond.
EQUIPMENT AND DEVICES
The WVU Percussion department worked closely with the WVU Music Industry department, collaborating on the types of equipment and devices that we would need in order to make SOPA a success. While much of the equipment was shared, this list can be delineated into two major categories: local and remote.
Locally, we used a BlackMagic Studio Camera in conjunction with two Sony PLZ Remote Cameras to capture local dynamic content from different angles, foci, and resolutions, and to have the ability to rearrange those elements between sessions. This flexibility was very helpful for the diverse needs of, say, a snare drum clinic versus a marimba or timpani clinic.
Connecting to an analog mixer, we employed two Earthworks QTC30 overhead “room” microphones, alongside two small-diaphragm condenser microphones to capture both instrument sound and speech, often with one microphone directed towards the presenter and one towards the instrument during interactive clinics.
The feed from these inputs was sent to a video switcher which was then sent to a Macbook Pro to combine, process, and deliver the audio and video. Additionally, we used a secondary personal laptop as well as personal cellphones in order to monitor the live feed from the Zoom conference, and mix the audio in real-time.
Remotely, the faculty members used their own combinations of laptops and other equipment to capture their dynamic remote presentations. In most cases, setting Zoom to enable original sound was sufficient to get consistent audio quality from the remote presenters.
HOSTING AND ADMINISTRATION
For several weeks leading up to our start date, I spent time testing a number of platforms for content delivery, looking for the best mix of quality, accessibility, and integrity possible before we committed one way or the other. SOPA eventually found its home for static content on unlisted YouTube playlists via the WVU Percussion YouTube page and delivered dynamic content via the Zoom video conferencing platform with which many of us are recently familiar.
The academy schedule included constant content delivery between 9–11 a.m. each morning, a break for lunch, and a mix of content from 1–5 p.m. each afternoon, some of which included private lessons with WVU Percussion faculty.
While Zoom was the primary contact point between instructors and the attendees, a number of other programs played intermediary roles in our interface. For dynamic content, all of our audio and video was first run through OBS, an open-source streaming program that is able to combine all manner of video, audio, image, and text content into a single outgoing package. In order to use OBS in conjunction with Zoom, we employed the NDI Virtual Camera plug-in, which allows the output of OBS to be seen as a camera by Zoom, rather than using the built-in webcam, as well as VB-Audio’s VB-CABLE Virtual Audio Device, another bit of freeware that would allow Zoom to see our computer audio as a microphone for Zoom.
Apart from content delivery, SOPA communicated with its attendees primarily through email, with morning and afternoon session overviews sent with GMail’s schedule send feature each day at 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. We used Google Drive to host any handouts, videos, and supplementary materials that did not easily fit into any of the prior categories, wanting to limit the number of hoops that attendees had to jump through in order to access all the content we would deliver.
DELIVERING DYNAMIC CONTENT
Each day, we delivered approximately six hours of dynamic content to the attendees of the WVU Summer Online Percussion Academy. This content included everything from guided warm-ups and clinics on technique to faculty performance spotlights and current-student interviews. This diversity of content was possible in large part due to the diversity of the WVU Percussion faculty and in conjunction with a desire to present a holistic percussion experience for the attendees.
Local dynamic content was delivered via Zoom to those who connected to the daily call. Our goal was to eliminate the needs for students to constantly reconnect to different sessions for different clinics, so instead we used the cohosting functionality of Zoom to permit the presenters to have the ability to spotlight their videos, share their screens, and generally have administrative control of their sessions.
Each morning, we had a privilege of introducing one of Brian Wolfe’s Drum Set Through the Decades videos, in which he breaks down five songs from five decades, from Frank Sinatra’s 1959 version of “Cheek-to-Cheek” to Lizzo’s 2019 “Juice.” OBS in conjunction with NDI Virtual Camera and VB-Audio Cable allowed us to stream these videos that were recorded by Pf. Wolfe just a few weeks prior for the camp directly via the Zoom call, eliminating the necessity for attendees to navigate away from the session and possibly experience difficulty rejoining for the next clinic.
