Robin Simpson, Voluntary Arts' Chief Executive and a keen amateur French Horn player, has continued to meet up with Northampton Symphony Orchestra online during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here he talks about the limitations of playing music together on Zoom - and how free software package, Jamulus provided a solution . . .

"I have been an amateur musician almost all my life. In the early days of lockdown, playing music provided great comfort, distraction, challenge and emotional release amongst the worry and uncertainty. I have been playing my French horn almost every day since March: I may even have improved slightly!

But playing music on your own, or with recordings, is just not the same as playing music with other people. Like many other amateur arts groups, the Northampton Symphony Orchestra (with whom I have been playing now for 20 years) quickly replaced its regular weekly rehearsals with online social chats on Zoom. It has been great to keep in touch with other members of the orchestra but you can’t play music together via Zoom or any of the other video-conferencing platforms: the audio delay (latency) is just too big.

So when I read an article about a choir in the USA that had been experimenting with audio software that enabled them to sing together online, I got very excited. I spent time exploring software originally designed for rock bands who wanted to jam together online, and looking at whether any of these programs might work for an orchestral rehearsal.

The best option seemed to be a free, open source program called Jamulus. It’s a little fiddly to set up, and it only works if you have the right hardware (you need to be able to plug your computer directly into your router with an ethernet cable – WiFi is just too slow) and a fast internet connection, plus a lot of patience!

Our first online orchestra rehearsal was technically challenging, frustrating, at times hilariously bad, but exciting and ultimately actually quite inspiring. Eight of us managed to connect through Jamulus, and with NSO conductor John Gibbons holding us together on piano we eventually managed to play through the entire first movement of Beethoven's 'Symphony No 3 (Eroica)'. It was a far from perfect experience but after a break of more than five months this first opportunity to actually play live music with a group of other people again was incredibly enjoyable. 

Each week we have managed to tweak the software settings, address hardware issues and improve the small remaining audio delays. The sound quality is not wonderful and there are always a few technical problems but it’s getting better every week. It’s still no substitute for making music together in the same room but, given ongoing restrictions, our online rehearsals have been really enjoyable. And working through the technical challenges and solving them together as a group has been a rewarding experience in itself."

You can download Jamulus for free here:

Pic: A still from 'Lockdown Horns', the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's Horn Section on YouTube, with Robin Simpson (top left).