We are delighted to see Melbourne’s COVID-19 case numbers shrink to zero, and are enjoying the increased freedoms that the relaxation of lockdown restrictions bring.  We now have the opportunity to play together again in small groups in private residences.

However the continuing constraints including total numbers gathering, density & proximity restrictions and in particular very tight limits on the number of wind & brass players means that we will continue with virtual “zoom” rehearsals for our final rehearsals of 2020.  It’s not the same as playing in-person, and we still hit the odd technical hitch (plus the perennial “You’re on mute!”) but it is fun music-making all the same!

Our 2020 AGM will be held in the break of our online Zoom rehearsal on 29 October.

Presented will be last year’s AGM minutes, the Treasurer’s, President’s and Musical Director’s report.  These will also be available in our google docs folder, link to be sent in our regular Squawkestra Update email.

If there is any other business from members please let one of the committee know so it can be added to the agenda.

Please consider nominations (for yourself or others) for President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer and a minimum of four committee members as all positions will be declared vacant. If you have always wanted to contribute your energy and ideas to Squawkestra we’d love to have you involved.

It’s frustrating at first …

Buoyed with the words of encouragement from Zoe Knighton in her recording masterclass, Squawkestra members have been tackling the challenge of recording with enthusiasm.

Working with the new, unfamiliar, and sometimes bewildering interface for virtual, collaborative music making that is BandLab, we are learning.  

Learning how to add, record and save tracks for each of our instruments to a shared Squawkestra project.  Learning to play alone with a click track rather than with our squawky mates next to us. Learning the best time to record to avoid the neighbour’s barking dog or the tuneful, but unwelcome, blackbird singing outside the window.  And above all, learning how to screw up the courage to listen to the playback of your recording!

We still have lots to learn, and indeed as Zoe warned us, it’s frustrating at first!  But we are progressing and can’t wait to hear a full Squawkestra sound again, thanks to the perseverance of Squawkestra members and the magic of technology. 

Our Spring concert season is called “Keeping a Record”, and what better way to start than a masterclass on recording by Zoe Knighton, cellist and founding member of Flinders Quartet?  Flinders Quartet’s 20th Anniversary Season has been severely disrupted due to COVID-19 lockdowns, but it has not stopped their playing together, with a pivot to virtual ensemble work using recordings as a rehearsal tool.  Zoe was generous to share her experiences, tips and tricks with us in our latest rehearsal to encourage us to use recording to create an ensemble sound and  “Rip the Bandaid Off Recording”.

With latency making it impossible to play “live” together over the internet, layering recordings of each instrument in a tool such as BandLab allows us to recapture the complete sound of the whole group.  But to make it a success, care must be taken with the following:

Tuning – use an electronic tuner to tune (Squawkestra tunes to an A at 440).  Switch the tuner to sounding a drone (or for string instruments play another open string) whilst playing scales to help train the ear.  Listen for the “beating” of the notes when not in tune, and be aware how the same note will need the slightest shift when playing against different intervals to make it sound right to the ear.  (Zoe suggested Howard Goodall Big Bangs Equal Temperament for more info) 

Rhythm – recording often necessitates playing to a click track, so practise by playing with (and listening to!) a metronome, the immovable and annoying extra member of the ensemble.   To get a physical sense of the beat, tap alternating feet as if marching to steady the beat. Use words or a phrase that match with a tricky rhythm to get a sense of it, and for an entry that is off the beat, focus on the note that is on the beat.  As in childhood skipping, moving with the beat before entry, rather than a static start, will assist.

Recording can be compared to a photograph – capturing a moment in time, and if done regularly, will track improvement over time.  Just like a quick look in the mirror before going out, recording & playing back allows a check to make sure all is where it should be.  The hardest step is the first time – and first take.  Once you get beyond that, the rest is easy!

Recording tools can be as simple as a smart phone, using the voice memo app.  Watch the wave forms for maximum sound, and if you’re “peaking” (too loud for the recording) move the phone or microphone further away.  For louder instruments consider putting it behind you. Listen back with earphones for the best sound.  Set a number of takes, (say 3) and after recording 3 times, pick the best one – that’s the baseline for the next practise.

