How We’ll Learn to Sing Together When We’re Far Apart

The kid activities that have moved online have done so with varying degrees of success. Piano lessons over Zoom: pretty decent; futsal practice: maybe if our backyard had grass and several hundred more square feet. Online Rock Band Land is … unexpectedly quiet. Instead of rehearsing for two hours every Saturday, Picklequack’s band meets over Zoom. They brainstorm lyrics but then retreat to their instruments, offline, for the actual making of music. The kids come up with riffs and email ideas to their teacher, Kyle Nosler; one kid used pots and pans to create a drum part, since their regular drum set wasn’t available.

Normally Yzarc rehearses and records their songs at the Donkey Farm. But recording from home isn’t a viable option for most band members, since it’s difficult to create acoustically decent versions of individual instrumental parts without decent home audio equipment. Tracks of the singers, however, can be acceptably recorded with a smartphone voice-recording app. The most important part of Rock Band Land—the actual communal making of music—turns out to be the most difficult thing to do remotely. Yzarc won’t be able to create a version of their new song, “Pets,” until they’re all together again.

The Rock Band Land staff has a new system for online music-making for its reimagined summer camp season—using a click machine, metronome, or metronome app, all set to the same speed, to help everyone sync up—but back in mid-April Kyle sent the “Pets” musicians a scratch track, which he assembled from recordings of himself playing each instrumental part. Each kid was instructed to practice playing along and then make a music video. The other night my son prepped for filming. He moved his keyboard into our dining room, where he could play with a blank wall behind him. He safety-pinned a bright orange throw blanket around his shoulders to mimic a Dungeons & Dragons cape and made his quarantine hair look as crazy as possible (it didn’t take much). I blasted the scratch track on a wireless speaker and filmed him as he played along, with a few false starts thanks to our shared tendency to giggle uncontrollably for no reason whatsoever. When I gently noted that he missed a chord, Picklequack dismissed me. It doesn’t matter, he said, we won’t be heard on the recording; it’s just the video that matters. The video mattered; the music kind of didn’t.

In the absence of sports games and camping trips and dinner parties, our family has added another musical activity to our weekends. Every Sunday afternoon we gather with relatives on Zoom for what we call the Pearlstein musical jam. It’s a pastime with a long history. Before our ancestors emigrated to the US and Israel or were murdered at Treblinka, the Perlshteins, as they were known then, a family with nine children, comprised the main orchestra in Wasilków, Russia. They played music to accompany the silent films broadcast at the movie theater they owned, providing entertainment for the local Jewish community.

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“Suitable music was played by a small orchestra to synchronize with the actions on the films,” explains a history of Wasilków, translated from Yiddish. More than 100 years ago, the action and the music could coalesce only in person, not on screen.

Today, since we can’t coalesce in person, we scramble to synchronize from our screens remotely.

Instead of balalaikas, violins, guitar, and mandolins, today’s geographically distributed band of musical Pearlsteins plays guitar, piano, and sings from homes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Performers range in age from 11 to 75, and we often chat about where to find toilet paper or last night’s Saturday Night Live before someone shares a song. My cousin Frank dons funny glasses before he sits down at the piano to belt out some Elton John; my brother Rob, who plays guitar in a band, tends to play Jack White or blues guitar. Frank’s brother David might perform New Orleans-style boogie woogie, my aunt Dorie might offer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I’ll sit at the piano to fumble through a Chopin Nocturne or the “Maple Leaf Rag.” Sometimes David will improvise on the piano with my brother on the guitar, or my brother and I will sing our dad’s favorite Willie Nelson song, “I Gotta Get Drunk.” But we can’t keep proper eye contact, so it’s hard to signal when we should skip the last verse, and we’re never perfectly in sync.

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