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Twelve Musician Puzzles

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

It was rehearsal day, the day before we were going to record the Christmas concert, and we were discussing how we might try to put an Astraios twist on "The 12 Days of Christmas." We had picked that song because it was originally a party game, and we wanted to do something fun. The original game was one of those memorization games where the first person names a gift for the first day, the second person names a new gift for the second day and has to remember the 1st day gift, and so on, until the twelfth person has to name the 12th gift, and then remember all eleven other gifts as they count backwards. It is silly and lighthearted, and since the history of the carol as a game is largely forgotten, it seemed like a good fit for Astraios to bring it back. We actually did a version like this at a concert a few years ago, where we asked audience members to come up with the gifts for each day of Christmas (though we wrote everything down on a large dry-erase board so nobody had to rely solely on their memory to recall things like “11 stormtroopers stomping”). Now, we were trying to think of a way to get similar suggestions for a random gift each day during a concert that we were not playing to a live audience. That is when inspiration struck.

What if we reached out to our network of musicians, and invited each of them to participate in this fun little game? Everyone could come up with their own little verses for the twelve days, record them at their own home, and then the verses could all be edited together after the fact. This created some logistical challenges: how would everyone play in tune and in time together? How could we record the main track at our recording session the following day in a way that we could splice in the other footage most easily? And perhaps the biggest unknown, how will this all look once it is edited together, and who will take on the enormous task of editing? I gulped. It was my idea, I had some experience editing, and a vision of how it might all work in the end. I knew it was going to be a ton of work, and I didn’t want to foist it on anyone else.

When we got to the church to record the concert, I soon discovered another reason that it needed to be me who edited the video together. Many people did not seem to understand the vision I had in my head, or how this was all going to work together. Ruth Ann got the concept though, and she got everyone to trust the process, even if the process seemed incredibly weird to them at the time. The musicians had to record “Four calling birds”, three beats of rest, “three french hens”, three beats of rest, “two turtle doves”, three beats of rest, etc. and they had to do it all without anyone singing, while keeping track of what number they were on, and continuously adding in rests that weren’t written into the music on the page in front of them!

Once we had this recording, which would serve as the basis for everything else, Ruth Ann sent the recording to musicians all around the country. They then listened to the recording using earbuds or headphones, and then added in their own lyrics, bits, and musical flourishes. Ruth Ann did Zoom calls with some who were less comfortable with doing their own recording, and walked them through the process of what they were doing, and recorded the Zoom call itself. Slowly, my collection of video puzzle pieces grew.

Musicians near and far sent in their content, and it then became my task to carve up the videos and rearrange them so that they fit into one (relatively seamless) whole. The first bit was easy. I synced up the two videos recorded on the day (the one with all the musicians, and the one with me singing and conducting) and I decided how I wanted to overlay the two videos. I experimented with having the screen split in half, or with my face down in one corner before

settling on placing my face along the bottom of the screen in the middle. But people hadn’t sent in their videos all at the same time, they trickled in piecemeal, so I couldn’t just start at the beginning and add in all of the other video bits in chronological order.

One of the first videos I got was a recording of a 30-minute Zoom call between Ruth Ann and Linda White. Over the course of that 30 minutes Linda played on five different instruments (contra-bass, bass, alto, flute, and piccolo) and did a variety of riffs and trills on each one. I had to isolate each video clip of her playing, pick the best ones, and then decide which clips I would put in which part of the song, and which ones I would layer together to create a flute choir video collage.

Once I had picked which clips would go where, I had to put each video clip in its place, balance the audio with the audio of the accompaniment track we recorded at the church, and make any adjustments possible to lighten or darken the video to make it look as good as possible. On screens of video collages I had to re-crop the videos and move them around the screen to display more than one at a time. Sometimes I even had to re-time the video if the player had played a little too fast or slow.

This whole process, of going through the footage I was sent by different musicians, picking out all the best bits, adjusting audio and video settings, cropping and other manipulation, had to be performed on each individual 3-4 second clip, and there were hundreds of them. Below is a picture of what my computer monitor looked like during the editing process. Each little rectangle at the bottom of the screen is an individual video clip that has gone into the project. And in places those video clips are stacked 9 high because there are 9 different video and audio elements that are all active during that portion of the video I was building. It looks a bit like chaos, but that’s only because it was!

Sometimes it seemed that a little extra something was needed to make some of the gags play well, and I felt I needed to go the extra mile. When I was creating the Zoom board meeting video of myself, I employed a green screen, and a whole tropical costume (complete with tropical drink, of course). When our percussionist Patrick disappeared off of the screen during one of his bits, I recorded audio of myself calling out to him as if we were in an actual Zoom meeting. Throughout the process I tried to ensure that the end product would be as good as I could possibly make it.

Finally, once everything had been cut and pasted, cropped and Zoomed, shifted and boosted and placed just so, I went back through and subtitled the whole video to make it a little easier for everyone to recognize all the clever gags our musicians had put together. With the addition of some title screens, and a blooper reel for later release, the video was complete! Although it was over 50 hours of labor just on the editing side (not to mention the time everyone spent recording, or that Ruth Ann spent contacting musicians and explaining to them what they needed to do), hopefully the final product is one that is as light-hearted and fun as it was in my head when inspiration originally struck. But the next time you view the video, you will know a bit more of what went into making it!

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