When the Pandemic Gives You a Silver Lining
Of the many “How do we do this now?” questions that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the more intriguing was “How do we create a choral production when vocalists can’t be in the same space?”
Students at WPI learn to recognize problems, define them clearly, and break them up into the smallest solvable chunks. So it should come as no surprise that the question was ultimately answered, but what's extraordinary about this case is that the answer came from the collaboration of WPI Glee Club alumni Michael LaFleur ’82 and Anthony Topper ’20, who graduated 38 years apart. The pair may have come from vastly different generations on the Hill, but, sharing a love for WPI, the Glee Club, and music, they developed Songalong––a tool to automate the creation of virtual music performances.
As the 2020 onset of the pandemic forced dramatic changes globally, WPI's music department held fast to its mission to make and share world-class music. Beginning with its annual Choral Alumni Weekend, which invites alumni back to campus for rehearsals and a final performance with students, all music productions were forced to go virtual. Singers recorded themselves at home, and Topper volunteered to combine the individual recordings into a final piece. Although this may sound fairly simple, the actual process was anything but. In fact, the two-minute, 45-second virtual choir video involved a dizzying amount of performance and post-production challenges.
Director of Choral Activities Joshua Rohde explains, “To create the recordings, singers had to sing along with a pre-recorded track played on a computer or phone with headphones. They needed to record a video using another separate device—propped up near the first, possibly with an external microphone plugged into it. They had to prop both devices at head height while standing for good singing posture. They had to fix the lighting, make sure the room was quiet, and find a place to hold their music without blocking the pre-recorded track or the video recording track. And if they managed all that, they then had to sing their individual part of the entire piece without making any mistakes—while trying to smile!”
Watch the WPI Virtual Choir Performances
If those challenges weren’t daunting enough, Topper spent nearly 100 volunteer hours in post-production on the piece in which he combined the many tracks, lined up the timing, and adjusted the audio, the blend, and the mix—a job Rohde says would have cost thousands of dollars if it were performed by an outside source. As seen here in To My Old Brown Earth, the end result of the virtual choral production was nothing short of spectacular. Although the piece brought much joy to many people, receiving well over 2,000 views, it was not an easy endeavor on any front, and the process was deemed unsustainable. All parties agreed, there had to be a better way.
LaFleur participated in the 2020 Glee Club Alumni virtual choir and saw the many difficulties involved in producing the virtual performance. He contacted Topper to discuss an idea he had to create an automated solution, and a great collaboration was born. Improving the process for both conductors and performers, the Songalong platform enables the conductor to upload sheet music and to create or upload accompaniment, conducting, and part-dominant tracks. This process allows performers to see and hear everything they need to perform using only a single device. The work of each individual performer is collected into a single repository available to the conductor. The conductor selects the video and audio tracks they want to use for the production, and all performances are automatically synchronized into one rendering.
“WPI felt like home to me when I was there; I learned about music and sound, I learned about the way the human voice produces song, I learned how to design circuits, I learned about teamwork—and, through the Glee Club, I learned what it meant to make lifelong friends. Looking back, WPI positioned me well for the workforce, and set me up to develop Songalong with my solid friend Anthony. What a wonderful gift I was given to be able go to WPI.” -Mike LaFleur '82
He has sung in several community choirs over the past 40 years and now sings in the VocalEssence Chorus in Minneapolis. Professionally, he is drawn to the growth phase in the product lifecycle and credits his WPI degree in electrical engineering, combined with his 25-year telecommunication career of moving voices across unpredictable networks, as essential to the development of Songalong. However, even with his impressive career of achievements, including assisting national organizations with product development, market expansion, and strategic acquisitions, he deeply values his active relationship with his alma mater and the members of his beloved Glee Club.
Topper plays piano and organ and enjoys what he calls the “geeky nitty-gritty technical aspects of music theory.” He won or placed in more than half a dozen software competitions and hackathons run by the likes of Comcast and MIT. He has co-authored research papers for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and WPI, has used machine learning to control a piano-playing robotic arm, and serves as choice pianist for many WPI alumni-related activities, including the annual ring ceremony.
He specializes in full-stack software development and credits his WPI education (BS in Computer Science, MS in Computer and Data Science) with much of his current success. “Working on Songalong, we interface with customers, lawyers, engineers, partners, advisors, etc. Each type of person has their own background, each finds certain pieces of information important, and each has their own opinion and understanding of the concepts we discuss. WPI emphasized the ability to work in an interdisciplinary setting and showed me various ways of communicating with a wide variety of people. It also helped me learn valuable time management skills that have been essential in planning the longer-term and large-scale work for Songalong.”
– Sira Naras Frongillo
Stephen J. Kahn Award
LaFleur and Topper shared how proud they were to be recipients of the highly coveted Stephen J. Kahn Award, given to senior members of the WPI Men’s Glee Club for devoted service to the organization and display of Glee Club spirit. This award, along with many other examples of generous philanthropic giving to WPI, plays a critical role in keeping the arts and humanities in the lives of the entire WPI community.
The grand towers of Boynton Hall and the Washburn Shops proudly symbolize WPI’s founding tenets of theory and practice. And for generations, the university community has combined these valued tenets to create positive impact well beyond the campus borders. With over 12,000 Songalong performances completed to date, LaFleur and Topper are yet another example of WPI alumni making the world a better place, enabling artists and listeners to experience the joys of musical collaborations—even at a distance.
Read more stories about the strength, creativity, and resiliency of the WPI community during the COVID-19 pandemic.