Making music together again, thanks to the ‘octet suite’
For much of the past year, Mateen Milan, a second-year student at the Yale School of Music, was unable to meet indoors with fellow woodwind players to perform chamber music. Occasionally during the fall, they were able to gather for outdoor rehearsals as long as they followed strict pandemic safety guidelines: no more than 10 musicians at a time, with all of them staying at least 12 feet apart.
That of course became much more difficult when the colder weather arrived. While string players have been able to rehearse and perform together this academic year while physically distanced and wearing masks, brass and woodwind players like Milan — who are unable to play their instruments while wearing masks — were initially deprived of that opportunity. When the temperatures dropped, the music largely stopped.
So when a suite of sound-linked rehearsal rooms in the basement of Sprague Memorial Hall opened last month, Milan and his fellow musicians were thrilled. They were free to collaborate again.
Known as the “octet suite,” the practice rooms allow up to eight musicians to perform together synchronously. Each musician plays in a room alone, but is linked with up the others via headphones, microphones, and video monitors. They can also link via Zoom with faculty members or conductors — including Yale Philharmonia conductor Peter Oundjian — who are able to lead lessons or rehearsals in a wired room across the hall from the suite or remotely. The suite can be utilized by any of the School of Music’s woodwinds and brass students who are enrolled in-person at the School this semester. (A handful of brass and woodwind students at the school are studying remotely this academic year.)
“All of the rooms are hardwired together to combat the latency [or time lag] of Zoom,” said Matthew LeFevre, the School of Music’s media production manager, who designed the suite. “For any of us connecting solely on a Zoom call, we hear each other a half-second or a second later. It’s not ideal for making music. With this system, the sound can be heard in real time.”
Early last spring, LeFevre began thinking of a solution that would allow the woodwind and brass students to make music together without experiencing the Zoom time lag. It took many months of planning and the purchase of new equipment to make the suite possible. “Initially, we set up a few prototypes of the suite — two or three rooms that were wired together so that a duet or trio could rehearse with a coach,” said LeFevre. “That was successful, so we wanted to scale it up to enable a larger number of students to play as ensembles.”
All eight of the rooms in the suite are wired together with production-level broadcast equipment. While students are playing, they can see the other musicians on a monitor, as well as their faculty coach or conductor (if one is present), either in person in the ninth rehearsal room or remotely via Zoom. In addition, other faculty members can join via Zoom to offer coaching or commentary during student rehearsals. “The system can accommodate as many people remotely as Zoom can handle,” said LeFevre.
Being able to see his fellow musicians is an integral element of making music, said Milan, the second-year student, whose quintet has utilized the rooms to perform chamber music.
“So much of wind and ensemble playing is being able to see visual cues, knowing when somebody breathes or takes a pause,” he said. “That visual component is so important. Matt is a superhero for having figured out a way to make that possible for us. The suite has been a huge help in doing things that are a part of the professional music-making world.”
He added: “It’s really great to have access to music making in this way when so many people are challenged in other ways. We’ve been doing more standard repertoire and wind ensembles, or will take a section of an orchestral piece and bring in wind players to perform it.
“It’s also been great to get insight from a teacher or conductor while we are performing together.”
William Purvis, a professor in the practice of horn at the School of Music, has been teaching and coaching students both in person and remotely as they perform in the suite. When it comes to making music in person, he said, the safety protocols have been particularly disruptive for wind and brass players, as well as singers.
“While I have been teaching lessons in person on a one-on-one basis in the largest orchestra rehearsal space and sitting 30 to 40 feet apart, no wind or brass musician can play in the same room at the same time for reasons of health and safety,” he said.
When the suite became available he began working with a horn quartet. “Seeing and hearing the students who haven’t had a chance to play in tune together since last March as they shape notes together and balance the dimension of the shape and color of the sound was so beautiful. That’s the essence of music, doing that together, and I was moved to tears.
“This new suite dramatically changed life for our students,” he added. “Being on the screens with no latency is wonderful, because it is possible to conduct, and the students really are adapting to this strangely separated situation to work on music making together for the first time since last March. Almost as inspiring is to see each other before and after the sessions in real life.”
Purvis, along with Peter Oundjian, principal conductor of the Yale Philharmonia (the School of Music orchestra), and David Shifrin, professor in the practice of clarinet, have been among the most frequent users of the octet suite to coach the student musicians. But student composers are also benefiting from the suite. For example, a septet of winds and brass performed a composition by second-year student Samantha Wolf in the suite. A recording of their performance was then layered with that of a recording by string players using the suite’s technology.
“All of the musicians have the ability to leave their rehearsals with a high-quality recording of any of their sessions in the octet suite,” said LeFevre.
LeFevre said he looks forward to the day when the musicians will no longer need the suite. But Purvis, who recently played a video of students performing in the suite for woodwind players auditioning for admission to the School of Music, said he believes the suite has benefits that will last beyond the pandemic’s end.
“We’ve learned a lot from this experience and from Matt’s hard work,” he said, “and that won’t go away.”