Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Behind the Scenes @ Winter Harp

The shows in Nanaimo, North Vancouver and Maple Ridge this year were overseen by our lighting and effects tech Roger. Our sound engineer Dwayne manages every aspect of our sound in New Westminster, North Vancouver, Vancouver and Maple Ridge. Having consistent sound and lighting is such a great relief, and these unsung members of the Winter Harp ensemble deserve a great deal of credit for the look, feel and sound of our shows.

During the set up for the North Vancouver show we discovered that there was a loose connection somewhere in the transducer built into the harp. Dwayne and the other sound techs and I quickly did some "open harp surgery" to remedy the problem, but just in case we also set up an acoustic microphone nearby. As it turned out, it was likely a patch cord issue and the problem never reoccurred after that sound check.

Many years ago when we played to audiences of 100 or less, we would often play entirely acoustically. While historically correct, it also limited the venues which we could play in. As the show grew in size and scope, amplification become essential, though we always strive for a very natural acoustic sound. Having lots of microphones on stage is not ideal since they are too susceptible to being bumped and getting tripped over, and as the distance between a microphone and an instrument is critical, it limits movement on stage. Consequently, as much as possible the instruments have transducers built into them which transfers the vibrations of the sound into the mixing board and produces a very clean and consistent signal.

Long before we setup, Dwayne is busy checking connections and making sure everything works properly before we get a chance to play a single note or run a single song. Often we just show up, plug in, and play.

Amplification requires monitors onstage, otherwise we can't hear ourselves as the sound is moving outwards into the audience and away from us, and that slight delay, though tiny, is enough to make it difficult for the musicians to actually hear their own instruments.

Consequently, we need to adjust the monitors on stage so that we can hear ourselves, yet not influence the sound which is being broadcast into the house. Usually it's a matter of compromise, we don't want any drums in our mix - they are loud enough, but we do need the bass of the harps, since that is a much softer sound and gets quickly buried under vocals and other instruments. This all goes fairly quickly because we all know what we want and where, though minor tweaking is always required depending on the acoustics of the room itself.

During sound check we often play musical pranks. Mark is famous for playing the melody line of a song which we are about to play, but transposing it exactly a 1/2 tone up or down, which drives people with perfect pitch crazy but is hilarious nevertheless. Here he is with a couple of blobs of wax behind his glasses.

Vocal microphones are the last thing which are set up once we have the instruments and monitors up to level, since we like to establish where the music is going to be first before we layer that on top. Setting up for the loudest vocal and instrumental sections is quite often hilarious since we don't run an entire number. Here is Caroline giving Dwayne an impromptu max level.

This year I had a rare opportunity to actually go into the audience in one number where I play the symphonie to imitate a distant set of bagpipes from the back of the theatre. This little excursion is not without the possibility of amusing, if not disastrous consequences. Once when I disappeared backstage and made my way down an outside corridor to the front of the house, it never occurred to me to check whether all the doors I walked through could actually be opened on my return. As it turned out, one of them was a one way door- it locked behind me. After playing my number I quickly retraced my steps to discover, much to my horror, the locked door. There is only a very brief instrumental and narrative number before I play the opening chords for the next song on the psaltery. This was a disaster! I had to get back on stage now or else there would be an awkward silence. It occurred to me that the loading door in the back was likely still open. So I dashed outside from the front of the house, with ushers no doubt thinking I was quite mad, ran down the street in the pouring rain. Anyone walking or driving down the street that night probably wondered where someone carrying a symphonie and wearing a medieval outfit and a look of terror on his face was going in such a mad panic. I made it just in time and quite out of breath to slowly walk towards the psaltery as the last notes of the harp slowly rang off into space. Those people in the very front rows might have noticed that the shoulders of my tunic and my hair were wet, and the occasional drop of water fell off my hands.
The rest of the times this little trip mid-show went very smoothly and I even had the rare opportunity to take a photograph backstage during a song.

Another behind the scenes tradition which the members of Winter Harp enjoy at the end of the season is a celebratory dance. It never ceases to amaze me the other gigs which Winter Harp members have done - Janelle has played with Kanye West, Bruce has played traditional Chinese music, and Mark has played in a Mariachi band. It is the latter skill which we call upon to do our end of season happy dance.

1 comment:

The Celtic American said...

Is that a Webster McFall harp I see in the photos? I just got mine last November! His shop is just minutes away from my house...