Squawkestra will be using BandLab to build an ensemble sound, with each member recording their part / laying their track down, and making it available for other members to enjoy playing with each other. 

Zoe encouraged us not to be discouraged by the inevitable initial technical frustrations, get in early by not leaving it to the deadline, overcome our “First-take-itis”, and just get into it!

Reveal your Sanctuary

‘My study’s function has expanded in this COVID-19 world to include Squawkestra rehearsal space, mask-sewing facility and working from home office.  I’m grateful to have such a place to maintain social connections, make music and continue working but it’s the escape of my daily walk that allows me to spend the rest of the day there.  Seeing the wattle bloom on the banks of the Yarra, noticing the emerging blossoms in neighbours’ gardens and hearing the currawongs and magpies carolling or the lorikeets’ tuneless screeches re-energises me for another day in my study’. (Katherine Ramsay)

Guest Conductor Mark Shiell

Last rehearsal we were very lucky to have guest conductor Mark Shiell lead us for our zoom rehearsal.

Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” was the focus of the night, and Mark first introduced it to us with a short video presentation describing the inspiration (Tchaikovsky’s trip to Rome in 1880) and comparing and contrasting it with excerpts from Mikhail Glinka’s “Spanish Fantasias”, the piece it was modelled on.

Then it was into rehearsing.  We practised sections, watching Mark’s conducting and playing along with a recording of our arrangement. With special attention paid to identifying the sections where watching the conductor is a must, tips for the tricky transition from Andante to Allegro, addition of accents and the exhortation of “Don’t worry about soft!” our knowledge and understanding of Capriccio Italien was greatly enhanced.

After our break and members catch-up, Mark shared with us his recent experiences of online rehearsing with Orchestra Geelong and Percy Grainger Youth Orchestra.  He described techniques use to engage and extend both orchestras including using video introductions such as he had prepared for us, master classes and “listening lounges” where members present pieces they had prepared.  We demonstrated our own version with Mike, our newest clarinetist, rising to our Soloist of the Week “Tchaikovsky Challenge”.  Mark also suggested exercises for us to improve our sense of rhythm and  encouraged us to unleash our joy of music with heart and experimentation.  We finished with a discussion of ensemble playing as “not just one way traffic” from the conductor, rather communication across the orchestra using multiple sound and visual cues, and suggested YouTube clips for examples of conducting styles and conductors.

Thank you Mark, for an instructive and thought-provoking rehearsal.

Reveal your Sanctuary

Our first online season was given the title, “Build you Sanctuary”. Recently we asked orchestra members to reveal the sanctuary that has kept members busy on music and engaged with each other.

“Here’s part of my den”. 

“This is a map of my neighbourhood which is my sanctuary for the next six weeks. I can go to all places within the pink circle on my bike if I can get there and back within an hour. It should be possible! I intend to know it a lot better by mid September”.

“Corona virus changed the way our orchestra got to meet and interact. We went from meeting in person, to meeting through Zoom. While Zoom’s audio features for an orchestra are not astounding, it is better than nothing. I think everyone’s experience depends on the quality of their computers and internet connection. I understand how it could get very frustrating. 

I really appreciate the efforts of our Conductor, Katrina O’Brien, and the Committee Members for keeping this going. Our Zoom Orchestra meetings help me to continue to improve my understanding of music, keep me motivated to practice, and I enjoy seeing the members of our group. I am relieved to see that they are safe and well. 

When we have our Zoom Orchestra Meetings, I build my Sanctuary our office. I set up my music stand and turn on the computer. Some practices, I dim the lights and string up Lights for a change of atmosphere. Though, this photo only shows a regular night”. 

“Slippers-check! Heater on-check! Sheet Music -Check! Hot cup of tea-Check! Cuddles from my kids as they go to bed on the other side of the wall-Check! It’s time to load up the Zoom meeting for our fortnightly rehearsal. 

