Finding the Right Mix of Virtual and In-Person Performances

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many choruses scrambled to create new virtual connections in an effort to stay engaged with their singers and supporters. Two years on, as singing in-person returns, choral organizations are making the time to reflect on what they’ve learned and to envision a virtual presence that makes sense for their long-term future.

Tina Meckel and Patrick Owens do not claim to have seen the digital future of choral music performance, but they feel pretty sure it will not look like the intro to the early ‘70s TV show The Brady Bunch. A video screen full of little boxes, each populated with a singing face, seemed to be the only place for choristers to harmonize early in the pandemic. Members of the Twin Cities-based National Lutheran Choir (NLC), where Meckel is executive director, may at first have been willing to record their parts solo and then upload their performances for a virtual choir production, but at the prospect of doing it again, “there’s definitely some PTSD,” she says. The New York Choral Society (NYCS) decided not to go there at all, says Owens, the executive director, because the organization’s leadership felt virtual choirs do not deliver an “artistically rich” experience.

Other online models, however, have convinced Meckel, Owens, and many of their colleagues that choruses can add lasting beauty and meaning to the digital landscape—even as the pandemic wanes (we hope) and the choral world channels its enthusiasm in the direction of bricks-and-mortar concert halls and real, live audiences.


Connection, Instruction, Production: Virtual Experiments with Staying Power

When the pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020, choruses with experience in video production, web streaming, and video conferencing could claim a significant advantage. Perhaps as far back as seven years ago, the NLC began to experiment with live streaming some of its concerts, says Meckel, “with the hope of seeing how this is going to work in this brave new digital era.” At about the same time, the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus (JCC) “began to record pretty much everything we did,” says executive and artistic director Darren Dailey. “We have a YouTube channel now that's got over 300 videos.” With a library like that, he notes, it became “a little bit easier for us to maneuver initially.”

For other choruses, reconnecting turned into a months-long process. The 30-member North Fork Community Choir (NFCC) in Paonia, Colorado, didn’t have “the wherewithal to do it” in March 2020, explains director Stephanie Helleckson. “We have an older demographic, often less familiar with technology,” she says, so “we just shut everything down.” But pandemic-imposed isolation motivated her singers to learn new skills. “Being able to Zoom with grandbabies is a great thing,” she says. By the fall of 2020, the choir began to meet online.

Whether it took days or months to go virtual, choruses both large and small tended to focus first on video conferencing to engage their communities—rehearsing in some fashion, teaching, or simply socializing. The NYCS introduced Zoom “listening parties” on its normal rehearsal nights, playing audio of past performances accompanied by concert photos and graphics created by some of the singers.  The Indianapolis Children’s Chorus (ICC) held a cabaret night, open to anything except singing, says artistic director Joshua Pedde.

The experiences have led both organizations to continue holding online social events, even as in-person programming resumes. Pedde has found that ICC alumni have enjoyed connecting in this way, and the NYCS listening parties inspired virtual master classes with guest conductors, says Owens—an offering the chorus aims to carry forward.

Pedde continued teaching much as he normally would. “Maybe I couldn't hear the students all the time, but I was still giving instruction, I was still talking about technique.” The ICC went on to help develop a music-friendly conferencing platform. Thanks to a choir parent’s introduction, Pedde says the ICC began working with WebEx in the design of its “music mode,” intended to avoid some of the limitations Zoom presented at the time.

Because Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the lower 48 states and many chorus members must travel long distances for in-person gatherings, the JCC had instituted online music theory instruction years ago, says Dailey, and emphasized it during the pandemic because online singing lessons presented too many challenges. Some adult choruses made a similar shift, among them the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, where founding artistic director J. Donald Dumpson used his time online with choristers as a way of “undergirding” their overall experience, delivering lessons on technique and performance practice via video "in a way that you just couldn't at a live rehearsal” and setting up breakout rooms for singers to discuss these ideas.

