Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mozart meets Virtual Reality

I'm a VR professional. I'm also an amateur violinist. Not too shabby, and getting better with practice.
Once a year, I take a week off to play with the wonderful musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alongside the pros and other amateurs, we practice and perform great classical music works.

That week got me thinking about VR can help various aspects of the performing arts.
One key area is audience engagement. The performance feels much different on stage than off it. VR can put the audience in places that money can't buy. Just in front of the conductor. In the middle of the violin section. At the back of the stage where the percussion players are. The audience can experience the excitement of music making from within.

Indeed, several major orchestras are already experimenting with VR. The Los Angeles Philharmonic recording Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in 360-degrees. That recording is free to download.  The Philharmonia Orchestra of London has made similar recordings.  The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra shared an open rehearsal.

Critics are applauding this inside view into the music. Audiences are getting a unique immersive experience. Most major orchestras as struggling with balancing their budgets. Engaging young audiences with a VR experience can sell tickets and attract new followers. One day, one could imagine a completely virtual experience. A music lover in Iowa could attend a Berlin Philharmonic concert without international travel.

After all, Movies evolved from just filming a stage play to many cameras with movement. Why should attending a concert stay the same for hundreds of years?

Another area where VR can be useful is performance anxiety. Musicians get nervous in performances, just like some grade school students. If a musician cannot perform on stage at the same level that she performed in a rehearsal, that is a problem.

There are many techniques to battle performance anxiety. Books such as "The inner game of tennis" help overcome self-doubt and nervousness. Presenters like Noa Kageyama of "The Bulletproof Musician" teach other methods. Some musicians medicate themselves before a high-stakes performance. Virtual reality is already used today to help overcome fear of public speaking. It is easy to envision extending this to performance anxiety. Just like VR can place you on stage in a large conference, it can place you on the virtual Carnegie Hall stage.

One critical performer that gets the least practice time is the orchestra's conductor. This is particularly true for young conductors. Without a permanent position with an orchestra, "podium time" is scarce. Conductors end up conducting their CD players or TV sets in preparation for a real orchestra. Imagine using a VR headset with a hand gesture sensor for conducting practice. It could be the next best alternative to the real experience.

This might not be the most popular use of VR, but certainly one that I can't wait to try myself.

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