Dr. Erik Daae

Interviewed by: Rachel Ruffner


        I will be using a pseudonym to secure the privacy of this individual upon his own request. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the music business is struggling a great deal. Many artists are producing work for free, and choirs across the country are in turmoil. Since music tends to be a subject which is taken for granted, I thought now would be the correct time to discuss these challenges. Dr. Erik Daae is a high school choir director with a recording business. He is a conductor, a recorder, a pianist, a teacher, and a father. He has also been an inspiration to many. 


How has your business been impacted by the pandemic?


 First, the shutdown completely halted recording last March, and I lost about $10,000 in scheduled recordings that were canceled. When things began to open up in the mid-Atlantic states in May, I was following the news and deemed it a little too soon to safely open back up, so I opted to keep the business closed for my family's safety. Ultimately, I ended up reopening slowly and with just a few trusted clients.


How does the recording process differ since everyone is now remote?


My recording studio is in four separate rooms, all connected using microphones. When I was receiving requests from clients to get back to work, I started small, and kept everyone separate. Depending on your instrument, you cannot really wear a mask to record, but I remained masked and isolated in the control room. Normally, the clients join me in the control room for mixing, but we just did all that separately using speakers and microphones. It worked well; however, it was quite impersonal. After the musicians leave, I keep the room unoccupied for as long as possible, and then I sanitize things. For larger groups, I would meet them on location if social distancing were not feasible. One group spread out across a sanctuary of a church; if they were able to, they wore masks. For one session this summer, I recorded in a corn field. I was surprised by how good the sound turned out!


Since there are still virtual weddings, are you able to play piano over Zoom? If so, how many times have you done so?


I had some weddings booked that were canceled or postponed; I had the opportunity to also play a few in person. This past weekend, I played a live wedding outside, and it went well. The weather was pleasant, overall, we were quite fortunate. The other wedding I played recently did a great job of adapting, but I would assume that it was rather expensive for the bride and groom. The venue was a larger hotel; instead of renting one of the ballrooms, they rented seven. They also utilized common spaces, to maintain social distancing. I was located in a space which they were able to stream video feed—between the auxiliary spaces and the ballroom that housed the bride and groom. Sound from my piano was then sent digitally into all those spaces. We are all adapting to pandemic changes; I have done a great deal with Zoom, too, and other platforms, but I have not had an opportunity to play a wedding using Zoom.


What do you believe is the most important part about performing during a pandemic?


The most important part is that we do everything we can to keep people safe. You wear a mask to protect others around you, and they wear a mask to protect you. People must be vigilant of these small gestures all the time, for the sake of public health. It is simply a way to show respect to those around you. In addition, I think we all need to be okay with not performing during the pandemic. We cannot gather audiences, certainly not inside. We can hold living room concerts via Zoom or Facebook Live, but then you run into the problem of providing your musical services for free. We must be careful that we do not diminish the value of a live performance, and that post-pandemic, the public is still willing to pay for these performances.


In what ways has choir changed since the pandemic? Are you conducting a virtual choir? Where can one hear the recordings? 


The pandemic has probably affected choir more than any subject that is taught in school. The CDC recommends that you do not sing inside at all. The six-foot social distancing rule does not apply to singing because even with masks, aerosols spread beyond twelve feet. Then, they linger in the air. Some of the most prominent outbreak stories were from community choirs, including those obeying social distancing guidelines. 

I do not wish to increase the chances of infecting someone and potentially causing their death, or that of a family member. I continue to adapt my class on an almost daily basis. I have chosen to teach choir outside while wearing a mask and following social distancing guidelines. Studies show that outside activities are far safer since the wind dilutes the number of aerosols significantly. Even if an infection occurred, the number of infected cells is miniscule; the person can combat the infection before they test positive for the disease. To facilitate outside rehearsals, I utilized a cart and added an amp, a keyboard, two computers, a microphone, a mic stand, and a music stand with music. I acquired two Wi-Fi hotspots for us to be able to access the network. Students can use digital sheet music that will not blow away. I bought a melodica, which is like a tiny piano that you blow into to play. When I need to accompany students, the air pipe goes under my mask. Thankfully, I teach songwriting and piano class inside.  

While that solves some problems with rehearsing, the days of outdoor rehearsals are numbered.  We are working on building virtual choirs to present our performances to an audience. I have created guiding tracks for every voice part in each song. Students at home can sing along to those guiding tracks while recording their audio and video.  They submit their recording, and then it takes about 100 hours of extra work to get everything synchronized with the track, mixed and sounding professional. Then, I must sync the videos to complete the video production. Students composed the graduation song, and learned it remotely, and then performed as a virtual choir. They both turned out well, but we will be creating more traditional videos this year; however, the students will appear in small boxes on the screen. Whenever we have rain or it is too cold to rehearse outside, we will stay inside having non-singing classes where we focus on musical concepts and try to engage with the music.


What music software do you recommend for those who want to rehearse from home or record for a virtual choir?


If you are part of a choir that is rehearsing remotely, you are probably using Zoom or Google Meets or Microsoft Teams. Each of these has their own problems and features. The biggest issue is the latency. We cannot all sing together; you need to mute your mic and sing with the director. Everyone will hear the director, but not each other. You do not really get the choral experience, but you are singing and rehearsing. The director cannot provide feedback on accuracy of notes and rhythms, and blend. They can hopefully maintain some sense of community, which is important at this time. The software that I am using to put together the virtual choirs is ProTools for audio and Final Cut Pro (Mac) for video. Beyond that, there are websites online for choirs that need rehearsal files to help assist independent music learning. On the main page of my own website, I have an ad which explains that I am creating virtual choirs for people now. You can see other recording services as well as a large repository of rehearsal files that might be helpful to any choir. People across the country have been accessing it.


How drastically has your job changed since the pandemic hit?


All my jobs have changed drastically since last March. Being a teacher means enforcing mask wearing all the time, and it means that I run constantly between various spaces where I am either supervising students or teaching them. I have a long bus duty, [I must supervise students as they board or depart the busses] in the morning, and a short bus duty in the afternoon. In between that, I have a study hall with 150 kids spaced out in the auditorium. In addition, I teach my classes, run my rehearsals, make rehearsal files, engage in digital content, grade digital submissions, and try to keep up with the creation of virtual ensembles. 

My time with students is precious, but it is growing more impersonal. Students seem to be grateful to be here, but there are still many challenges. My recording job has become more impersonal, too. Even though many things I would have been recording this fall have already been canceled, I at least have complete control over my job. I can turn down work if I think it is not going to be safe in a pandemic, and I can set the rules for my space, and keep my family safe.


What have you learned since the pandemic about virtual choir and performing remotely?


 I am glad that I had an “excuse” to improve my craft with regards to virtual ensemble creation. I even taught a workshop on it over the summer. I also did a Zoom presentation for a community choir a couple weeks ago to prepare their members for their virtual choir submission. I have learned how to prepare participants for their submissions and found ways to be more efficient about the process. I bought the Final Cut Pro software over the summer and spent time working with it. This way, I can make the choir look how I want it to for upcoming virtual performances. We are hoping to livestream a virtual concert on December 17. Before the pandemic, I had my students already using Google Classroom. I had thought that if we have any cyber snow days, we could start a virtual ensemble. I had always looked forward to that to extend music outside the confines of the classroom. I think long term, it could be a wonderful supplement to our regular activities—it is draining when that is the only option for a performance.