Last semester, the School of Music’s wind and brass players were unable to practice in ensembles, since their instruments prevented them from wearing masks while performing. A new solution, the Octet Suite at Sprague Memorial Hall, now allows these students to practice in person without the risk of viral transmission.
The Octet Suite, designed by School of Music Media Production Manager Matthew LeFevre, consists of eight practice rooms in Sprague Memorial Hall’s basement. This allows eight music players to simultaneously rehearse together, where each musician practices from a different room equipped with professional microphones, video monitors, adjustable soundboards and headphones. Conductors or faculty members can lead rehearsals or lessons from a room across the hall. This solution allows music students to both see and hear each other in real time, without Zoom lag and while adhering to pandemic protocols.
“The main inspiration for the Octet Suite was to replicate Zoom in a zero-latency, high-fidelity environment,” LeFevre said. “We can’t safely have more than one unmasked performer in a space at a time, and even then, we have to follow strict University guidelines that wouldn’t be safe to scale up to larger numbers. Our students have been able to take private lessons over Zoom one-on-one, but there isn’t a way to play with another musician without a delay.”
Last semester, the School of Music followed a hybrid model for students. This included an academic block with online classes and a performance block with in-person rehearsals. However, only instrumentalists with masks, such as string players, were permitted to rehearse together in person.
Since brass and wind instruments are played by blowing into the instrument, resulting in high aerosol transmission rates, these instrumentalists could only rehearse via Zoom. But Zoom lag made it impossible for ensembles to rehearse synchronously. Instead, musicians created performances were compiled by editing individual recordings together.
According to School of Music Associate Dean Michael Yaffe, this semester once again includes a hybrid model. Academic courses are online, but students can rehearse or perform remotely or in person following health guidelines. While winds and brass students could not partake in in-person activities last semester, they can now play synchronously in the Octet Suite.
“I wanted it to feel natural for the students, so eventually you’d forget the tech was even there, and it just feels like you’re making music,” LeFevre said. “Most of these students haven’t been able to play together in nearly a year, so I was really thrilled when the first few rehearsals started.”
LeFevre said the Octet Suite makes it easier to record ensemble performances as it allows students to “make virtual ensemble videos without stripping away important aspects of music-making and [without] creating huge recording and editing projects.”
When students enter the Octet Suite, they first select the number of rooms they intend to use. Then, they press a button to begin recording their playing, which effectively links their rooms together. Once they log into Zoom, the “gallery view” setting is activated by a series of multiview generators in the suite that use high-quality microphones and cameras. This allows students to view both their instructor and other students in the suite. After each session, they receive a high quality audio and video recording and multitrack audio recording that they can listen to and edit.
Nathan Peebles MUS ’21, who plays french horn, said the Octet Suite is the “next best thing” in replacing in-person ensemble rehearsals.
“It truly feels like we are getting back to that group experience we have missed since the start of quarantine,” Peebles wrote. “Essentially, the rooms work as if you were in a zoom call with no latency or lag. It is certainly an impressive feat!”
Sprague Memorial Hall is located at 470 College St.
Marisol Carty | firstname.lastname@example.org