Lessons learned in online instruction have “opened up some new opportunities,” says Pedde. Positive experiences have enabled the ICC to reduce the number of in-person sessions and “if a singer is not feeling well,” he adds, “they can stay home now but still be part of our rehearsal.” That’s one reason the NFCC will continue to stream its rehearsals, says Helleckson. Another is that they’re available later, on demand, as a benefit “not just for those who miss, but for those who are there and would like to review something that they weren't quite sure they caught.”

As it became clear a return to in-person performances would be months, not mere weeks, away, choruses began to explore ways to represent the concert experience online.  Like the NLC, many decided once was enough for virtual choir experiments. Helleckson says her singers found the effort to be “a lot of just being in a basement by yourself—very intensive and not all that rewarding for everyone involved.”  When its singers began to meet in person again, the ICC moved on from virtual choir cyberspace to a natural setting, in and around a church, to record a selection of songs that were assembled into a program for online viewing. For the 2020 holiday season, the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale collaborated with the Bucks County Choral Society in a video featuring familiar carols recorded outdoors in various locations. It was broadcast on Philadelphia’s PBS station, WHYY. In late 2021, the NFCC recorded an in-person performance of Messiah for on-demand viewing by people who were quarantining or chose to avoid mountain roads in winter.

The NLC planned an entirely virtual season with the vision, says Meckel, that each program would “reproduce the intent of the concert in a completely virtual sense.” The choir used a variety of source material: recordings of previous live-streamed performances, new virtual choir productions, and on-location recordings, including one featuring “a small group in an airplane hangar, masked, fully spread out. It was kind of dramatic,” Meckel says. In line with a vision that embraces underrepresented voices and collaboration with other art forms, NYCS music director David Hayes decided to focus online music programming on a cappella works by contemporary composers and collaboration with choreographers, inviting them “to simply respond to the music,” Owens says. The result was Our Voices, a series launched in 2020–21 with five films that Owens feels “really expanded on the notion of what choral performance was, expanded the repertoire, and also created something that was visually interesting and compelling.”

New experience with live streaming creates new options for collaboration, Dailey has realized. In the past, when inviting choirs from historically Black colleges to sing in the JCC’s annual Martin Luther King concerts, “we've been restricted to who's available regionally.” But now, he notes, “we're going to have the ability to have even greater participation from a virtual perspective.”

The NLC is still trying to find “the sweet spots” between live streams and more highly-produced programs, Meckel says, whereas the New York Choral Society has landed firmly in the latter camp. “What we began to learn,” Owens says, “is that this is such an interesting way to complement in-person performance. They were an opportunity for experimentation.” The pandemic created the opportunity, he says. Without that challenge, “I think it probably would have taken us multiple years to get to the point where we are now in terms of having a facility with this medium and where it fits going forward.”


Gauging the Response

“Over the last two years, millions of Americans have discovered some world of digital programs,” observes consultant Alan Brown, and he’s found a sizeable share of the performing arts audience is among them. During the pandemic, Brown has been tracking that audience’s behavior and attitudes for the Audience Outlook Monitor, a research initiative of his firm, Wolf/Brown. About 44 percent of the patrons surveyed in February by performing arts organizations participating in his studies have engaged with online cultural programs. 

Choruses report a wide range of success attracting audiences for virtual programming. Owens says Our Voices reached thousands of viewers—"significantly more than we would do in terms of butts in seats in a normal season.” At the time the series launched, in September 2020, the chorus saw an uptick in email subscriptions, “so we know that we are reaching people that we never would have before,” Owens says. Part of the reason, he suspects, is that press coverage for the series was not always music-centered: “A lot of it was focused on the social engagement aspect of our work or the world of dance,” he says, “so we were able to penetrate different market sectors in a way that we hadn't before.” As a small, non-auditioned community chorus in the Colorado Rockies, the NFCC has more modest audience goals. Helleckson says about 30 viewers tuned into its first live-streamed concert, although for perspective she notes that was double the size of the in-person audience. “We're not looking to be on a grandiose worldwide stage,” she says. “We just want to service our community, our friends, our family.”

