Low Latency for Singers: Master Classes and Real-Time Collaboration

Low latency technology has made way for robust vocal arts study at NEC this semester, and offered a few silver linings, like master classes at a distance with Patricia Racette and John Relyea.

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Bass-baritone John Relyea teaches an NEC master class from his home in Rhode Island. Ruoxi Peng ’21 is on NEC’s campus and pianist Brett Hodgden is at home in Boston.

With some NEC students attending school in person and others attending remotely—and careful safety measures in place for those on campus—low latency music-making has been a key part of the fall semester.

For voice students, while there is of course a frustration and sadness to being unable to perform in the usual ways, there is also an excitement of new possibilities:

As Lucas Coura ’21 MM put it:

“When you sit with the idea of how bonkers that is—that you can defy the speed of sound to coordinate the timing of a trill with a colleague who lives an hour away from you—the wonder, awe, and gratitude quickly replace that frustration.”

Students at the forefront

NEC got an early start in setting up low latency classrooms and home systems, beginning in the spring of 2020, with leadership from Ian Howell, voice and voice pedagogy faculty and director of research for the NEC Voice and Sound Analysis Lab, David Zoffer of the Preparatory School and School of Continuing Education, and others. Now, student workers have learned the technology and help support it.

A voice lesson. The singer (Michaela Kelly), pianist (Cynthia Tseng), and teacher (Ian Howell) are all connected on SoundJack  audio and LiveLab video. The teacher and singer are both in their homes in the Boston Metro Area. The pianist is in one of NEC’s SoundJack Low Latency Rooms.
A lesson: singer Michaela Kelly, pianist Cynthia Tseng, and teacher Ian Howell are all connected on SoundJack audio and LiveLab video. Ian and Michaela are both in their homes in the Boston Metro area, while Cynthia is in one of NEC’s Low Latency Rooms.

“This semester has been extremely busy for me. I have been part of the student worker team that set up and trained faculty and students on this new technology, which has taken a significant part of my time,” says Michaela Kelly ’21 MM. “Now I have all of this knowledge, and am on the forefront of this new aspect of music teaching and collaboration.”

“The most challenging aspect [of the semester] has been to get used to utilizing new technology and collaborating with other musicians from home. It was difficult to understand in the beginning, but I am now very comfortable with the setup,” says Ana Mora ’19 MM, ’21 GD.

Still, Mora notes, there have been some upsides amid that challenge: NEC has been able to provide training and assistance every time it was necessary. I discovered I actually enjoy recording and learning about editing sound and video.”

Singer Lucas Coura and pianist Cynthia Tseng are connected to each other via SoundJack audio. Teacher Ian Howell and the rest of the studio are connected to each other over Zoom High Fidelity mode audio. The singer is at his home in the Boston Metro Area. The pianist is in one of NEC’s SoundJack Low Latency Rooms. The observers are distributed around the Boston Metro area, with the exception of one student in Virginia. All participants are connected over Zoom video.

I won't be hyperbolic and say it's perfect. Our tools do fail—routers need to be reconfigured; the platforms we use periodically break down,” says Lucas Coura ’21 MM.

“We certainly can look at these things and wring our hands at the frustration of it all—but the first time I connected with a pianist over SoundJack, we could only make it through one phrase before we had to stop when both of us spontaneously and simultaneously erupted into joyful laughter because god, we hadn't gotten to do this in months! It was too much fun!”

Patricia Racette's "visit": first fully online residency

Patricia Racette
Soprano Patricia Racette is one of a number of esteemed artists to "visit" NEC this semester, and the first to offer a full NEC residency online—in this case, from her home in New Mexico.

Soprano Patricia Racette is one of a number of esteemed artists to "visit" NEC this semester and the first to offer a full residency online—in this case, from her home in New Mexico.

Over the course of her 8-day residency, Racette worked with fourteen voice students in two groups, with each student attending two master classes and convening for two private voice lessons with her.

This opens a world of opportunities on how we engage with other professional artists around the world,” said Claudia Robaina-Winston, Dean of Artistic Administration.

Michaela Kelly ’21 MM participated both as a singer and as a technician:

“I was in Boston for the workshop where I both sang as a participant, but also ran technology for the other group's session. We used a program called Loopback which allowed the participant and pianist's real- time remote collaboration to be fed into Zoom so Ms. Racette could interact from New Mexico.

“It was truly amazing to experience this as a singer as well as run the technology to see how this was being done. I believe we are one of the only conservatories or schools that was able to offer this distributed, real time collaboration in this way.”

Angela Yam ’21 reported a different kind of intimacy made possible by the remote format:

“I was at home, in my apartment in Boston. There was much less pressure, on account of being home and not in front of a lot of people. Having a significant amount of time on-on-one with her was great for my personal vocal and artistic development.”

Ana Mora ’19 MM, ’21 GD noted the practical benefits to learning to work on camera:

“It was a completely different experience in comparison to an in-person master class, but profoundly useful in its own way. With many opera houses moving to video auditions, it was wonderful to get feedback on how our voice and physicality are perceived through a microphone and camera, respectively.

Lucas Coura ’21 MM spoke to the yearning to be back in person, alongside the thrill of contributing to the musical field by finding solutions:

The skills we're learning here are going to be absolutely invaluable in the coming years...Of course I wish the circumstances didn't demand I learn these skills. Of course I wish I could attend all my classes and rehearsals in person. Of course I wish that the solution to the problem wasn't found in technologies that can be unwieldy, expensive, and at times, unreliable. But there are solutions. And we're a part of finding them. And that is an immense privilege.

John Relyea master class & continued iteration

With regard to the technology, “we have continued to iterate on the setup,” says Ian Howell.

By the time bass-baritone John Relyea “visited” (from his home in Rhode Island) for a December master class, “the most interesting 'hook' was just how straight-up normal it was,” says Ian Howell. “The technology did exactly what it was supposed to do: it faded into the background, so that when I asked people, 'how was the master class?' people just talked about the music.

We had students in Boston who sang in our beautiful concert halls, and students in Maine and Pennsylvania who were able to participate from their homes. All were able to collaborate in realtime with a pianist.”

Howell notes how vital it is for musicians to continue to grow not just in technique or performance, but in collaboration. “Something is learned in collaborating with others,” says Howell. “Rather than just getting through the pandemic—we are finding ways to thrive musically.”