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Godwin High School Choral Director Jacob Devol became interested in the concept of a virtual choir about ten years ago when he was a sophomore at Hermitage High School. That’s when his choral teacher showed a video from composer Eric Whitacre featuring a virtual choir.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area and the stay-at-home order was enacted, Devol decided this was the time to create Godwin’s own virtual choir project. “I looked into different software options that could handle a project like this,” he says. “I first did some videos of me to learn how it was done.”
When he was ready to start the project, Devol selected the music and created a guiding audio track that students could listen to and sing with the track. A friend, Lydia Fisher-Lasky, choir director at Lee Davis, helped Devol record the learning tracks.
“She did the soprano and alto, and I did tenor and bass for students to learn their parts,” says Devol, a graduate of Hermitage High and Virginia Commonwealth University.
After receiving the track, students would listen with headphones and then create their video. “They sent them to me and once I had the submissions, I used a Camtasia program to line up all the video recordings into a single video,” Devol says.
He also sent students a copy of the music with very detailed markings to line up everything from entrances to breaths to make sure everyone was on the same page musically “because we couldn’t hear each other,” he says.
He chose the song Hope Lingers On for the choir to perform. Devol contacted both the original songwriter, Lissa Schneckenburger, and Andrea Ramsey, who arranged the song to get permission to share it on the Internet. “They were really responsive and thought we did a lovely job,” he says.
Devol received an average of about five submissions every day over two-and-a-half week time period. He edited and put them together once they came in so he wouldn’t be swamped at one time. “Once I got all the videos, I took a full day at the computer to work on it,” he says.
The project was open to all (approximately 150) Godwin chorus students who sing in the school’s five choirs. “Forty-three students were able to submit videos in the time period,” Devol says. “The ones who submitted may not have been in the same choir together. I think if they had known how far the video would go, I would have gotten a few more submissions.”
Henrico County publicized the finished piece. Godwin and Devol posted it on their Facebook pages as well.
Devol, who is in his first year of teaching at Godwin after three years teaching at Patrick Henry High School, was proud of the virtual chorus video that was produced.
“I absolutely plan on doing it again. My takeaway is that it is not a replacement for what we do in the classroom and shouldn’t be treated that way,” he says, adding that it’s important to be in the classroom collaborating with his students. “This is a different kind of music making, one that still shows when we make music together separately we show that we are greater than the sum of our parts.”
He hopes to do another virtual concert before June with each of the five choirs. “Because this is my first year at Godwin, I am charged with maintaining tradition,” he says. “One of those traditions is that at the end of the year each choir’s student director gets to pick a piece of music the choir gets to work on. So, each choir will do a virtual choir with a piece selected by the students.”
Devol may not be able to share the songs with the public because of licensing rights. However, he is thinking about another piece that could be shared. “I may do another virtual choir with a piece of music I wrote last summer,” he says.
Much of the credit for the success of the virtual choir goes to his choral students, he says. “The chorus students at Godwin are very detail oriented and skillful. They are a large part of the reason the project sounded so good.”