Helleckson realizes, though, that friends and family elsewhere in the world create a global community, and so does Pedde: “We have that ability now for Grandma and Grandpa who live in Florida to see Sally singing,” he says. For Dailey, it used to be a setback when corporate CEOs who were good friends of the JCC would move away from Jacksonville “and take their resources with them.” But now, he says, “some continue to follow us because we have a video presence.” The NLC has long faced the challenge of staying connected to people who discover the group at tour stops. Now, with a growing virtual presence, “we have some ways that we can do that,” says Meckel.


Getting Strategic About Virtual Programming

At the beginning of the pandemic, many performing arts organizations “just lurched into digital content as a stopgap measure to keep the audiences engaged,” says Brown. Two years later, a significant number of choruses remain in the game. After a January survey of 900 North American choral organizations, the chorus management software company Chorus Connection reported these key findings:

  • 72.9 percent of choruses planned to perform live in 2022.
  • 12.3 percent planned to continue live-streaming.
  • 10.8 percent planned to record performances for on-demand viewing.
  • 28 percent planned a hybrid model of live and live-streamed/on-demand.

It’s time now to be looking further ahead, says Brown, “to do the difficult work of connecting digital programming to strategy. Why would we create digital content? What role does it play in our mission? And how are we going to finance it?”

The answer to Brown’s last question begins with audience engagement. How can choruses more deeply engage the viewers who have only recently discovered them on YouTube or Facebook? The New York Choral Society is investing “a significant amount of time” in segmenting its email list, says Owens, so it can invite new Tri-State Area virtual subscribers to its in-person concerts. The JCC is using email to deepen connections with people joining its social media platforms—"the majority of our growth that I can absolutely pinpoint,” Dailey says. The chorus regularly sends out links to its YouTube videos, a reminder that “you don't have to go to a full choral concert to experience the beauty of choral music. It can be just a taste of it at the beginning of your day.”

The big challenge, says Meckel, is getting to know the people in the virtual audience. “The best window we ever had” into that, she says, was a YouTube chat with viewers following an online performance by the NLC early in the pandemic. “We could really hear their stories, why they were tuning in,” she says. At that time, many seemed to be looking for comfort and connection through music, but Meckel suspects viewers’ motivations may be different now. “I'm not sure we have those answers yet,” she says.

Throughout the pandemic, Brown’s research has demonstrated that performing arts patrons are not very willing to buy tickets for virtual performances. While 44 percent of the respondents in his February surveys said they had engaged in virtual performances, only 18 percent had paid for them.

Experiences reported by these choruses are consistent with that finding. The NLC’s experiment with a paywall for a concert last fall was disappointing, says Meckel. Dailey reports mixed results for the JCC’s ticketed virtual concerts. He is hoping the growth of the chorus’s YouTube channel, now claiming more than 1,000 followers, will lead to meaningful revenue, although he acknowledges “these are uncharted waters.” The NFCC has considered trying a paywall, according to Helleckson, but experience tells her that appeals for donations will be more successful. “When we ask people to support us, we end up getting more support than if we actually ticket a concert,” she says. Meckel has witnessed similar audience behavior: “During the worst of the pandemic, we just took our work and put it out there without charge, and that actually, I believe, was a hugely effective public awareness campaign. We saw certain indicators really change, just in terms of numbers of views and numbers of donations coming into the organization.”  

Several choruses are also finding that virtual performances can be attractive options for donor/sponsors who want to encourage that kind of activity or appreciate the subscriber and social media metrics it can generate. Dailey says he has heard that message directly from JCC supporters. The NYCS has several donors that it brings in as co-producers, says Owens, “very much as we would try and raise funding for a specific concert. From a budget perspective, we look at it probably primarily as the cost of staying visible and staying relevant.” When your work and your brand are visible around the globe, funders respond, adds Dailey. That kind of virtual presence “raises your cachet locally. The benefit is just extraordinary.”

