Connecting Technology and Music: The Virtual Orchestra Project


The executive director of the National String Project Consortium (NSPC) didn’t mince words when she described the effort involved in completing an extraordinary virtual orchestra production. Elizabeth Reed said the project, involving hundreds of students nationwide, was a “huge undertaking.” 

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The organization followed the model of composer Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs to develop a unique instrumental performance that could be used by orchestras of all abilities and sizes. NSPC leaders are planning to present the concept in Helsinki, Finland in 2020 during an international conference for music educators.

The project included students in 22 states who participated in NSPC classes and whose music knowledge ranged from beginner to advanced. They were recorded individually, or in small groups of beginners, playing a multilevel composition created by composer Brian Balmages.

Using editing equipment, hundreds of student videos were combined both visually and with audio to create the illusion that the students are playing together in the same place. The video compilation was premiered at the conference of the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) in early March as approximately 60 String Project teachers played along.

“The beauty of a massive project like this is the fact that you have so many musicians playing slightly out of pitch, slightly out of time, and with slightly different intensities of vibrato. This turns out to be a key factor in creating such a depth of sound.”

– Composer Brian Balmages

The Ins and Outs of a Challenging Music Venture

Unlike Whitacre’s virtual choirs, this project primarily involved children and teens, requiring music that would accommodate playing abilities ranging from first-year to high school level. Balmages says he did that by layering melodies in a multilevel piece he titled Greater Than.   

“The upper-level version is great, but put in the grade 1 version and then it is so much greater,” Balmages said. “When you combine all the levels it becomes so much greater than any individual one.”

Brian Balmages sits down at his piano during his interview with J.W. Pepper to show how he composed his piece “Greater Than.”

The piece was first recorded by an orchestra at the University of South Carolina to give the students a track to follow; conductor Bob Jesselson was filmed separately, conducting in front of a green screen to provide a virtual conductor for the students.

“The hard part in that situation was trying to sync my movements to the recording, so I was basically following the recording rather than leading the orchestra as a conductor normally does,” said Jesselson.

A four-click beat was added to the track before entrances to help students by signaling when to start playing and how to maintain the tempo. This also helped with the tough task of synchronizing tracks. Ruairi O’Neill, an engineer in Ireland who combined the videos, said the effort was worthwhile.

“Uniting hundreds of different people all over the country and basically combining their efforts into one massive performance that they could all share in and be a part of seemed like a very empowering and inspiring idea,” said O’Neill.

Balmages said he paced his piece at a slower tempo with a rubato style to help with the technical aspects of the project. Longer tones presented challenges for some students, but overall worked quite well for the aesthetic quality of the production.

“The beauty of a massive project like this is the fact that you have so many musicians playing slightly out of pitch, slightly out of time, and with slightly different intensities of vibrato. This turns out to be a key factor in creating such depth of sound,” Balmages said.

Reed says an added advantage of Balmages’ piece is that it will work well as a powerful recruiting tool in the future. She says it provides an opportunity to have a pyramid concert where students of all different grade levels can play together.

“Parents love seeing the whole orchestra program,” Reed said. “A pyramid concert helps advocate for why we do what we do.”

Advocating for orchestra programs is a core value of the NSPC, which aims to both train strings teachers and to provide a music education to children who may not have opportunities elsewhere.

“The most important thing is to water the grass you are standing on and not keep looking over the fence at something else… Make a difference where you are with the people who are in front of you and contribute to that community with everything you’ve got.”

– Sophie Till, Site Director, Marywood University String Project

How a Simple Idea Led to a National Movement

The idea for the program began back in the 1980s in Columbia, South Carolina where there were virtually no string or orchestra programs in the public schools. The University of South Carolina began a string project to train music students to teach, and recruited local elementary students for classes. Over time, the program grew to include 350 students and 28 undergraduate teachers.

“Within a few years, all of the five districts in Columbia started string programs because the parents demanded it in their own schools, and the teachers who were trained specifically to lead these programs were available,” said Jesselson, who directed the program.

Reed said she directly benefited from the program.

“The project helped train teachers in the area who wanted to stay in the area,” Reed said. “When I was ten years old, because of the USC String Project there were orchestra teachers in my school.”

