All-State Orchestra Online: “The Mortifying Ordeal of Being Known”

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Written by: Olivia Wang (’23) and Abby Fakhoury (’22)

“Online orchestra” sounds like an oxymoron. How can a group of musicians come together and blend their sounds into a beautiful symphony when the orchestra is fractured into numerous remote locations and separated by varying degrees of laggy wifi? OkMEA’s All-State Orchestra program undertook the challenge of synthesizing the sounds of a 130+ piece orchestra playing the Marsche of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, a piece daunting enough in person. The program was broken down into three sessions: Thursday and Friday evenings, and the whole of Saturday. In total, we clocked in about 20 hours of rehearsal, not including the additional time of recording after the sessions. You might think that the experience would be hit-or-miss, without much tenacity from any of the directors. That’s what I thought, too. But I was wrong. So very wrong. 

Our conductor, Dr. Gene Moon of California Baptist University, was a man who strived for perfection and, as I later discovered, a bringer of unapologetic stress. The directors emphasized punctuality, schedules, and, most unfortunately, a camera that was turned on at all times. We could run, but we could not hide.  Everyone was subject to our conductor’s gaze. In a strange way, seeing the fear in my peers’ eyes was quite comforting. We were in this together and I felt more solidarity among us than I ever had among musicians in person. We were scattered across a state instead of a stage and the distance between us made the connection we felt all the more special.

As you can imagine, trying to unite a 130+ piece orchestra over Zoom would come with major obstacles. The first issue that the online orchestra had was how to unite everybody over live video and audio. It is difficult because you can’t just have everybody unmute and play at once because what you end up with is an indecipherable cacophony of lagged, unbalanced sound. I was curious to see how All-State would approach this problem, and the answer was both unexpected and terrifying. 

Dr. Moon’s most notorious endeavor was his mode of choosing those who would unmute and lead the orchestra by playing their part. Enter the “Dice of Fear.” This virtual die determined who would play alone off mute for the entire orchestra. Those blessed with poor wifi were able to avoid the mortification of playing in front of the ensemble, but for the rest, it was a test of nerves. The sheer panic of having to play alone in front of your peers was made worse by the fact that you didn’t have the physical support of having your peers around you. It felt like an intrusion into your safe pseudo-anonymous bubble. As the die rolled, the only thing on everyone’s mind was not me, please not me. To this day, I can clearly visualize its 14 sides spinning before me, tauntingly slowing down and lingering over people’s chair numbers. Slowing upon what seemed to be the victim, I let out a sigh of relief. Then, the unimaginable occurred. The die hadn’t quite found its balance on number 12 and decided to settle on 8. Oh no. This could not be happening. My heart racing, I reached over to my keyboard and unmuted, shakily responding to Dr. Moon’s questions and inwardly vowing to curse him and all of his descendants. At his instruction, I counted off the orchestra – 1, 2 – and played the bar of triplets. He thanked me and moved on to his next victim, as I muted, feeling quite numb. I received text messages from my peers, assuring me that I sounded okay. It was the virtual equivalent of a pat on the back.

One thing we didn’t know going into the experience was that a certain level of tech-savviness was required. We used a software called “Bandlab” to record small sections assigned to us by Dr. Moon, which he would listen to and critique. Each section (separated by instrument) was in a breakout room. When we were not rehearsing all together, and these rooms were manned by a tech leader, most of whom were Dr. Moon’s students from CBU. Everyone had problems, whether it was the lack of sound in a recording, or somehow recording your track over someone else’s. The tech aspect definitely slowed things down. However, we all just had to grit our teeth and push through the frustration for each other, because everyone had to put in their best effort in order for the orchestra to succeed. 

Keeping the fine arts alive over zoom has been hard. It feels like an entirely different way of creating music together: rehearsing, recording, downloading, and editing. However, when it comes down to it, the shared belief and dedication in coming together and trying to create beautiful music is the same. In all the uncertainty, All-State happened. It tried its best. I’m grateful to participate in the fine arts, even if it’s online in the middle of a pandemic.