Choral festivals such as the Europa Cantat are known for offering inspiring performances and innovative workshops. This was precisely why Paul Cummings brought his students from the Brooks Secondary School music department to Tallinn, Estonia, last summer.
However, even among the international clinicians and their workshop topics of choice, there was one in particular that impacted him beyond anything he could have imagined. One might even say it threw him for a loop.
“I went to a three-hour workshop by this guy named Tobias Hug,” said Cummings. “He was a longtime member of the Swingles and he was doing vocal looping with a workstation that was specifically designed for vocalists. I totally left that workshop thinking of ways this could impact my program”
After learning some of the history, seeing the myriad of possibilities and trying out the machine for himself, Cummings knew he had to order one for Brooks. Just a few weeks later, his BOSS RC-505 had arrived and he spent his first Pro-D day of the school year testing out the new toy.
“I had about a dozen students come in and join me that day and we watched some tutorials and started reading the manual and got it up and running,” said Cummings.
After that, it became a popular resource that was being signed out almost every weekend. Grade 10 student Ethan Hummel was the first to take it home.
“I grabbed a microphone, a cable, the looping station and a pair of headphones and played around with it for two hours,” said Hummel. “My brother laid down some guitar tracks, I laid down some vocal tracks. It’s really user-friendly. It’s not like you have to go in the settings and change everything.”
The machine’s interface features a numbered button for each of its five channels, along with one for tempo.
“You press the button, do your track and then press it again and it stops and you can lay things over top,” said Hummel.
In addition to its creative aspects, Cummings said the machine also holds hidden benefits in the way of ear training.
“The more you record yourself and listen to yourself the more your musical ears grow,” he said, “and the more things you might attempt to do that you wouldn’t otherwise. Just the personal musical growth that the kids were attaining by using that machine was huge.”
The Brooks Jazz Choir even started using their looping station during live performances, putting their own spin on Coldplay’s 2018 hit, “Viva la Vida.” Hummel begins the song by beatboxing a kick drum part, before letting the machine take over. This frees him up to provide the low bass harmonies in real time.
“We have four different ideas that we record and loop,” said Cummings. “They don’t all start on beat one and some of them have a pickup to the measure. My sound technician is like the 16th member of the group. He plays that thing like a musical instrument. It’s got to be on time, balanced, clean, readjusted for the room that we’re performing in.”
Even still, there is room for error, but his singers have so far learned to adjust.
“It’s like singing or playing with a metronome,” said Cummings. “If you punch in a second too early or punch out a second too late then once every loop you’re going to have a hiccup. I’m always amazed at how quickly the students pick up on that and how they’ve learned to sing in sync with themselves, and in tune with themselves, from beginning to end. What a great musical lesson that is.”
Audiences will have a chance to hear the Brooks Jazz Choir’s looped-up version of “Viva la Vida” during their upcoming performances at the Townsite Jazz Festival, April 4 to 6. After that, the plan is to prepare a version of "Mustang Sally” and see where else the machine takes them.
“Whatever genre you’re playing it can come in useful,” said Hummel. “I’ve seen 1,000 different videos of people using a looping station to their advantage, playing jazz, folk, rock, metal, everything. I’d love to get one for myself, honestly. I’m so glad the music department has this now.”