Reed went on to major in music education where she joined the string project as a student teacher. She obtained her Ph.D. in music education and currently teaches middle school music in addition to directing the NSPC. 

The national program she now leads started in 1999 with the project site in South Carolina and another one at the University of Texas at Austin. There are now 41 programs in 22 states. There are currently more than 3000 children enrolled and about 436 students are learning to become string teachers.

Students participate in a NSPC session at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Unlike traditional teacher training programs, undergraduate students can participate beginning in their freshman year. Amanda Murphy, a violinist and education major at Marywood University, says her experience as a student teacher has been invaluable. In her work teaching both beginning and intermediate-level classes, her supervisor coaches her with everything from lesson planning to repertoire selection.

“When you’re out there in the schools, sometimes you’re kind of left out to dry, but here it’s never like that,” Murphy said. “It’s a learning experience for the students just as much as it is for us.”

Each project site functions separately, directed by a lead teacher who adapts curriculum and group instruction depending on the needs and expectations of the community and participants. While some classes are instrument-specific, others combine violin, viola, and cello students together. Still others may include Suzuki programs, private lessons, and even guitar and harp. For student teachers the opportunities are invaluable.

“When they leave, they’ve gained so much confidence and experience that you can’t really beat: a hands-on mentored teaching experience for four years. There’s no amount of college class time that can substitute for that experience.” said Sophie Till, Site Director at Marywood University.

Till also says the program has given her and others the opportunity to support the community where they live.

“The most important thing is to water the grass you are standing on and not keep looking over the fence at something else,” Till said. “Make a difference where you are with the people who are in front of you and contribute to that community with everything you’ve got.”

The Power of Music Education

Students in the NSPC program often start in elementary school before they are old enough for their school programs. Some continue in the older grades as a supplementary program to their school orchestra or because their schools do not have ensembles. Regardless of the level, Till says the basics of what they learn about music are the same. 

“We have to understand how the music is put together. We have to understand the music – the magic in the music – how that works and then how to communicate that to the audience. And it doesn’t matter if you’re four and you are playing Hot Cross Buns. You’re in the same process – the actual essence of that process is the same,” Till said.

For Balmages, an important part of that development is ensuring students are taught from a young age how to connect with the music on a deeper level. He says it’s crucial to meet students where they are and help them find meaning.

“Let them learn how to express whatever emotions they are capable of feeling – because otherwise we get to where they’re in college and don’t know how to play musically, and that’s why – because they’ve never been asked to,” Balmages said.

As a student teacher, Murphy looks beyond emotion to some other basic life skills she hopes her students will learn. She says these concepts make music class different from many other subjects in school.

“It teaches students … the things that they do individually in all aspects of life will affect everybody around them,” Murphy said “And they also learn how to play different roles. Sometimes they’re playing the lead … sometimes it’s a supporting role, and sometimes they’re there to just sit and listen. And I think they take that with them into life, and they know when it’s their time to lead, when it’s time to support somebody else, or when it’s time to just listen to somebody else’s ideas.”  

Till says some of these aspects about music education make her think advocates need to change the argument for why we need music classes. She says that the discussion centers too much on how music education relates to a student’s academic progress in other subjects, rather than valuing music for its own sake.   

“Most of us don’t use our algebra, but we don’t have to make arguments to maintain algebra class,” Till said. “There’s music everywhere. It’s part of everyone’s lives … So we need music because we’re human beings, and it’s really that simple.”    

Score options for Brian Balmages’ Greater Than composition are now online here. For more music pieces, view a large selection of Brian Balmages’ compositions.

To listen to “Greater Than,” watch a video feed of the NSPC’s ASTA performance.

National String Project Consortium – Virtual Orchestra – Time Stamps:

0:24 How the National String Project Consortium (NSPC) began
1:40 Teachers and students benefiting from the NSPC
5:12 Inspiration for the virtual orchestra
7:33 Using technology to bring students together
9:30 The technical aspects of the virtual orchestra project
10:50 Brian Balmages explaining the composing process for Greater Than
14:21 Why music education is so important

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