Multi-tasking, multi-platform, multi-screen, multi-tab. I feel like I am pressing buttons on the console of a spacecraft rather than conducting an orchestra. None-the less, I still get the same rush that a teaching conductor gets when navigating my way through a complex tunnel of sound, trying to make sense of it for myself and for everyone else. By the end of the rehearsal, we have all learned something new about how to listen. We are playing our instrument among supportive peers who encourage us and keep us inspired. 

We have learned to embrace the glitch and love the lag (hmmm…. well almost). Zoom gives us a new excuse on which to blame our late entries and wrong notes it also reminds us that we have no excuse to give up. Each fortnightly rehearsal not only gives us an opportunity to play our instruments and get better at our craft, it is an opportunity to take time to appreciate everything that we have. My sanctuary keeps me busy, and connected to my community”. 

Squawkestra’s Winter Season

Last rehearsal was the launch of our Winter Season, with the exciting experience of our first play-through of a new work written for us by composer in residence, K Travers Eira.  Travers, a composer, performer and Squawkestra viola player, has composed “Alun key supplied”, a modular piece for variable orchestra.   

In a truely collaborative experience, first we heard from Travers about the inspiration and approach for the piece.  Then as we played and explored, we asked about timings, markings and intent.  Travers heard from us including possible bassoon fingerings, preferred clef for the cello, suggestions for additional rehearsal marks and requests to highlight favourite passages.  

Travers will use the feedback collected in rehearsal along with suggestions and ideas submitted online to further refine the piece for next rehearsal.  We look forward to playing the results of this work!

A Performance Like No Other

Thursday 28th May 2020 was to be our first concert for the year.  The repertoire had been selected, the venue booked and we began working hard rehearsing our pieces.  And then COVID-19 hit, and like everything else in our lives, Squawkestra had to stand down, stop rehearsals and hunker down in our individual “physically distant” spaces.

But guided by Kat, our courageous musical director and conductor, Squawkestra moved online, with rehearsal videos and zoom rehearsals allowing us to connect and play again together from our studies, studios and spare rooms.

So it was with this spirit of experimentation and to “Embrace the Glitch and Love the Lag”, we staged our first zoom performance on the night of our scheduled concert – Thursday 28th May.  Dressed in our concert blacks we played some of the original concert repertoire, Beethoven’s 1st Movement of Pastoral Symphony and Joachim Johow’s Russian Horses, using the “Follow The Leader” technique we had refined in previous zoom rehearsals.  We then had a number of wonderful solo performances, enabling us to share the progress of individuals’ practice and musical discoveries.

It wasn’t the concert we had envisaged at the beginning of the year, rather it was a Squawkestra performance for this strange, pandemic time.

Hints for Zoom Rehearsals

Our first Zoom Rehearsal was such a success, we are having another at the regular Squawkestra rehearsal date & time – 7pm April 30.

For those who haven’t used zoom before

  • it is easiest if you download it to your computer prior to the meeting, then you can just click on the link that will be provided in the regular Squawkestra update email
  • download from https://zoom.us/support/download
  • there is a microphone and a camera setting once you are connected. You can mute and unmute the microphone and turn the video on or off from your screen.  Remember to turn your computer camera on so Kat can see you and your instrument
  • the default screen layout is “Speaker” view where the person speaking is displayed in a large window.  This is good when Kat is conducting.  The “Gallery View” (aka the “Brady Bunch” layout) shows all participants, and is good for general chatting.  Click on the buttons on the top right of your screen to toggle between the two
  • open the zoom “chat” window (click on voice bubble button at bottom of screen) so that you can communicate via typed text with other participants even when your microphone is muted

Special settings for music sessions

  • as zoom is optimised for voice, it doesn’t always get it right for music
  • the simplest change is in the settings >> Audio section and to Uncheck “Automatically adjust microphone volume”
  • there are more details in this terrific resource Best Zoom Meeting settings for Remote Music Lessons

During rehearsal

  • bring your instrument, music stand, pencil and music
  • position yourself and your device so that Kat can see both your instrument and face
  • make sure you have tuned before rehearsal starts.  There are many free tuner apps available that checks and shows visually if and when you’re in tune  
  • some members found they had the best sound by using headphones; wear it one ear on so you can hear the session and one ear off so you can hear your instrument

Looking forward to seeing you there!