The Virtual Choir and the Power of the Human Spirit

Headmaster Henry P.A. Smyth reflects on two recent speeches exploring the power – and drawbacks – of social media.

In the past two weeks, I have seen and heard two remarkable speeches. The first was part of the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in Orlando, Florida.  (Yes, the weather was wonderful, even inside the convention center.)  This year’s theme was “Dare to Explore and Discover,” and the headline speakers at many of the general sessions were people who are successful in the world of creativity.  One speaker particularly captured the attention of conference goers.  Eric Whitacre is a Nevada-born, Juilliard-trained composer-in-residence at Cambridge University in England, and he has garnered worldwide attention with his amazing cyber creation:  the virtual choir.

The virtual choir is a collection of videos of individual people singing parts in one of Whitacre’s choral compositions.  To be a part of the chorus, people across the globe download Whitacre’s score (to ensure the right key) and record themselves singing their respective parts.  (Whitacre also provides a video of himself silently directing the piece to keep everyone in the same tempo.)  They then submit their videos to Whitacre who, through the wonders of modern technology, puts them all together.  The resulting video sounds as if each voice is part of a single, unified choir performing in a concert hall or cathedral.  I find both the process and the finished product truly awe inspiring, and Whitacre dazzled us in the land of Disney.

In a recent Upper School assembly, a Gilman senior delivered the second remarkable speech.  Arguing that we have reached what he termed an “antisocial media crisis,” this young man pointed to his own use of social media to illustrate our obsession with interacting with the world around us through the screens of our handhelds.  Our constant need to send texts, post photos, update our status, and count our “likes” has had the effect of reducing, if not eliminating, the quality of the interactions we have with each other, thereby robbing us of a full, rich life built on deep reflection and meaningful relationships.  He ended his remarks by encouraging us to “power down, and live it up,” thereby experiencing life as it is meant to be lived.  He received a rousing ovation.  Power down, and live it up.  And so onward I blog, hoping to go viral.

Juxtaposed against each other, these two speeches capture well both the beauty and the curse of the interconnectedness of our modern, digital world.  Our ability to communicate across a variety of media has truly made the world a smaller place, and it does allow us to stay in touch with those we might have otherwise lost contact with in the days of yore, when only telephones and the U. S. Postal Service facilitated our long-distance relationships.  It also allows us to connect with people we would have never encountered a decade ago.  These are incredible innovations with astounding potential.  But our senior speaker has a point.  Our fascination with constant connectivity does lend itself to quick, sound bite-laden exchanges that lack substance.  At best, this kind of interaction is shallow; at worst, it is narcissistic.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, we then find ourselves more disconnected with the world and people around us.

If our senior speaker’s warnings about our antisocial media crisis are real, so, too, are the positive aspects of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs.  The first virtual choir, which aired in 2009, consists of 185 voices from a dozen countries.  Released in 2013, Virtual Choir 4 has 5,905 singers from 101 countries.  In his talk at NAIS, Whitacre explained that what drives these many individuals to come together through cyberspace as one choir is the desire to connect.  Technology simply enables the real bonding agent—music—to do its work.  E Pluribus Unum:  Diversity is in action.  Watching and hearing these “singing heads” make music together is really cool, and it captures our hearts and imaginations in ways that an emoticon cannot.  What Whitacre’s work does is provide an example of the awesome power of new technologies when they work to harness the human spirit.  In other words, the virtual choirs show us what we can make when technologies bring us closer together in meaningful ways.  (Of course, the connecting power of the virtual choir has its limits, as the singers are still performing as individuals in their own spaces.  Still, they are working toward a common purpose.)

The technologies of today’s world are their best when they facilitate the exchange of ideas and useful information to foster creative development.  (One might rightfully point out that this has been the case with the modern technology of any period.)  As students, parents, and educators, we should constantly be looking for worthwhile productivity through the power of connections.  Such connections need not happen digitally, and we should never lose sight of the value of real, in-the-flesh interactions.  Still, one thing that makes this day and age so exciting is our ability to reach out to people and access information all over the globe.  If we do not heed our wise senior’s advice, we may lose ourselves—and everyone else—in that excitement.  If we instead choose to follow Eric Whitacre’s example, we just might create the next virtual choir and further the human endeavor.

Here’s to making music.

Henry P. A. Smyth

In Tuo Lumine Lumen


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