As part of their attendance, each participant had the opportunity to take three private lessons with members of the WVU Percussion faculty. With their responses to a survey querying their interests in hand, from 2:30–4:30 p.m. each day, approximately two-thirds of the attendees had one-on-one lessons with a faculty. Using Zoom’s Breakout Rooms feature, we were able to direct the students into separate rooms with their instructors at their appointed lesson times, all within the same persistent afternoon call that they were already connected to.
At the end of every day, the WVU Percussion faculty concluded the afternoon sessions with a round-table discussion on topics chosen by both faculty and students. During the last half of these sessions, along with the latter portion of all of the live sessions, students were encouraged to submit questions that they had for the faculty, who would answer them live during the call. This sort of direct access to the WVU Percussion faculty remains paramount to the goal of the percussion program at WVU.
IT AND TECHNICAL SUPPORT
A large portion of my immediate responsibility for SOPA was as IT and Technical support liaison, both internally among our faculty and staff, and externally, for our attendees. Vital to any sort of online event are, for me, two primary factors: reliability and accessibility.
As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” This adage helped to inform the sorts of infrastructure that we considered for SOPA and the design of our Fail-state Flowchart, a tool that I use personally when considering an event or system in order to free-up bandwidth on the day of the event to deal with issues as they arrive; the more states that you can anticipate, the less down-time you will have trying to devise a solution for something that was unexpected.
In large part, by choosing platforms that have proven to be reliable and accessible in the past (e.g., Zoom, YouTube, Google Drive), we were able to eliminate much of the worry surrounding fail-states, and furthermore, by choosing these platforms that I was already very familiar with, I was able to confidently guarantee that the majority of issues that we may face would be resolvable without significant interference to the delivery of content.
Obviously, as the complexity of a system increases, so too do the numbers of points of possible failure; this was elucidated plainly when, due to quarantine conditions for faculty that live out-of-state, we had designed to stream “Live from Marion Meadows!,” putting on a small living room concert in the Willis household for Thursday morning’s session. It was a surprise to us all when, not 90 minutes before we were to go live, a squirrel met a shocking end at the hands of the nearby transformer, knocking out the power (and thus the A/V equipment and Wi-Fi) to our venue. Somehow, this scenario hadn’t made it onto my flowchart!
With the support of Joshua Swiger and the professionalism of George Willis and Brian Wolfe, we were able to capture a 4k cell-phone video recording of a cold-run of their performance before quickly travelling to our setup at the WVU campus in order to begin the stream at 9:02 a.m. and having a wonderful clinic conversation about the effects of preparation and interference on our subsequent performances!
There remains no shortage of speculation as to what will happen now, what the right thing to do is, or how we will deal with everything in light of the complex situations still being navigated throughout our musical and academic communities, across our country, and throughout the world. While I am thankful to have been able to support such a successful project as the 2020 WVU Summer Online Percussion Academy, more important is the lessons that we learned from this endeavor.
In spite of changes that seem insurmountable, and regardless of whether or not we are truly ready to transition to this new normal, the WVU Percussion Faculty has demonstrated what is possible when a group of dedicated, compassionate, and thoughtful musicians and educators commit to overcoming obstacles that may at first seem, at best, inconvenient, and at worst, impossible.
Thanks to George Willis, Mike Vercelli, Brian Wolfe, Mark Reilly, and Mike Dawson for their immediate willingness to strike out on this adventure, to Darren Proctor and Joshua Swiger for their vital assistance, to Michael Ibrahim, director of the WVU School of Music, and to Keith Jackson, dean of the WVU College of Creative Arts for their trust and support, and to all of the members of the inaugural class of the WVU Online Percussion Academy. We all must navigate our days in the best way that we can; I for one am beyond humbled to be among those who see an opportunity to “do good, well” and strive for it.
Ian Riley is a percussionist, educator, and storyteller from upstate New York exploring the intersections between percussion performance and live electronics. Ian serves as a graduate teaching assistant at West Virginia University, where he is pursuing a DMA in percussion performance. As a founding member of the Nautilus Percussion Group, Ian seeks to broaden the horizons of percussive soundscapes through the integration of electronics as a part of live performance. Nautilus serves as an experimental percussion ensemble blending the rhythmic and tonal language of North Indian classical music, the groove-elements of European frame drumming traditions, and the limitless palette afforded through electronic augmentation to encourage audiences to “listen deeper.”