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How a Zoom super choir created new links for communities

As part of our evolving Digital Culture Strategy, we are sharing a series of case studies profiling how leading practitioners are embracing digital platforms and mindsets to make innovative new work and build connections with audiences.

In almost every set of COVID-19 restrictions we’ve seen since the pandemic hit, there has been one repeated commandment: “Thou shalt not sing”. The risk of viral spread was shown to be just too high when we sang with others.

So for an organisation that holds mass choir events as part of its annual program, the pandemic was a sickening kick in the guts. Since 2017, QMF, formerly Queensland Music Festival, has brought together thousands of singers to rehearse and perform hits such as Help Is on The Way with Glenn Shorrock himself, and You’re The Voice featuring John Farnham.

The program responded to the growing mental health crisis by strengthening social cohesion and reducing isolation, but that progress looked lost when the pandemic shut them down.

“When COVID hit, we just thought there’s no way we can do it,” said Katrina Torenbeek, the Programming and Technical Director at QMF.

Then they thought again. “This project is about wellbeing and about bringing people together and at this time, more than any other time, people are isolated and are stressed out,” Katrina said.

The feeling within the QMF team was adventurous, about not giving in. “Let’s just jump off, be brave and try something,” they thought. So, like millions of others, they got a Zoom subscription.

Fast forward a few months, QMF was hosting their first online rehearsal and learning to use the platform on the fly alongside all their thousands of choir members. Two producers Pip Boyce and Oliver Samson worked the chat feed, helping singers from across the country enter the world of Zoom. With breakout rooms for the different vocal ranges, musical director Dr Jonathon Welch AM and arranger Emma Dean helped singers download parts, playlists, watch video demonstrations and rehearse the different parts to what would be their COVID comeback show, Vanessa Amorosi’s classic hit Absolutely Everybody.

“We were all learning together,” Katrina said. “We were getting hundreds of people at our fortnightly rehearsals online and many more engaging with the rehearsal videos that were uploaded and shared digitally via our resource portal. People kept telling us ‘I love it. The rehearsals are helping me feel connected!’ They were into it.”

Nearly four months of online rehearsals culminated in the filming of a COVID-safe hybrid music video at Brisbane Riverstage in May 2021, providing an opportunity for singers to meet in person. The project included 3286 participants who joined the online rehearsals and over 1000 singers, who travelled from as far as Mount Isa to be there for the filming.

Where QMF’s past face-to-face events had focused on choirs across Queensland and Australia, 2020 opened the program up to individuals and Choirs anywhere, attracting international participants while unexpectedly making fresh connections between new singers and local choirs. Digital delivery enabled QMF to achieve greater and more equitable access to their program and to reach more people than ever before.

The secret to digital success: bravery, simplicity and authenticity

QMF primarily credits the success of Absolutely Everybody’s digital delivery to its ability to keep true to the core objectives of their project: growing wellbeing and connection.

“Keeping this central meant we used technology to augment our program positively, rather than it detracting somehow from what it previously was,” said Abigail Dennis, Senior Grants and Research Manager.

This focus also helped to define the simplicity of the digital approach. “We didn’t have the cash or the time to engage a consultant,” Abigail said. “We just worked with what we had and what our participants had.”

Abigail’s advice is simple: “Don’t overcomplicate things and be honest with your partners and stakeholders that you’re trying something new and that you expect to have some bumps in the road.”

QMF says they won’t be going back. The digital success of Absolutely Everybody is flowing through their organisation and accelerating the strategic change that had been already underway within it – a transition away from a more traditional festival model to focus on growing communities using the power of music.

“Digital doesn’t have to be an add-on or some sort of big hurdle,” Katrina said. “It shouldn’t change the heart of your organisation. For us, that is still beating strong.”

“We’ve always been so engaged in regional and remote communities across Queensland, we’re just doing that in a new way. With all the concerns around sustainability and now COVID-19 as well, we’re just changing the way we deliver what we’ve always done.”

Read more about Absolutely Everybody and Queensland Music Festival.

Image: Musical Director Dr Jonathon Welch and arranger Emma Dean in a Zoom rehearsal for Absolutely Everybody, QMF

Video: The Absolutely Everybody music video released May 2021, QMF

In response to our Digital Culture Strategy, we have launched a four-year Digital Culture Program to develop practice, share knowledge and invest in innovation. Applications are now open for a range of professional development opportunities and we will be announcing new programs and opportunities regularly over the next twelve months.