On December 12, 2020, we premiered Virtual Showcase II via YouTube Premiere, a collection of music videos for songs written and recorded remotely by student performers. Just one year earlier, this concept would have seemed impossible. Yet, after enduring a year of uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, students continued to be resilient. They raised the bar week after week, giving us much needed hope and faith that we could continue to serve them at the highest level. This was both a test and an opportunity.
For the last seven years, SoundLife Music Academy has hosted two annual student concerts that we refer to as “Showcases.” For those who have not attended one of these events, they resemble a recital. But over time, these recitals have evolved into much more of a live concert experience. Just three months prior to the first stay-at-home order issued in March 2020, we hosted our 12th concert, which was, at the time, our most successful show to date. Our students performed to a packed house at a top-notch venue with a fantastic sound system, live sound engineer, and videographer. The audience enjoyed bar fare and libations as these students stepped into their alter egos: Rock Stars. This was the culmination of years of trial and error, hard work, research, and determination on the part of myself and the entire SoundLife team. At the end of that show, it felt like we had a refined process that we knew how to continually improve.
Then came 2020. Our students work hard to prepare to showcase their skills and music for friends and family, so rather than cancel the Summer Showcase 2020 as a response to the pandemic, we quickly pivoted to put together an online version: SoundLife's first ever Virtual Showcase. All the performers submitted videos of the music they had been preparing to perform live. Then we synced these videos up, mixed them to the best of our ability, and released them. (For more about this, check out “Making a Virtual Showcase Concert Experience.”) The process of creating a live experience that had taken us years to perfect was rendered useless, and in its place we had to create an equally engaging experience in just a matter of months. It was sink (or rather “sync”) or swim.
The result was a great success, but from the moment the last video was finished, I knew we could improve. I knew we could take what we learned and raise the bar for the performers, simplify the process for our team, and create an experience that brought people together at a time of year when everyone needed it most. This confidence and inspiration didn’t just arrive. It was, like all things, a process.
In June of 2020, just after our first Virtual Showcase, two of our students endeavored to take music they had been creating on their own to the level of a professional release. They inquired about getting some songs they had written and recorded themselves professionally mixed. I contacted our engineer Hugo Vera who was happy to help, and the result was a handful of truly awesome songs that were radio-ready! At the same time, bands and students had begun to show fatigue learning cover songs they might never have a chance to perform. Quickly, we shifted our focus to something students could fully realize without a stage. We shifted our program to focus on writing and recording, two things that naturally lend themselves to being in front of a computer.
For bands, we had every member contribute riffs, chord progressions, and melodies within specific parameters, such as style, tempo, key, or a given scale. Then we went through these together and voted on the ones that everyone liked the best. The winners were then sorted into verses, choruses, and bridges. Then came vocal melodies, and finally lyrics. Along the way, we recorded every idea so there would be a “reference track” that members could use to record their parts to. Once the song was finished, each member took it upon themself to record their individual parts. As this process emerged, the concept of a “class” changed. No longer were students forced to stay on screen for an entire 90 minutes and listen to a teacher. Instead, instructions were given, and students went off to write and record. Then they uploaded these ideas, and the instructor would assemble the files into a session. The goal was for “class” to be something as far from school as possible. This had to be something that students looked forward to, and so the process evolved further in this direction as time went by.
For those students not in bands, some endeavored to work on what I refer to as “legacy” songs. These are songs, often long and complicated, that every generation will learn over and over again. Great examples for guitarists are “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, or “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. Other students started writing their own music much in the same way the bands were. In either case, they learned how to record their parts, which is much different than preparing to play them live.
The truth is that when we listen to live music, our ears are forgiving because there is so much energy and visual stimulation. Artists are often speeding up and slowing down, missing parts, missing lyrics, etc. But, we forgive and forget, because of the environment. On the flip side, when recording, musicians rarely play songs all the way through during tracking. Instead, they work on sections in chunks, perfecting timing, tone, and emotion before moving on. Both ways of performing are incredibly important skills for musicians to have, especially in today's musical landscape.
Throughout this process, the concept for Virtual Showcase II became increasingly clear. Our mission for each Showcase has always been to give performers a platform to share and celebrate the work they are doing in their private lessons and on their own. For the first time in our school's history, this meant creating finished recordings for each band or solo performer, and then creating music videos to bring these works to life.
The result of all of this is more than just an awesome collection of original songs and interpretations of covers written and recorded by our students. That alone is something we’re all very proud of, but the most important thing that came from this is the process itself. We now know that we can help students write, record, mix, and master music to a professional level, remotely. When we first started SoundLife years ago, I never would have thought that this was something we would be able to do, let alone without ever entering someone's home. This obstacle of not being able to serve students in the ways that we were accustomed to was actually our greatest opportunity to date.
As we continue on into 2021, still not knowing when we’ll be able to safely return to teaching in-home, our focus sharpens. The future of music is bright because we see it week in and week out. We see fearlessness. We see adaptability. We see creativity, and curiosity. In this, we move forward with hope and confidence.
-Chris Vazquez, Co-Founder and Program Director
Watch Virtual Showcase Volume II on the SoundLife Music Academy YouTube channel!