The overall message, according to Meckel, is that the main payoff for virtual programming will arrive in the form of contributed income. “I think just by virtue of the greater reach there are more prospects for contributed revenue,” she says.


Looking Ahead, Finding a New Balance

All of these choruses are planning to adopt a hybrid approach that combines virtual and in-person programming. Several are using this year to test ways of achieving a reasonable balance.

“Budgets will be a deciding factor” in taking on any virtual venture, “not the desire to do it or have it,” argues Dumpson. The choruses most active in audience-focused projects will be the ones that can afford to document the choral art in the manner it deserves and to share it widely with others, he says. Pedde agrees “there is a level of excellence being put out there by other groups that we need to be looking at.”

The question then becomes, can we produce programs that are both excellent and cost-effective? After breaking even with its most recent virtual efforts, Pedde says the ICC will likely cut back a bit next season, streaming two of its five concerts. Meckel expects the NLC will also create two new virtual programs, scaling down from four, “along with reusing some of the amazing content we did produce over the pandemic.” The NYCS plans just one Our Voices production next season, down from the current three and from five in 2020­–21. “That was a lot,” says Owens. Concerns over COVID-19 also factored into the chorus’s plans, he says. The specter of a variant yet to come may argue against a winter concert next year, which he thinks might make January or February a good time to release a virtual production.

Even on a smaller budget, Helleckson believes the NFCC should continue with a hybrid virtual/in-person model. "The technology has shown us some tools that we can continue to use,” she says, knowing that an active online presence can play an important role in community-building, “but we recognize that it's not a replacement for the sense of community that in-person singing gives us.”

At the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus, plans for a digital future begin with the word “more.” “There'll be obviously more YouTube videos because that's something we were committed to before,” says Dailey, and he adds that every concert is going to be live-streamed. “I see this as an investment,” he says, “and if you look at this as a long-term investment, the returns are exceptional.”

Facing a future that is far from clear, Dumpson plans to stay alert for lessons he can glean from these colleagues and others whose experience with virtual performance is more firmly established. One thing is clear now, he says: “I need to remain fluid. I need to I need to allow myself to be responsive in real time.”

Brown urges choruses not only to learn from each other, but to band together. “The only way that we're going to get really high-quality digital content is by collaborating and asking funders to support work that benefits the entire sector,” he says. He envisions “a product line of well-produced video programs featuring different choruses that is produced every year and is available to everyone at a very low cost.” He thinks of it as “a consolidated audience development effort,” a digital concert, possibly streamed live, for at-home viewing or even theatrical presentation, á la Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. “I just want to encourage people to think about this as a collaborative challenge that requires collaborative solutions,” he says, “because that that's about the only way we're going to come out of this with some really fantastic, sustainable digital programming that actually builds public interest in choral music.”

As the pandemic stretched on and choruses increasingly realized the advantages a virtual presence can bring, the prediction “this isn’t going away” became a kind of refrain. But as restrictions have been relaxed, a different sentiment seems to prevail. Tina Meckel puts it this way: “Nothing will ever replace live performance, and live performance has to stay at the center of everything we do.” Now that we're returning to in-person singing, Pedde sometimes notices people “shying away from technology,” and he gets it. Still, much-improved virtual connections with his singers and easy access to the work of far-flung colleagues are among the reasons he is bullish on a digital future for choral music.

No one is saying this is an either-or proposition. As Dumpson puts it, “there's a pull, there's a desire to be live,” and alongside that, there’s an enticing new frontier, the virtual world. “How do we have them co-exist?” Meckel is guessing that the audience for virtual performances will shrink a bit as choruses get back to singing in person, and that will cause a “correction” in their priorities. For the next couple of years, she expects attention will be focused on “reknitting human connections.” So where does that leave virtual activity? “I wouldn't want to push it to the back burner,” she says. “But turn the heat down so it can simmer for a while.”

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.