In early March 2020, the Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association raised the curtain on what it expected to be a successful three-week run of the musical “West Side Story.”
The cast spent four months learning songs and perfecting dance moves. The orchestra prepared the score, and the stage was set.
But, like many plans in 2020, things didn’t go as anticipated. On opening weekend, word circulated about a new virus in the U.S.: COVID-19.
“At first, we didn’t think it would come here,” says Michele Firsching, the show’s production manager. “It wasn’t really on our radar at that point.”
Within days, the state of Oregon issued a stay-at-home order and other restrictions due to growing health and safety concerns.
The curtain came down on “West Side Story” after only one weekend of performances.
“It was heartbreaking,” Michele says. “At first we were in denial. We kept thinking we could figure out a way to make it work. But we were going up against the behemoth of COVID. Nothing was going to work.”
The cast and crew had one day to clear everything out of the theater.
Based in Hood River, Oregon, CGOA sponsors several performing ensembles, including the Sinfonietta Orchestra, Voci Choir, Jazz Collective Big Band, Stages Theatre, The Hood River String Quartet, Canticum Choir and the Gorge Youth Chorus. It draws members—and its audiences—from several Oregon and Washington communities in the Columbia River Gorge.
“CGOA does so much for the community as a source of arts and entertainment, but I firmly believe its biggest strength is that it gives an opportunity and outlet for community members who want to perform and who wouldn’t be doing it without it,” Michele says.
Before the pandemic, CGOA was gearing up for a full spring season of concerts and theater. When local schools closed, the ensembles lost their performance and rehearsal space.
Facing canceled shows, lost ticket revenues and many disappointed performers, CGOA Artistic Director Mark Steighner set to work creating a new season that didn’t include in-person gatherings.
“I anticipated that we would not be able to return to live rehearsals until winter, at least,” he says. “One of the foundations of the plan was the creation of new types of performance content as well as an online adult education program. The idea was always to keep both our performers and audiences engaged as much as possible.”
When CGOA Youth Chorus Director Corin Parker was unable to produce the children’s musical she had planned for early summer, Mark volunteered to write one that could be performed and viewed virtually.
“My Life in a Square,” a 35-minute musical about attending school on Zoom, stars nine students in grades 4 through 9. The eight original songs touch on the monotony of pandemic life, spending too much time with one’s parents, wild rumors about the virus and quality time with pets.
“This was just a whole new ballgame for all of us,” Corin says. “Most of these kids had participated in some kind of musical or musical performance before, and this was a very different way to present themselves.”
Sophi Studebaker, who sang in the youth chorus until her family moved to Idaho a few months before the pandemic, welcomed the chance to participate.
The 14-year-old had never sung on camera before. Sophi says nerves struck when she heard she would be performing a solo and the musical would be posted on YouTube.
“At first, I was hesitant, but I agreed to do it, and it was really fun,” she says.
Each of the performers recorded their songs independently at home. Sophi created her impromptu recording studio by propping up her phone with a water bottle on a desk and enlisting her sister to hold a lamp nearby for proper lighting.
Because the musical was set in one day and filmed over several, Sophi was careful to sit in the same chair, wear the same shirt and style her hair the same way for each recording.
The cast rehearsed and recorded the scenes with dialogue together via Zoom.
“Doing the lines with everyone else taught me a lot about patience and that sometimes things don’t go right the first time,” Sophi says. “You have to work through little kinks. If you have a lot of patience, it works out.”
After the kids submitted their videos, Mark edited and mixed all the tracks into one seamless show.
From start to finish, the project took about five weeks.
Sophi’s mother, Bethani, says the experience stretched her daughter beyond her comfort zone.
“We only saw bits and pieces of (the show) until it was all put together,” she says. “I didn’t realize until she did this that there was a lot of independent work, and then it all gets pulled together. I just assumed when I watched similar videos online that they were singing in real time at the same time.”
The virtual show also allowed Sophi’s out-of-town relatives who had never seen her perform to enjoy the show on YouTube.
“It allowed our family and friends to understand how Sophi identifies herself,” Bethani says. “This is who she is, and music is a big part of that.”
Since March, CGOA has created more than 40 videos, including virtual performances, video podcasts and instructive content. About half of the ensemble members have participated in one or more virtual projects. Due to health and safety protocols, only the Sinfonietta’s string section has been able to meet in person—with musicians masked and physically distanced—to record a piece.
For Mark, virtual projects consume much more time than directing live rehearsals and performances.
In addition to creating the artistic vision and preparing the music and guide tracks, he has done all the postproduction work on the projects. Some of the more elaborate orchestra pieces required more than 40 hours of editing.
One of the most time-consuming tasks is syncing the audio tracks.
“Because each performer is recording individually, there can be a lot of variation in how closely they match the guide track,” Mark says. “Sometimes, I will need to make more than 20 to 30 edits to a single performer’s audio track to get things to line up.”
One of CGOA’s most ambitious virtual performances was its 90-minute Stay-At-Home Holiday Musical Spectacular. The December fundraiser for local nonprofits featured 20 acts and nearly 75 musicians, including many special guests who had performed with CGOA through the years.
In addition to its virtual performances, CGOA launched an online music education program last fall. The first semester of the CGOAcademy featured five classes and engaged about 60 students—many of whom took multiple classes. The second semester began in January.
During this time of uncertainty, CGOA plans to continue with virtual performances and the online academy, while also exploring new ways of bringing music to its community.
Michele has traded her production manager’s clipboard from “West Side Story” for new challenges. She is creating vocal guide tracks for her fellow singers, performing in several videos and sharing her knowledge as a guest lecturer for the music academy.
“Thanks to good planning, low overhead and willingness to adapt, CGOA has continued to be strong and vital even in the midst of the pandemic,” Mark says. “While many arts organizations and performing groups have been challenged to the point of no return, CGOA remains active and hopeful, and looks forward to a strong return when the conditions allow it.”
Find CGOA online at gorgeorchestra.org or on Facebook at facebook.com/gorgeorchestra. Online content can be viewed on Mark Steighner’s YouTube channel or by following the links on the website.
How to Make a Virtual Music Video
Due to health and safety concerns regarding live music performances and large gatherings, virtual choir and instrumental music videos have grown in popularity during the past year.
While they appear to be recorded in real time by a group of musicians, these performances are a series of individual tracks recorded separately and combined on a computer using specialized software.
The first step is to provide musicians with the song score and guide track.
Each person records their part on a smartphone, iPad or computer while listening to the track with headphones. Performers follow guidelines for lighting, background, clothing, camera angle, etc., to create a unified look in the final collage video. When complete, musicians upload their files to a shared folder via an online file sharing service such as Dropbox or Google Drive.
Next, the producer separates the audio from the video. Using audio software such as Audacity and Garage Band (both are free), one can edit, sync files, balance the parts, mix, add effects and master.
Finally, the producer edits the videos using Filmora, iMovie or another video software. They add the master audio and sync the videos with the sound.
The video is ready to upload to YouTube and other social media platforms to share.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, will shine a light on rural arts in the Northwest and West for the next 12 months, revealing how the arts enrich communities and sharing a comeback story in these challenging times. The series, the Heart of Community, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.