Tom Maxwell Interview

Tom Maxwell is the musical director of the hugely successful Christmas Carol Collaboration in the Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough. He worked remotely with over a hundred singers to form a virtual choir. They recorded the Christmas carols and anthems for a service of nine lessons and carols. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom and we talked about how the project came together.

Interview by James Pasley.

Hi Tom, I’m very impressed by the Christmas Carol Collaboration you directed. This project emerged due to the restrictions created by the pandemic. Let’s start at the beginning of the story. What were you working on before the pandemic struck?

At the start of the year I was working on a musical with Sandford Park School. I’m a past pupil and I was called back to help teach the songs and make sure the music was as good as it could be. We finished the musical and, as it was still early in the year, the performances went ahead. After that, I was wondering, what am I going to do next. It was such a massive project and I was really sad that it was over. Then I received a call from someone asking if I was interested in temporarily working at St Brigid’s Parish in Stillorgan as the music director. Having lots of free time and a need to work on something new, I accepted the offer. At first, it was only to be temporary, but I agreed to take the job permanently.

I had just three rehearsals with the choir, which has about twenty members. That was just enough time to get to know everyone and start planning for Easter. Then lockdown happened and everything stopped. Several choir members are also members of the Stillorgan Players drama society. They were finalizing a production at the time and that got cancelled too.

How did you get started working remotely with your choir?

At the start of lockdown in March everyone was moving online. Stuart Nicholson, the organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, asked if I would record a hymn. He sent me a YouTube link with an organ track. I put headphones on and recorded myself singing and sent it back to him. That’s when I thought I could do this with my choir.

So I put it to the choir. I said “I’ve got this idea of putting together hymns by sending you all recording tracks, and then you send me back individual recordings of your singing. I’ll put it all together in something like GarageBand”. They were like, “Okay, if you think it could work we’ll give it a go”. The first few turned out pretty good and everyone was really happy. So we’ve been doing that since April.

At what point did you start thinking about doing something bigger?

In September we tried an anthem for harvest. Everyone was really impressed with the results. I was using that as an experiment to see if we could do something for Christmas. As it turned out really well, I was convinced we could do something for Christmas. So I started putting together a repertoire for the choir to sing.

Then I thought, let’s invite choirs from other churches. Music and singing is so important in a parish community. Hymn singing is really important. By sharing our experience, we could get other choirs singing again too. At first I contacted only one or two churches and suggested doing a collaboration for Christmas. They responded “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.” Then they said “Is it just us? Why is it only just us? Why don’t we have more people?” That’s when I contacted Jacqueline Mullen and Jack Kinkead (Church Music Dublin) to help get as many people as possible involved, like one of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs, but perhaps on a smaller scale. They helped get the message out, we got a notice in the Church of Ireland notes in the Irish Times.

Did many people respond? How did you get them started?

Over a hundred people contacted me. David Adams recorded the organ tracks for the carols. Now I needed each singer to record themselves on something like a phone. That can be very intimidating. It’s just you. You have headphones on listening to the organ playing, but the recording is not going to pick that up. It’s just your own voice. That’s something that you have to get over at first. So, I put together a YouTube tutorial on how to record.

Then we got started, one carol at a time. I sent out the first carol on a Monday and asked for all recordings to be back by Wednesday. That’s because the second carol was going out on Thursday. That way we did two carols each week. When we started, people were a little bit nervous about how it would sound. I put up the first Carol on YouTube on a private link so everyone could listen. That encouraged everyone to stay engaged.

Over a hundred people sent you recordings twice a week. How did you blend all those voices together to create the convincing sound of a choir?

That’s the fantastic thing – with a hundred people singing separately, there was a risk the results would sound like a hundred separate voices. But all the voices blended together like a live choir. Even if one or two people made a little mistake, it’s not picked up as it’s blended in with so many other voices.

Working with so many separate recordings was a challenge. I grouped the recordings by each part: soprano, alto, tenor and bass and worked with each group separately. That meant I created four tracks that I could put together with the original organ recording.

Recording the anthems must have been more complex. How did you approach that task?

I saved the anthems to the very end and set aside a week for each one. These were more challenging. We needed a choir practice, but we still had to do everything remotely. We got sixty people on a Zoom call for a rehearsal. Because of the time delay you get with Zoom, everyone had to be on mute. I played the music. Each choir member was at home singing, but I wasn’t able to hear them. I went through every single line, every single note. As I did, I was constantly asking if everyone was happy or if anyone had any questions? With everyone on mute, I would just see lots of thumbs up and nodding heads, or people having fun with the Zoom emojis. We had a bit of extra time the second week and I went through the pieces again emphasizing the dynamics. It was also an opportunity to let people listen to the earlier recordings for the first time.

Tell me about the technology involved.

The singers recorded using their phones and I would merge them together using GarageBand on a Mac. Phones in general have become so sophisticated that the recording quality was very good. The one problem with phones is they pick up every little sound and some static noise. I had to learn a couple of tricks to eliminate the background noise without affecting the sound of the voice on the recording.

During the summer, at St Brigid’s church, Stillorgan, we had a few live outdoor services with a congregation. That meant that everyone could sing along to the hymns that the choir had recorded. We bought a speaker and I plugged in my phone and blasted the hymns out for an entire field of cars and people to sing along to. It’s basic and it’s not high tech but it doesn’t need to be. For people who were self-isolating, or people who didn’t fancy taking the risk of going to the service, we streamed it online. Simon Greer, a tenor in our choir, just got his phone out and we streamed it on Facebook live. He had one of those handles that steadies the balance of the camera. That was the highest piece of tech we had. Then with the second lockdown we went back inside the church. I just connected my phone into the PA system in the church and the hymns were played through the speakers, to be picked up by Simon’s phone. And then we got a proper camera so that the audio quality would be a little bit better. All the time we were getting better at the process of recording and streaming.

As the collaboration project grew in size I realized I needed something better than GarageBand to deal with so many recordings. So I upgraded to Logic Pro. When you are using a digital audio workstation like GarageBand or Logic Pro, you have to learn as you go. Do lots of little experiments, click a couple of buttons, see what works, and what doesn’t sound so good. I’m studying jazz performance in DCU. Music technology is one of the modules. I’ve learned a few tricks from that class that I’ve been able to use in the collaboration project.

When did you decide to create a complete service with nine lessons and carols?

The original plan was to do just four carols and one choir piece. As we worked through the carols, I realized we could do enough for a service of nine lessons and carols, which is one of the most popular services in the church year. It would also provide carols that could be used throughout the Christmas season. The idea for the online service came from the Revd Ian Gallagher. He got in touch with a couple of the parishes that were already involved in the project and asked them to record the scripture readings. Simon put the video together, he’s learnt a lot about tools like iMovie and Final Cut since April.

Now that you’ve completed this collaboration, what other projects are you considering?

On our last collaboration Zoom call I joked about doing Stainer’s crucifixion for Easter. That would be fun to do, but also very ambitious. Hopefully we’ll be back singing live with full life choirs by then and it won’t be needed. For now, we’re going back to preparing the hymns for the weekly service in St. Bridget’s.

The Service of Nine Lessons & Carols is available to view on YouTube. The names of all those who took part are included in the credits at the end of the video.

The carols and anthems are available individually on our Carols for Christmas 2020 page.