Don’t let the music stop: Jazz Band records songs virtually after canceling concerts

Don’t let the music stop: Jazz Band records songs virtually after canceling concerts

Jazz band virtually records music.
I t’s difficult to play band music without a band. But, apparently, not impossible.

As COVID-19 made the world less busy and more solitary—abruptly silencing many things, like two live Jazz Band concerts and the university’s spring musical bonanza, Music at the Mansion—Band Director Clifford Towner quickly decided his students would record their instruments solo on cell phones, laptops or tablets.

Each slice of music would then be digitally blended for full-sounding compositions.

Sometimes it takes a of loss of one thing to think outside the box, and that’s what we’ve done here. We’ve thought outside the box. We lost our normal way of making music, and so we’ve had to come up with a different way ... And that’s what we talk about and what we learn and what we teach here at Georgia college.
– Dr. Clifford Towner, band director
“The part that we really miss is playing together in an ensemble a couple of times a week. I was hoping the virtual recordings would at least assimilate that,” Towner said.

Angelo Po on vibes
Angelo Po on vibes
“It’s not unusual for professional musicians, particularly with commercial music, to record to a click track or hearing only part of the ensemble playing,” he said. “So, I thought this was an opportunity to give students a different taste of performing, which would better help their education.”

Since mid-March—when the pandemic emptied campus—Towner’s students have recorded five songs virtually. These include “Launching Pad” by Duke Ellington and Clark Terry, as well as “Rockabye River” and “Oculpaca” by Duke Ellington.

Jacob Hammock on drums.
Jacob Hammock on drums.
First-year music education major Jacob Hammock of Milledgeville started the virtual recordings alone, using a metronome in his ear to play out a drum set of each song. This was something he’d never done before, and it was challenging. Drumming is hard without other instruments and a melody. His drums were so loud in a small room at home, Hammock had to wrap his laptop in a shirt and put it behind a knapsack to muffle the sound and make it less overpowering.

This was obviously a big change. It has its ups and downs, but it’s not the end of the world. Of course, I would much rather be performing with the band live and having my concert. At least I get to play music.
– Jacob Hammock, first-year music education major
“This was obviously a big change,” Hammock said. “It has its ups and downs, but it’s not the end of the world. Of course, I would much rather be performing with the band live and having my concert.”

“At least I get to play music,” he said. “That’s the whole point of this. The whole point of doing these recordings is to continue to be able to make music.”

Hammock sent his drum tracks to Towner, who put them on Georgia View. Then, each band member played their instruments at home to the drumbeat. Their tracks were sent to trumpet player and senior music major Mary Price, who has a minor in creative music media.

Max Harley on baritone sax
Max Harley on baritone sax
Price took courses in music tech and electro acoustic music production. Luckily, she also has the computer program, Logic Pro, on her laptop and could do the digital editing required. She sent drafts of blended piano, bass and wind sounds back to Towner, who then got soloists to record their improvised pieces. Finally, Price edited solos in for a complete song.

On average, each song used 17 different soundtracks that had to perfectly align. Adjustments were made for players, who performed too fast or too slow, since they couldn’t hear each other and regulate their speed. Another challenge was acoustics—some players were outside or in small or empty rooms, creating different sound qualities.

I was able to make it sound a least a little bit like we were all in the same location. It’s the ensemble quality that we lose, which one could say is the most important aspect of the music.
– Mary Price, senior music major
“I was able to make it sound a least a little bit like we were all in the same location,” Price said.  “It’s the ensemble quality that we lose, which one could say is the most important aspect of the music.”

The subtleties of performing live cannot be duplicated, Towner said. How music lines up, the intonation, that “swing feeling” of being together with other instrumentalists is imperative to a band setting. The interaction with a live audience is also lost.

Many music classes are performance-based. The whole point of playing band music is to be together with other musicians—interacting and reacting to one another. The loneliness of separation can only be alleviated in small measure by recording virtually.

“It’s hard to join the ensemble, when you have no ensemble to join, because everyone is hundreds of miles apart,” Price said. “So, it did create a way for us to play together and hear the music we could make.”

Towner’s proud of the diligence his jazz students have shown. Disappointment over concert cancelations quickly turned into an opportunity to learn something new.

"Sometimes it takes a of loss of one thing to think outside the box, and that’s what we’ve done here. We’ve thought outside the box. We lost our normal way of making music, and so we’ve had to come up with a different way," he said.

It’s been a learning curve for me. It’s been a learning curve for the students. It’s been a learning curve for Mary, having to edit all of this stuff. We’re all learning through that and that’s the point of an education. And that’s what we talk about and what we learn and what we teach here at Georgia college. It’s that liberal arts environment, that thinking creatively, and that’s what we’ve done with these virtual jazz band recordings and, overall, I’m really proud of the project, and I’m really happy with the way it’s turned out
– Dr. Clifford Towner