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Is harmony remotely possible?

Philip Stevens finds out how the BBC's Lockdown Orchestra is helping viewers and listeners feel the love

Get Creative is a campaign that shines a light on all the great cultural activity that takes place on a regular basis in local UK communities and encourages people to try their hand at something new and creative. Normally, each May, there is a huge annual celebration of creativity through a festival that aims to give everyone the chance to get actively involved in an event in their local area.

As part of this year’s Get Creative festival, BBC Arts Culture in Quarantine initiative, and with the restrictions in place because of lockdown, BBC Arts and BBC Radio 3 asked the nation to dust off its instruments and warm up its vocal cords to join the BBC Lockdown Orchestra in a national collaborative rendition of the 1986 anthem of hope You Got The Love.

So, just what is the BBC Lockdown Orchestra? 

BBC Studios producer, Martyn Stevens, explains. “This is just a name that sums up the fact that one hundred members of various BBC orchestras, The Ulster Orchestra and the BBC Singers, who don’t normally play together, have joined remotely for a unique performance during this period of lockdown. Obviously, with its music background, BBC Radio 3 is playing a major part in facilitating this collaboration.”

In fact, this unique project is administered by BBC Radio 3’s in-house production and BBC Arts’ Stephen James Yeoman. BBC Studios will create a final mix for BBC Four at 8.55pm on Thursday 14 May and for BBC Radio

Stevens continues, “BBC Studios was brought in to help facilitate this ambitious project. The idea was to produce something with people who are in lockdown, who are creative, and who may want to escape the problems associated with the restrictions for a while. The BBC is one of the many partners in the Get Creative campaign and it was felt that we could play a major part in this challenging project.”

Playing at home

“The public were invited to film from their homes and upload their own performances of You Got The Love in sync with a backing track we supplied from the Lockdown Orchestra. These submissions have been joined together to create a musical rendition that involved as many members of the public as is possible. This is not a video featuring pop stars and celebrities, but ordinary men and women and children who have a passion for the arts.”

Stevens explains that the first stage of the project was the creation of sheet music and a guide track that was sent to all members of the orchestra. “Steve Pycroft, who is the arranger for this piece, created the guide track which had a very simple Midi arrangement that was produced on Sibelius software. So, in effect, it was not just a click track – more something to which the participants could play along. And like all the other individuals involved in this project, Steve created this track at home.”

This track was then sent out to the orchestra members who proceeded to film their individual parts in their own homes with whatever equipment they had available. “Of course, some of the musicians may have professional recording kit in their homes, but many simply recorded their contribution on phones or tablets. And we just wanted them to dress as they felt comfortable. Not formally as you might find in a concert hall.”

All the files were then sent to Pycroft who edited them into the finished backing track, creating a compilation of the Lockdown Orchestra. Pycroft also created a video showing the musicians performing the piece in their own homes.

Stevens goes on, “I was amazed the first time I saw and heard this backing track video. The turnaround time was very short, yet something as good as that was a sign of the skills of the musicians, singers and the creative team.”

Once the backing track was completed, members of the public were invited to send for the music, the track and video to which they could record their own contributions.

For those who don’t sing or play an instrument, there was still an opportunity to take part. They were encouraged to paint, dance or perhaps decorate a cake inspired by You Got The Love, and then send pictures or video clips of their creation that could be included in the final programme.

The public were given basic guidelines on how to produce their videos.  And once the files started arriving, Stevens and his team had to start viewing and logging the content – remotely, of course.

Getting it together

“This was, of course, a massive job.  In all we received nearly 1500 submissions. And, as we expected, they came in many different formats. Most were recorded on phones. Few, if any, at 25 frames per second! So, there was a great deal of converting required.”

Editing was carried out using Avid Media Composer, with After Effects required for the more complex sequences. DaVinci Resolve was needed for some of the conversion processes.

“There was a great deal of work involved, but during lockdown it is good to get as many people as possible involved with this project.  After all, how many people can claim they have played alongside several BBC orchestras?”

Although the programme, which will be introduced by Katie Derham will be aired on 14th May, members of the public can still experience being a part of the BBC Lockdown Orchestra by playing and singing along to the backing track using online parts, which will be available until August.