When the coronavirus pandemic threatened to quash a local high school’s musical tradition, Tobin Bergen-Hill got busy. Using his video editing skills, Bergen-Hill fused individual performances by the orchestra’s seniors to create a virtual concert.
In the Community: A Musical Graduation Gift
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Select stories feature employees lending their time, talent, and heart to the fight against COVID-19. Tobin Bergen-Hill used his video editing skills to bypass a pandemic roadblock and give new meaning to the saying, “the show must go on.”
At the end of each school year, the Hayfield Secondary School Orchestra in Fairfax County, Virginia, features its seniors in a final concert. (My son goes to Hayfield—he’s in the orchestra but is not a senior.) However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, such a concert wasn't possible this year. The music program naturally relies on students performing together and needs an instructor to hear if a performance is correct or not.
Traditionally, the senior orchestra members are recognized in their last year at the school. Some are selected for solo performances, and there’s a group performance of only seniors. Because schools closed and large gatherings weren’t permitted, the conductor, Kerri Shelfo, decided to do an online performance to highlight the graduating students.
I happened to see the Washington National Cathedral's Easter Sunday musical segment on TV. The Cathedral's band and choir members individually recorded videos while listening to a master track. A video editor then edited the recordings, so it appears they’re playing at the same time.
Inspired by that, I offered to produce a video consisting of each senior’s individual performance blended as if they’re performing together. Ms. Shelfo was excited about the idea.
A Glimpse of Normalcy
For the video, the kids selected Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell, from the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War. Ms. Shelfo made a video of herself directing as the song played. Using this video as a guide, the seniors recorded themselves in their finest orchestra attire and sent their recordings to her.
In a virtual setup, you can’t have multiple people performing at the same time because of network lag. For example, if you and a friend are on opposite ends of a football field and want to sing the national anthem in sync, you would start at the same time. But by the time you hear the other person, they’re a few measures behind. That's what happens on the internet when multiple people try to perform at once.
Although we asked the kids to record somewhere quiet with no background noise, some didn’t do that. One person recorded outside with traffic. Some of them wanted a nice background because, for them, it's all about the visuals.
I cleaned up the background noise and took the audio from the video, which I had also cleaned up. I used an audio processing tool, lined up the tracks, and hit play. It was amazing. It really sounded like they were together. It was emotional for me.
Then I put the video with Ms. Shelfo directing in the corner frame, and as each senior played their part, I added their performance. I edited the video so you can see the full senior class orchestra.
As soon as you see everybody in the video, you realize these kids didn't have the opportunity to perform as a group. It's sort of bittersweet, but at least this video allows them to see themselves together again. It was like a glimpse of normalcy.
Use Your Talent
Everybody has something they like to do and that they’re good at. It may not be immediately obvious that it could help someone else. But if you look at the impact of COVID-19, it's just a matter of finding out if there’s an opportunity to use your specific skill. In my case, I’ve been creating videos for years. I thought, I can do what they did at the National Cathedral. And sure enough, I did.
I spent a week of Civic Time [MITRE’s employee benefit of 40 hours of paid time each year for volunteering] cleaning up the students’ videos and working with the conductor to level the volume of each section. The video was included in a farewell presentation given by the conductor to the seniors and their families over Blackboard Collaborate. Ms. Shelfo sent a note to my MITRE department head, thanking MITRE for supporting this activity.
If you have an idea about how you can help somebody, ask before you decide it's not worthwhile. That initial feeling you have—I think that's relevant. If you decide that it’s beyond your capability, then reach out to someone with the experience. You can at least help to make it happen.
—by Tobin Bergen-Hill, as told to Aishia Freeman
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