Teaching and Performing Over the Internet, Version 2.0

by Jeremy Black

It is no longer news that we musicians have turned to Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, Jitsi, Skype, and Webex to connect with each other and our students during the COVID crisis. In fact, Craig Knox covered that topic, music teaching in particular, in a previous issue!  

As amazing as those applications are, they do not replace the live, conversational nature of making music together, whether in a simple duet, working with a collaborative pianist, or in a larger ensemble.  

Additionally, there are all the “features” of video conferencing that make sharing music more difficult – a beautiful long note gets mistaken for background noise, as if it was a leaf blower, and gets cut off.  Slightly delayed packets are smoothed out and then compressed making the tempo slow down and speed up.  And all that processing, echo cancellation, and video alignment adds delay to the sound, making playing together rather impossible.

Creative solutions abound.  You can record your tracks separately, or play with a click track, or have one person perform while the others mute, but really the end result is not the same: you can’t actually play together, listening and responding in realtime to the other musician(s).

Realtime audio — that is the key.  Cutting out all the processing and lag, and just getting the sound out to one another’s ears as fast as possible.  In our era of broadband internet, could it be done?

Turns out there is a small and thriving community of mostly jazz and rock musicians that have been doing this for years.  Applications like Cleanfeed, Jacktrip, Jamkazam, Sonobus, Soundjack, and Jamulus have been quietly developed over the past decade, and have exploded in popularity since March.  Musicians that are used to dealing with cables, microphones and audio interfaces made the transition easily, while acoustic musicians — that’s us! — are a bit slower to test the waters.

I began experimenting with these apps back in August, and first tested Jamulus with a few adventurous friends in early September.  Jamulus uses a server-client model, so multiple musicians, possibly over 100, can connect at once without degrading anyone else’s connection.  I’ve held successful studio classes and even a Sunday Night Live Facebook Live concert (the Bach Double begins at 27:00) from my living room, all using Jamulus for the audio and Zoom for the video.  Multiple youth chamber groups here in Pittsburgh, including the Montgomery Fellowship Quartet and YC2, have their weekly coaching using a similar setup.

Now there are choruses all around the world rehearsing from their homes.  Rehearsals and jam sessions are conducted, often in broken English, between musicians in Japan and Taiwan, Italy and Germany, the UK and France, Boston and Toronto.  A WorldJam takes place every Saturday evening, traveling around the world by time zones, with rehearsal rooms and green rooms and an ever-changing lineup of soloists and songs.

As we enter a second period of increased pandemic restrictions, I can’t thank the developers enough (many working for free under an “open source” model) for providing a little slice of normality to us musicians and our audiences.    While realtime audio will never replace the thrill of being together in a concert hall, it is helping, during this strangest of times, to bridge the gap between us.